Over nearly a decade as a translator, editor, and enthusiast of Sinophone fiction I’ve naturally developed certain expectations for how Chinese books feel when rendered in English. Sadly, not all of those expectations are positive. This impression was recently highlighted to me as I read two translations from European languages, one a French work of non-fiction, the other a German novel. Both displayed a facility and clarity of English style that I rarely, if ever, encounter in books translated from Chinese. Why is this?
One could argue that Western European languages share an aesthetic and literary heritage that allows many aspects of style to be more directly transferred from one language to another. This is probably true, however, the apparent superiority of these translations is not just a matter of achieving stylistic heights: these works translated from French and German were also remarkably free of stylistic lows — sentences or passages that sounded flat to my English ear. In books translated from Chinese, sadly, I have come to expect a certain proportion of clunkers, phrases that not only lack in style, but which seem to actively undermine it by employing patterns or word choices that are hallmarks of amateurish writing in English — so much so, in fact, that I suspect an editor would have rejected them in a manuscript for an original novel in English.
So, why does this happen? Even if the aesthetics and style of Sinophone literature are not easily transferable into English, shouldn’t we at least be able to maintain minimum standards for style and readability? How do translators, professionals with a deep love of language, allow shoddy turns of phrase, to slip past their guard? There are a few possible answers I would like to explore in this article. One is that the clunkers are the unintended consequence of the translation strategies we employ to deal with the vast differences between the Chinese and English languages. Another possibility is that the translator has developed a tolerance, or even a preference, for the feel of relatively direct translations out of Chinese, believing that it better preserves the style of the original, or helps convey a more authentic experience of foreign literature, even if it violates stylistic standards imposed by English.
The inertia of initial assessments
Setting aside for the moment the possibility of intentionally introduced clunkers, let’s first explore how they might be the side-effect of particular translation strategies. Whether consciously or unconsciously, translators might be adopting a strategy of triage that will help them identify the most problematic parts of the text, and dedicate more resources to their translation. The problem areas are often those that defy direct translation, and thus require creative workarounds. The less problematic areas, then, are those that appear to be amenable to a more direct style of translation, and thus can be handled mechanically, with relatively little time investment. In this scenario, the clunkers could be the result of something that was initially determined to be a good candidate for direct translation, but which, in practice, yields poor results. Having committed to the course of direct translation, the translator may then become blind to other options, or may feel reluctant to conduct a thorough reevaluation, which would amount to deeper investments of time and energy within the overall framework of triage.
In one highly praised translation from Chinese, a pair of love-struck adolescents from a tribal village go up a mountain to do some work. The character narrating their story tells us: “They felt so happy to have the chance to go into the mountains to do some work together they started taking turns singing songs they made up themselves.” The sentence feels unnecessarily wordy, and the first half of the sentence is made awkward by the repeated “to” sound.
Looking back at the Chinese I can see how the translator might have ended up with this clunker. Towards the end of the sentence there is a phrase that, directly rendered in English, looks like this: “for a moment you sing, for a moment I sing.” I suspect that in the process of triage, the translator decided to focus his energy on this phrase that defied direct translation, justifiably glossing it as “taking turns singing songs,” while applying the less painstaking methods of direct translation to the first part of the sentence.
Unfortunately, the first part of the sentence, which structurally doesn’t appear to present any problems for direct translation, becomes a monster when the English words are finally slotted into place. First of all, in English, the infinitive forms of the verbs are required, creating “to have… to go… to do,” while the Chinese verbs have no infinitive form and are thus free of repetition. Purely by chance, the English words for “into” and “together” also repeat the “to,” a problem that’s also not present in the Chinese. Even though the rough grammatical similarities of the English and Chinese make it appear that direct translation is a reasonable option, the overall effect is heavily dependent on the particular lexical items that are used. In this case they create a phrase that is grammatically correct, and conveys the meaning, but does not do good stylistic service to the novel.
A few more components of this sentence cry out for help. “Songs they made up themselves” follows the Chinese closely, but why not the simpler “made-up songs?” Direct translation might have suggested itself as an efficient approach — English certainly allows the phrase “songs they made up themselves” — but this may have only masked other options. “They felt so happy” is not egregious, but enough writing teachers have spoken about the overuse of the word “feel” in poor writing that we would be wise to avoid it if possible.
Correcting for all of the above yields: “They were so happy to have some time working together in the mountains they started taking turns singing made-up songs.” Further fixes might be suggested, but I’ll stop there, because I want to stay focused on the relatively simple and objective issue of clunkers, rather than the more refined and subjective issue of what makes good style.
Note that the changes I suggest all require a shift away from direct translation. “To have the chance,” becomes “to have some time” because the former must be followed by an infinitive, while the latter does not. The verb phrase “to go into” is eliminated entirely, as it didn’t add anything to the sentence, but it did create problems with further repetitions of “to.” With each change we have moved away from the grammatical considerations of the Chinese towards the aesthetic concerns of the English. We know that the translator wasn’t opposed to a more free style of translation, because he came up with the very free “taking turns singing songs.” Clearly, some kind of decision was made that certain phrases required a free approach, and others did not. It seems logical that this decision, which I have been referring to as triage, is made at a stage when the translator is looking exclusively at the source text in Chinese. Thus the decision is probably based on an analysis of the Chinese grammar structures and vocabulary, combined with a mental assessment of whether similar structure and vocabulary are available in English. However, as the example demonstrates, when the two languages differ as greatly as English and Chinese, we can’t really understand the overall stylistic impact of that decision until the English is actually put in place. The availability of those structures and vocabulary in English only confirms that the direct translation will reproduce the something close to the meaning of the original. It doesn’t tell us much about the tone, style, register, or, in this case, the readability of the resulting phrase. There remains the question of why the translator or editor didn’t fix this awkward phrase in later passes through the text. We will address this question more fully later on. For now, suffice to say that in any complex task, initial decisions develop a kind of inertia. We are reluctant to go back and alter them because it feels like it will require greater investment of time and energy within a process that is constrained by the urgency of triage.