….to screw up and do badly. This is an article I’ve been wanting to do for a while now, but with deathblade’s recent ‘learning Chinese’ page up, I thought this was a good time! Now, I’ve previously talked here about lazy/bad translations, but that’s not what we’re talking about in this article (although laziness is deadly). What we’re talking about here is how easy it is to screw up a translation of an important phrase or term….in large part due to the beauty and impreciseness of Chinese. This has resulted in many ‘bad translations’, even by me, and definitely around the web.
Scroll to the very bottom if you are only interested in ‘Desolate Era’.
English is a very precise language, but Chinese grammar, especially in poetic and literary Chinese, operates on the basis of a single phrase – brevity is mastery. As a result, Chinese is a beautiful but often imprecise language; you drop all ‘unnecessary’ words, such as possessives, articles, or even classifiers, and you often use syntax based on what sounds better. In fact, there are no actual plurals in Chinese, which can lead to multiple interpretations of certain things (deathblade is driven utterly bonkers by Chinese grammar).
For an example, the term 十殿阎王, which literally translates to ‘Ten Hall Yama King’, can either mean ‘King Yama of the Ten Halls’, or the ‘Yama-Kings of the Ten Halls’. This may or may not have resulted in the fact that in some Chinese myths, there is a Yama-King for each of the Ten Halls of Hell, while in others, there is a single King Yama who rules over all of Hell and its Ten Halls. Just imagine it! As translators who use English, we need to give you one or the other; we can’t give an imprecise phrase that can mean either one like Chinese can.
Deathblade cited that you need to know 2000-5000 Chinese characters to understand/read Xianxia, but what he didn’t explicitly explain is that even when you ‘know’ the characters, you don’t always ‘know’ them, because each character can have many different meanings, depending on the surrounding characters and on the context, and also on history and culture. For example – I was helping out another translation on advice in translating a mantra for a positive energy training technique, which had the phrase, 扶桑十日, ‘Fu Sang Shi Ri’ in it.
‘Fu Sang Shi Ri’ – If you look at the words one by one, they translate as ‘Support Mulberry Ten Days’, which makes no sense. So perhaps you go to a dictionary website like www.mdbg.net, which explains that ‘Fu Sang’ is actually a term referring to a mythical island in the east, and is often used as a poetic name for Japan. So you can think of ‘Fu Sang Shi Ri’ as perhaps meaning ‘Ten Days in Japan’, which (in another context) could be absolutely correct.
BUT WAIT! This is a martial arts manual; what the heck does ten days in Japan/Fusang have to do with it? Well, if you do a bit more digging on Chinese wiki sites, you might then realize that the origin of Fusang as being a mythical island stems from another legend, of the Fusang mulberry tree which is where the sun supposedly rises from…and then you realize, in those legends, there were originally ten suns (nine were destroyed), and 十日 can also mean ‘ten suns’, not just ‘ten days’.
So for Fu Sang Shi Ri, rather than ‘Support Mulberry Ten Days’ or ‘Ten Days in Japan’, actually is a reference to ‘the ten Suns which rise from the Fusang mulberry tree’. WOW! Feels like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, and is very satisfying…but imagine how easy it would be to screw this up, if you were the slightest bit lazy or complacent!
Now, why did I reference ‘Desolate Era’ in the title? Because in short, this has been a very tough book name to translate. I previously discussed it with IEW, and neither of us were fully 100% convinced of this current translation title.
In Chinese, the title is 莽荒纪, Mang Huang Ji. ‘Mang’ means vast, ‘Huang’ means wild/desolate, while ‘Ji’ can mean era; hence, it was translated as Desolate Era. The problem is, ‘Mang Huang’, as a compound term, doesn’t really exist; it’s an invented term by IET that is meant to convey the image of a vast, untamed, almost prehistoric and primitive/barbarian world; the myths from Mang Huang Ji, such as regarding Mother Nuwa, the Primordial Fiendgod Pangu, and more all stem from the most ancient of Chinese creation myths and legends. In some places in the book, he uses ‘Mang Huang’ numerous times to refer to this current world as being primitive/backwards.
So the exact meaning of ‘Mang Huang’ is actually unclear; it’s not about a ‘meaning’, it’s more about a ‘feeling’; a feeling of vastness, of ancientness, of myths, of legends.
So what about Ji? Well, Ji is even more troublesome. Ji has two common meanings; ‘records/annals’, and ‘era’. Both are potentially applicable here; since this is a story, you can take it to mean ‘records’. At the same time, it’s also clear that it’s referring to an era. But what further complicates it is that IET also uses the exact same character, 纪, for the surname of the main character, Ji Ning! 纪 (Ji) is a real surname, but an extremely uncommon one; the far more common variant of Ji is 季, which is the Ji used for the Ji clan in I Shall Seal the Heavens. Without question, IET chose to use 纪 for a reason; given that he uses ‘Mang Huang’ as a term that means barbarian/primitive/ancient, and that he has Ji Ning always wear furs, it’s also very conceivable that the term, ‘Mang Huang Ji’ is actually a reference to Ji Ning, a la ‘ Ji the Barbarian’!
So what is Mang Huang Ji? Three simple characters, but they convey a range of meanings, all of which might be appropriate…and to be honest, the more that I think about it, the more I feel that IET most likely chose this exact name precisely because it carried all of these appropriate meanings. An English translation of Mang Huang Ji that includes all of its intended meanings would most likely be something like ‘Records of Barbarian Ji of the Primeval Era’. Good lord, what a mouthful! Chinese – poetic but imprecise, and poetic because of its imprecision. Damned English, unfortunately, doesn’t work that way!
Thankfully, dialogue is much easier, but whenever the Chinese starts to wax poetic (this is especially true for martial arts manuals, technique names, etc.), oooooooh boy!