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

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

Translation Course - Day 2

By Eric Abrahamsen, published

The first thing you learn from group translation is how vital privacy ordinarily is to this kind of work. Laboring in solitude, in whatever state of disarray or distraction you please, is a luxury – and something of a necessity. As a general rule the first three drafts of anything are execrable, and being able to drown those drafts in the confidence that no one will ever know they existed provides such peace of mind. Silly ideas surface and subside without being much exposed to the light of rational judgment, and the final forms of things are gently extracted from this unarticulated mess.

It’s alarming, to say the least, to be given a chunk of a Chinese novel and asked, “So, how would you translate that first sentence?” while everyone in the room watches you. I think we all started out more or less aghast that we’d be asked to perform, in a sense – if we were comfortable with that we’d have gone into interpretation. But, of course, there are salutory things about this public disrobing – most immediate is the way it zaps your emotional investment in your translation. You stammer out something far, far inferior to what you might have produced had you been sitting alone at your own desk in your boxer shorts, and then everyone in the room tears it apart. Three rounds of that and you no longer regard your words as your own. Which, of course, they weren’t to begin with.

We’re doing about six sentences an hour on Tie Ning’s Dayunü (大浴女), chewing over every article and preposition, dueling for adverbs, and the main lesson so far has been one I’ve learned over and over, and will probably continue to learn until I give up on this altogether: You’ve never thought hard enough about what you’ve written.


# 1.   

Wow, that sounds terrifying. Hopefully it will be worth it after all is said and done.

Matt, March 20, 2008, 4:56p.m.

# 2.   

I've probably overstated the case for effect – while it is terrifying, it is enormously worthwhile, and has already helped me, at least, reconsider the way I translate. Talking to the other participants, it sounds like everyone's having similarly positive reactions...

Eric, March 20, 2008, 7:09p.m.

# 3.   

I've been having a nerdy great time with this. The final consensus translation is probably not going to be much to writehome about, but the process has been incredibly helpful at every turn, even when we're spending twenty minutes arguing over the best way to translate "chowder." I've actually found the spot translations less terrifying than others, since I've had some experience doing that sort of thing, but having an audience of one's peers certainly is a change from the ordinary seclusion.

 Brendan, March 21, 2008, 3:07a.m.

# 4.   

"...the main lesson so far...You’ve never thought hard enough about what you’ve written."

Indeed. Which makes one wonder why many translators -- like the authors they are translating -- tend to insist on working alone. Certainly one way of getting a fresh look at one's copy is to get another professional to polish/rewrite/edit and/or comment on one's draft?

I've translated perhaps six or so well-known fiction writers from Chinese into English for pay, and based on my experiences over the last several years, I wouldn't consider doing another major project without timely input from 1-3 others BEFORE my work is formally edited. Ideally, one would be a native Chinese looking for errors in my understanding of the original, and the others would be native English speakers who, after reading my version and the original, makes whatever changes they like.

It is then up to me, the translator, to accept or decline those changes, sometimes savoring the new "feel" the copy now has. I pay for such work, and I find it very valuable. It gives me more confidence in the final product, but also opens the translation process in a way that is useful -- tho' no doubt less painful than what is going on in your training sessions!

Wish I could be there. Have fun!

Bruce Humes Shenzhen xumushi@yahoo.com

 Bruce Humes, March 23, 2008, 12:16a.m.

# 5.   

Most of the translators (in my group, at least) seemed to agree that it helps to show your work to several people - one native Chinese speaker, to review accuracy, and another with no knowledge of Chinese, to point at things that Chinese speakers would simply back-translate, and say "what the heck does that mean?"

The difference between that and what the interaction in the workshop is that the former takes the translated text as a whole, so that it already (hopefully) has a voice and a general tone, while the latter was more of a sentence-by-sentence process in which voice was secondary. I think that readers are less demanding of each individual element in the context of a whole.

This ties in to something you mentioned in your comment in the Day 1 post, Bruce: at least in the first go-round, we were wrangling over the text itself. We may have had some abstract idea of particular English-language voice, but we were really just working with words and phrases. This resulted in an unreadable text that we then polished up later, often returning to some of the words and phrases that we had rejected in phase 1. As it happened, there were native Chinese speakers in each group (or at least people who had grown up bilingual), but at least in the group with the Li Er text, the author was very helpful in explaining cultural background and the nuances of his language.

One thing that might be good in future sessions would be a time to share translations with the groups doing English-Chinese translations, since it turned out that our approaches to the texts varied widely. I'm not sure how much of a difference that would have made in the early stages of the process, however.

But then again the translation process itself doesn't have to be solitary - I know that I hit up various contacts for help on sticky points.

JoelD, March 25, 2008, 9:23p.m.


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