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The trickiest thing Chinese to English translation can be up to
Thread poster: Shaojie Huang

Shaojie Huang  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 17:03
Chinese to English
+ ...
Jun 14, 2006

It is always the mind that is working behind a language that accounts for the biggest difference and, therefore, makes the greatest challenge when a translator works from one language to another. And when it comes to translating from Chinese to English, the difference can be so huge as to be frustrating.

How differently a Chinese usually writes can be seen in this paragraph, which I here give a rather word-for-word translation to begin with:

"Here, various kinds of fossils and the prehistoric people's stone implements are found everywhere. They prove that ancient people lived here since the prehistoric time. Here, hot springs exist in a belt, there are tracts of wetlands and grasslands that are like mattresses. There are many rare plants and animals. The place is rich in nimeral resources. It is cold here, but the air is clean and the sunshine is adequate. It is a pure land."

Unlike in a typical English writing, where a paragraph always begins with a topic sentence which all the following sentences refer to and substantiate in some way, this writer just "jumbles" many ideas that are in no way related to each other and any one of which doesn't necessarily follow any other and passes this cluster of information for a paragraph. As a result, an English reader, or a translator mentally attuned to the English pattern of thinking/writing, would be shocked to see that this author abruptly switches from prehistoric legacies to natural habitat, to wild life, to minerals without justifying any possible logic behind his arrangement.

I don't think there is much I can do to fix this (being a translator, I am not supposed to make too big alterations after all, especially when a change in form means a change in content, when manner itself matters). But this is the adjustment I have tried, risking an arbitrary interpreting of the original thoughts for the sake of a more readable English paragraph:

"Fossils and stone implements are found in abundance in this area, testifying human inhabitation since the prehistoric time. With belts of hot springs, marshes and grasslands the land is almost a paradise for rare species as well as a trove of mineral resources. Despite what can be hostile an average temperature here, the clean air and a generous distribution of sunlight make it a rather lovely place."

While I personally don't like this "non-logical" way of writing even in Chinese language, the difference may as well be culture-based. The idea of unity that the westerns care so much about for their poetics, dramas, art, etc. is not much an issue for the Chinese. A Chinese play will irritate a classical dramatist for its violation of the three unities. A Chinese landscape painting is usually a panorama that no eyes can catch but can only be remembered and re-presented by the mind while a western painting is in perfect perspective, just like what a camera lens captures.

All these differences don't have to be a problem until form has to be cracked, the content extracted and re-cast into the new form that, unfortunately, totally disagrees. That is when difference becomes a barrier. That is the trickiest thing I as a translator encounter.

I shall be very happy to see what everybody here will do to overcome this kind of barrier so that translation can be both faithful to the original and readable to the target readers.

[Edited at 2006-06-14 16:50]


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Terry Thatcher Waltz, Ph.D.  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:03
Chinese to English
+ ...
I think there are other options as well Jun 15, 2006

I don't think *every* English paragraph is required to begin with a topic sentence.

It's true that many English writing courses stress this, because it is simpler to give the student some sort of very reliable way to construct paragraphs in English. But when little native English-speaking kids learn to write, after we are taught to write the "five-sentence paragraph" way (topic sentence, three supporting sentences, concluding sentence -- goodness, I can hear the teacher's voice like it was yesterday!!) which is a very mechanical way to write, we are encouraged to branch out into other forms later, after the simplest one is mastered. (Oh, and who could forget the five-paragraph essay: introductory paragraph, three supporting paragraphs, conclusion! So mechanical!)

A lot of this has to do with reading extensively in English as well. The students who read the most in school usually were the best writers as well, probably because they had so many models to draw from. The ones who did not read much usually stuck to the "five-sentence paragraph" plan because at least they knew it would work, even if it wasn't always the most elegant or interesting solution.

So I think that when translating, yes, it is necessary to "impose" a certain degree of logic on a Chinese text at times (for example, when the subject is not even stated but merely understood -- that often just doesn't work in English), but I'm not certain it is necessary to completely re-write the work in question to conform to the "five-sentence paragraph" type of logic.


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Shaojie Huang  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 17:03
Chinese to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
More of what I think about the English paragraph structure Jun 15, 2006

Thanks Terry.

And you are right therever there is a rule there are exceptions to it. But an exception doesn't make a rule a bad one, and still less makes it go away. I think you will agree with me on this.

However, I don't see what you call a "most elegant and interesting form" as a "branching out" from the "simplest" way. It is rather a better appreciation and more skilled handling of the same principle, which is always simple. It is not the branching out into anything else but the knowledge that there are many possibilities of the principle being applied and lived up to that sorts out a good writer from a beginner. The former uses the principle wisely, with understanding, whereas the latter "mechanically" does what the principle dictates him, not knowing that a principle at work may not look like a principle as it is taught.

I think the same applies to other trades too. A great painter doesn't paint by any principles other than what a student painter learns about proportion, perspective, colors, etc. He simply knows that the same principles can be used in some creative ways that the students don't know yet.

So, back to writing. Yes, a paragraph doesn't have to technically begin with a topic sentence. But the principle is always there: that a paragraph has to be about something, not many things randomly put together. In orther words, in a paragraph, one sentence always reasonably leads to another. If the sentences in a paragraph are so loosely arranged that it won't matter which comes first and which next, then probably it is not a very effective paragraph.

So my problem with the paragraph I quoted as an example is that I don't see what it is about (and certainly the sentences in this paragraph can be rearranged without making too much difference: what does it matter if the author had mentioned the nimeral wealth first and the Stone Age legacy next?). Reorganizing it into the five-sentence structure is certainly not an option here. I can't do it even if I want to. But is it all right to just put this into English as it is without somehow making the sentences more related to each other? And, suppose we need to do that, how?

[Edited at 2006-06-15 15:42]


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hyjwonder  Identity Verified
Local time: 17:03
English to Chinese
+ ...
Chinese-style English Jun 16, 2006

"Here, various kinds of fossils and the prehistoric people's stone implements are found everywhere. They prove that ancient people lived here since the prehistoric time. Here, hot springs exist in a belt, there are tracts of wetlands and grasslands that are like mattresses. There are many rare plants and animals. The place is rich in nimeral resources. It is cold here, but the air is clean and the sunshine is adequate. It is a pure land."

That would be a picturesque piece of writing in Chinese, and can be destructive if delivered exactly as you quoted. Certainly some adjustments have to be made in structure whereby the meaning can be best conveyed, given the vast difference between these two languages. However, it doesn't have to follow very strict rules as you pointed out, or where will be the difference between Chinese thinking and English thinking? Can't English be adapted to some Chinese style? --- which is including ,but not limited to, some non-logicalness.


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Terry Thatcher Waltz, Ph.D.  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:03
Chinese to English
+ ...
Agree with hyjwonder Jun 20, 2006

There is both inductive and deductive reasoning in the world, and in English writing. We cannot say that every paragraph must have one sentence, regardless of its location, that must state the main idea. Some simply do not. And some writers are better than others, but usually, unless literature is being translated, the author of a text is chosen for his skill in the field in question, not for his beautiful writing. His text may lack logic, no matter which language it is written in. The translator must determine whether it is vitally necessary to impose logic or not. I don't think it is in every case.

The best policy is still to leave translation into a particular language to natives of that language, who can fully control the nuance of the output. A Chinese translator can easily "adjust" what seems to the Chinese eye like a pathetically bare-bones paragraph about a travel destination written in English to make it more appealing to a Chinese audience in the Chinese translation; a native English speaking translator can easily do the same to a typically "over-flowery" text in Chinese (seen from the English perspective, I mean -- nothing wrong with being flowery in Chinese!) and make it read comfortably and smoothly for a native English speaking audience. This is the advantage that native writers have.


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Shaojie Huang  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 17:03
Chinese to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
It is indeed what a translator must do Jun 21, 2006

Terry Thatcher Waltz, Ph.D. wrote:

a native English speaking translator can easily do the same to a typically "over-flowery" text in Chinese (seen from the English perspective, I mean -- nothing wrong with being flowery in Chinese!) and make it read comfortably and smoothly for a native English speaking audience. This is the advantage that native writers have.


I see your point here. Thanks.


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Shaojie Huang  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 17:03
Chinese to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Could you do me a favor Terry? Jun 22, 2006

I hope you don't take this any way other than how I really mean it, but could you take a look at this and show me how to do it?

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