Art of Translation

By Xah Lee. Date:

Here are 2 translations of a lyrics from Chinese.

Translation A

There's a girl, named Poem
She has many secrets
Cause in this world, it's hard to find a soul mate
She must search and seek
She thinks that, her face, leaves no trace
But loneliness, is written on her face

Translation B

A girl by the name of Sze Yi
Full of secrets in her heart
A true friend is hard to get
She must try hard to find one
She thinks she can keep her secrets
And that they won't be shown on her face
But the word solitude is written on her face

which one do you think is better? (please leave a comment before reading further.)

Last year, i translated a song 詩意 (Shiyi) from chinese to english. Today, i saw on the web a clip of the movie with subtitles in english of the song. After reading it, i realized my translation is so bad.

Here's the lyrics in chinese

一个女孩 名叫诗意
因为世上 难逢知己
她以为她 脸上没有 露出痕迹
在她的脸上 早已经写着 孤寂

You can see video of the song here: 詩意 (Shiyi).

In the past ~5 years, i translated perhaps 30 songs. Each usually took hours. Secretly, i was in a rapture with my translation everytime. Listening to the song repeatedly for hours and reading my own translation over and over, thinking about my mastery of english, and my unique perceptive power on matters of certain human condition that's in poetry. Often, later on when i found a professional translation, i realized how bad was mine. I've learned quite a lot from these experiences about translation.

I think one of the most important thing i learned about translation, is that the result must be natural and fluid as if it is not from a translation. If the result does not read like from native speaker, then it is probably not a very good translation. Of course, i was aware of this, but still, often my translation has sentences that reads odd. I defended this because i thought certain literal correspondence with the original is not necessarily bad style, because it gives the reader a sense of the original language's form and culture, and this i have consciously chosen to do in places, all things considered. But, from my experiences in past years seeing translations that i considered good, i don't think any of them does that in any degree.

Translation is not considered great art. For example, you won't see much historical figures who are remembered solely as great translators…

There are courses and schools for writing. Technical writing, novel writing, journalism, poetry workshops, literature studies… but am not sure i've heard curricula about translation. Of course, there are real-time translators as a profession. (often employed around political leaders, for example.) I'm sure there are vocational schools or trainings for industrial translators. But for translating literary work, am guessing there's not much dedicated curricula on translation per se. I think it basically relies on learning the languages and other literary aspects of the languages.

Also, when translating literary work, such as a novel, there are matters of style. For example, consider a style that is frequently literal. This can be pushed to extreme, yet maitain a distinctive readability. There are really so many ways to translate. Is there any scholarly article about translation as a art?

… going over to Wikipedia Translation, great reading. They have a section on “Fidelity vs. transparency”, which describes the dilemma i had. Here's some juicy quotes:

Fidelity (or faithfulness) and transparency, dual ideals in translation, are often at odds. A 17th-century French critic coined the phrase "les belles infidèles" to suggest that translations, like women, can be either faithful or beautiful, but not both.[19]

In recent decades, prominent advocates of such "non-transparent" translation have included the French scholar Antoine Berman, who identified twelve deforming tendencies inherent in most prose translations,[20] and the American theorist Lawrence Venuti, who has called upon translators to apply "foreignizing" translation strategies instead of domesticating ones.[21]

Current Western translation practice is dominated by the dual concepts of "fidelity" and "transparency". This has not always been the case, however; there have been periods, especially in pre-Classical Rome and in the 18th century, when many translators stepped beyond the bounds of translation proper into the realm of adaptation.

Adapted translation retains currency in some non-Western traditions. The Indian epic, the Ramayana, appears in many versions in the various Indian languages, and the stories are different in each. Similar examples are to be found in medieval Christian literature, which adjusted the text to local customs and mores.

Reading over, there's this section on attributes of a good translator:

A competent translator has the following qualities:

What a great reading. I much appreciate it. I have myself wondered, whether good translation requires mastery of the From language more or of the Destination language, and i have concluded from my own experience that mastery of the destination lang is more critical.

I was born in Taiwan. Chinese is my native tongue. Grew up with it till 14. I speak, read, write, chinese fluently, of course. But from about 18 to now (42), the past ~20 years i live and study in english speaking countries. My literary skill in english reading and writing is far better than my chinese. I could produce reasonably quality translation of chinese to english, but not the other direction. My chinese literary skill is pretty bad. I'd have a paucity of diction and idiom.

More quote:

Moreover, a fully competent translator is not only bilingual but bicultural.

Indeed. Because, one really needs to understand the culture to grasp the nuances in meaning, for both the cultures of Source lang and the Destination lang.

Though, there are occasions that i find my translation better than ones from books or presumably professionally done subtitles of films. One of them i am rather proud of is 佳人歌 (The Beauty Song).