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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Barbaric Goddess Or Finer Points In Translation.

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                              熙陵幸小周后圖 (Sung Tai Tsu Pleasuring Empress Small Chou)

The Barbaric Goddess Or Finer Points In Translation.

Mechanical translators exist on the Internet to help in translations, but they are only good for certain narrow categories such as business, technical and law where terms are precise and have unambiguous meanings that the industry has agreed on. Even then human polishing is needed for clean ups. Although this essay is on translating Chinese to English, its principles apply to translation between any two languages. To any modern Chinese reader ‘手提’ is short for ‘手提電話' meaning cell or mobile phone. Mechanical translators are unable to take into this into account. It is incorrect to translate it as ‘cell phone’ for a piece that was written before the invention of portable phones. The phrase can also mean ‘to carry’, ‘to wield’, ‘handheld’ or ‘portable’ depending on different nouns that come after those 2 characters, ‘手提算機' is a handheld calculator, ‘手提利劍' means ‘to wield a sharp sword’ while ‘手提花籃' becomes ‘ (someone) carrying a flower basket’. Such mechanical translators become utterly useless when used on literary works that I shall be discussing mostly in this article. Until such a day when there is enough computer memory to store and process at faster speeds contextual experiences like the human brain, a human translator’s job stays most secure!

With different human translators, results differ vastly in the tone and/or the original intention it was trying to convey. Translating poems and stories is extremely difficult and highly subjective. It depends on how the original text appeals to the translator’s mood at the time of translation, and his/her depth of subject matter knowledge. Even with set translation guidelines one has decided upon, there is almost an exception to every rule that was made. In my opinion, the resulting translation must appeal to the target audience. Sometimes, even for the most trivial cases, an exact literal translation is useless. For example, in translating, ‘兵變' – ‘soldier change’ or ‘military transform’, the correct translation is ‘mutiny’. Then there are different concepts in the two languages especially for such disparate languages as Chinese and English. The word for ‘Love’, as in two people falling in love is 戀 whereas the character 愛 is the more general term and at the same time it may also mean ‘to like’ as in ‘I like you’. In Cantonese it has the additional meaning of ‘to want’ or ‘in need’. Of course using ’愛' as in, ‘She loves her cat’ is acceptable in modern usage. However there is a word in Chinese ‘惜' whose nuance falls somewhere between more than just a liking and much less than love. Therefore to translate ‘惜貓' as ‘love the cat’ would mean losing that degree of love in the translation. Another example of interest is the phrase ‘替死鬼'. It is commonly translated as scapegoat. However it may also mean ‘to take the place of the condemned by someone else to ensure the return of the guilty like in the plot of the Disney animation movie - “Sinbad”. Actually the term has a specific meaning in Chinese superstition. When someone dies tragically such as a suicide, his/her spirit cannot rest and is condemned to wander on Earth until someone dies in his/her place. As kids we were warned never to be curious or even think of trying to save someone who seemed to be drowning. This is because the drowning ‘person’ could be a drowned spirit trying to lure and drown someone else to take its place! Hence the character ‘鬼' (ghost, spirit) used in the phrase really means a spirit and not just a derogatory word for a bloke. Therefore lots of footnotes are required in any serious translation.

Some translators insist on having the source and translation for line-by-line comparison. For very short sentences employed in most poems this is possible. However this is not always feasible for longer sentences found in prose or novels etc due to technical differences in the lexical and structural order of the two languages. It would simply ruin the reading enjoyment of the target audience. For example, formal arguments are presented in a simple linear form in English. However in classical Chinese it is presented in an almost zigzag manner found in eight-legged essays1 (八股文) of imperial China. Therefore depending on how a piece is translated for the specific audience, the target audience may find the arguments presented too convoluted and incoherent to follow in a convincing manner.

How much flavour of the original should be retained in a translation? As more flavours are retained, more footnotes would have to be given. Would the audience be receptive to phrases such as ‘my heart and liver’ when a simple ‘my darling’ suffices? This is a difficult choice to make. In the argument to retain such flavours the question raised would be “Why bother with translations in the first place?” Wouldn’t it be simpler and easier just to lift the idea or plot and write anew in the target language? A translator must make educated guesses to suit the target audience. This is what I mean in saying that for each and every guideline established there is always an exception to break it. Even then, within each exception there is exception! Translating the word ‘mutiny’ as ‘soldier change’ or even ‘as change of soldiers’ would be unacceptable in all cases! Consider a situation where an arrow was shot mistakenly at the wrong person who then uttered an expression. Should the words in the original text, ‘不好!’ be translated as ‘No good!’ or ‘Oh shit!’ In this case I opt for the later as it adds more value to a reader’s mind as an expletive in his native language to truly appreciate the scene whereas in retaining ‘my heart and liver’ in the former case brings quaintness and an insight to cultural differences that tickle the fancies of the reader.Equally important are the shades of meaning in the cultural context of the target language. Take the following innocuous phrase, ‘花香噴噴, 芳草清' – ‘flowers spurting/spewing in fragrance, aromatic grasses pure and clean’ to mean beauty can come from drab sources. Unless the phrase is used to describe a scene in a brothel, the words spurting and spewing though accurate are most inappropriate in general cases. The better translation but less accurate would be, ‘flowers drenching in fragrance/perfume’ or ‘flowers wafting in fragrance/perfume’.

When there is a number of equivalent words available to choose from, the question then is “which one is the best choice?” How would one translate the phrase, ‘sharing the peach’? Should the choice be ‘homosexual love’, ‘gay love’ or the ‘love of the Greeks’? Again the answer depends on the situation or the period in which the term was expressed. I would use the word ‘homosexual’ in a technical piece, ‘gay’ in a contemporary setting, and ‘love of the Greeks’ in a Victorian setting. When translating from English to Chinese, ‘断袖分桃' (cutting the sleeve and sharing the peach) is appropriate for a classical piece, ‘同性戀' (same sex love, a term not in existence until the modern times) for technical pieces and the current Hong Kong slang ‘機' 2 for contemporary stories. If the source is written in slang, the translation at least should be also written in slang of the target language to set the tone and intent. Regardless how a piece is written, the main aspect of the translation is to titillate and capture the interest and imagination of the audience. A translator must be able to anticipate the needs of the target audience which involves being rigid and flexible at the same time, knowing when to follow and when to disregard guidelines.

Consider this guideline that I have set for myself: never to substitute an equivalent allusion in the target language for one in the source language even though it entails tons of footnotes. In most cases the imagery and expectation conjured by the reader is totally different from the source language allusion. However this iron clad rule is broken when translating subtitles! For a very simple reason - not enough real estate on the screen to display all the extraneous information before the next line of dialog is uttered. Subtitling is truly an art form presenting its own set of problems found nowhere else. To translate to the allusion, ‘the Butterfly Dream’ in a dialogue, I simply use Romeo and Juliet. I can also use ‘Thisbe and Pyramus’ or even ‘Hero and Leander’ but not too many people know them even though the Bard himself lifted the plot of the former for his play. The closest western allusion would be the movie ‘Yentl’ starring Barbra Streisand. She may have lifted the plot from this classical Chinese tragic love story but again it is still not as well known as Romeo & Juliet.

Sometimes it is impossible to translate with such limited screen space. In the movie, Kung Fu Hustle, there was a dialogue between the antagonists. They introduced themselves as Yang Guo and Dragon Girl (楊過 小龍女). Most westerners and to an extent, Chinese who have no interest in reading martial arts stories, are clueless to these names.. They are the hero and heroine of a very famous martial arts story that had been depicted in many Kung Fu movies. It was hilarious to me that the subtitle translation was ‘Paris and Helen of Troy’! To the uninitiated such translation makes no sense and simply shrugged off as comedic effect. However the original allusion was very appropriate to the Chinese audience as some kind of satirical reference. The only common trait shared in these two allusions is the tumultuous relationship experienced by the two sets of heroes and heroines. When in doubt, just go with your translator gut feeling.

Similar problems but of different goal arise in translating book and movie titles.  Their goal is not of technical accuracy but of selling.  A totally different set of translating rules apply in this arena.  Due their extremely short and terse nature an inaccurate or something totally different from the original is more effective.  Let’s take an easy example:  A ‘is a tall building where the rich can afford to build for their pleasure.  In Imperial China, the height of the building is regulated by law according to the station of the owner.  Thus ‘The Dream of The Red Tall Building’ is a rather bland but correct translation for the classic Chinese novel, ‘紅樓夢.  Even the more colorful and poetic rendering of it as ‘The Dream of the Red Mansion’ pales in comparison to the inaccurate but highly seductive version - ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’. This translation is the best: it achieves the goals of marketing and selling. The title of a lesser known Chinese novel '鏡花緣' - 'Flowers in the mirror' has a better romantic imagery than the more correct but long winded treatise sounding title of 'The Destined Love of the Mirror Flowers' - a story about the etherealness and tragedies of love. Another deceptively easy example is to try translating, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’.  Literal translations of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ or ‘Of Mice and Men’ are meaningless to Chinese audience not familiar with them.  It is better to translate the idea or the message it is trying to convey; an approach the movie and book industry wisely take.  Thus the Chinese title of the movie, ‘妲己 would be best suited as ‘The Vixen’ or ‘The Seductress’ for non speaking Chinese audience in order to reel that population segment in.  Sometimes the correct translation would be completely wrong!  No justice is done in rendering Lillian Hellman's 'Little Foxes' into a mere title of '小狐狸' or even ‘小狐精' (little vixen).  It gives the wrong impression to the audience when the central theme of the plot is about a biblical reference.

Appropriate archaic terms from the target language should be used to set the mood and pace of when the source is set in days gone by. Sometimes, it is better to change things around in dialogues so that speech patterns approximate to the way the audience speaks or expects to hear. Examples include translating a question in the source into a statement in the target language; using direct words rather than double negatives and vice versa e.g. ‘Not a loser’ for ‘a victor’. Then there are times when extra words are needed in the target language to achieve a clearer picture of what is going on. Pronouns are not prominently used in Chinese as the meaning can be inferred from the context but it may not be clear to English readers. Even whole sentences are ignored from translation when circumstances demand for their removal. It may be a proper thing in classical Chinese to repeat and reinforce what was said. However in English too much of such reinforcing would be construed as pedantic. This decision rests on the hands of the translator to achieve better readings. An advice - simply do not extrapolate when there is no clue to do so or to try to second guess the author unless research indicates otherwise.

Poetic licence is nothing more than deliberate mistranslation. This happens when the meaning of the original term changes or the conjured image does not fit in the target language. Here is an example, a poem/song from an old classic Chinese movie, 江山美人, ‘Kingdom and the Beauty’ (a better sounding title than the more literal translation of ‘Beauty of the Empire’) about a lusty Ming Emperor and a wine seller girl. Its literal translation,

一瞥驚鴻影, One glance frightened goose shadow.
相逢似夢中. Meeting is like in a dream.
廣寒身未到, Broad cold, body not yet reached,
分手太匆匆. Parting too fast.

Two terms needed explanation: the easier one first, ‘Broad Cold’ or ‘Great Cold’ is the poetic name for the moon. It is the name given to the palace in the moon where the fairy Chang-O lived. As for the second term, the main focus of this paragraph is the word鴻, a flying goose. Ancient Chinese compared the grace and beauty of geese in flight to that of a beauty. However a goose is not a thing of beauty in English culture for it has a connotation of foolishness or silliness. Taking poetic licence and mistranslating it as a swan would be more palatable to the English mindset.

One glance startled the shadow of the swan,
Our chance meeting is like a dream.
To the moon I had yet to reach,
Too hurriedly we had to part.

There is a salacious meaning behind the third line. Every Chinese girl wants to be compared to the beautiful fairy Chang-O. However this fairy is inaccessible to all as she lived in the moon. (Some ribaldry here – a frigid beauty!) Hence to be able to reach the moon is to have her compromised.

Here’s another example in the same vein,

今宵酒壺滿, Tonight, a jug full of wine,
献恩解君寒. I offer my love to dispel the cold air from my Lord.
曲舞宴未盡, My feast, my song, my dance has yet to end,
東曉驚鴻裙. The sudden dawn startled my pleated skirt.

The mistranslation occurs in the last line. In English, ‘morning in the east’ is redundant since the sun always rise in the east. Western readers have difficulty in understanding the term goose skirt. Even with explanation and footnotes, the translation had marred their mindset. It is better to take liberty and mistranslate it as a pleated skirt. This does not compromise the meaning and intent of the poem. In the original language there is no indication if the poem was commented by the first, second or third person. I used the first person as a preference to let the reader become the central character. It could be translated using a third person and be translated to,

Tonight, a jug full of wine,
The Beauty offers her love to dispel the cold air from her Lord.
Her feast, her song her dance has yet to end,
The sudden dawn startled her skirt.
On the subject of taking poetic liberties, I think it is best to leave it to language lawyers! This is a very controversial subject with so many differing opinions that it is best to examine it on a case-by-case basis. My advice is: Do it only to satisfy some technical aspect of the target language and with the original intent still intact. One final recommendation – always use a good editor fluent in the target language to go through your work! Your mindset is already totally immersed in the source language and your judgment is highly biased towards it.

The following three poems serve as concrete examples to illustrate some of finer points discussed earlier. One is written in the 10th century. An anonymous translation which can be found at is provided with my own for comparison. The second one is written about a century earlier by Li Po, considered to be China’s greatest poet, and the final one is from a story written during the late Ch’ing Dynasty.

Here is the first poem with its literal translation, which to me is totally useless.

蓓蕯蠻 Bodhisattva barbarian

花明月黯籠輕霧, flowers bright moon dim cage light mist
今霄好向郎邊去! now night good towards male side go
衩襪步香階,          slits-on-the-side-robes socks step fragrant step/ramp (imperial)
手提金縷鞋。          hand hold gold thread shoe
畫堂南畔見,          painted hall south bank see
一向偎人顫。          One towards afraid man tremble
奴為出來難,          slave because out come difficult
教君恣意憐。          Teach lord reckless pity.

Anonymous translation                                                                      My translation

Light mist envelops the dim moon ; bright flowers.    Flowers bright, hazy moon gauzed in mist,                 1
A perfect night to go to her darling’s side.                  Tonight is the time to be at my lover’s side.                 2
In stocking soles, she treaded the fragrant steps,      In my socks, tiptoeing hurriedly up the fragrant imperial stairs, 3
And carries in one hand her gold threaded shoes.     With golden threaded slippers in my hand.                 4
They meet by the south side of the painted hall,         Meeting you at the southern end of the painted hall,   5
And tremble as they fall into each other’s arms.         Trembling in fear that others may see me.                 6
“It’s hard for me to creep out like a servant,                How difficult it is for this maid to come.                      7
To teach my darling, the recklessness of love.”          Milord pity me in how reckless I had become.            8

Before comparing the differences, let’s discuss how the title is translated since none was given in the anonymous version.

蓓蕯 is a Bodhisattva, an enlightened existence or an enlightened being that out of compassion has postponed his entry into Nirvana to become a Buddha in order to further his salvation for the vulgar masses still in their unenlightened states. The most well known Bodhisattva is Kuan Yin (觀音) generally translated as the Goddess of Mercy. The actual translation is ‘(She) who sees and hears all’. In the beginning Kuan Yin was a man but somehow when Buddhism reached China, he was changed into female. During persecutions of Christians in feudal Japan, the image of Kuan Yin was used as a cover for the Virgin Mary.

A female Bodhisattva (女蓓蕯) is a colloquial flattery for a girl or woman akin to complimenting a pretty lady as a goddess in English. In following my rule to retain as much flavour in the source language as possible, Bodhisattva is used instead of Goddess. The character 蠻 means either a barbarian or someone unruly or recalcitrant. An accurate translation would be the ‘Unruly Bodhisattva’ rather than ‘Barbaric Bodhisattva’ because of the meaning of the poem. By the extension of the meaning of the word, barbarian and the context of the poem, alternate acceptable translations are ‘The Unreasonable Goddess’ or ‘The Wild Goddess’ (Note: Barbarians are supposed to be unreasonable since they possess no logic, 蠻人無理. You just can’t argue in logic with barbarians!). For personal stylistic taste, I rather translate it as ‘reckless’ instead. Thus my preference is ‘The Reckless Bodhisattva’ rather than the clearer title, ‘The Reckless Goddess’.
In line 1, both our translations are similar. Mine has a more suggestive descriptive of the mist as a silk gauze covering the moon to make it hazy and dim whereas in the anonymous version the moon was made dim by the enveloping mist. Both of us took the liberty in the translation. The original word used was ‘cage’.

In line 2 both versions show a different way to express the same sentiment. I like the anonymous version use of the word ‘darling’ to convey playfulness rather than my use of the more staid word of ‘lover’. However I prefer whenever possible to never use the same term twice unless it is used for a refrain effect.

In line 3 our versions start to differ both in tone and presentation of the imagery. I used personal pronouns to achieve the immediate effect of a common experience shared by all while the anonymous version used the 3rd person instead. I feel this is quite misleading as I shall explain later. Vital information was left out in the anonymous translation – imperial steps and the choice of words. Clandestine goings-on were hinted at in my version while the other offers none to the reader’s mind. “Who is this person creeping around the palace in the dead of night?” Translating the character, 衩 is easy but putting it in the poem is messy.  These are the side slits of the robe to facilitate easier movement, hence my addition of the word “hurriedly”.

Line 4 expresses different translators’ flair for words. Shoe is the more correct translation but a shoe in those days looked more like slippers woven in cloth rather than leather. Leather was more suited for boots in battle rather than use for comfort in the palace.

Again line 5 we express the same sentiment differently. Only the rich and powerful were able to have their walls plastered. Of course in the palace, drawings and decorations are expected.

Line 6 shows the greatest difference in interpretation. The anonymous version suggests the lovers were trembling because of the excitement they generated while in each other’s arms. Mine indicates they were trembling because their tryst may be discovered.

I love the translated lines of 7 and 8 in the anonymous version immensely as it strongly suggests that the lady was the instigator and teacher in the arts of seduction whereas the man was merely the hapless victim. Mine denotes the exact opposite. At the same time, in the anonymous version the character, ‘奴' was translated wrongly as slave or servant even though it is one of the word’s meanings. I translated it as ‘maid’ to mean more of a girl rather than some servant. The meaning of ‘奴' in this context is an archaic self-deprecating term for one’s wife or darling. The character ’君' was translated as darling as in the phrase ’郎君'. However I translated it to mean the Lord as in the lord and master. ‘Milord’ was used to indicate the time period when this tryst occurred.

At first glance, the anonymous version is a very sophisticated translation of the poem. Very well polished indeed to convey the meaning of the original poem. However astute readers who know the identity of the poet and the surrounding historical context when it was composed, will see the subtle flaws. This is another rule in my guidelines not discussed earlier because it pertains more to poetry - research deeply into the background of the poet and the circumstances in which the composition was composed to retrieve information from elsewhere so as to give the translation its best shine.

This poem was written by the later Tang dynasty ruler, Li Yu (李煜). The poem is not about the celebration of two persons in love. It was a bragging to the world of his illicit conquest of his young sister-in-law. In 955 AD at the age of 19, Li Yu married Lady Chou. It was a match made in heaven as both husband and wife were accomplished artists, poets and musicians. He played the zither while she played the pipa to the accompaniment of each other. Six years later, Li Yu became emperor and Lady Chou was known in history from that time as Empress ‘Big Chou’. On July 7, 973, a grand banquet was given to celebrate the emperor’s 37th birthday. Empress Big Chou fell seriously ill after that. The emperor allowed her family members a visit. However when the visit came to an end, everyone left except for the younger sister of Empress Big Chou. A clandestine love affair was born while the older sister was in her sickbed. At that time the younger sister was only 15 years old. When the older sister found out, she was angry and soon died at the age of 29. A really great opportunity presented itself to Li Yu! However he did not marry her immediately but waited 4 years to avoid suspicion. She became Empress ‘Small Chou’. Thus my translation is more appropriate because of the additional information which required me to reflect more accurately the intent of the poet. It is the man and not his lady love who is the instigator! Also since this poem was written by the culprit himself and not by someone else, the translation should be using 1st person pronouns and not written in the 3rd person.

Li Yu demoted himself from emperor to lord to pacify the growing might of the powerful northern Sung Dynasty. In the end, it did not matter as the Later Tang was subjugated and they were further demoted to mere duke and duchess to the Sung Court and forced to live in the Sung capital. The founder of the Sung Dynasty was a great admirer of Li Yu’s literary talent and respected him. Therefore he did not lust after the ex-Empress Small Chou. The Sung founder had taken the empress of the Later Shu emperor to be his imperial concubine after he had subjugated that country. However when the Sung Founder died, his brother became the next emperor and he was no gentleman or admirer of Li Yu. The Chou sisters were famed beauties of their time. Court records indicated how the new Sung Emperor had raped3 Small Chou, on the pretext of having the custom of noble women enter the palace to pay their respects. Each time she came back a few days later from the palace, only her voice was heard loudly berating Li Yu. So loud and vile were the words that all within hearing range had to flee far away to avoid embarrassment. Finally Li Yu was poisoned by the Sung Emperor using a poem the former had written as an excuse. Ex-empress Small Chou committed suicide soon afterwards by hanging herself. She died at the same age as her older sister. Call it retribution or not.

Just for curiosity and for fun, I ran the poem through Google and Yahoo translators back and forth a few times and this is the result:

Google’s translation

花明月黯籠輕霧,    Flower moon dim mist the cage,
今霄好向郎邊去!    Xiao Lang side to this good to go!
衩襪步香階,            Step socks panties Hong order,
手提金縷鞋。            Mobile Hamamelidaceae shoes.
畫堂南畔見,            Painting of the Southern Han,
一向偎人顫。            Always cuddle people quiver.
奴為出來難,            Slave to come out hard,
教君恣意憐.               JJ arbitrary pity.

花明月暗籠霧,        Flower moon dark cage fog,
衩襪步香秩序,        Small waves to the good side!
小浪方這個好去!    Step socks panties Hong order
移動金縷梅科鞋。    Mobile Hamamelidaceae shoes.
繪畫南漢,                Painting South Han,
人們總是擁抱顫抖。 People always hug trembling.
奴隸出來難,            Slaves out of difficult
林俊傑任意可惜.       Unfortunately, any JJ

Note: See how 'handheld' or ‘portable’ was translated as 'mobile' as in mobile phone. Manual translators are not aware that this poem was written eons ago. Until there is enough computer memory to store context like the human brain can, a human is always needed at hand to amend such mistakes.

Yahoo’s translation

花明月黯籠輕霧,                           Colored bright moonlight gloomy cage light fog,
今霄好向郎邊去!                           now clouds good to court attendant nearby!
衩襪步香階,                                  Vent sock step fragrant step,
手提金縷鞋。                                   portable Jin Lvxie.
畫堂南畔見,                                      Draws south the hall the bank to see,
一向偎人顫。                                   always snuggles up to the human to tremble.
奴為出來難,                                   The slave to come out difficultly,
教君恣意憐.                                      teaches Mr. to pity willfully.

色的明亮的月光陰沉的籠子光霧, The color bright moonlight cloudy basket light fog,
現在覆蓋好給附近法院的乘務員!     covers the train attendant who now gives the nearby court!
放氣襪子步芬芳步,                         Deflates the sock fragrantly step step,
便攜式的金Lvxie。                            portable golden Lvxie.
畫南部大廳銀行看,                         The picture south hall bank looked that always
总是偎依由人決定打顫。                  snuggles up to by the human decides to tremble.
困難地出來的奴隸,                         Comes out difficultly the slave,
教先生恣意地可憐。                         teaches gentleman pitifully willfully

Sometimes such translators offer an endless stream of humour. Take the following classic translations: ‘The spirit is strong but the flesh is weak’ when translated into Russian and back to English, it becomes ‘The vodka is strong but the meat is rotten’. This one was translated from Chinese and back into English, ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ becomes ‘The Angry Grapes’! (Google translator corrected it but not Yahoo). How about 'Furious Raisins'? Can you guess what ‘hydro drops’ are? Definitely not ‘water drops’! Why, it is just plain ol' rain drops!

The second poem is an example when inaccuracies and poetic liberties work in their favour. The side-by-side translation is mine, reflecting a more accurate picture and is closer in structure to the original poem. The words, mostly pronouns in parenthesis are added to make things clearer, for a smoother reading and to satisfy the constraints of the target language.

問餘何事棲碧山, Asked why I dwell in the green hills,
笑而不答心自開。 (I) smile without reply as (my) heart is at ease.
桃花流水杳然去, Peach blossoms (sailed) quietly on flowing waters,
別有天地非人間。 To another land not of this mortal realm.

The following translation is done by a translator whose identity I never discovered. A vastly superior translation in my opinion. The reason is the rhyming qualities in the target language as well as a richer and a more vivid imagery it provokes. Inaccuracies, not being closer to the structure of the original poem and poetic liberties taken matter little since the original intent is expressed most faithfully and beautifully.

I dwell amongst the green hills: You ask me why,
My soul at ease I smile without reply.
Peach petals flowed along the stream,
To other lands beyond this mortal dream.

This last example further illustrates translation liberties being taken when warranted. Remember the guideline to titillate and excite the interest of the reader? The poem describes the fearsome attributes of the dreaded White Tiger God being summoned in Chapter 12 of “Peach Blossom Girl Dueling Magic” (桃花女鬥法),

潔白銀盔生殺氣, Pure silvery helmet birthing in aura of death,                                           1
素披甲上砌龍鱗。 Donned in white armour layered with dragon scales.                              2
腰中繫寶磨珍玉, A belt studded with polished jade so precious,                                        3
戰靴五彩起祥雲。 With war boots exhaling five colored auspicious clouds.                        4
面如傅粉神眉豎, A Face powdered in arsenic, divine eyebrows a standing,                      5
眼光四射好驚人! Eyes glaring with light into four corners – truly a fearsome sight!           6
法體金身高一丈, A heavenly body that is ten foot tall,                                                         7
畫戟方天手內擎。 With a raised Square Heaven halberd held in hand.                                8
若問此尊神名字, Ask what thy name that this Lord may be,                                               9
威鎮四方白虎神。 Everywhere silenced by his prestige – for this is the White Tiger God. 10

In line 1, a more faithful translation would be, ‘Pure white helmet emanating forth a murderous aura’. However the character ‘生' also means to give birth. Therefore by translating the character ‘刹' (to kill) to mean death evokes more contradictory excitement to the line.

In line 4, ‘Five colored auspicious clouds rising from the war boots’ seems lacking in punch. By turning the boots into a living creature snorting clouds brings more exciting and lively imagery.

In line 5, there is no word for arsenic found anywhere in the line. ‘Surface like layered powder with divine eyebrows erect’ would be an accurate translation. However it sounds more like a Kabuki actor applying makeup instead of describing the fearsome look of the White Tiger God. Also the word ‘erect’ has a ribald connotation so I used ‘standing’ instead. As face powder hints of a deathly pallor in the source, the word ‘white’ does not pack as much emotion as ‘arsenic’ does in the target language. Arsenic is silvery white and more importantly the first thought to a reader’s mind is its toxicity, an extremely dangerous substance to be handled with the greatest care. Therefore ‘A face powdered in arsenic, divine eyebrows a standing’ is a very appropriate description for the powerful and deadly God.

In line 9, ‘Ask what thy name that this Lord may be’ sounds more poetic than just the plainer but more accurate translation of ‘If (I) may ask who this August God is’.

Finally on line 10, the character, ‘鎮' means to secure, subdue or quell a disturbance hence conveying a sense of stability and quietness. The intent of the description of the White Tiger God is that with just one look from him, his fearsome prestige will silence any chattering in his presence, just like an eminent or famous person entering a noisy party.

Accuracy in translation does not always mean that it is the ‘correct’ or the best way to translate. It is always a trade off to achieve the goal in which a reader’s enjoyment, interest, the mood or the original intent conveyed are of paramount importance. It is up to the human translator to decide when guidelines are to be followed or to be broken to ensure a translated piece comes to life.


For another example of do's and don'ts of poetry translation.


An interesting article about the Eight Legged Essay and a cause of the downfall of an empire,

2. The word means machine or opportunity but because the Cantonese pronunciation sounds almost like the English pronunciation for the word gay that it is now widely used in mainland China and Taiwan.



The picture is a Ch’ing Dynasty depiction of the painting bearing the same title. The original was rumoured to be commissioned by the Sung emperor to brag about his conquest. The 3rd Sung Emperor, 真宗 named the painting as熙陵幸小周后圖 (Splendiferous Mausoleum (where Emperor Sung Tai Tsung was buried) Pleasing Empress Small Chou, a more polite way of saying, ‘The Rape of Empress Small Chou by Sung Tai Tsung’). The Prime Minister 文彦博to the 4th Sung Emperor 仁宗 stated in his writings that he personally saw the painting. The mention of the painting was during the early days of the Ch'ing Court. After that it was rumoured to be destroyed or was part of the 1949 shipment of imperial treasures to Taiwan during the communist takeover of the mainland.

During the Yuan Dynasty, Feng Hai Su (馮海粟) composed the following poem to mock the Sung Emperor for raping someone’s wife.

江南剩得李花開, Left only in bloom are plum blossoms south of the Yangtze River,
也被君王强折来; Still they were forcefully plucked by the Emperor;
怪底金風冲地起, No wonder when golden winds blew,
御園紅紫满龍堆。 In the imperial gardens, a few more royal dragons grew.

The later Tang Dynasty capital was located near Nanking, south of the Yangtze River hence plum blossoms refer to Empress Small Chou. The golden winds represent the Jin (Gold) Dynasty which destroyed the Northern Sung Dynasty. Not only the two Sung Emperors were made captives but their harems as well. When the mother of the emperor of the Southern Song Dynasty was allowed to return, the emperor had a few brothers of mixed blood brought home as well! Indeed this is retribution borne by his descendants.

A number of such lessons can be learnt from the Sung Dynasty and its predecessors (the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period) for a karma class on retribution. The way the founder of the Sung Dynasty became emperor was interesting and unique in Chinese history. He was a general of the later Chou Dynasty. On his way to quell a purported alliance formed by the Northern Han and Liao Dynasties when his lord and master, the emperor of the Later Chou Dynasty died. A story spread that while the Sung founder was drunk in his tent; his subordinates secretly placed upon the sleeping general the yellow imperial robes. Such an act meant only death. Therefore he had no choice but to rise up and rebel against the widow and young son of his former master (who had heard of such a taboo object can be found so easily while on a war campaign unless there was premeditation already!). His former master was too a general for the Southern Tang Dynasty and rebelled against his master, who in turn overthrew his Later Liao Dynasty master and he in turn forced the last emperor of the Tang Dynasty to abdicate to become emperor himself! When the Mongol invasion came sweeping down from the north and pushed the Sungs all the way to the south that this chain of retribution ended. When the final sea battle was lost, the Sung dowager empress and the infant emperor committed suicide by flinging themselves into the ocean rather than be captured by the barbarians.

One of the major reasons that the Sung Dynasty fell was because able generals were put to death when they showed great promise on the battle field. The most famous one was Yueh Fei (岳飛) who was considered to be the national hero while the Prime Minister Chen Kuei (秦檜) who said to have forged the imperial edict was labeled in later times as the traitor for the execution of the General. Perhaps it was because later Sung Emperors’ awareness of their ancestor’s past that able generals were put to death on trumped up charges that made the Sung Dynasty so militarily weak.

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