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Mar 26, 2015
Translating Body Language
by Nicky Harman, Translator

I have worked as a literary translator for around fifteen years and I have noticed some interesting cultural differences between Chinese and English when it comes to how the human body and its functions are described in literature. When I began to do some research, I discovered only one other article which deals with the same topic: David Pollard’s ‘Body Language in Chinese-English Translation,’ which appeared in An Encyclopaedia of Translation: Chinese-English English-Chinese, published by the Chinese University Press, Hong Kong, in 2001. Pollard reaches the conclusion that in Chinese fiction, great attention is paid to the outward manifestations of emotions and that, when translated directly into English, this can sound very strange. This became the starting point of my research.


I am a working translator, so it is not enough for me to understand those differences. I have to find ways of translating them. So let me start with some practical examples and ask whether and how they can give us some useful guidance on translating these cultural and literary differences.


I want to start with an example from a novel I am translating. This is an intensely emotional scene in which a husband and wife realise their marriage has failed. They are about to go to the 離婚登記處. This is what the Chinese says:


           她的臉發綠,他的臉發灰。他們一前一後騎著車……


If I translate that directly into English as ‘her face went green, his face went grey,’ unfortunately, this doesn't mean much to the English reader. So a direct translation will give the reader the words but not the meaning of the sentence.


Chinese has many rich and various ways in which to describe the body, body movements and bodily functions, and the feelings they express. Here are some I’ve come across over the years:


1. There are verbs in Chinese for movements which one can picture exactly but which have no equivalent in English.


a. 我嘴努努電梯。This could be described in English as ‘I pursed my lips’ OR ‘made a moue’ OR ‘jerked my chin in the direction of the lift’. The problem with 努努嘴 is that there is no single verb in English for using your mouth to indicate something without speaking. So all these translations are too long and somewhat unclear.


b. 白眼 (NB Pollard gives 轉眼). This is the definition I have found: 朝上或朝兩邊看時露出的白眼珠。用白眼看人,表示輕蔑或厭惡。But we don’t turn up our eyes to express scorn in English, so generally the translator has to express it in a more general way: ‘looked scornful’ or ‘showed her repugnance.’


2. English has only a small number of verbs to describe the actions of pick up (with the hand), hold (in the hand) and carry (using hands, arms or back), but Chinese has a much larger number of verbs, with very specific meanings: Hold (in the hand) 拿、握。Pick up (with the hand) 拎、拾、掇、撿。Carry (using hands, arms or back) 端、 抱、背、 抬、提、夾。So in this example, we have to use the same word in English, carry, for two different words in Chinese, 提 and 挽:


               走進來的是媽媽,她提著一個很大的飯盒,另一隻手挽著個保溫桶。


3. Sometimes Chinese is very specific about what part of the body is moving, when English simply says or implies the body in general. In this example, a woman is lost in the desert, surrounded by a pack of 豺狗:
瑩兒望著那些環顧的眼,伸了伸脖子,想,你們來吧。‘Ying faced up bravely to the encircling eyes. Come on then! What are you waiting for? she said to herself.’ My English translation doesn’t mention her neck. Instead, I have described her general body language (she stands tall and faces the 豺狗) and her feelings (brave).


4. Sometimes the meaning of a sentence seems obvious to the Chinese reader but needs added explanation in English.


a. 他嗷嗷叫。‘He cried out,’ but was it in fear? Physical pain? Mental anguish? So in English we have to add an explanation: ‘He cried out in anguish.’


b. 肉販說,一揮手。 ‘The butcher waved.’ But did he wave in greeting or was he waving them away or beckoning to come? So in English the translator might add ‘The butcher waved them away.’


5. English is less explicit and colourful than Chinese in describing bodily functions. A literal translation can sound embarrassing in English. More importantly, it can sometimes sound crude, when that wasn’t the author’s intention.


a. In this story, an elderly couple are discussing what to have for dinner. The husband is annoyed: 他煩了。我怎麼知道?剛剛吃的東西還沒有化成屎,你叫我能說什麼?Because they are polite, urban people, it would give the wrong impression in English to translate 化成屎 as ‘turned into shit,’ as it is too crude.


b. Snot is a fluid we don’t usually mention in connection with adults, even when they are in floods of tears. So how to translate this woman’s grief ? 她哭得鼻涕都流出來了。 If I translate it literally, (‘She cried until the snot ran down her face’), it makes both the writer and the woman in the story sound childish.


6. Finally, the head and the heart. In Chinese, many things happen in the heart that happen elsewhere in English. A simple example: 我心裡覺得。But in English, we don’t think in our hearts, we think in our heads, in our minds. So the translation here is simply, ‘I think.’


a. Here is a more complex example: 他非常溫柔地說:你還有我嘛。他的這句話深深地擊中了我的心,我知道原來這就是愛情。It may surprise you to hear that in English we do not get hit in the heart, even when we’re in love. We might translate this as ‘a kick in the gut!’


b. And another example: 當然,丫頭的死,真揪了我心上的肉……那時,我心裡最不能碰的,就是這事。This is a perfect illustration of Pollard’s observation that in Chinese literature, there is a focus on the ‘outward manifestations of emotions.’ In English, we do talk about the heart being ‘wrenched’ 揪. So: the death of a baby is ‘heart-wrenching.’ But what about 我心裡最不能碰的? ‘The bit of my heart that I didn’t want touched?’ In English, we can’t really express this in quite such a concrete, physical way. I was interested to learn that in traditional Chinese medicine, the brain/mind doesn’t appear at all as a key organ of the body, only the heart. But does this answer the question as to why so much of Chinese thoughts, as well as feelings, happen in the 心?


What’s the solution? Some guiding principles


What should guide our choice as to how we put these expressions into English for the English-language reader? How much liberty does the translator have? This is a debate that has been going on for as long as translation itself.


Looking back through the history of Chinese translation, I have found that there was a great debate around the translation of the Buddhist texts into Chinese around 230 AD/CE. The question was, should a translation be unhewn 質 and direct 直, or elegant 雅?* Even before the Buddhist translators, there was Laozi, the Daoist philosopher, who said: 信言不美, 美言不信。 These are almost the exact same words as an old French saying about translation: ‘Quand elle est belle, elle n’est pas fidèle, quand elle est fidèle, elle n’est pas belle.’


Translation theory often focuses around the core questions of faithfulness, domestication versus foreignisation, and loyalty. But rather than ask if a text is loyal to word-choice, I personally prefer to use the ideas of a translation theorist called Christiane Nord. She talks about the notion of loyalty to the author’s intentions. Nord says that: ‘The bigger the cultural gap, the smaller the possibility for the readers to establish analogies with their own world. But the translator has a responsibility to both the target audience, whose subjective theories have to be taken into account, and the source-text sender, whose communicative intentions must not be turned into their opposite. The responsibility is what I call ‘loyalty’. **


What is interesting about Nord’s concept is that with ‘loyalty’ she is talking about two relationships: between translator and author, on the one hand, and translator and reader, on the other. Faithfulness and domestication/foreignisation imply comparisons at the textual level. Faithfulness focuses on a similarity between the source and the target texts, and ignores the communicative intentions of the author.


Lets go back to the coloured faces and look at the thought processes that I go through as a translator in order to decide on a translation. First, what does the author mean? What is the author trying to express? Then, what resources do I have at my disposal?


Of course I can consult dictionaries and the Internet. These tell me that a green face in Chinese can be angry (氣得臉發綠 or 氣得臉發青). This, of course, is different from English, where a green face expresses either jealousy, or physical nausea. Perhaps anger is meant here, although it is not explicitly stated.


Since the dictionaries and the Internet have not given me a clear answer, I could ask the author. Questions on the text can be the start of a very rewarding professional relationship. In this case, this is what she wrote to me in an email:


我當時的心象,很簡單,就是一種由於生氣焦慮與憂傷反應在臉上的表情,他的臉灰了,她的臉綠了,實際上不會有這種色彩,這是一種情緒反應到臉上的誇張的寫法。因為現實中可能內心的痛苦影響到臉上的表情,極有可能是「氣得發紅」,或者「臉色蒼白」之類,但那都是一種俗套的寫法,我不願意落入俗套,所以用了誇張的手法。


According to Christiane Nord, we should look at communicative intentions of the author; she wants to convey the idea that husband and wife are angry and upset. But she is also using vivid imagery, so my English translation has to use vivid imagery too.


So here’s one solution:她的臉發綠,他的臉發灰。他們一前一後騎著車……
‘Whey-faced, they got on the bicycle…’
Whey is the clear liquid from milk, which has gone sour and separated. Whey-faced means pale or grey with misery and anxiety.


Or I could choose a more ‘English-style’ translation and describe their emotions directly:
‘Looking angry and miserable, they got on the bicycle…’


Whether I choose (a) or (b) for my translation, the English reader will not picture a green and grey face, but they will understand the author’s intention.


As I hope this essay will have shown, in describing emotional states, Chinese describes body movements and leaves us to infer the feelings, but English does the opposite. In other words, Chinese is more specific physically, less explicit emotionally. In English it is the other way around.


I think that the issue of translating body language illustrates, in microcosm, the challenges that translators face. Every day, translators perform a balancing act: we try to retain the richness and colour of the original but also put it into a different language, and different cultural context, in such a way that it has meaning for the reader. We are rarely satisfied with our efforts. I imagine that all translators struggle with a feeling that something has been lost in their translations. But one of the most rewarding aspects of the job is that we get the chance to examine the text really closely. We could call it getting inside the head of the author. We ask ourselves, what mental image did she or he have in their mind when writing those words? Why did s/he choose that particular physical image to describe an emotional state and not another one? Whether we are translating body language or descriptions of a landscape, or martial arts action scenes, the words we choose should both be loyal to the intentions of the author while also reflecting the richness of the language into which we are translating, English.


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*Martha Cheung, An Anthology of Chinese Discourse on Translation, Volume One: From Earliest Times to the Buddhist Project, (St. Jerome Publishing, 2006)
** ‘Loyalty Revisited: Bible Translation as a Case in Point,’ in The Translator, Vol 7, Number 2 (2001), p 195