Fun With Translation (part 5) – Between Laughter and Tears

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!


74 thoughts on “Fun With Translation (part 5) – Between Laughter and Tears” - NO SPOILERS and NO CURSING

  1. I never had a trouble understanding that line, personally. As for the repetitiveness, I have seen far, FAR worse in some of the stories I read.

  2. Woah, thanks for sharing your wisdom, Ren.

    There were some books that I had at home that were really waaay harder to read and to make sense of than light novel, and because of you (I will not make the same mistakes that~, oh wait, that’s not my point), I realized that these books were actually 文言文 books. Ohh so that’s why. Then I guess, to read them, I should get more used to Chinese literature first (cuz having studied the Chinese language a lot is not always sufficient, I guess :x).

    Your translation job on idioms is really well done. Each of them sounds really natural. Plus translating them without footnotes is very admirable; that enables the reader to stay hooked on the story without Note interruption.

    1. There are very few books written in the past half century that are in true ‘literary Chinese’; 文言文 is more for the ancient texts, like ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’, ‘Water Margin’, etc. Out of curiosity, what books are these?

      1. 诗经 is the only one of these books that I had at home and looks very ancient (and at the same time the one that made the less sense to me). I think the others did not ‘entirely’ fall in this category, since they weren’t as ancient.
        Oh I didn’t know the ‘Romance of the Three Kindoms’ fell in this category too. It is a classic that I wanted to read in original version one day, but, then, if it is a 文言文, it will be pretty hard to read, I guess, right? :s

        1. HOLY FRIGGIN’ HELL DUDE!!! 诗经? That’s the ‘Classic of Poetry’! Of course it made no sense to you! That’s not just 文言文, that’s some of the oldest Chinese writing that still exists, stemming from 1100 BC, ie hundreds of years from before the Roman Empire even existed! The ‘Three Kingdoms’, while also using ‘literary Chinese’, can’t compare to 诗经 in terms of complexity and abstruseness. Even my head spins when I try to read that stuff! You are crazy! xD xD xD

        2. I’m sorry, I’m laughing so hard right now. Many native Chinese speakers born in the 80’s and 90’s would have problems reading the 诗经 on their own. Haha…

          1. such an old discussion, but i still have to comment…
            having tried to read the japanese hyakunin isshu, i really don’t even want to imagine how difficult this book of songs would be to understand.
            all the knowledge you’d need about the culture, mythology, all aspects of history, just to understand why some of the poems would be included. and of course knowledge about poetry to be able to see the full value of those poems.
            are those even possible to understand without having studied literature, or at least a good commentary on the side?

          2. Welcome to the community, Taka! Definitely not; seriously, most native Chinese speakers would still need the guidance of a literature teacher to understand the poems within. They are from ~3000 years ago, from as far back as 1100 BC!

  3. Interesting. I also don’t know wether to laugh or cry when thinking about this <.

    Well, i was right about not getting 3'rd chapter today, too xD

    Have a good sleep, Ren!

  4. urgh! I was given a Chinese lesson without knowing! *sigh* when he said ‘fun’ I went and read it without thinking *siiiiiigh~*

    Good night without bug buddies!

    *hiding in a corner while crying* no third chapter! waaaaah!! T.T

    PS. Ren you forgot another frequently used phrase….- “beat in to a meat paste” 😛

  5. Personally I have no problems with the idioms.

    It doesn’t aggravate me while I read like glaringly obvious plotholes or grammatical errors do in fanfictions.

    which makes more sense since you used Shakespearean as a comparitive reference 😛 since I can understand Shakespearean just as much as modern English xD

    GL with future translations and “fun with translations” sessions 😛

  6. I am Argentine and particularly never had trouble understanding your translations.
    I learned to read English reading your work lol (this is totally true)
    So I’m totally grateful to you for this hard work!
    Thank you!

    1. In 2004 I was working for an internet cafe, with so much online time, I learned English by downloading many books from project Guttenberg and read them without bothering with dictionary, I just get the sense of a word by the context only. Imprecise, but it worked. For me, written English is fine, speaking and listening is another matter entirely.

  7. This is quite interesting, I agree that there isn’t really anything that could be done with that idiom. On the other hand, is (secretly nodding, secretly laughing, secretly sighing) somewhat like this in Chinese as well? Or is that actually something that IET does oddly.

    1. Aerebes, somewhat! Those three you listed are, respectively, 暗自点头, 暗笑, 暗自叹息. As you have noticed, they all share a common character; 暗, which literally means ‘dark’ or ‘secret’. 暗自 usually means ‘inwardly’ or ‘to one’s self’. These are not ‘chengyu’, but it is a fairly common grammatical construct in Chinese, yes!

  8. Thanks for the brief and fun reading of this but the stuff u pointed out here isen´t a mayor problem for me but what i get stuck up on is the phrase “Linley started” or “Bebe started”. those sentences always throw me off my reading speed and makes me a bit confused

  9. Reading Lord RWX’s post, I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. So I just stared at my PC screen, eyes and jaw wide open. Instantly, I felt a stroke of inspiration and entered closed door training for 100s in the Profound Truths of Literary Chinese. Now I have obtained a tiny glimpse into the profundity of Literary Chinese.

  10. I guess Asians, espeacially me, don’t think much about redundancy. Reading your translation on CD, it feels like all those idioms are natural part of it, and none of them is out of place, so I thank you for your efforts.

    Oh, I’ve been meaning to ask, have you thought about writing your very own wuxia, ren? I think you are quite gifted in terms of writing ability, and it has been proven by your April Fool’s day chapter ^_^

    1. I remember people linking to a story Ren was writing in the comments about a month ago, but i cant recall what it was called. They did say Ren put it on hiatus awhile back or something, i guess maybe till after CD is finished?

  11. Thanks Ren. This was very informative and entertaining. I woke up to a treat. As the saying goes, “There are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns”. This is one of the things I didn’t know that I didn’t know. Thank you again for all of your hard work. We may say this and mean it, but still not know how difficult it is for you to produce these translations for us to enjoy.

  12. Thanks Ren. I was wondering if you have thought of words like baffled, fuddle, or stupefied for the phrase 哭笑不得? Though it might not have the exact same meaning I feel those words give the same feeling and might make the story flow better in certain areas where (in context) it make more sense than
    哭笑不得 (translated).

    1. i guess flabbergasted and dumbfounded would also fit well if more alternatives are needed 🙂 then again the phrase never really bothered me, i just found it amusing that its in almost all ln/wn i read 😉

  13. Thanks for the in depth explanation! I figured it was something like that, I’ve heard a lot of similar repetitions from other Chinese light novels.

    I think the way you deal with it is pretty darn good, actually.

  14. While reading any kind of web novel, light novel or wuxia (or whatever its called) I get the feeling that its written by a kid – sentences are short and repeatitve, its like going over your old stories written for literature classes. Many phrases appear again and again in unsuccessful effort to give the “mature” and “dignified” character to the piece. Those are the phrases mentioned above.

    While I understand that you translate as it is written in original, and since you were so kind to explain your reasoning, I sugest another solution: have a few version of such a problematic phrase and alternate them! The “哭笑不得” can (imo) go as “not knowing how to react” ; “not knowing what to say” , or even : “dumbfounded” , “schocked” , “amazed”, depending on the context, as well as “didnt know wheter to cry or laugh”.
    Such action will take you futher away from the original style of the novel but at the same time I belive it will also elevate to higher level both the CD and you yourself and if the time comes to you to write your own piece, I’m sure you wont have this problem.

    Also, consider avoiding repeating names all the time, I understand that its the way its written in original, but it sounds artificially, try to prolong the sentences.

    Thats a fragment of Book 13 chapter 19, a bit modified by me.

    Linley stared carefully at the human formed Bebe, he looked very slender and delicate with only his eyes as lively and roguish as ever. Bebe chortled and rubbed his inch-long hair, raising his head and saying, “Boss, how’s my hair style? I spent a lot of time thinking about it before becoming a Deity.”
    Linley just stood there dumbfounded, with a hint of a smile on his lips.
    “While flying over from the Forest of Darkness, I actually made a little something.” Bebe said in an intentionally mysterious manner.
    “Oh?” Linley looked at him. With a flip of his hand, Bebe retrieved a tattered straw hat out of nowhere and then, with a very practiced manner, flipped it onto his head before grinning delightedly. “Boss, this straw hat really suits me, right?”
    Seeing how Bebe currently looked, Linley began to laugh. “Suits you, suits you!”
    Bebe looked solemnly at Linley. “Boss, let’s go chat somewhere else. Let’s not disturb them.”
    “Not disturb them?” Linley was somewhat startled, but then immediately understood. Turning his head he looked at the nearby War God and High Priest. The two clearly didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. They wanted to curse Bebe, but seeing how he was acting, they couldn’t utter a word.

    Ofcourse it might be that I am getting ahead of myself since I never ever wrote anything longer than a few pages, but as hardcore reader (books mainly, not web novels) I belive I am right. Also, please remember that english isnt my native language so all of the above might simply be a giant piece of crap coming from uneducated (I never really studied english – I just read a lot) fool. Anyway, thast what I think.

    1. Hi d3san, welcome to the community! I’m actually already doing that, a LOT, re rewording and using synonyms; IET is actually far more repetitive in Chinese than my version is in English. 😉 That being said, there are some set idioms that need to be translated, imo, in a consistent way, because they are just that; idioms.

      1. I think the issue is the “mark of cultivation and education” IET is trying to infuse into his work by (ab)using those classical chinese idoms.

        Do you translate on a literal level, focusing on the ‘content’ being faithfully translated into english, while hoping the reader assimilates the chinese way of higher literary expression, the “feel” of chinese literature?
        But at the risk of annoying the crap out of your english readers.
        Honestly, I sometimes wonder why i keep reading wuxia in general, and IET in particular, in that it feels like written by a 12 years old/machine translated/. Specially late at night, when i’m getting real grumpy from lack of sleep…

        Or, do you translate on a more semantic level, and therfor aiming to infuse the english way of ‘higher literary expression’ into IET story ?
        For exemple any repetition in english, idoms or otherwise, is frowned upon, as a cultivated person/autor is less expected to quote classical litereture and more expected to be able to say ten times the same thing without ever repeating him/herself.

        Of course, the second option does have some inconveniences. I’m pretty sure that would make your list of synonyms and english idoms explode. Heck, english is great in that it’s perfectly acceptable to invent your own words/idioms!
        (i think the chinese idioms get a lot of slack due to this, and it’s only the repetition that come across as annoying)
        It’d also take you longer for each chapiter, since you’d be working about twice as much, once to translate the content, and once to basically re-write the novel into “proper high level” english.

        Anyway … now that’s out of the way: I’m pretty sure everyone is peachy-fine with however you translate, and noone expects professional level translation from you. (And even on a professional level, you put most of them to shame with the speed at which you dish out chaps!)
        Besides : those that care don’t matter, and those that matter don’t care!

        On a last note: great job so far, courage for the rest, and remember to pace yourself.
        Don’t be afraid to take breaks: we wouldn’t want you to burn yourself out.
        ‘Slow and steady’ beats ‘fast and cliffhanger’ anyday !

        1. Well, like I said, the ones which IET is using are all primarily the ones which are in commonplace usage; I gave the example of ‘sour grapes’. Or, for example, when you used ‘slow and steady’, you didn’t think that you were trying to show off your understanding of The Tortoise and the Hare, which is where that phrase comes from, right?

          But to answer your question, when I translate, my goal is this: I primarily aim for giving English readers the same experience that Chinese readers had. That touches upon multiple issues, including readability, names, phrases, etc, while I still do try to maintain as much of the culture as possible. If that means I have to take a butcher’s blade to the original grammar, I will (and I often do). That being said, there is a fine line between ‘editing’ and ‘rewriting’, and I try not to cross over it too often. I still do, but I try to avoid it.

          To be perfectly frank, and without wanting to be arrogant, I believe my English version is, in many ways, better than IET’s original Chinese version, and I am very, very confident that my English language ability is on a higher level than his Chinese. IET is an excellent storyteller with an incredible imagination, but on a technical level, as a writer, he is very lacking. The repetition which he uses in the Chinese is no more acceptable than it is in English; it just stands out even more so because the English translation of certain idioms is, by its very nature, less ‘smooth’ than in the original Chinese.

    2. I agree that it would be nice to… how to say… use some variations on the common things that appear.

      But, what Ren was trying to say is, the idioms that IET uses… They are just common expressions that people use when speaking and writing. It’s not like he’s filling his works with big intellectual sounding words words to seem smarter. He’s just using standard (albeit slightly more formal) expressions that people often use without even thinking about it.

      The problem is that he uses the same expressions a lot, as he lacks the writing ability to infuse his works with the aforementioned “variation”.

  15. To think that Chinese-English translation has such depth into it. I think you are quite amazing to be able to translate such complicated Chinese to English. Let me say this again. 🙂
    Great translation Ren!

  16. Just Burn all your Bedding’s if you want your Bed Bugs problem to disappear and hire an Exterminator so that in the future there won’t be problems.
    Bed Bugs can lay eggs in Millions .

  17. Hey ren, didn’t know where to post this so i’m dropping it here, but there is some code showing at t he top of my screen for a profanity filter, and i can’t help but noticing there are only 27 words blocked, i think you need to watch George Carlin for more ideas, and good job on the translations.

        1. lol, i couldn’t help laughing seeing that one word. Seems like Ren has a sense of humor i didn’t know about 😛 Editing the post to “Deeeeleted” says it all 😛 .

          Ps. Incidentally I am very thankful for the profanity filter you installed and your edits to peoples posts. It’s so rare nowadays 😀

          PPs. If this post wasn’t edited by Ren but was instead posted just as it is now I am gonna be so embarrassed 😉

  18. So rdn, would you say that Chinese is one of the hardest languages to translate into English? But no matter what , after reading. This I realized ju how difficult translating a novel is. Thanks for your hard work

  19. Thank you very much for the hard work. Even the english in common usage is constantly being changed. Books that were translated into English 30 years ago sometimes need to be reworked to be more easily understood for modern readers. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to translate from another language and have the result make sense and still be easy to read.
    You are doing an amazing job.

  20. As always, thanks so much for the hard work Ren. Honestly I think that your translations are of the best I’ve seen, whether Japanese, Chinese, or Korean. I think that the extent to which you translate the idioms are actually fairly incredible, and the idiomatic phrases have never bothered me. Quite the contrary, not knowing whether to laugh or cry has warmed up to me and I chuckle quite a bit whenever it appears.

  21. Not sure how right I am, but I believe even in chinese idioms, there would be many different idioms with very similar and perhaps even interchangable meanings. In that sense, in days of yore, classical chinese writers were probably far more able to switch between these idioms so that their writing does not grow too stale. So that might be a valid criticism of IET, though I wouldn’t take it too seriously as I don’t think it is that big a deal.

    I’m on the side that thinks that these idioms do get a bit stale and would benefit from a bit of variety. I also think it is fair game for the translator to translate the meaning instead of the literal translation so long as it would flow better.

    Having said that, this is a choice for the individual translator to make, and Ren does a fine enough job of it as it is. Cheers,

  22. I always figured that the all funny repeated catch phrases (while secretly sighing) were all Chinese idioms, but its nice to have confirmation.

    To be honest, WN/LN’s arnt exactly the last bastion of good literature. You just have to accept that in the end, they pretty much all exhibit sup-bar writing

  23. After reading this, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry! However, to cry would be like drawing legs on a snake! Ahoges are a proud and aloof race! Ahoges are definitely not like those mere experts, who are as common as the clouds!

  24. I think “didn’t know whether to laugh or cry” is fine.

    I’ve also heard that phrase being used a few times in Portuguese. The meaning there is not really that of ‘awkwardness’, however. The best I can explain it is something so bad and outside your control has happened that you feel helpless and feel rather like laughing (at your own misery/bad luck) than just crying.

    1. Perhaps what Emperor Ni Yang (Stellar Transformations) felt after stepping on that bug would illustrate my description. He laughed at his own misfortune on the outside, but of course he must’ve also felt like crying.

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