“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

Never Fully Dressed with Just a Simile

By Canaan Morse, published

Back in August, Eric mentioned in one of his threads (I think it was Words) that he found similes in Chinese prose to be palpably awkward—that every time he came to a 就像 or a 跟什么什么似的 it gave him the elbow. At the time, I agreed with him, although now I’m not quite sure why. Such may be the case within the anti-之乎者也 literature of the past twenty years, but going farther back into the era when all those metaphoric particles from classical were still in common use—犹、如、仿佛 and the rest of them—uncovers a kind of flexibility in setting up similes which quite unexpectedly reveals the poverty of English in this regard.

Take this passage:

景泰蓝的天空给高耸的梧松勾绘出团员的大叶,新月如一只金色的小舟泊在疏疏的枝桠间。 粒粒星,怀疑是白色的小花朵从天使的手指间洒出来,而遂宝石似的凝固的嵌在天空里了。但仍闪跳着,发射着晶莹的光,且,从冰样的天空里,它们的清芬无声的霰雪一样飘坠。

Enough figuration in there to choke a 麒麟. Well, sentimental or not, my point is that I did two versions of that little passage and could not manage to limit myself to one or two iterations of “like” or “as,” those being the simplest indicators we have for the start of a simile (not everything there fits the Chinese definition of a 明喻, but when he says 怀疑是… it’s hard to avoid an “almost as if”). Other more roundabout versions (the way a (something) does…, etc.) are too wordy.

The cobalt sky above the tall parasol tree articulates its broad leaves in thick shadow, while the new moon floats like a golden boat moored among hushing branches. A crushed scattering of stars, which might be white flowers sifted through the fingers of an angel, then inlaid tight as gemstones into the night sky. Yet still they glitter, radiating lucent light, as their faint perfume drifts down from icy heaven like fine particles of snow.

Whoah. Can't seem to get around some of the awkwardness in there. Better ideas?


# 1.   

Awesome! I'm glad you posted this; I've also got something on a similar topic ready to go in a few days. For the record, I definitely agree with you here – it was precisely the literature of the past twenty years that I was complaining about; I think a passage like this one goes to show the potential strengths of the language, strengths that some writers are working to recover.

I thought your version of this passage was well done, it's definitely dense writing in the original and that density came out well in the translation. The middle sentence is grammatically odd: the "which" indicates that the second section of the sentence is just a hiatus from a continuing thread, but the "then" of the last section follows from the second. I like the "might be" for the 怀疑是; maybe if you just left out the first comma and the "which"?

I think your "likes" here are the right kind of likes, entirely subordinate to the images they introduce. What bugs me is "just likes" or 就像s that trumpet the coming simile so loudly you're tired of it before you've even read it (*cough* mo yan's writing *cough*).

 Eric Abrahamsen, April 5, 2009, 5:12a.m.


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