basic translation knowledge

September 24th, 2011

So sometime last weekend I grabbed a copy of 新京报/The Beijing News to read while I was waiting for our takeaways. It must’ve been the weekend because it came with the books section. I happened to glance through the top 10 lists. Glancing through the 学术(academic? scholarship?) list, I came across a title roughly in the middle called 《翻译的基本知识》 (which for the time being I’ll translate as “Basic Translation Knowledge”) by 钱歌川/Qián Gēchuān. This  grabbed my interest for two reasons:

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an ordinary, mass market newspaper with an “academic” top 10 books list before.
  2. I seriously never would’ve expected to see a book about translation appear on any top 10 list.

And it just so happened that my wife happened to be doing some online shopping, so I put my order in, and the next day it arrived.

It’s a very small book, not the sort of hefty tome one would expect of a deadly serious academic textbook, but basically the same dimensions one would expect of a cheap paperback edition of a short novel. And it’s printed on fairly solid paper, too, so it’s not much of a surprise to discover that the chapters tend to be kind of short, even as short as only 3 or 4 pages. The blurb says it’s a good basic introduction to the study of translation. I’ve only read the first two chapters so far, and I’ve found them pretty easy going, only reaching for the dictionary a couple of times each chapter. However, in these two fairly short and simple chapters, a few things have jumped out at me.

In chapter one, 《一个古老的问题》 (an ancient problem), which is a quick and simple introduction to this age-old art called translation, which has certain age-old problems that remain exactly the same today is they did two, three thousand years ago, right on the very first page, I came across this rather striking statement:


…among the more than 3000 languages in the world today, those with writing are still a very small minority. This is not to say that some nations appeared later, so their writing developed later, rather it’s because their knowledge progressed slowly and their cultural level is very low. Everybody knows: Writing represents a nation’s culture. You can easily imagine just how low is the cultural level of a nation with no writing.

I wish I could say, “Incredible!”, but sadly, no, I’ve come across similar ideas before from people from a variety of places around the world. People who should perhaps check carefully their houses aren’t made of glass before they go casting stones about considering, for all their writing, their countries are home to plenty of phenomena that are not indicative of a “high cultural level”, whatever that may be. But my reaction instead was, “Have you never seen a wharenui? Observed closely its carvings and the woven patterns of the wall panels? Listened attentively as the histories and genealogies encoded in those carvings and panels were explained to you? Looking further across the ocean I was raised in: How do you think the Pacific was settled? No, not by accident and sheer luck, as used to be believed, but by exploration and the transmission of detailed knowledge of the stars, winds, currents, the locations of islands and how to get to and from them from generation to generation, and all of that without any of the nations that arose in the Pacific (with the sole possible, mysterious and much debated exception of Rapa Nui) knowing writing until the arrival of Europeans. And let’s face it, there’s no way the kumara could have spread from South America across the Pacific if the ancient Polynesian navigators didn’t know what they were doing. So, Mr Qian, I don’t know how you measure a nation’s cultural level, but I remain unconvinced that the presence or absence of writing tells you terribly much at all.

Chapter 2, 《约定俗成万物名》(“The names of the myriad things are established by usage”?), starts with a quick explanation of Thomas H. Huxley’s division of the world into “natural things” (自然物) and “artificial things” (人为物), and points out that as we ourselves count as “natural things” and the materials we use to make stuff all come from nature, all “artificial things” are sourced from “natural things”. He then moves on to quote Shakespeare, Xunzi and Y.R. Chao to show that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, his point being that natural things are the same all over the world, it’s only the names that change according to language. So if you want to translate cow into German, show it to a German and ask, “What do you call that?” Fair enough, except that species vary from region to region, and a language whose speakers have never encountered a particular plant or animal aren’t going to have a word for it – which is why New Zealand English, for example, is peppered with Maori names for plants and animals native to New Zealand (although some did acquire English names).

The names for natural things, however, are rather more problematic. Artificial things differ across cultures as each culture has found its particular solution to various problems. Like how to write, for example. Qian objects to 笔, being the thing traditionally used in China, being translated into English as “brush”. “Brush”, he says, indicates a variety of tools for sweeping, scrubbing, tidying and cleaning. Well, yes. But, oddly enough for one who studied in London, he omits the brush that is an implement for painting pictures. He also objects to an alternative translation of 笔 as “Chinese pen”, as pens are a European thing and were originally made from the quills of goose feathers, then steel, then there were ballpoint pens, and in any case, pens all have hard tips, whereas a 笔 has a soft tip. The translation of 墨 as “ink” or “Chinese ink” presents a similar problem, as 墨 is solid, whereas ink is liquid. And through all of this I’m thinking, sure, but is there anything really so wrong with translation by allegory? Or is perhaps ‘translation by simile’ a better term for it? I can imagine a conversation amongst a group of fusty Old China Hands, some of whom have studied China, others of whom have not, at about 4 in the afternoon aided by a few gin and tonics going something like this:

“So just what is this 笔?”

“It’s what the Chinese use to write with.”

“So it’s like a pen?”

“Well, it is used for the same purpose, but no, it’s more like a brush, the difference being that the brushes our artists use have the hairs of equal length arranged in a long, thin line, whereas the 笔 has its hairs arranged in a circle, the hairs on the outside being rather short, but those in the middle quite long, so that the hairs come to a point at the tip. And just as Van Gogh dips his brush in paint, then applies the paint to the canvas to create a picture, the Chinese calligrapher dips his 笔 in ink then applies it to paper to write his characters. Indeed, they consider calligraphy to be the highest form of art, you know?”

“So, rather than ‘pen’, we really should call it a ‘writing brush’?”

And of course, interspersed in all of this are murmurs of “How quaint!” and “Fascinating!”, in vague tones more suggestive of “Another gin, old chap?” or “How about a round of bridge?” than any interest in the ancient mysteries of the Orient. At the same time, the scholars of Chinese culture in the group are actually thinking, “What a bunch of boring old farts this lot are! At the very least the club could make some effort to get some decent gin*, that might make this lot a touch more tolerable.” But I digress.

The chapter ends with a perfectly sound argument for the adoption of loan words where necessary. Nothing wrong with that. Last I checked, every language has loanwords. I have a book on the topic of loanwords in Chinese (《汉语外来词》史有为著:商务印书馆,2000), and to take another example from my home ocean, on encountering the concept of ‘tapu‘ (also ‘tabu’, ‘kapu‘ or ‘ha’a’) as they explored Polynesia, the English needed a word to explain to their bosses back home what they had learned. Scouring the English language failed to turn up a word that carried the full range of meaning of tapu. ‘Sacred’ and ‘sacrosanct’ are close, but do they carry enough of the sense of ‘inviolable’ and ‘forbidden’? So just adopt ‘tapu’ as a loan word, and when ever anybody asks, “Well, what does that mean?”, explain it. And so we acquired the word ‘taboo’.

And Qian ends the chapter with a sentence with which I wholeheartedly agree:


When handling artificial things, translators must be extremely careful.

Perhaps this post comes across as a bit too negative. In the first two chapters I’ve come across things I strongly disagree with, yes. But Qian makes good points too, and there’s plenty more book to read. So I will continue, certainly, and I do hope, and see plenty of reason to hope, that whether in the negative or the positive, Qian will shed some light on the mystical art of translation. After all, my job does involve a bit of translation, and anything that helps me improve my own technique is most welcome.

*If one defines “decent” as “pleasant and enjoyable to drink”, then it should be pointed out that decent gin is in fact a myth. It’s not a well known story, perhaps because it’s so hard to pin down any hard and fast facts connected with it, but about the time Britain was fighting a war or two to defend its right to sell drugs, a young-ish Londoner going by a name reported variously as “Croydon”, “Clayton” or “That nutter down the pub who was always going on about gin”, in the spirit of Spanish conquistadors in search of El Dorado, scoured the New Zealand bush in search of “decent gin”. On arriving in a village and explaining his quest, the locals laughed so loudly that an ageing totara tree (in some accounts, a tawa, miro, or rata) collapsed on him, bringing his quest to an abrupt and quite terminal end. His few acquaintances in Russell all agreed that the lack of junipers in the local forests should have been clue enough he was barking up the wrong tree, or perhaps just plain barking mad.

It has also been pointed out by heads wiser than I that a drink that must be mixed with something else to make it palatable should probably best be relabelled “lighter fluid”.

3 Responses to “basic translation knowledge”

  1. jdmartinsen Says:

    Thanks for putting up a response to this book. I too bought a copy because of the Beijing News piece. I had basically the same reaction as you described. There’s nothing in it that’s all that different from countless other translation books (which isn’t surprising; the preface is dated 1972), but it does have the virtue of being short.

    I also picked up 为他人做嫁衣, another volume in the series (it’s listed on the back flap), which I found a more interesting read — a memoir-like series of stories about translation as a profession in the mid-20th Century. At least in the first half — the second half of the book is a collection of corrected translation errors.

  2. wangbo Says:

    Glad I’m not alone in my reaction! Short, yes, and bite-size chapters. Thanks for the tip on the other book – I hadn’t actually looked at the back flap – I’ll have a look at that, too.

    Translation errors – well, some could be amusing, some could be instructive, some both. I take it from the tone of your comment that for the most part they are neither?

  3. jdmartinsen Says:

    Sure, they’re amusing, but I don’t find them particularly useful. It almost seems like they were included to pad out the page count so the first half could be published.