I’ve received plenty of emails from people wishing me a “happy niu year.” The phrasing represents a kind of translation that I can’t imagine having happened much twelve years ago: since 1997 Chinese and pīnyīn have become much more pervasive and available in the English-speaking world, while knowledge of and the importance of English has grown in China.
But translation, or something like it, also happens within languages. I guess I mean the misfiring, the falling offs, and the avoidance of them that make some people say translation is impossible. In Chinese, homophones and puns take on a sometimes cosmic significance: fish and bats are auspicious because yú 魚 [fish] sounds like yú 餘 [plenty] and biānfú 蝙蝠 [bat] contains the sound of the word fú 福 [fortune] (I’ve been translating a poem recently in which a certain transition hinges on the notion of bats as good omens). But it cuts both ways: sometimes you don’t want to say something because something sounds like something else. These days, a kind of prohibition has arisen, given the bosses’ propensity for layoffs amidst the current global economic slowdown, against saying gōngxǐ fācái 恭喜發財 [“happy new year,” but literally “congratulations on how much money you’re getting”], because cái 財 [“wealth”] sounds like cái 裁 [“to get fired”]? And especially against saying cáiyuán gǔngǔn 財源滾滾 [“may your wealth and resources come rolling”], since it sounds like cáiyuán gǔngǔn 裁員滾滾 [“may you get laid off and may your head roll”]. These phrases, and their homophonic evil twins, are hard to translate, but they exist as their own kind of translation—belles infidèles, or beautiful infidelities—already.