Translating Scat

By Nicky Harman, published May 9, 2008, 1p.m.

Translating Scat – how do you choose the ‘right’ register in English?

Is a taste for ‘scat’ humour cultural? (Sorry, no pun intended!) Reading Cindy Carter’s recent piece Studies in Scat: Excerpts from Yu Hua, Zhu Wen and Li Er about the Chinese scatological sense of humour started me thinking.

What to do if your editor doesn’t like all this talk of crap? My translation of Han Dong’s 扎根, which will appear in English as Banished!, is at the copy-editing stage. The copy editor has put a lot of careful work into correcting my ‘infelicities’ (lovely word!) of expression for which I am extremely grateful, but we have one major disagreement. It’s – you’ve guessed it – the language used to translate those ‘toilet functions’!

There’s plenty of crap in this novel, for a variety of reasons. The story is about life in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. Shit (human and animal) is essential for growing good crops. Then again, Chinese attitudes to shitting is surely much more matter-of-fact than in the West, where it’s still all a bit unmentionable. (For proof of that, watch some of those recent British TV ads for laxatives where attractive young women talk about ‘slow digestion’ and ‘bloating’). And Han Dong’s style is deliberately plain-speaking, as well as humorous.

The problem is in the choice of words to translate all this into English. We can go for colloquial words from Old or Middle English – ‘crap’ or ‘shit’ – or the Latin/Greek-based ‘defecate’ or (perish the thought) we can even ‘have a bowel movement’, depending whether we are visiting the doctor or talking to a child. (For an amusing attempt to explain these intricacies to Chinese learners of English, see, 厕所里的词汇) The fact is Chinese does not have the range of expressions which we can employ in English. And that’s where the problem starts.

To put this in context, I should say that Han Dong’s narrative is not particularly comic or ribald. If that was the case, then my translation would be – without question – ribald, comic and slangy. On the whole, his novel is gentle, sometimes lyrical, generally plain and factual. But when the writing goes from sober narrative to scatological humour, the copy editor says she finds it disconcerting, and wonders what the tenor of the novel was supposed to be. For her, my choice of words sound ‘jarring’, even slightly confusing: when the grandfather, who is chronically constipated, (finally) ‘has a crap’, it sounds disrespectful because he is an elderly gent, and she thinks it would fit better if I used more neutral language like ‘have a bowel movement’.

You’ll have guessed by now that I have gone for informal register rather than the formal/medical, depending on the context. For children I’ve used ‘poo’, for adults, ‘crap’. The dogs in northern Jiangsu licked children’s ‘assholes’ clean, not their ‘anuses’.

This is almost a reversal of the ‘lost in translation’ problem: to some degree I, as translator, did have a choice about what register to choose, given the almost infinite variety of expressions that English provides.

I’d like the views of other Chinese>English translators on the following thoughts I’ve had:

1. Choosing terms in a particular register (formal/medical; or colloquial/slangy) is equivalent to choosing a style. As translators, we aim to transfer the original style to the best of our ability into the target language, don’t we? But perhaps we kid ourselves that we are merely ‘transferring’ – at least in languages as different as English and Chinese. 

2. I am aware I was making a personal stylistic choice in using the informal words (‘crap’, not ‘defecate’). That was a judgment I had to make. On what basis did I decide? Well, I based it on my gut feeling that the informal words fitted with the tenor of the rest of the novel. At the same time, I am sensitive to the editor’s concerns – after all, she represents the future readers of the published translation.

3. In rendering Han Dong’s style, I have tried to convey what I judge to be his intentions: to write a narrative which is ‘earthy’ in several different senses (hence the ‘plain speaking’), as well as subtle, touching, even lyrical in places. However, what if my slangy scat vocabulary leaves the English-language readers ‘jarred’ and confused? In that case, the style I’ve chosen could conflict with the author’s intentions. (But would the reader find it less jarring if I chose a more formal register? Eg ‘defecate’. I doubt it.)

4. In some cases, as those of us at the Moganshan workshops know, the translator can ask the author’s opinion, but it is hard to do this if s/he doesn’t know any English, especially where we are talking about an ‘absence’ in the source language.
In defence of stylistic/cultural differences in general, I firmly believe that readers can and do get used to new reading experiences. After all, part of the attraction of reading translations is introducing us to culturally different worlds.

5. Finally, this issue of choosing the right register in English arises in other situations too – erotic passages in novels, for instance. (And please don’t tell me I’m one-(two-) track minded!).

Anyone else faced the same challenges and/or reactions? 

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Comments

# 1.   

I don't translate literary stuff, so I don't have any real experience on this front. But my immediate reaction is similar to yours: a reader of a (translated) novel can enter into and accept a different set of speech habits when they are well represented in the flow of the novel. The terms "bowel movement" and "defecate" seem jarring to me in pretty much any context. Not euphemistic enough to be socially acceptable, too technical to be used in informal circumstances. When do real people actually use those words? Did you not think about going for some real euphemism/circumlocution, though? In the context of constipation, I can imagine my family members saying something along the lines of "get things moving again". For your Jiangsu dogs, the old standby of just missing the word out is always possible: "after a poo, the dogs would lick them clean." (This strategy should be avoided like the plague in sex scenes, I think, but it might work in a gentle anecdote about child toilet behaviour.) Euphemism/circumlocution might take you farther away from the ST, but then it depends on what kind of translation you're doing. I'm British, BTW.

Phil, May 11, 2008, 6:04a.m.

# 2.   

Humorous as it may seem, scat-and-all-that...you're right, this is a subject for serious discussion.

I think that there are several reasons foreign editors might balk at crude but accurate translations of Chinese fiction:

(1) They're simply unaware of how crude the original Chinese text is, and have no way to verify that the translator hasn't taken excessive liberties.

(2) Some (although certainly not all) C-E translators have tended to gloss over profanity and earthy language, and this has led foreign readers to assume that Mandarin and other Chinese dialects have a dearth of these sorts of words.

(3) Chinese government censorship of film and literature has succeeded in culling some of the most piquant and often-used profanity from exported Chinese film and literature. Again, this has created the mistaken impression that the Chinese man/woman-on-the-street is incapable of swearing a blue streak, or referring to basic human anatomical functions without embarrassment or euphemism.

(4) There are certain words and phrases that mainstream foreign readers may simply find unacceptable. "Cunt", for example: U.S. readers tend to recoil at the implied misogyny of this word while U.K. readers seem to take it in stride, because in British paralance, it can be used to denigrate men and women equally. Perhaps, having exhausted all of our other cultural no-no's, "shit" "crap" and "poopy-poo" are the new western taboos.


So it doesn't seem fair, does it, that Will Self or Brett Easton Ellis should be held to one editorial standard, while Han Dong or Zhu Wen are held to another?

Here's another thing (related to that horribly over-used term: "jarring") that gets my goat, a quote from the review of Wang Anyi's book in the NYT:

"Michael Berry and Susan Chang Egan’s graceful translation, only rarely marred by jarring Americanisms (“grunt work,” “deal breaker”), helps us understand why Wang Anyi is one of the most critically acclaimed writers in the Chinese-speaking world."

Why is it that these so-called "Americanisms" are so jarring, in this day and age? If the reviewer objects to these phrases because they are anachronistic (and I am not certain that they are) why not just come out and say so? When was the last time we read a review of a Chinese novel in which the American reviewer objected to the "jarringly British" tone of the translation?

Sorry 'bout that. I'll step off my soapbox now.

But Nicky, I think you've raised an interesting question, one with implications reaching well beyond profanity. It's a question of what people have come to expect from Chinese fiction, and how willing they are to have their expectations upended.

-C

 Cindy Carter, May 12, 2008, 4:32a.m.

# 3.   

Hey, here's a story:

I remember how shocked I was when the elderly and respected grandfather of a friend of mine excused himself to "la yi pao shi".

Clearly, he was informing us he intended to "take a shit" or "take a dump".

In that case, translating the phrase as "defecate" or "relieve myself" would have wiped the smile from my face.

No pun intended.

 Cindy Carter, May 12, 2008, 5:09a.m.

# 4.   

I stumbled over the same phrase ("jarring Americanisms") reading the Wang Any review. What's next, translations in Simple English? A return to Latin?

Micah Sittig, May 14, 2008, 12:29a.m.

# 5.   

Is it just me or does it seem like the reviewers complain of things like "jarring Americanisms" because its easier to do this kind of nitpicking than to actually make a thorough review of the translation?

Jeff, May 14, 2008, 1:07a.m.

# 6.   

I don't read enough fiction to really know if this is true, but it does seem to me that there may be a kind of "toneless" translatese emerging in translated English fiction. It's not bad English, just devoid of any voice or character, mid-Atlantic, unmarked. Any deviation from this is liable to get stomped on, because no matter what voice you pick as an equivalent to your ST, there'll always be someone who disagrees with it. What we need is more celebrity translators. If Goldblatt could be persuaded to court the limelight a bit more, make his style an issue, then we can have others reacting against it, and reviewers might start paying serious attention to translators' writing.

Phil, May 15, 2008, 3:50a.m.

# 7.   

I am a Chinese reader. For ten years, Han Dong has been my favorite writer. I am glad to see that his book's translated into English, and meanwhile I am also worrying about if the translation is good enough to show the true quality of Han Dong's work... Han Dong was a poet before he started to write short stories and novella (, and he still is). His language is of significance, and also philosophic - don't forget that he was majored in philosophy in Shandong University. Later on when he began to write novels, his language changed and became more laconic and genuine. "Banished" is his first novel. He also wrote other 2 novels, and is working on the 4th. I give "Banished" 4 star because I think Han Dong's 2nd novel, "You and Me", is better than "Banished". Unfortunately "You and Me" has not been translated into English. I also like Han Dong's novellas. As a matter of fact, I think his novellas are magnum opus! I hope somebody can translate Han Dong's novellas into English one day.

Ma Ming, October 18, 2008, 2:46a.m.

# 8.   

"2. I am aware I was making a personal stylistic choice in using the informal words (‘crap’, not ‘defecate’). That was a judgment I had to make...At the same time, I am sensitive to the editor’s concerns – after all, she represents the future readers of the published translation."

We translators need to get over the fact that our work will be edited!

I have worked as a reporter, translator, proofreader, copy-editor and editor-in-chief. Each job has a distinct function. As a reporter, I am quite happy to focus on research, choosing interviewees, getting my interviewee in the right frame of mind, and of course, the joys of telling MY story.

As an editor, I get the chance to spice up the proceedings through judicious wordprocessing, pictures and captions.

And so forth. A book is a commodity produced by several people, not just the author (or in our case, not just the translator). Do your job as you see fit, enjoy doing so, and move on. If the character "took a crap," then so be it. If the editor can't deal with that, s/he may or may not be "right" in changing it.

In my eyes, you are being all too polite when you say that the editor "represents the future readers of the published translation." That's nonsense; many editors are frustrated intellectuals who do what they do because they can't make a living doing original writing. Their tastes are not necessarily equivalent to those of the "end-consumer." Editors are there to make the book more readable, more marketable and hopefully, more profitable for the publisher.

And it is undeniable that many editors, tho' not all, do their job well enough to make our translation a better read than the draft we submit. Which is a good thing!

So, you do your job, and let them do theirs, i.e., translate for your target reader and don't worry about what the editor will consider acceptable or appropriate!

 Bruce Humes, October 19, 2008, 3:07a.m.

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