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And that's why Chinese poetry is so hard to translate...

MsExPat's picture

Last night I got a reminder of just why translating anything Chinese into English is such an imperfect exercise, fraught with traps.

I got it while reading a menu. Yes, a menu. One of those hand-lettered signs that goes up in Chinese when the restaurant has a special dish on offer. (One of the reasons I wanted to learn Chinese in the first place was to be able to decipher these placards, which always tantalized me with their promise of "secret" dishes inaccessible to non-Chinese).

Okay, so since Lambert's programs don't allow me to put Chinese characters in posts (hint!) I will just have to give you the character by character translation of what the six characters on this menu sign said:

1.Double 2. Winter 3.Fresh 4.Lamb 5.Belly 5.Hotpot
(in Cantonese: Seung Dung Sin Yeung Laam Bo)

"Oh", says my Hong Kong Chinese friend, David. "This is a special Cantonese cold weather dish with dried mushrooms and bamboo shoots."

"Sounds delicious," I say, But how do you know it has mushrooms and bamboo shoots? There are absolutely no characters on that paper that say "bamboo" or "mushroom."

"Well, you just know!" David replies. "Double Winter" means two dried ingredients: mushrooms and bamboo. In wintertime, when it's cold like now, we can't get these two ingredients fresh, so they must be dried. That's why we call it "double winter." (Winter Mushroom + Winter Bamboo)

I start to pitch a little fit, right there on the sidewalk as we're waiting for the restaurant manager to clear us a table (the place is full of people bent over steaming hotpots, eating "double winter" specials).

"How can a foreigner ever hope to really learn Chinese! Even though I can properly read every single character on that card, I still can't translate it properly!"

David smiles. "And that's why Chinese poetry is so hard to translate."

Oh, the dish really was spectacular. Think of a lamb stew, with the meat pieces falling off the bone, in a bubbling, intensely mushroom flavored gravy.

And, by the way, there was, in addition to mushrooms, bamboo shoot and lamb, tofu and fresh water chestnuts in the pot. Not mentioned in the list of "Double Winter Fresh Lamb Belly Hotpot."

But "well, you just know" that when you order this dish, tofu and chestnuts come along as part of the deal.

Welcome to the wonderful world of Chinese language.

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Jeff W's picture
Submitted by Jeff W on

I love that!

English has to have phrases like that also—"surf and turf" springs to mind (yeah, it's not quite the same)—but it doesn't seem to be as elliptical as Chinese.

Chinese has all these phrases (from classical literature, it seems)—chengyu, many of which are unintelligible—like one that translates as "cow horn hang books— without knowing the back story that they derive from. Some—like "draw snake add feet" (somewhat like "gilding the lily")—are so delightful, it's hard to resist using them in English.

And, incidentally, MsExPat, I mentioned your explanation of the word play nature of the To Wang Lun poem by Li Bai to my friend in Enshi and he was completely unaware of it. Apparently, "Wang Lun" registers psychologically as a name in that context, rather than as the words "Wang" (deep) and "Lun" (relationship). It's roughly equivalent to us not thinking of a shrub every time we see the former President's name.

Submitted by Hugh on

I agree there is a lot more to language than knowing the rules or having the accent down. Many things are grammatically correct to say, but a native speaker will use some but not others. There are facial expressions, hand gestures, references to popular culture. There are rules for social interaction and different registers to use with different people.

I used to have near-native fluency in French and it was all these other aspects of the language that occupied my attention. Unfortunately, I have lost a lot of this simply because I haven't been around other francophones in years.

MsExPat's picture
Submitted by MsExPat on

I always think of a shrub.

I think that a love of language wordplay is hardwired into all human beings, but it plays out differently in each culture.

English poetry emphasizes rhyme, meter, and rhythm. But Chinese has a limited number of consonant and vowel sounds--it's too easy a language to rhyme So poets dive deeply into form (the 4 and 8 character patterns), and even more deeply into metaphor and into the "obscure" (to us foreigners) allusions that are wrapped into every character.

Oh..I actually wondered if your friend didn't get the Wang Lun metaphor play because he's been raised with simplified characters---one of the unfortunate bits of fallout from simplification is that it often elminates the markers (like the Water radical in the "Wang" name) which clue you into the characters' meaning.

Also, I don't know whether literary/artsy practices like Fai Chun survived into the new Chinese generation...this is exactly the sort of stuff that the Cultural Revolution was meant to purge from Chinese culture.

Jeff W's picture
Submitted by Jeff W on

Ha, bad example, maybe.

I actually wondered if your friend didn't get the Wang Lun metaphor play because he's been raised with simplified characters

I'll ask him that. But when I asked him if he was interpreting it "just as a name" he said yes—so it sounds like some cognitive processing thing. His family name is Tian—"field"—but he's not thinking of a field when he uses that family name—I asked him that. Of course, similarly, we know Sally Field's last name is the word field but it takes a moment, for me at least, to think of an actual field in connection with her name.

(We mentioned "Beijing" in the other post. When another friend's son was learning to read and my friend was teaching him Beijing, I said, "Yeah, Beijing—'Northern Capital'" and my friend said, "No, it's not!" A day or so later, he said, "Oh, you're right—it is 'Northern Capital.' I'll use that to help my son learn it." To this day I have no idea what happened there: Beijing == "Northern Capital." Go figure. Maybe it is a simplified character/elimination-of-the-radical thing—I don't know Chinese characters well enough to know. Or maybe my friends in China are just plain weird.)

And you're welcome, Hugh. I just thought the links were helpful and interesting.