一周一句 Sunday Sentence #3

By Jack Hargreaves, published

Part of: Sunday Sentence

cover image

For week 3 of Sunday Sentence, we're turning to one of the best-known Chinese writers of the 20th Century, Zhang Ailing, and the opening line of her book, 《色戒》(1979), translated by Julia Lovell and released in 2007 as, of course, Lust, Caution. Thanks to Dylan Levi King for suggesting this "deceptively simple" peach of a sentence.

Please input your translation in the comments box at the bottom of the page.

The sentences to translate are:

Remember, you can post your translation today or any day next week, so you have plenty of time to think about it and there's no need to rush.

Here's some more context provided by Dylan:
Set in China under Japanese occupation, this is the story of a former actress that falls in love with the collaborator she is sent to seduce into an ambush.

About the challenges:
Zhang Ailing is a master of descriptions of everyday objects and scenes that don't really appear in other Chinese literature. This first sentence from Lust, Caution is deceptively simple.

About the Author:
Zhang Ailing (or Eileen Chang) is considered one of the 20th century's most important writers. Her sumptuous style, evocations of the textures and moods of everyday life, and the moral ambiguity of her work set her apart from most of what was written in China following Liberation.

Looking forward to everyone's translations!


# 1.   

I love Zhang Ailing's writing. It reminds me of Pai Hsien-yung in all the good ways.

This piece is so good in setting the mood, and that's what makes it a challenge in English, too. I overtranslated the diamond rings, because I think the imagery there is so important. There is the light and the reflected light and the snow-white tablecloth. She is building a language of light/clarity/truth that will be important down the road in the book.

The tablecloth as snow is another part I'm not so sure about. I can't quite get the English to do what I think the Chinese does. I can't wait to read your versions!


A bright light lit up the mahjong table even during the day, so that diamond ring after diamond ring glittered in every direction as the tiles were shuffled. The white tablecloth was tied at each corner to the legs of the table, pulling it taut to make a field of pure snow, so white as to dazzle the eye.

Google: On the mahjong table, there are also bright lights on during the day, and when the cards are shuffled, only the diamond rings shine. The corners of the white tablecloth were tied to the legs of the table, and they became tighter and more white and dazzling.

Microsoft: Mahjong table during the day also on the bright lights, shuffle when a diamond ring shines. The four corners of the white tablecloth are tied to the legs of the table, and the tension is more and more white, white dazzling.

David Hull, June 14, 2020, 4:34p.m.

# 2.   

"Even in the day the lamplight bears down on the hands shuffling the mahjong tiles, bouncing off the dazzle of each and every diamond ring. The four corners of the white tablecloth clench the table legs so tightly that they choke out even more white - a white so resplendent that it blinds the eyes."

Notes: I've not read the book but I've watched the movie before(starring Tony Leung (!!) and Tang Wei); some parts are still quite vivid in my mind. I remember reading an interview with director Ang Lee on how he constructed some scenes from the book, so I'm relying on the cinematics and what I remember from his logic to translate. I'm aiming more for the feeling and atmosphere I personally get from the text, hoping to create a similar imagery with different vocabulary. I think the translation could be more effective with fewer words, but at the moment this is the best I can do. Can't wait to see what everyone else got!

Christina Ng, June 14, 2020, 4:57p.m.

# 3.   

There's an earlier version of this story called 'The Spyring', written by Eileen Chang in English in the 1950s. Chang couldn't find a publisher for it.

The opening of 'The Spyring' (1953?) is quite similar to that of 《色戒》(1978):

"Though it was daytime, they had turned on a strong light directly over the taut white tablecloth tied on to the four legs of the mahjong table. Crimson finger-nails, dark against the flat glaring whiteness, scurried among the bamboo tiles as all four pairs of hands stirred the tiles up for the next game. Diamond rings flashed in their wake."

I suppose the advantage of translating your own work is that you can freely edit, expand and contract it as your creativity takes you. Eileen Chang has lots of parallel essays and stories like that - sometimes the English was written first, sometimes the Chinese.

You can read the whole of 'The Spyring' here: http://www.zonaeuropa.com/culture/c20081005_1.htm

Some background info here: http://www.zonaeuropa.com/culture/c20080302_1.htm

Daniel S, June 14, 2020, 5:41p.m.

# 4.   

@Daniel S - Interesting! Thanks for sharing this. Did she actually translate her own work, or was it more like writing about the same or similar things in two different languages? It can be very difficult to translate your own writing, sometimes easier to write afresh in each language. Genuine question - I’m curious and haven’t read much of her work yet. :)

Helen Wang, June 14, 2020, 7:22p.m.

# 5.   

As this is the opening sentence, I think it is important to start strong and to start with the most important word - the mah-jong table: “The mah-jong table was brightly lit despite the daylight, and the diamond rings on the hands shuffling the tiles sparkled in every direction. A white tablecloth was pulled taut around the four corners, creating a snow white, dazzling surface.”

Bea Geenen, June 14, 2020, 8:04p.m.

# 6.   


A bright lamp shone down on the mahjong table throughout the day, shooting shards of light from multiple diamond rings each time the tiles were shuffled. The white tablecloth, fastened at the corners, was pulled so taut it dazzled like a sheet of snow.

Christopher MacDonald, June 14, 2020, 8:17p.m.

# 7.   

During the day there was still a strong light shining on the majiang table, such that when you’d shuffle the tiles each one of them like diamond rings would gleam in all directions. The white tablecloth was bound at each corner to a table leg, stretched so tightly so as to make the sheet of snow-white dazzlingly bright.

Edwin, June 14, 2020, 9:15p.m.

# 8.   

Editing the above to read:

During the day there was still a strong light shining on the mah-jong table, such that when they shuffled the tiles each diamond ring gleamed in all directions. The white tablecloth was bound at each corner to a table leg, stretched so tightly as to make the sheet of snow-white dazzlingly bright.

Edwin, June 14, 2020, 9:26p.m.

# 9.   

@Helen Wang: There are examples on the full spectrum from straightforward translation (eg. her English version of her short story 'The Golden Cangue'), to completely reworking the same material (eg. from "The Fall of the Pagoda"+ "The Book of Changes" to 《小团圆》[Little Reunions]).

I think an interesting grey area between a version and a translation is found in Eileen Chang's essays. In 1943 in Shanghai she published several articles in an English language magazine introducing Chinese culture to an international audience (presumably Germans and Japanese at the time in occupied Shanghai). In the following months she rewrote these essays into Chinese, using mostly the same material but changing the point of view, and the tone, if that makes sense, as she was now speaking to her compatriots.

Here's the first of those English essays: https://yeduchao.wordpress.com/2018/02/10/张爱玲1943年英文散文三之一)/

For 色戒 the current version comes from Chang of the 1970s looking back on the 1950s version and deciding to improve it. I think i'm reading the article I linked in my previous post correctly in saying that there were English and Chinese drafts of both the 1950s version and the 1970s version.

Here's an essay by Eileen Chang's friend Stephen Soong [宋淇/林以亮] comparing Chinese and English versions of a lesser known Chang story 'Stale Mates'. It's quite revealing of her process. http://www.zonaeuropa.com/culture/c20100827_1.htm

Daniel S, June 14, 2020, 10:36p.m.

# 10.   


On the surface of the mahjong table the bright white of the sun mingled with the glare of powerful lamps, both gleaming off of the diamond rings that adorned hands shuffling tiles. The tablecloth, pulled taut and tied tightly to the four legs of the table, too, was snow white--so blindingly white.

ENJ, June 14, 2020, 11:28p.m.

# 11.   


A bright lamp illuminated the mahjong table even in the daylight. Fingers shuffled the tiles, their bright diamond rings glittering in all directions. The corners of the white tablecloth were tied to the table legs, the taut cloth becoming snow white, a whiteness that dazzled the eyes.

George Dudley, June 15, 2020, 3:22a.m.

# 12.   

A strong light directly over the mahjong table was turned on even in the daytime, while diamond rings flashed ostentatiously as the tiles were shuffled for the next game. The white tablecloth, taut with its four corners tied to the legs of the table, appeared snow-white --- a flat field of glaring whiteness.

@David S: Thanks for sharing Zhang's earlier story! I am much enlightened.

Carol Ma, June 15, 2020, 4:31a.m.

# 13.   


Even in the day, bright lights were lit over the mahjong tables and every tile shuffled sent a flash of reflected light off the diamond rings of the players. The four corners of the white table cloth on each table were tied to the table legs. Stretched tight the table cloth was even more dazzling in its whiteness – white enough to startle one’s eyes.

TDyson, June 15, 2020, 5:02a.m.

# 14.   

"Daylight outside, but they had switched on the powerful light over the mahjong table. It shone down on a clean white tablecloth, white and brilliant as virgin snow, and on the diamonds that sparkled as the tiles were shuffled up again."

Divan Elk Lying, June 15, 2020, 5:37a.m.

# 15.   

On reflection (translator's remorse) I'm not sure how disembodied those glinting diamonds need to be. So now it's:

...shooting shards of light from the players' diamond rings as they shuffled the tiles.

At this rate I'd need about a month to finish the first page.

Christopher MacDonald, June 15, 2020, 6:40a.m.

# 16.   

Even in the light of day a bright lamp illuminated the Mahjong table, the light from which radiated from diamond rings which lay on the fingers of those shuffling the tiles. The corners of the white table cloth were tightly bound to each of the table legs as though it were a blanket of white glimmering snow.

Although I’ve translated 洗牌 as “shuffling the tiles”, I spent a lot of time thinking about which verb to use. In English, we tend to associate “shuffling” with shuffling cards, so on hearing this phrase, I get a very clear image in my head. Despite the fact that I know most people use the verb shuffling to describe the action of mixing up the mahjong tiles, I feel the action is different to that of shuffling. When mixing the tiles, the hand movements tend to be bigger and cover larger surface area than if one was shuffling cards. The ST uses the phrase 光芒四射 which is expressing that the light is radiating all around, which would make sense if the players are moving their hands all over the table. Alternatively, I was contemplating the phrases “mixing up” or “jumbling up” because I felt they were a better choice semantically, but they sounded too clunky, and not suitable for the tone. I was wondering if anyone else had any thoughts on this?

Lucy Elwood, June 15, 2020, 10:44a.m.

# 17.   

Sorry, there was a mistake in the first copy, I’m missing a word:

Even in the light of day a bright lamp illuminated the Mahjong table, the light from which radiated from the diamond rings which lay on the fingers of those shuffling the tiles. The corners of the white table cloth were tightly bound to each of the table legs as though it were a blanket of white glimmering snow.

Lucy Elwood, June 15, 2020, 12:26p.m.

# 18.   

Even during daytime, the mahjong table was flooded with bright lights, so when they mixed up the tiles with their hands, all their diamond rings shot dazzling rays in all directions. The white tablecloths were fastened to the table legs, so they strained tight with a snowy, blinding whiteness.

Charles Laughlin, June 15, 2020, 1:29p.m.

# 19.   


The lamp shone brightly over the mahjong table even during daytime. Diamond-like reflections danced all around as the tiles were shuffled. The white tablecloth had been pulled at the corners and tied to the legs of the table, stretching like a field of dazzling snow.

Leonardo Magnelli, June 15, 2020, 1:51p.m.

# 20.   


Bright lamplight lit the mahjong table, even in the day. Four diamond rings sparkled in the light, casting brilliant little rays as the mahjong tiles were shuffled. The four corners of the white tablecloth were tucked tight above the legs of the table, pulling it taut to form a stretch of blindingly white snow.

I chose to use the diamond rings to represent the players present, and so numbered them four. The word ‘casting’ also indicates movement in the lights as they shuffled the tiles. I noted that the tablecloth was 在桌腿上, and so imagined that the cloth was pulled over the tabletop. This in turn added to the imagery of the tightness in 绷紧, which resulted in a smooth white surface for mahjong playing. I played with the idea of this tightness, which I feel is an allusion of tension in the room, and introduced the word ‘tight’, ‘pulling’, ‘taut’ and ‘stretch’ to accentuate it.

Phyllis Ang, June 15, 2020, 4:02p.m.

# 21.   


Even in the daytime, there was a lamp blaring above the mahjong table, and when the tiles were mixed up, the diamond rings sparkled. The corners of the white table cloth were tied to the table legs, and the fabric, pulled taut, dazzled like snow.

I was trying to get the intense brightness of these lights, and the contrast between the different materials - mahjong tiles, diamonds and table legs are hard; table cloths, light and snow can all be soft, but are tight/hard/strong here. Although “shuffle” is the standard verb for 洗牌 , I find it too soft. I wanted to use “clatter” but went for “mix up”, which is what we do with Scrabble tiles and which sounds harder than shuffle.

Helen Wang, June 15, 2020, 4:34p.m.

# 22.   

Even during the day, a lamp would cast a bright light onto the mahjong table, and as the tiles were shuffled, diamonds scintillated on finger rings; the white cloth, whose corners were tied to the wooden legs, lay taut in a dazzling shimmer.

Nadège Traoré-Dulot, June 15, 2020, 5:19p.m.

# 23.   

The mahjong table was spotlit even during the day, diamantine scintillations in every direction with the turbulent jumbling of the tiles. The tablecloth, bound to each table leg, tautened into a field of snow-blinding, dazzling white.

VG, June 15, 2020, 7:55p.m.

# 24.   

Even by day the mahjong table was bathed in artificial light that set diamond rings glittering as the tiles were shuffled. The white cloth that covered it was tied around the table legs, giving it the smooth brilliance of a field of fresh snow.

Trista Selous, June 16, 2020, 11:16a.m.

# 25.   

I'm late to the party:

Though daytime, a bright lamp shone on the mah-jong table, its light scintillating off the diamond rings on any fingers that stirred the tiles. All four corners of the white tablecloth were bound tight to the table legs, pulling taut the snow-white sheet, so white that it dazzled.


@Daniel S - Thanks for posting those links and giving that background info! I stole the idea of using stir from Zhang Ailing's own "translation"/rewriting/reimagining. That verb best elicits the image in my head of misspent time in Chengdu. Besides that, I've kept it simple. I feel like a really delicate touch is needed to get away with not spelling out that the rings are on fingers or are finger-rings - a delicate touch that escapes me.

Jack Hargreaves, June 18, 2020, 7:15p.m.

# 26.   

@Daniel S - just realised that I never thanked you for all the info in your reply (#9) - thank you!

Helen Wang, June 19, 2020, 10:28p.m.

# 27.   


A strong light was kept on over the mahjong table, even in the daytime. During the shuffle it would glint from diamond rings, shooting off in all directions. The tablecloth was bound around the four legs of the table, tied so tightly that it shone an even purer white, a white that dazzled the eyes.

Andrew Rule, June 20, 2020, 4:45a.m.

# 28.   


Even in daytime, the light bulb over the Majong table glares relentlessly, under which the glitter of diamond rings clashes, and tiles are being shuffled. The white tablecloth, stretched taut and tied to the four table legs, appears even whiter to the eye...striking, dazzling white.

Yaqi, June 20, 2020, 1:28p.m.

# 29.   


The mahjong table was brightly lit even during the day and reflected dazzling diamond rings when tiles were shuffled. A white tablecloth was bound to each corner to a table leg when pulled taut around the corners create a sparkly snow-white surface.

Desireen, June 20, 2020, 4:20p.m.

# 30.   

Strong light shone on the mahjong table even during the day, beams catching on diamond rings as players shuffled tiles. A pristine sheet was pulled taught around each table leg, so perfectly white it pierced the eyes.

Finn Aberdein, June 21, 2020, 1:36a.m.


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