一周一句 Sunday Sentence #4

By Jack Hargreaves, published

Part of: Sunday Sentence

cover image

Week 4 of Sunday Sentence! Halfway through!

A lesser-known writer this week, but one of my favourites, Yang Dian 杨典 and the two opening sentences of his short story, 《朱厌》, which I've tentatively translated for the purposes of this exercise as 'Ape of War'. The story is taken from his as-yet untranslated 2019 collection, Stories from the Goose Cage 《鹅笼记》.

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 is a little context:
The narrator reflects on the events leading up to and following the execution of his reluctant assassin friend, who persisted in his work out of an unusual sense of duty and bewildering purpose.

The collection's name is taken from Wu Jun's 吴均 "The Scholar from Yangxian" 《阳羡书生》, which you can read here, about a traveller's encounter with a scholar who asks to be carried inside the traveller's goose cage and later, while the traveller rests, spits out a mistress to keep him company in the cage, who spits out her other lover to keep her company, who spits out his secret mistress to keep him company, before in turn each of them is swallowed back up.

About the challenges:
Every third sentence in Yang Dian's stories could be described, for one reason or other, as a challange to translate - they are rich in arcane cultural allusions, blend classical and modern language and flit easily from prose to poetry to historical record. This sentence though shows something a little more commonplace in Chinese literature than all of those things combined: stacked qualifiers, which in English are prone to sounding clunky or clumsy, yet here, still pack a punch.

About the Author:
Yang Dian was born in Chongqing in 1972 and has been based in Beijing since 1985. He is a writer, artist, and Guqin expert. Known for his unique literary experiments that blend different genres and styles, he has published more than a dozen Chinese-language books including a novel, short story collections, a micro-fiction collection, poetry and essays. His most recent work has been dedicated to honouring and reviving the neglected traditions of Chinese writing such as opera scripts, Guqin manuals, annotations, commentaries and the encyclopaedic leishu through recontextualising the storytelling inherent within them for a modern reader. I'm currently translating his flash-fiction collection, A Contrarian's Tales 《懒慢抄》, from which you can read three of the three hundred plus stories here; the quest for a publisher is ongoing.

As a secondary challenge this week, I'd love to see people's translations of the story's title too - 《朱厌》.

Looking forward to everyone's translations!


# 1.   

On the last summer's day of the last dynasty's downfall, that sufferer, scholar, assassin, secret society radical and lifelong compadre, my bosom-clasped cater-cousin, my incomparable mirror, finally, on the execution grounds at the crossroads, arrived at the desolation of his terminal denouement. His death was entirely within my expectations.

VG, June 21, 2020, 10:25a.m.

# 2.   


On that final summer's day when the previous dynasty fell, my friend the sickly, the scholar, the killer, the lifelong comrade in a secret society of radicals and extremists—my heart’s beloved brother, my mirrored yet incomparable image—finally stepped into the crossroads and met his execution, his soul severed from this world, unrecoverable. His death was within my expectation.

Breanna Chia, June 21, 2020, 1:59p.m.

# 3.   

Tricky, but here goes (with thanks to the two above):


On the last day of summer as the old dynasty perished, that embodiment of invalid, scholar, assassin and secret society radical, the old friend I had harbored for years, the kindred spirit with whom I could never compare, finally, at the execution ground by the crossroads, reached the point of no return, his soul severed from this world. His death was within my expectation.

Title: 《朱厌》 Warmonger? Firebrand?

Helen Wang, June 22, 2020, 5:09a.m.

# 4.   

I had a hard time untangling the knots of qualifiers! Really not sure what 朱厌 means.


My buddy: a sick man, scholar, assassin, and the radical member of a certain secret society. He finally met his end in a foreign land on the last summer day of the old dynasty's demise. This bosom friend whom I had harboured for years, this mirror image whom I was in no way comparable with had come to a hopeless juncture on the execution grounds — his death was one that I know to be inevitable.

Christina Ng, June 22, 2020, 5:35a.m.

# 5.   

朱厌 The Bitter Vermilion / The Vermilion Warrior


On the last summer’s day that rang the knell for the previous dynasty, my friend, who was a misfit, scholar, assassin and secret society radical, and who I had been harboring for years—for though not half the man he used to be, we knew each other well enough that I'd call him "my mirror"—finally hit a dead end at the Crossroad Execution Square. He died in a foreign land, a finality I had expected.

-我不可同日而语的镜子; I found the expression perplexing without context. Is it “our” relationship that had changed or “my friend” himself? Or, was it, as the above versions signify, a homage to “my friend”, who was far more outstanding than me in aspects that we both valued?

So I bought the book, read the story and decided, for better or worse, to take liberties with the expression by expanding it into a sentence (mis)interpreting the nature of the bond between the narrator and his friend, which I found was at the center of the narrative.

In the story, the narrator assumed the role of “soul keeper” for his late friend, whose fascination with utopia and social change (by means of violence) made him realize the paradox of change itself. For him, the failure of his friend’s “this life” was limited to the physical realm and would never compromise the integrity of their common memories, emotions and traditions, all of which might well be what he meant by “my mirror”.

-朱厌; I opted for a more literal translation of the beast’s name for the sake of comparison, but I do think a figurative rendition, as in The Ape of War, fits better in the context—as the narrator himself mentioned in the story, what the assassin believed was道随器变, or in its more popular version, 道寓于象。

-BTW, I was dazzled by the author’s imagination when he portrayed the soul of the assassin as 心猿意马, a twofold, sinister image forever at odds with itself. And 朱厌, the more sinister and vivid part of the soul, may have gained the upper hand of the assassin’s life philosophy, or.

Yaqi, June 23, 2020, 6:40a.m.

# 6.   

Aah...the first sentence in my translation should be "On the last summer’s day that rang the knell of the previous dynasty". Really sorry for the typo!

Yaqi, June 23, 2020, 6:47a.m.

# 7.   

I am not satisfied at all with my rendition of 走到了魂断他乡的绝境, I feel like I kept missing something while I was thinking of a good translation for this part. Anyway, here's my take on this week's sentence + title:

《朱厌》– The Crimson Hate / Red Contempt


On the last summer day before the fall of the last dynasty, the man I called brother–that weakling, scholar, assassin, who was member of a secret sect of extremists; the long-time friend I had sheltered for so long; my antithetical mirror image–finally met his end at an execution ground at a crossroads in a foreign land. He died as I had expected.

Leonardo Magnelli, June 23, 2020, 9:45a.m.

# 8.   

朱厌 Scarlet Hate

前朝灭亡的最后一个夏日,我那位集病夫、书生、杀手与某秘密社团激进分子于一身的兄弟,我窝藏多年的故知,我不可同日而语的镜子,终于在十字路口法场走到了魂断他乡的绝境。他的死是在我意料中的。 On the last day of summer to belong to the fallen dynasty, my brother—infirm, scholar, killer, and member of a certain extremist secret society—the close friend I had harboured for years, the mirror image I could not compare to, finally stood at the crossroads of the execution ground, and walked on to the desolate end where soul was severed from body. His death was within my expectations.

Phyllis Ang, June 23, 2020, 10:25a.m.

# 9.   

前朝灭亡前的最后一个夏日,我那位集病夫、书生、杀手与某秘密社团激进分子于一身的兄弟,我窝藏多年的故知,我不可同日而语的镜子,终于在十字路口法场走到了魂断他乡的绝境。他的死是在我意料中的。 It was on the last day of summer, before the previous dynasty's fall, when that sworn brother of mine, invalid, scholar, assassin, secret society radical, my oldest friend whom I had long harboured and in whom I once saw so much of myself before so much changed, finally, far from home, at the crossroads where executions were held, met with his demise. His death came as no surprise.

This was tough. Yang Dian at it again. Being brilliant.

前朝灭亡前的最后一个夏日 > The choice to begin like this "It was on the last day of summer" as opposed to "On..." was based mainly on wanting to show something different from others and partly to slow down the reading.

我不可同日而语的镜子 > I spelt out my understanding of this, perhaps too much. I really like "kindred spirit", as suggested by @Helen, but wanted to try something different. That said, I owe some of the above to others - "secret society radical", particularly.

终于在十字路口法场走到了魂断他乡的绝境 > My main concern with this translation was a powerful ending, hence the staggered sentences, overuse of commas, slowing things down. I wrote "met his end" a second ago, which I don't think quite cuts it for those purposes as it's too short, so changed it to "met with his demise" - something a little longer to speed up going into the conclusion. And for me, it had to end on "end", "end of the line", "demise", something shocking that doesn't explicitly say "death", "died".

他的死是在我意料中的。> Again, wanted short and sharp and this is the best I could come up with.

The repetition of "before" is a little annoying, as is the rhyme of "demise"/"surprise". Hey-ho.

@Yaqi, I'm happy to hear that you bought the book, I'd love to talk about it once you've read more of the stories. The context that you provided is much better and more helpful than mine above.

As for the title, I abstracted the reference by one or two degrees; showing precisely what the mythical creature is felt secondary to saying what it stands for, although in this instance, as with many of his stories, I would add footnotes, or more likely endnotes, which feels like a big no-no normally, but there are footnotes in the original, and if a Chinese audience needs parts explaining, an English readership certainly will. Also, part of the fun with Yang Dian's references is finding out whether they are faithful to their source material - sometimes what they refer to is obliquely tangential, or even entirely unrelated, to what is going on in the text, at least at first glance that's how they seem, and we've got to work out why

 Jack Hargreaves, June 23, 2020, 12:08p.m.

# 10.   

On that last summer's day before the fall of the erstwhile dynasty, my friend, the ailing scholar, murderer, radical among secret activists, one who I had harboured over the years, incomparable in the selfsame mirror, had finally come to the crossroads of judgement, bereft from his home. I knew he would die.

Nick Prendergast, June 24, 2020, 6:58a.m.

# 11.   

On the last day of summer before fall of the previous dynasty, my brother-- that sick, intellectual, murderer and member of the secret radical groups, a long-time friend I secretly had for years, and my incomparable mirror, finally made his step from the crossroad of execution ground to the foreign land where his soul doesn't belong to. His death is not a surprise to me.

Freda Yong, June 25, 2020, 1a.m.

# 12.   


It was the last summers day of the falling dynasty, a member of my brethren, the sickly scholar, assassin, extremist of a clandestine organisation, a confidant of which I walked in the shadow of. In the end, much to my expectation, he found himself at a crossroad at which met his demise in a faraway land.

In this one I rendered 我不可同日而语的镜子as walked in the shadow of as I felt that this expressed the speakers feeling about being unable to compare himself to his friend in a more idiomatic way, initially I tried to keep the imagery of a mirror but when I was translating it, it just didn’t sound right!

Lucy Elwood, June 25, 2020, 3:46a.m.

# 13.   


In the last summer of a dying dynasty, my old companion, an invalid, scholar, killer, a member of a secret radical society, my incomparable reflection, and a friend I had sheltered for many years, finally returned his soul to an alien soil at the crossroads of the execution ground. I had anticipated his death.

/ So hard! Not sure which is trickiest, the rhythm, heavy-lifting terms like 镜子, or the binding issues between the elements! Yikes. Among the things I'm not sure about is this 'anticipated' vs 'was not a surprise' decision, but leaving it this way for the diversity-of-options factor. Also, I'd love to understand better what work '十字路口' is intended to do here in the original.

Really interesting reading all these different versions

stevenL, June 25, 2020, 5:18p.m.

# 14.   

Yup. Really hard to translate. But so poetic. Fun to have a try.

"In the last summer before his demise, my sick friend -- scholar, killer, brother in a group of secret radicals -- and I, unable to be a looking glass, to reveal all in the same breath, kept this hidden for many years, until he finally crossed into the execution ground, a lost soul dying far from home. His death was no surprise to me."

Sharon Dempsey, June 26, 2020, 8:11a.m.

# 15.   

That's a real feast, feels like a thriller, except there's no murder, and it's not who's done it, but who will do it ? Reminds me of that book, The Best and the Brightest... anyway this all ends up giving a furious envy to read the whole collection of those Goose Cage stories. Thanks

Brigitte Duzan, June 26, 2020, 6:41p.m.

# 16.   

and PS : I love the beast in the title coming from the Shanhaijing

Brigitte Duzan, June 27, 2020, 4:25a.m.

# 17.   

Glad you like it Brigitte. There's plenty in that collection to wonder at. I'm excited for the day it's out in English! Perhaps if somebody translated it into French first, publishers would get the hint... :)

 Jack Hargreaves, June 29, 2020, 8:57a.m.


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