Those who can't do…

By Eric Abrahamsen, published

For the past couple months I've spent my Thursdays teaching literary translation classes to translation-studies majors at the Beijing Foreign Languages University. When they first came calling about this program, I suspected that it was of a piece with the government's plan to train an army of domestic Chinese-English translators, thereby liberating Chinese literature from the hands of fickle foreign translators with their imperfect comprehension and questionable loyalties (the final step of this plan is to train an even larger army of domestic readers to consume these domestically-produced English translations, whereupon the whole of Chinese culture will fold up and disappear with a "Foop!", leaving a blank space that can be filled with 喜羊羊 re-runs), and I was leery. They assured me that it was simply a cunning plan to use literary translation to improve the students' English, banking on the old chestnut that there is no more careful reader of a text than its translator, and I agreed.

Before class began I gave them a reader consisting of one page each of seven writers: James Joyce, Charles Lamb, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Henry James and Raymond Chandler; this was the "Stylistic Whiplash Reader". I had originally worried about their English comprehension, but I needn't have: they're quite able to follow my ramblings in class (though there was a stifled groan when I explained that the customary translation of 愁容骑士 was "Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance", and they seem to have a bitter history with the word "verge") and while two paragraphs of The Golden Bowl inflicted some kind of collective indigestion upon them, two paragraphs of late James will do that to anyone.

Every two weeks we translate a passage from one Chinese writer or another—last week was a story from 聊斋, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling, the closest to translating classical Chinese we're going to get. Language education in China (dire in many ways) tends to focus on vocabulary and grammar to the exclusion of all else, and I've harped on for months about the particular provinces of literature: tone, pace, style, rhythm. We've talked about how to write a sentence made of choppy little bits and how to write one that lopes along in long strides; how to lock together phrases into larger logical structures, or how to leave them lying adjacent but unconnected, like stones.

Translating the Strange Tales story, called "Rui Yun the Courtesan", is challenging in the way that all classical Chinese translation is challenging: the language is concise to the point of brutality, and in order to make a coherent text you need to make arbitrary decisions about how to flesh out the narration. But it's easy in doing so to kill the beauty of the text—to smooth out intentional ambigities, for instance, or add conventional fluff to a style that originally possessed a cruel, physical directness reminiscent of Beowulf.

Most Chinese editions of the Strange Tales come with a modern Chinese gloss, and when I assigned this passage I gave them the gloss as reference (as much for me as them). And right there, before we'd even started the translation, the text was starting to get away from us. The story begins like this:

瑞云,杭之名妓,色艺无双。年十四。其母蔡媪,将使出应答。瑞云曰:“此奴 终身发轫之始,不可草草。价由母定,客则听奴自择之,媪曰:“诺。

The thoroughly graceless gloss: there's a courtesan from Hangzhou, named Rui Yun, she's amazingly beautiful. She's fourteen. The madame of her brothel thinks it's high time she started entertaining johns; Rui Yun doesn't want to rush it, since it's her first time. She proposes that the madame set her price, but she pick her first john. The madame agrees.

In the accompanying modern Chinese translation, Rui Yun's proposal is framed as a humble entreaty, begging for acceptance; the madame's acquiescence rather haughty and condescending. When I did a first-version English translation for their reference, I unconsciously followed this model, saying something like "Rui Yun asked that she should be allowed to choose the man, etc".

When we got to these lines in class, a couple of students put their heads down and had a quiet but fierce discussion about it. Prodded, one of them said she had some doubts about our translation; there was nothing in the original about Rui Yun begging or even asking politely.

She was quite right. "价由母定,客则听奴自择之": literally "price mother sets, but guest I choose myself". And the madame's response? " ", the plainest, least nuanced statement of acceptance there is—essentially just "Agreed". Nothing is said about their tone of voice or their expressions as they speak; indeed throughout the whole story the dialogue displays subtlety and real beauty, but the narration itself is almost pathologically spare.

So we whacked out a new version that chipped away all rhetorical additions not present in the original, freeing up a wide range of possibilities for Rui Yun's character, including one in which she, a fourteen-year-old prostitute, is dictating terms to her own madame, who reacts perhaps with non-plussed diffidence, perhaps with amused tolerance—we don't know, the original doesn't tell us. That's why it's so cool.

It's an enormous relief to see texts that hum with understated potential, particularly compared to contemporary Chinese fiction, which can be depressing in its insistence on spelling out conventionality in full. Translating classical Chinese is hard, not because of funny vocabulary, but because the language has been pushed to extremes of concision and is so thoroughly soaked in meaning that one despairs of creating English of equivalent density. But it's also exhilarating, and it makes you feel good about being a translator.

So the class has been good fun, so far. Who wouldn't enjoy group arguments about the phrase 嬉皮笑脸, or forcing twenty four students to chorus lines of Thomas Hardy out loud, or explaining exactly what's so wonderful about the last paragraph of Joyce's "The Dead" to a group that's only recently developed the ability to appreciate it? Some of them seem to have the native interest in dismantling sentences and tinkering with words that made the translation training course so satisfying, and with time they'll find the courage to express their opinions on language; I know they've got them.


# 1.   

Apparently, "Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance" would have been more accurately translated as something like "Knight of the Busted Face".

Eric Abrahamsen, May 24, 2010, 3:28p.m.

# 2.   

The Golden Bowl to Chinese undergrads? I detect the intellectual sadism that is the hallmark of the born professor.

Good post. I actually began my own education in classical with 聊斋 (along with 世说新语 and a bunch of other stuff) and it's one of my favorite texts. I always thought that if I could find a good watercolor illustrator, those stories might make a wonderful children's book or two.

Canaan Morse, May 24, 2010, 4:05p.m.

# 3.   

The Golden Bowl to Chinese undergrads? I detect the intellectual sadism that is the hallmark of the born professor.

They have to know, man. They have to know.

I always thought that if I could find a good watercolor illustrator, those stories might make a wonderful children's book or two.

Exactly! As we talked about appropriate styles for translation I found myself repeatedly coming back to the Brothers Grimm…

Eric Abrahamsen, May 24, 2010, 4:24p.m.

# 4.   

Also, you might be amused to know that in each class I found the student with the best Beijing accent and had them read Wang Shuo dialogue out loud, as if it were music.

Eric Abrahamsen, May 24, 2010, 4:26p.m.

# 5.   

It's interesting you pointed out the Chinese gloss is graceless, I had always assumed that was the default mode of all modern Chinese glosses from classical Chinese. Is there any other kind? I have also found that if I base my English translation on the gloss, then go back and read the original, or compared it with someone else's, I find that my translation was terrible.

Jeff, May 25, 2010, 4:53a.m.

# 6.   

Just loved this post, and full of admiration. Your students are lucky. Keep posting on the classes!

Nicky Harman, May 25, 2010, 10:03a.m.

# 7.   

Jeff: It wasn't the Chinese gloss I was identifying as graceless (though it was), but my quick-and-dirty rundown of the content for this post—I guess I was trying to make it so ugly that no one would mistake it for an actual translation.

The real problem with the modern Chinese translation wasn't so much that it lacked poetry, but that it added meaning to the original, killing a fair amount of its poetic potential. And it seemed to be adding things that made the story more conventional and less interesting, ie of course a fourteen-year-old courtesan would be begging her madame for the freedom to choose, how could it be otherwise?

Nicky: Thanks! I'm not quite sure the students see themselves as lucky, but at least they're mostly game…

Eric Abrahamsen, May 25, 2010, 10:38a.m.

# 8.   

Man, I want to take Professor Abrahamsen's class! Sounds awesome!

Jonathan Rechtman, May 26, 2010, 5:35a.m.

# 9.   

I can see it now:

Chinese Literary Translation: Theory and Practice MWF, 3 cred., Hillman 103
Instructor: Abrahamsen, Chair, Wolfgang P. Kubin Professor of Asian Literatures

Canaan Morse, May 26, 2010, 6:02a.m.

# 10.   

You will all be required to address me as "The Kubin Chair", even to my face; I will also thus refer to myself in the third person.

All lectures will be delivered in a faux German accent.

Eric Abrahamsen, May 26, 2010, 10:08a.m.

# 11.   

What a great post! Your writing is very elegant. I love the example of "gloss" from Strange Tales.

Kitty Poundstone, June 2, 2010, 3:20a.m.


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