Berlin Fang: Translator's Block

That said, I wouldn’t say that doing commercial translation is all bad. Sometimes it is just bad writing that irritates me. When I translate such bad writing, I risk turning into a violent person. Once a friend of mine asked me for help translating a commercial for a company. The writing was so bad, so full of grandiose nonsense that it caused me to have very bad thoughts. I wanted to personally seek out the writer and persecute him with some torture of my own invention, which would involve hanging on the tree and the use of whips. Or send him to the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Cannot Write Good.


# 1.   

This very interesting essay makes a reference to Yan Fu's (1854-1921) three criteria for excellence in translation ():

Chinese thinker and translator Yan Fu, proposed three criteria that are still used today in judging translation: faithfulness, smoothness, and elegance.

Whether or not "ya"=elegance is a question in and of itself. But regardless, I must say that---in my opinion---the high esteem in which these three criteria are still held among Chinese intellectuals is the single biggest obstacle to better translation in the Chinese speaking world today.

Every ideology/philosophy is rooted in its own time and place, and limited by it. Yan Fu was living at a time when the great mass of Chinese could not read or write, and those who could were all solidly (some would say numbingly) grounded in classical Chinese. Vernacular writing was frowned upon as vulgar.

Translators from Western languages into Chinese felt the need to "enhance" their literary translations in order to ensure that the target text was sufficiently "elegant" to win the respect of the Chinese intelligentsia. The wildly popular translations of some 170 French and English novels by Lin Shu (1852-1924) is a great example. He was a great storyteller who didn't know a word of French or English. His work was judged by its readability, not its faithfulness to the original.

I make no claim whatsoever to being able to identify a better set of criteria. But it is clearly time to move on to exploring different and more creative theories and approaches to translation of literature between the Chinese and English languages. There is an amazingly large set of translated literary works out there---both into and out of Chinese---that are downright bizarre, and definitely don't meet the basic standards met by translations between other languages. In my eyes, most literary translations I read out of the Japanese into English or French, for example, are much more readable.

Bruce Humes Chinese Books, English Reviews

P.S. Berlin, I wish you would put your blog up somewhere that doesn't require a password. It's awfully easy for people to forget theirs!

 Bruce, February 26, 2010, 9:07p.m.

# 2.   

Haha, I had translator's block and checked this page to clear my mind only to find this article. Now back to figuring out how to say 事实认证...

Jeff, February 26, 2010, 11:20p.m.

# 3.   

Those criteria are good enough, I'd say.

I'm more worried nowadays about Chinese-English translators adding a layer of false to their works, or, if not , then you could say a layer of politeness that really doesn't mesh with the tone of the original.

DylanK, February 27, 2010, 12:26a.m.

# 4.   

Berlin Fang, your article slayed me. You're a translator after my own heart. Let us count the ways:

(1) Cool t-shirt graphic: "Will Work For Good Literature." (2) Awesome understatement: "In spite of its historical significance, literary translation is not the most profitable job in the world." (3) Stoicism-in-the-face-of-poverty: "I just managed to reduce my income by at least 9 times and I got myself something much more nerve-breaking to do." (4) Defiance-in-the-face-of-bad writing: "Send him [the writer] to the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Cannot Write Good." (5) Modesty vis-a-vis rewards and recognition: "Recently I heard that China has an Award called Award for Translation that Sucks. I am not dying to be nominated."

I, too, lost my translation mojo recently. It took about a week to locate my mojo, reclaim it, and get back on track. It was comforting to read your article, and to know that other translators experience the same things and think the same thoughts.

 Cindy Carter, February 28, 2010, 12:27p.m.

# 5.   

it was entertaining to hear about the problems of translating from english to chinese, especially the bit about the unspecific "brother." i always cringe at the thought of translating / with some clunky english equivalent.

Mike T, February 28, 2010, 9:46p.m.

# 6.   

Good comments on the case of Zhang Shaogang Vs. Liu Lili

Sun Huijun, January 17, 2012, 1:28p.m.


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