By Eric Abrahamsen, published
After what has felt like a long, long month of translating crap, I snuck over to a non-work-related short story this evening and chewed on the first paragraph. It's called 玻璃酿 — which might conceivably mean 'Glass Fermentation', or could have a particular meaning I'm unaware of — and it's something Zhao Song at the Heilan website recommended to me; you can read the original here.
The first sentence is pretty standard short-story-ese, but it presents greater challenges to translation than simply locating a dictionary with the word "open-cut coal seam" in it, and that alone is cause for celebration:
Roughly: the light of three in the afternoon lengthens or draws out the shadows of the pine needles. There's a nice balance and rhythm to the sentence: split in half, with the second half turning on the verb 延长 (lengthen). There's a parallelism between 光线 (light) and 阴影 (shadow), each set at the end of their respective possessive phrases. The sentence as a whole has a nice clumping rhythm which I can only describe as trochaic sextameter (I looked that up): 'DUM-dum DUM-dum da-DUM-dum, DUM-dum da-DUM-dum da-DUM-dum'. Here are some candidates:
- The light of three in the afternoon lengthened the shadows of the pine needles.
- The light of 3pm lengthened the pine-needle shadows.
- The 3pm light drew out the pine-needle shadows.
- The light of 3pm drew out the pine-needle shade.
The first is obviously out. I like number three for its clarity and concision, but it has none of the rhythm of the original. "Light of 3pm" is a bit weird, but almost necessary to balance the weight of the second phrase. I like "drew out" instead of "lengthened", as its more visual and has secondary associations with both "light" and "needle". "Pine-needle shade" isn't quite right, as you lose the mental image of a single pine-needle's shadow, lengthening, but it lands more tidily. So the clarity of the phrases lose out to rhythm of the whole sentence.
Except that the rhythm is still wrong, too. Never mind that I only learned the word "trochaic" twenty minutes ago, it's important; after wracking my brains, I can come up with something that balances the sentence fore and aft, but not something that replicates the dum-da-dums. Contestant number four above has a nice swing (at the cost of obscured sense), but it's not the swing of the original.
Obsession is fun. Those who know don't need to be told, etc. Whether this sentence or this story is worth the effort is another question, but there is real pleasure in addressing these questions. On to the second sentence, the first yet unresolved…