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:

  1. The light of three in the afternoon lengthened the shadows of the pine needles.
  2. The light of 3pm lengthened the pine-needle shadows.
  3. The 3pm light drew out the pine-needle shadows.
  4. 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…


# 1.   

I think it's the specificity of "three in the afternoon" that makes this difficult to carry over. You could fudge it with "mid-afternoon", maybe. Come to think of it, how would one casually say "mid-afternoon" in Chinese?

Other than that, I like the more literal "lengthened the shadows of the pine needles" in number one. It does have some rhythm I think, and it also has the advantage of being very clear. To me, "drew out" is too fuzzy. I would understand something like "a long, drawn-out shadow" very easily, but here I think it feels like a stretch because the active form of "draw out" seems better suited to time rather than imagery. Also, "shadows of the pine needles" just seems fuller. "Pine-needle shadows" seems abrupt and possibly eliminates too many nouns; since the sentence is describing a shadow that is long, it might make sense stylistically to employ a lengthier form of phrasing.

Finally, I'd make it a "ray of light" rather than just "light", mostly because I think that 线 is very important to elucidate.

So, ultimately, I would offer this:

"The mid-afternoon rays of light lengthened the shadows of the pine needles."

Matt, October 14, 2008, 8:45p.m.

# 2.   

I like your attitude toward translation :-)

I'm Chinese. I know I'm not qualified for doing Chinese to English translation, but let me give it a try, just for fun:

It was three o'clock in the afternoon, and the daylight made the shadow of pine needles look even longer.

Good blog!

Bimuyu, October 14, 2008, 9:43p.m.

# 3.   

Good; here we go.

Sentence #1 disqualifies itself, I think, more because of the boniness of the second half than the verbosity of the first. That's a long way of saying that I like the phrase "three in the afternoon" here--in fact, I think the word "afternoon" is essential to recreating the tone of the sentence. The sentence is specific because it points to a well-known tone in time. Three in the afternoon suggests imperceptible motion amid a tranquil environment. I hear the image and think of "Complacencies of the peignoir/and late coffee and oranges in a sunny chair," or "Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons/have measured out my life in coffee spoons."

"Shadow" I would vote for in every instance over "shade." Whole trees throw shade, indistinct, defined by temperature as much as light level. These are pine needles, singled out from the greater image of the tree, a sort of metonymy. Their individual silhouettes up close would be as distinct as fingers. "Silhouette" would definitely not work.

As for meter, I see your point. I think there are metrically balanced ways to translate this sentence. One problem with rhythmic acrobatics is that they can potentially distract from the clean, simple sound of the original thought. That's what happened when I tried it.

The three o'clock afternoon sunlight drew forth the shadows of pine needles. That line is close to symmetrical, but it uses both two- and three-beat feet instead of just two. x (dactyl)(anapaest)(trochee)(iamb)(dactyl)x(dactyl) If one could make an anapaest (da-da-DUM) out of the second-to-last foot then it would be fractal.

Yet I look back at that, and it's not the sound of the original line, which is rhythmic but simple above all. I would give up metrical satisfaction in favor of a bone-clean line if it came to it. Of your four options, I vote for number two. If it were me, I might test it a little farther.

Three in the afternoon sunlight pulled on shadows from the pine needles.

Might come back and revise later.

Canaan Morse, October 14, 2008, 11:35p.m.

# 4.   

Whoops. Anapaest on the LAST foot, rather, so you have:

~~ ~~ ~ ~ ~~ ~~\

And another try:

Three in the afternoon sunlight drew out the shadows of pine needles.

"Three in the afternoon" should be hyphenated, but I think the meaning gets across without it and it would be much too awkward. The tweaked structure also invokes a more abstract mood, which might be right.

Canaan Morse, October 15, 2008, 8:26p.m.

# 5.   

This is fun. I was toying around with the sentence, transforming it from a sentence into a couplet and then into a short poem:

(1) 午后三点的光线延长了松针的阴影。

(2) 午后三点的光线

(3) 午后三点的

Here are some various riffs:

(1) 午后三点的光线延长了松针的阴影。
In late-afternoon sunlight, the pine-needle shadows grew long.
The shadow of pine needles lengthened in three o'clock sun.

(2) 午后三点的光线

Afternoon sunlight drew out
the shadows of pine needles.

(3) 午后三点的
The three o'clock sun
elongates the shadow
of needles on pine.

Three o'clock,
and the shadow of pine needles
grows long.

Cindy Carter, October 16, 2008, 12:10a.m.

# 6.   

Hi! I had a lot of fun reading these posts, and couldn't resist having a go myself. I've just started doing some of my own translations, so I'm only just beginning to discover the difficulties (as well as the pleasures).

I wrote out many variations, which I discovered weren't as good as the ones already suggested. I came up with:

The three o’clock sunlight pulled shadows from the pine needles.

Of course, rhythmically its not quite right. But I liked the suggestions which emphasized drawing out - it seems to link the rays and needles nicely, somehow. Although I am very new to all this (!) I am struck by how forceful Chinese verbs are. The verb in the original acts as a pivot. But then this affects the way the nouns and adjectives work - its just impossible to get that same balance around the verb in English. Somehow adjectives end up feeling clumpy, or just in the way!

Anna Holwmood, October 17, 2008, 5:55p.m.

# 7.   

If anyone would like to take the time with me, could you please tell me why the literal "The three-in-the-afternoon light lengthened the pine-needle shadows." is a horrible translation?

Anonymous Coward, October 21, 2008, 6:12a.m.

# 8.   

AC: None of these options are really horrible, just not ideal. Just to clarify, I don't think an ideal rendition is possible, and the only reason I wouldn't have long ago picked one of the above and gotten on with the job is the sake of argument.

I didn't like the lengthier versions simply because they seemed to squeeze in all the requisite words with no regard for the rhythm and pace of the sentence as a whole. "Three-in-the-afternoon light" seemed particularly awkward to me, though I also agree with Canaan that the atmosphere of 'three in the afternoon' is just right.

Despite the importance of the word 光线 to the original, I wonder if leaving it out of the English might produce something better: "It was three in the afternoon; the pine needle shadows grew long." The light goes from explicit to implicit, but the mood is better preserved.

Anna I like your more fanciful reading, though I think that this is where English has the advantage of flexibility over Chinese. I've been thinking of writing about the awkwardness of Chinese (possibly just my hallucination) when it comes to metaphors; look at the beginning of the second sentence in the original, and the lengths the language has to go to just to say the light was like sugar water.

And, as always, Cindy makes me wish everything had been a poem to begin with… :)

Eric Abrahamsen, October 21, 2008, 9:43a.m.

# 9.   

I was having trouble sleeping last night and so lots of things were floating around in my head, one of which was this post. In particular, I was trying to figure out why the phrase "draw out" or "pulled" felt so problematic to me. And I really do think it's about clarity - "draw out" could have any number of meanings which don't call up the intended meaning. Especially if I think of "drawing out" a picture or image, the first thing that comes to my mind is the simple action of an image being created, without respect to whether the image is long, short, big or small. You can "draw something out" on scratch paper, but that does not mean you are making a pre-existing image "longer" or "bigger"; it simply means you are creating it. And then "draw out" also has the meaning of "taking out". That might be a tiny bit closer to what's happening in the Chinese sentence, but "taking out" to me suggests moving something, in entirety, from one place to another. "Pulled" has sort of the same feel to me (though it's definitely better than "drew out"), but is there really something being pulled or pushed here? I don't know, it seems to assume to much... Anyway, for the reasons above, "draw out" seems to lack fundamental clarity.

Matt, October 21, 2008, 5:06p.m.

# 10.   

I'm Anonymous Coward, and would like to thank you for the response. What I do see here is that I'm apparently not good at determining the nuances of prose.

But actually, the question I wanted to ask is why do Chinese translators translate using "of" so often, when the Chinese syntax itself suggests using adjectives instead of nouns. By using directly modifying adjectives, you get a more direct and less abstract character to the translation, which I suspect is present in the original Chinese, a language in which some anthropologists have accused of lacking the capacity for abstract thought.

But, like I've said above, I'm horrible with the nuances of prose, so what do I know.

Inst, October 23, 2008, 11:46a.m.

# 11.   

Interesting! Try this. Afternoon, the shadow of the pine needles was stretched by the light of three.

Baumkuchen, October 23, 2008, 2:04p.m.

# 12.   


I am wondering, do you think that when a translator uses "of" in place of a modifying adjective, he/she is implying that Chinese "lacks the capacity for abstract thought", or else, that it could be interpreted that way? Maybe you could flesh out what you mean by "the Chinese syntax itself" suggesting the use of adjectives rather than nouns. Is this always the case? Do you think it's the case here?

For the record, I think it's obviously silly and insulting to suggest that Chinese lacks the capacity for abstract thought, but I don't see how that could apply here. In this particular sentence, to me it just seems like nouns are more appropriate for the second half of the sentence. If you were to compare "shadows of the pine needles" with "pine-needle shadow", they both consist mostly of strings of nouns; it's just that in the latter the nouns are considered adjectives because they come before the main object. So, if there was a distinct adjectival form of "pine needle" that existed/made sense, it should definitely be considered, but here it would seem like needlessly converting a noun into an adjective to satisfy a vague notion that it is more politically correct to use adjectives.

Matt, October 23, 2008, 6:13p.m.

# 13.   

Actually, I was suggesting that "of" suggests an abstract notion and to maintain fidelity not using "of" would be preferred. But the use of "of" is common among translators, and you're the professionals and I'm just a slightly dense observer.

What I mean by that some anthropologists suggest that Chinese lacks the capacity for abstract thought is that abstract concepts in the language, or in the traditional literature are so rare that some people could come up with such a notion. But like I said, I'm quite ignorant and I'd delight in being corrected.

Inst, October 24, 2008, 7:09a.m.

# 14.   

Two things.

"Of" is used often by Chinese translators because of the Chinese possessive "的”, which allows a whole laundry line of modifiers to be tacked on to a single noun. An adjective+noun structure will not often work when your "adjective" is in fact an entire clause. My translations above attempted to work around that "of," and you can see the result.


"Abstract" is a Chinese trademark--中文的拿手好戏. Chinese academic (particularly critical) prose can become so frustratingly disconnected from reality as to be worse than Western criticism. A great place to go for proof, for anyone in China right now, is 书城,an lit crit/essay monthly that attracts the kind of authors who used to write for 读书 before its rep went down. Guys like 余秋雨, (Yu Qiuyu) who will raise you up into the clouds and beat you to death with 排比.

The capability is made possible by a few separate resources in some ways peculiar to Chinese. First, there are plenty metaphysical structures to support the discourse, everywhere from Laozi to Mengzi to etc etc etc. These produce a whole bunch of abstract words--try translating 玄 without feeling bad. 道 is the grandmother.

Second, emotional vocabulary in Chinese is vast, and rich beyond rich-not only because of the incredible number of characters, but also the ability to hook them together into pages and pages more of muscular relationships. Take the characters 体 and 悟 and think up all the words you can that include them. Authors often make up words from two characters they find fit opposing (or similar) aspects of their meaning. This liberty alone is enough to provide for a million twists and turns.

Then there's also the poetic truth, which I think is what anthropologists might have a hard time with: namely, that not only can any "concrete" word be used in an "abstract" sense, but that those are exactly the best words to DO so, because they communicate primary experience. Well, no language tops Chinese for the instant recall of rich images.

Reading back, I'm not sure this post was entirely necessary, but I hope it has been helpful. I am, after all, working entirely off the Chinese I have read and my own intuition. Forgive me if I've been talking too much.

Canaan Morse, October 24, 2008, 6:25p.m.

# 15.   

For some unknown reason, this sentence reminds me of a line by 王维, a famous poet in Tang Dynasty:


Here, I prefer to Matt's comment that 'ray of light' be better than 'light.' In my eyes, both ray of light and needle of pine-tree are long and thin. So it is pleasant for me to imagine the former drawing out the latter. Otherwise, the auther would have adopted 阳光, which may cause better sound effect, instead of 光线.

Look forward to learning more.

Dahu Chai, October 24, 2008, 7:32p.m.

# 16.   

Canaan, thank you for the detailed and informative response.

Dahu Chai, how about strands of light? It creates a contrast between the rigidity of the pine needles and the suppleness of the light.

Inst, October 25, 2008, 2:40a.m.

# 17.   

Inst, sorry if I came off as overbearing but I had never heard of notions like "Chinese lacks the capacity for abstract thought" and so on. Really, I don't think anyone credible could actually believe something like that nowadays. I also don't quite know what "of" represents in terms of abstractness or non-abstractness, but I guess that can be put to the side. In any case, Chinese would seem to me to have plenty of abstraction, and a bounty also of concrete thought, much like any other literate system of communication.

Canaan, I am interested in checking out the website you mentioned. I somehow got hooked on this one guy's blog, 陈明远 (i think he's extremely, extremely old), but just about every other day he's writing some scathing blog post about how Yu Qiuyu is so full of it! (Lately though, he's developed an extraordinary obsession with Indian women.)

Matt, October 25, 2008, 5:04a.m.

# 18.   

Well, I think I'm going to come off with egg on my face; I'm having difficulty finding the original source accusing the Chinese of lacking abstraction.


This article is the article I was thinking of, it argues against the notion that Chinese poets cannot be truly creative, as opposed to merely sublimely recording their experiences. One line describes a Chinese anti-abstraction attitude, but being against abstraction is not the same as lacking abstraction.

For what it's worth, I also found an article on JSTOR discussing whether the Japanese would fit in the Western category of "neurotic" or not, and this was sometime between the publication of the Ruth Benedict's "Chrysanthemum and the Sword" in 1946 and now.

Inst, October 25, 2008, 7:34a.m.

# 19.   

Regarding the tangental abstract thought discussion, here's a quote from "The Language Instinct" by Stephen Pinker:

"English grammar, says [Alfred] Bloom, provides the speaker with the subjunctive construction: 'If John were to go to the hospital, he would meet Mary." The subjunctive is used to express 'counterfactual' situations, events that are known to be false but entertained as hypotheticals [...] Chinese, in contrast, lacks a subjunctive and any other simple grammatical construction that directly expresses a counterfactual. The thought must be expressed circuitously, something like 'If John is going to the hospital... but he is not going to the hospital... but if he is going, he meets Mary.'

"Bloom wrote stories containing sequences of implications from a counterfactual premise and gave them to Chinese and American students. For example, one story said, in outline, 'Bier was an eighteenth-century European philosopher. There was some contact between the West and China at that time, but very few works of Chinese philosophy had been translated. Bier could not read Chinese, but if he had been able to read Chinese, he would have discovered B; what would have influenced him would have been C; once influenced by that Chinese perspective, Bier would have done D," and so on. The subjects were then asked to check off whether B, C, or D actually occurred. The American students gave the correct answer, no, 98% of the time; the Chinese students gave the correct answer only 7% of the time! Cloom concluded that the Chinese language renders its speakers unable to entertain hypothetical false worlds without great mental effort [...]

The cognitive psychologists Terry Au, Yohtaro Takano, and Lisa Liu were not exactly enchanted by these tales of the concreteness of the Oriental mind. Each one identified serious flaws in Bloom's experiments. One problem was that his stories were written in stilted Chinese. Another was that some of the science stories turned out, upon careful reading, to be genuinely ambiguous. Chinese college students tend to have more science training than American students, and thus they were better at detecting the ambiguities that Bloom himself missed. When these flaws were fixed, the differences vanished."

David, October 31, 2008, 6:32p.m.

# 20.   

"Chinese, in contrast, lacks a subjunctive and any other simple grammatical construction that directly expresses a counterfactual. The thought must be expressed circuitously, something like 'If John is going to the hospital... but he is not going to the hospital... but if he is going, he meets Mary.'"

What about “如果约翰去了医院的话,他就会见妈丽” ?

Nick, December 11, 2008, 5:49a.m.

# 21.   

Exactly, Nick. The fundamental problem as I see it with experiments of that sort is that they attempt to analyze the Chinese language through a Western grammar-based perspective. If grammar is a set of iterative patterns used to provide specific definitions of time, truth, direction etc. within language, then it can be solidly argued that grammar does not exist in Chinese, which relies on the manipulation of context (defined by particles) to make the same distinctions made by Western grammatical rules.

What's more important is that Chinese works just as well as English does in communicating events both real and hypothetical. Perhaps there exists no subjunctive in Chinese; well, all right, but remember that "subjunctive" is defined as a mood by its relationship to indicative, and serves a systematic function because Greek was a systemized language; in Chinese, by contrast, there is no need for a "subjunctive" because such a structure won't contextualize-that is, it's too big to accomodate the nuances of different settings. It's also true that the sentence "约翰要是去了医院,就会见到玛丽" would sound awkward a the first sentence of a Chinese novel, unless there is a balancing factual statement afterward:"但他那天却留在家里,把所有与她有关的一切都忘到九霄云外了”。But if you think about it, balancing hypothesis is just as common a practice in English, and when it comes down to what one wants to say, neither language appears deficient.

Canaan Morse, December 11, 2008, 8:49p.m.


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