Hey guys, it’s been about two months since I did the last one, in large part because the last month had been so crazy! This is a post I’ve been meaning to do a long time now, and since today I’m too tired to finish off the third chapter after moving all my stuff, I thought I’d post this instead.
By now, many of you readers will have noticed a few terms that keep on popping up throughout Coiling Dragon (and translated webnovels in general); “didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry”, “experts are as common as the clouds”. This ‘repetitiveness’ is a common criticism I see of IET. While IET, quite frankly, does have deficiencies in his writing, this is not one of them. This post will explain a bit about these terms, and a bit more about Chinese and translation. For reference, parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 of ‘Fun With Translations’ can be found at the links I just added.
First of all, a short linguistics lesson; aside from dialects, there are actually two types of Chinese grammar; vernacular Chinese (白话文) and literary/classical Chinese (文言文). The difference between the two is something akin to the difference to spoken English and Shakespearean. Literary Chinese uses much shorter sentences but with much more ambiguity of meaning if you aren’t familiar with the patterns. The best example I can give of the difference between literary and vernacular Chinese is the difference between: “Whither to, pray tell?” and “Can you please tell me where [we] are going?” From experience, I can tell you that translating literary Chinese can be torture.
Now, in modern Chinese, the usage of literary Chinese outside of poetry has essentially fallen from use in most contexts. There is, however, an exception to this; idioms/proverbs, aka ‘chengyu‘ 成语. Chinese is a very idiomatic language, where four simple characters can represent an entire narrative. These idioms are centuries old, and thus virtually all of them stem from literary Chinese. In Chinese society, a person’s ability to use these classical idioms is actually considered a mark of cultivation and education. Many of the older generation of writers use them beautifully due to having a more classical, literary education decades ago, while the newer generation of writers, like IET, use them very sparingly. That being said, there are some idioms that have entered the Chinese consciousness so deeply that they aren’t even really considered idioms any more, much like how when we say ‘sour grapes’, we usually aren’t thinking about Aesop’s fable on ‘The Fox and the Grapes’.
One of the most popular ones is the one you all love to hate on; 哭笑不得, literally, ‘Cry Laugh Cannot’, aka “didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.” There are various uses to it, but it generally means to be caught in an awkward situation where you really don’t know how to react; you might let out a chuckle, but be feeling awkward inside. To be completely honest, even for Chinese, IET uses this phrase, 哭笑不得 a little too much, but in Chinese, because it’s just four short characters in such a well known idiom, people just move on, and thus using it repeatedly it doesn’t “stick out” like the line “didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry” does in English.
Translating idioms in any language is extremely challenging (although nothing is as hard as translating word puns), because you have to find a balance between translating the meaning while also keeping the flavor, while not mangling the grammar or making it sound too clunky. Some translate them literally, then add footnotes; others translate them for the meaning, while still others (like myself) use a variety of approaches, depending on how easily understandable the original idiom was.
For an example of an easy one that I translate nearly literally, 高手如云, literally ‘High Hands Like Clouds’. ‘High hands’, in Chinese, basically refers to an ‘expert’, and can be used to describe many things; for example, if I were to say that I am a ‘电脑高手’, a ‘computer high hand’, I am basically saying that I am a computer expert. As an idiom, this phrase means ‘very many experts’, but I choose to translate this more literally as ‘experts are as common as the clouds’, which keeps both the ‘flavor’ as well as clearly shows the ‘meaning’, IMHO.
One solution I have come up in some harder cases is to add in extra explanatory language that never existed in the original Chinese, because it would not be necessary. For example, in CD Book 13, Chapter 43 there was this line; “可他现发现，他这么做，完全是画蛇添足.” “But he now discovered that doing so was completely drawing legs on a snake.” I chose to add a bunch of words that didn’t exist in the original text to make it sound more fluid/natural while also conveying the meaning, translating that line as: “But now he discovered that doing so was like drawing legs onto a painting of a snake, a completely pointless, superfluous action!”
FYI, for background, the idiom regarding ‘画蛇添足’, literally translates as ‘Draw Snake Add Legs’. This comes from a Chinese fable about a man who was in a drawing competition with some others. He drew very quickly, finishing his snake first; afterwards, he was bored, so he drew legs on his snake. He was later judged to have lost the competition…because snakes don’t have legs! Thus this line, ‘drawing legs on a snake‘ refers to in Chinese, completely wasted effort. Any Chinese person will know immediately what you mean when you say this.
These idioms are sprinkled throughout most Chinese literary works, even fairly simple ones like that of IET’s. My goal is to translate them by never using footnotes, retaining the flavor, and also easily conveying the meaning. Clearly, with “didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry”, I have failed, but I honestly don’t know how to translate it better. So ease up on IET regarding laughing and crying; this one is on me!