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Monday, March 31, 2014

郊道 - Through the Wilderness Path

This article started off as an entertaining distraction from a formal translation of Hsun Tzu's Exhortation to Learning.   Luring me away from the far more serious work ahead, this Chinese Musical was just the ticket. The lyrics are short and whimsical, and as an added temptation, there were two Chinese characters that I did not know.  Besides, the song is quite melodic.  To my dismay, however, as I began writing and trying to explain the choices I made for the translation, it became clear to me that it was going to a laborious and pedantic affair after all.

So I came to this idea in the end:  why not a comparative look at how books are translated and how movies  are subbed or subtitled?  Each medium comes with its own set of rules, obstacles and inherent limitations.  It should prove to be quite interesting.  I shall only touch lightly on these topics and not go off tangent from the real goal of this article, that is to translate the song's lyrics.  So I shall just dispense with all the details on how I arrived at my translation.

Subtitling is an art form unto itself.  Some view it as a summarization of the original language in another language; in other words, a very loose translation.  However, this is very deceptive thinking.  First of all, the biggest limitation is the size of the screen estate.  It can only hold so many words without distracting the audience from the movie.  Unlike translation in a book form, there are no pages and pages of space for footnotes and commentaries.  Such information can exceed the size of the translation piece. One must remember that the main reason of a movie is to provide visual enjoyment comfort, it is preferable that the target language line be no longer than the original and yet the crux and crucial information must be present to convey the actual emotion and tone. This means that many details are elided and even excised completely. 

In Chinese movies, there are two lines of subtitles shown in movie theaters, especially those screened in Southeast Asia.  One is in English and this is understandable; but Chinese also? Really!  The reason being that we may be Chinese as an ethnic group but our dialects are unintelligible to each other.  Therefore standard written Chinese is displayed so that all Chinese subgroups can enjoy the movie.  Remember first and foremost is that the movie is a visual entertainment money-making business.  Having these many lines of subtitling can be quite daunting and distracting to those who are not used to it.  At the same time, the audience is not going to be interested in the scholarly details.  As such, as long as the dialog is understood with all the tones and moods reflected accurately, then it is considered a good one. Reading subtitles consumes more mind processing power. Screen clutter must be avoided at all costs.

Another big constraint is that subtitles must synch with the dialogue; otherwise the delayed effect is of great annoyance.  Subbing, the art of making actors speak in a foreign language is nothing more than oral subtitling in my opinion.  However, this time the additional constraint to  make sure that spoken words must match the lip movements exactly.

Giving a title to a book or movie is even a shorter form of subtitling.  Not only is the real estate is at premium, the size of the book cover or the width of the page is even more limited than the screen. It has to summarize the content in just a few words.  Even if this is achieved, the main goal is to sell!  Thus titles must double as seductive advertisements.  Not without affection, I call this, the art of titling, as the whore of translation!  Any inaccuracy or precision in the translation can be thrown out of the window.  Following are some examples. I have provided the back translation for the benefit of the English reader.

English titles to Chinese:

Gone With the Wind       = 亂世佳人 (Beauty of Chaotic Times)
The Wizard of Oz          = 綠野仙踪 (Fairy Footprint of the Green Wilderness)
Oz, the Great & Powerful   = 魔境仙踪 (Demonic Border/World of the Fairy Footprint)
Frozen                     = 冰雪奇緣 (The Wondrous Adventure of Snow and Ice)

Chinese titles to English:

紅樓夢 = The Dream of the Red Chamber is sexier than The Dream of the Red Mansion
西遊記 = The Monkey King is more exciting than Journey To the West.
三國志 = Romance of the Three Kingdoms is more interesting than Records of the Three Kingdoms.
封神榜 = The Investiture of Gods is more intriguing than The Scroll of Conferring Gods.
鏡花緣 = Flowers in the Mirror is more romantic than The Tale of Destined Love.

My last example is to illustrate the mastery of the translator.  Lolita is a classic movie known to the Chinese audience outside the Mainland before the country was opened to the world as 一樹梨花壓海堂 (A Pear Tree Crushing the Begonia Blooms). This colorful and poetic Hong Kong title says it all. The educated Chinese will understand the allusion. I doubt that this 1962 movie would have been shown in Taiwan before Hong Kong because of the then martial law imposed there. The drab translation from Mainland China is 洛麗塔, a transliteration of the name. No imagination and a quick and lazy way out.

Back to the task at hand. The lyrics I am translating are from a Chinese musical called 血手印. The exact and precise translation is The Bloodied Hand Imprint. This blah title has no oomph in helping to sell the movie. It lacks imagination and luster. However, The Crimson Palm does! Like their svelte and curvaceous counterparts on the street, the whores of translation can sell charms and make dreams come true.

Here is the background to the story behind the lyrics. The hero and heroine were betrothed when they were young. However, the guy's family fell into poverty and the girl's family tried to renege on the match. Of course the lovers refused. The girl wanted to give him her golden hairpin so that he can sell it so that he could go to the capital and take the imperial examinations. By becoming the Number-One scholar, he can lift himself from a life of obscurity. This way, his father-in-law can no longer refuse the match. The plan was to have her maid hand him the golden hairpin in the night at the inner court garden. When the appointed time came, the scholar had to pass through a patch of wilderness to get to the backdoor of the inner garden. Upon reaching his destination, he discovered the maid had been murdered and he was accused…

The original lyrics and subtitles displayed originally on the screen while the actor is singing as he passed through the wilderness patch are in italicized blue. The green is my pedantic but precise translation. The italicized brown is my commentary.

郊道 Through the Wilderness Path

夜沉沉,聲悄悄, 月色昏暗. It's dark and late  
Late is the night, so late,
My steps so stealthily light,
And the moonlight so dark.

風淒淒,影搖搖,                         the wind is howling.
Cold are the winds, so freezing cold,
And shadows are swaying back and forth,

隕星曳空, 怪鳥長鳴.      And the birds are crying.
A falling star dragging the skies along,
And strange birds in their prolonged cries.
This is the phrase that caught my attention! I didn't know the meaning of and 曳.  In Cantonese, has a totally different meaning, being "naughty" or "inferior".

一路行來, 無人烟,         The road is desolate
Since I have been walking,
Nary a sign of human life,

嚇得我胆顫心寒                      and I'm scared.
Scaring me witless                   Literally, So scared that my gall is trembling and my heart grew cold.

啊…                     Ahhh…

佳人贈金 情義重,使我又愧又喜歡 I'm happy and ashamed too about the gift of gold.
A beautiful woman is bestowing gold upon me,
Her affection for me is strong and true,
She made me feel so ashamed and yet so happy.

眼見園門正半掩           The door is left ajar,
I see the garden door left ajar

想必是雪春在裡面         Xue Chun must be waiting.
I assumed Snow-Spring must be in there.

Snow-Spring is the name of a maid who was supposed to meet the scholar in the garden.

Started : Sunday, March 23, 2014
Completed: Monday, March 31, 2014

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Lamenting Beauty - 昭君怨

This translation came about when I happened to stumble onto this classical Chinese piece of music and there was an English interpretation of the lyrics.  I was aghast that the beauty of the original language was lost; not only this, but the tone and mood were not effectively expressed and, worse still, some of the interpretations were wrong and many things elided.  As such, I felt compelled to do a better job.

Below is a link to the best rendition of the song:

The English interpretation came from

"Sitting on the aristocratic saddle,
Wang chao-chuan missed her Han emperor.

Mornings turned nights and nights turned mornings
Her melancholy journey appeared remote and hopeless.
Her backward glances only enhanced her anxiety.

The sinking bird hovered over the horizon
Of the endless desert;
The sad call to Hung Yang broke in vain.
The dim moon reflected on the faraway Yenmen gates;
Outside which the frosts fell amid the gallops of the horses continued.
She muses and missed the Han emperor!

She started to sing sadly,
And moved by the scenes around.
Playing on the Piba and looking back on her home ,
Her heart broke when she thought of
The favours received and the gushing feelings she cherished
She was lost in musing the future uncertainties and past dreams.

Again, she sang on old places,
Which caused her deep sadness.
Playing her piba, she glanced at the wild prairie:
The journey being long and tedious; the sky dull and aloof.
She lost all her appetite in viewing the alien lands
Of broken mountains and stale water.

She stopped singing her songs on the past,
But the future is barren and desperate.
In the fading vibrations of the piba,
She felt her destitution---
Lonely and alone and wishfully hope
That her soul would one day return to her homeland,
Forever wishing as eternal as the earth and sky."

My translation:
昭君怨 The Lament of Chao Jun

王昭君, Wang Chao Jun
悶坐雕鞍思憶漢皇 In idle boredom, she sat upon the carved saddle, thinking of her Han Emperor.

朝朝暮暮,    Mornings and evenings,
暮暮朝朝     Evenings and mornings...
黯然神傷,    Melancholy and dejectedly;
前途茫茫,    Her future bleak; lost in a vast haze.
極目空翹望,  Raising her head, she strained her stares emptily into the distance.
見平沙雁落   A wild goose dipping from its horizontal flight,
聲斷衡陽     Its cries stopping at the City of the Cow Horns Beam1,
月昏黃       The evening yellow moon,
返照雁門關上 Reflecting upon the gate of the Wild Goose Fort2
塞外風霜     The wind and frost beyond the frontiers,
悠悠馬蹄忙   Pensive from the drawn out galloping hooves of horses. 
整日思想     Entire days, she spent in thoughts;
長夜思量     Long nights, lost in them.
魂夢憶君王   In dreams, her soul longing for her Lord.
陽關初唱     At the Fortress of the Sun,3 her song began,
往事難忘     Difficult 'tis for her to forget the past.

琵琶一疊回首望故國 One strum4 of her pipa, she looked back towards her country,
河山總斷腸         Its rivers and mountains broke her heart,
憶家庭景況,                In sorrow, missing the scenes of  her family.
樁萱恩重           Her parents, to whom she is indebted5
隸萼情長,          To her siblings, her love eterne6
遠別家鄉           Now she was parting, far far away from her home.
舊夢前塵           Old dreams of her former life,
前塵舊夢           Her former life's old dreams…
空惆悵            Are now but empty sorrows.
陽關再唱           Still her song lingered on at the Fortress of the Sun.
觸景神傷,          Grazing upon the scenery, dispirited she had become.
琵琶二疊           On the second strumming of her pipa,
凝眸望野草        Her eyes frozen to the grasses of the wild.
閑花驛路長         Idly the beauty rested but the road to the relay station will be long.

問天涯茫茫 She asked Heaven, in the vastness of the horizon7.
平沙雁落   Down went the wild goose,
大道霜寒  The frost upon the highway  cold.
胡地風光   The scene of alien lands now unfolded8,
賸水殘山     Scattering rivers and of mountains,
殘山賸水   The mountains and rivers, far and few in between,
無心賞       No joy in partaking the views.
陽關終唱   Soon her song at the Fortress of the Sun will end
後事淒涼   And the aftermath of her journey will be one of forlorn.

琵琶三疊   On the third strum of her pipa,
前途望身世 Her future looked back at her life.
飄零付杳茫,Drifting alone into the distance and out of sight,
囑君望古陽 Imploring her Lord to gaze [once more] upon this Sun Fortress of old.
魂歸漢地   Her spirit will [then] return to the soil of Han9
目睹朝陽  Her eyes be witnessing the morning sun,
久後思量,  Long after pondering in her thoughts,
地老天長   The earth and heaven will grow old,
天長地老   The heaven and earth aging away.
長懷想    Eternal are her heartfelt thoughts,
一曲琵琶   One melody from her pipa,
恨正長     Eternal, her regrets shall be.


2.  This line can be ambiguous.  Without context and because the absence of punctuation, it can be translated as Reflecting, the Wild Goose Gate is locked. This fortress is so named because of the geographical features in which it was built to look to like a wild goose taking flight.  It was where the Han Dynasty and the Hsiung Nu had their exchanges.  Of China's nine fortresses, this is considered to be the most important.

3. This frontier fort was built by Emperor Han Wu Di.  This marked the borders of Han China, thus a term to mean the extent of the Chinese sovereignty. 

4. = pile.  For those who know how to play the pipa or seen how a pipa is played, there's a kind of strumming that has a "piling" sound effect.

5. , a mythical tree known for its longevity.  A term now to denote the father. is Hemerocallis flava, supposedly makes one "elated" when consumed and because it grows in the north side of the house where the mother usually resided, it is now to mean one's mother.  Taken together, it meant one's biological parents.

6. = attached/attachment = calyx and stem of a flower.  Thus representing sibling love.  In some versions, is used.  It has the same sound and is the same character as for younger brother. I believed that is the correct character; the calyx and stem is closely bonded so that the bloom can be held ie the bonded love of siblings.

7. The sentence should be parsed as, 問天, 涯茫茫 and not in any other way as it would not make sense in this context.

8.  See

9.  i.e. my country and home.