Tag Archives: lost in translation

The Vanilla Coke of books

I should’ve bought it when I saw it.

I’ve continued searching for the last of the art books that I saw in Zhuhai here in the Tianfu Bookshop, but still can’t find a copy even although they have quite a selection of books by the same publisher. I’m going to try and find the 西南书城, which is on 上东大街 (allegedly). At least I have an address, although I have no idea where 上东大街 is. Also, is the bookshop actually in the south west?

This particular book is like Vanilla Coke. You can find it in Zhuhai; you can’t find it in Chengdu.

When I was in Shanghai for the conference, I went up the road to the shops a couple of times. There were hordes of underemployed youths handing out a magazine called Love and Angel, which seems to be unsubtle advertising for 天狮门诊, a hospital near the hotel we were in. The distributors were handing the magazine to all and sundry, including me in spite of the near total absence of English in this publication.

I find my inability to read Chinese fluently is frustrating because I’d like to know what 女人不过一支烟 (19.08.14. Youdao translates this as “A woman but a cigarette”. “But for”? Nice girls don’t smoke?) is about. Since this is China and I’m a cynical old bastard, I suspect that it’s promoting the health benefits of smoking for women. And just what is 色狼, 我就是sexual想和你上床 all about? The English translation of the title is “The sexual harasser I am want to go to bed”. The illustration with this article is a cute girl in very short shorts. Not inappropriate at all, given the predicted tenor of the article.

There’s also 不爱就别把我拉上你的床, which lacks an English translation, but seems to mean something like “If you don’t love me, don’t drag me into your bed”. (I can’t guarantee the accuracy of my translation.)

On the back inside cover of the magazine is a set of pictures of pieces of equipment which you can find in the hospital. Very reassuring.

The Tenth Don’t

A cultural interpretation.

Just recently I posted a picture of ten don’ts from Machang Lu. The tenth was the somewhat baffling 不说服务忌语 (bù shuō fúwù jì yǔ) “Don’t say service language”. As I was having a shower this evening, I suddenly realised what the tenth don’t might actually refer to. In Tongzhou, the scrap merchants would prowl the streets once in a while and dispense their cries via a megaphone. In Changzhou, they bang enamel pots with spoons. Here, they call out as they lug around their lumpen handcarts. Their cries might be “service language”, hence the injunction.

It makes sense because they can be annoying if you don’t want to be importuned.

[06.08.14. Youdao translates this as “Don’t say service JiYu” and won’t even attempt to render 忌语 into English. Is this another instance of some sort of resultative clause in Chinese? Or is it a separate clause? For example, the phrase might mean “Don’t offer services, refrain from speaking.”]

Irony bonus.

The eighth don’t is against graffiti and posting bills. What is there on the sign but un graffito: 办证刻印 (bàn zhèng kèyìn), which, I assume, is an offer of the noble art of forging stamps for official documents. These signs, with various phone numbers, are all over the place around here.

Boethius and the Art of Translation

Ye therefore whereunto, er, what was I talking about?

When I was having lunch with Todd yesterday, I found that he’d never heard of Boethius. I was surprised. He was surprised. What? You haven’t heard of Boethius either?

Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus (c. 480 – 524) Roman statesman and philosopher during the rule of the Ostrogothic king, Theodoric. He was both a senator and a consul, and initially enjoyed Theodoric’s favour. He was the victim of slander and accused of treason, being imprisoned and tortured before being brutally executed. His best-known work is de consolatione philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy) which was written while he was in prison. The Consolation was extremely popular in mediaeval Europe. It was translated into Old English by King Alfred; Middle English by Chaucer; and 16th century English by Queen Elizabeth I.
It’s not clear whether Boethius was a Christian or not. If Boethius was a Christian, then it seems strange that the Consolation is not an overtly and thoroughly Christian tract in which the transitory nature of the mortal world is compared unfavourably with the eternal bliss of Heaven. Perhaps Boethius was a philosopher first and a Christian second and, therefore, considered his plight from a philosophical perspective. Christianity might supply an answer, but Boethius may have found that it was too easy and therefore intellectually dissatisfying. Whatever Boethius actually was, he was canonised in 1883.
(For further information, see the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Boethius, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, especially for a critique of The Consolation of Philosophy. Berkeley has a scanned reproduction of a 15th century Catalan translation of The Consolation.)

My reason for mentioning Boethius is not really about The Consolation itself, but rather about translations. One of the good things about the Internet is that it functions as a repository of material to which I lack direct access because I’m here; my books are there. Unless some kind person altruistically posts an original translation in contemporary English of some work in another language, I have to do with translations that are no longer in copyright, which usually means translations made in the 19th or early 20th centuries.

It’s well-known that 18th century verse translations were really paraphrases which diverged to varying degrees from their source. In the 19th century, the theory of translation appears to have been that a translation should be accurate, but that it should convey the tone and tenor of the original by imitating what was regarded as the appropriate style in English. Thus epic was made to sound like the English of the King James Bible. Without studying the whole field of 19th and early 20th century translations, it seems that pseudo-archaism was the order of the day.

More recent translations continue the tradition of accuracy while acknowledging that there is much which gets lost in the process. Modern translators also share something in common with authors rather than being a mere converters of words. A translation of a great work of literature should, apparently, be a great work of literature itself as the translator attempts to convey the flavour of the original in another language without resorting to the tiresome stylistic tricks of a century or more ago.

The translation of The Consolation of Philosophy which is most widely available online is that by W.V. Cooper published in 1902 by J.M. Dent. Cooper decided that a mock archaic style was best suited to his translation, but would this have been how Boethius’ contemporaries read the work? I assume that Boethius would have been well-schooled in Classical Latin style, but by his time that would no doubt have sounded rather archaic and probably rather stilted. But Cooper’s translation is only pseudo-archaic at best, being larded with the usual ye this and therefrom that, which belong to the school of 19th century pseudo-archaism and not to some imitation of, say, 17th century English. Cooper’s translation is, to modern readers, irritating, and can only be described as “quaint” in a sarcastic tone of voice.

News of the Screws

(Title with apologies to Private Eye.)

Over on Language Log, there’s another instance of a hilarious mistranslation of a Chinese dish because of a dual meaning one character has. The name of the dish is 虾干炒白菜 xia gan chao bai cai which is “stir-fried dried shrimp with bok choy”. But because 干 gan has another mean­ing, the English translation given on the sign is “The shrimp f_cks the cabbage”.

I think I might’ve mentioned the Chinese menu that’s been doing the rounds of the Internet in which 干 is similarly inappropriately translated.

This particular 干 gan is first-tone and the simpilifed form of 乾. There’s also fourth-tone 干, which is the simplified form of 幹. This 干 can be short for 干部 ganbu “cadre”, but the character can also mean “do, act, work”.

Is English so different? After all, it appears that the Chinese can also hang people out to dry.

Watch where that’s dangling

But is it infelicitous in both languages?

I’m having a look through the grammar of Sicilian which my sister sent me for my birthday when I find this sentence

Arrivannu a li diciadott’anni, lu patri di la picciotta cci fa un matrimonia bonu “Having turned eighteen, the girl’s father will arrange a good marriage for her”

In English, the participle is associated with the head of the following NP which, in this case, is father. According to Bonner (2001:133), the gerund (arriviannu) doesn’t actually have to refer to the subject of the main clause so that in Sicilian you’d know the clause referred to the girl. But the English translation of this sentence and the two variations Bonner gives (fici “arranged” and vulia fari “wanted to arrange”) still persist in using a dangling participle.

In English, you’d say “When the girl turns eighteen, her father will arrange a good marriage for her”. You could say “When she turns eighteen, the girl’s father will arrange a good marriage for her”, but it’s only marginally better than the translation above. Although English tolerates cataphoric pronouns (e.g. When she entered the room, Emma opened the window) where other languages shun them (I believe Old English was so inclined), there are limits to what is acceptable and what is pushing it.

I’m surprised that the translation was allowed to survive the editing process. It would’ve been better to stay away from dangling participles and instead to have explained how “Arrivannu a li diciadott’anni” could refer to “la picciotta”, even although English doesn’t allow the same degree of licence.

Love those crazy language skillz

You silly man.

I was over on the forums where someone had posted a thread about a Patriot skin/bot for Q4. In one of the images, you can see a couple of Chinese characters tattooed on his arm. Someone wanted to know what they meant, and someone else supplied a translation, “crazy man”.

The characters are 痴漢 chī hàn, which seems really to mean “silly/idiotic Han Chinese person”. [03.08.14. Youdao translates the phrase as “idiot”.] Although hàn can mean “man”, I suspect that the connotation is still “Chinese person” rather than human beings in general. As for chī, that can also mean “crazy about” (i.e., very interested in something). At best, it means “silly man”.

But that’s not all. As any Chinese person will tell you (provided they know the English words), the first character is simplified and the second traditional. It’s the sort of thing that probably makes the Chinese wince, giggle, or both.

The words which the creator of the skin probably ought to have used are either 狂人 kuángrén or 疯子 fēngzi. I don’t know what the connotations of these words are, but the first is literally “crazy person”.

But to turn back to 痴 chī, I can’t find it in the English half of my dictionary. If I understand the character dictionary in the office correctly, it seems to have something to do with talking gibberish. I’d guess that it’s probably low fequency vocab.

Perhaps it’s American English


I was browsing through the Civilopedia, which is the in-game encyclopedia that comes with Civilization IV, when I came across this sentence at the end of the entry about England. (My emphasis, natch.)

Faced now with terrorist attacks that threaten the lives of ordinary civilians, Britain has pledged to work together with the United States and other nations to defend this attack on civilization.

Defend?! Were we on Osama’s side all along? I don’t know whether this is a valid sentence in American English, but in my English it should be something like “has pledged … to defend civilization against such attacks” or “has pledged … to counter/oppose this attack on civilization”.

I’ve never heard of “defend” being used this way, even in American English. A search of answers.com yields nothing more than the senses I’d expect.

My suspicion is that the English is simply ungrammatical, and that Firaxis Games thought they could do without an editor/proofreader to check what’d been written. In fact, it gets worse. The credits list five writers – a lead and four others.

If we have a look at the same sentence in the other languages which are available in the game, we find

French: “…pour défendre les attaques contre la civilisation occidentale.
German: “…arbeitet Großbritannien im Kampf gegen den Terrorismus heute eng mit den USA und anderen Nationen zusammen.”
Italian: “…per respingere questo attacco alla civilizzazione.”
Spanish: “…Gran Bretaña se ha comprometido a trabajar con los Estados Unidos y otros países en defensa de su visión del mundo.”

I’m no expert in any of these languages. For instance, I don’t know whether the French is to be read as se défendre “to put up a fight”, with the reflexive pronoun being implied from “la Grande-Bretagne s’est engagée etc.” earlier in the same sentence or not. If that isn’t the cases, then none of the possible meanings of défendre make any more sense than the English. It’s interesting to note that the French specifies Western civilisation and not just the vague civilisation.

If my German isn’t too duff, then that says what I’d expect, although there’s no defence of civilisation. The Italian also says what I’d expect, although the unfortunate translation of respingere on wordreference.com is “beat off”. Fnar! Fnar!

If I understand the Spanish correctly, that also says what I’d expect, but it seems to be a little critical (“en defensa de su visión [the United States’ vision?] del mundo”).

So in the end, we have not only some apparently wonky English, but we find that translators may have their own agenda.