It’s been a long time since I’ve done a ‘Fun With Translations’, and now seems as good a time as any to revisit a topic we’ve talked about before; titles. Names and titles, as any translator will tell you, are amongst the hardest things to translate. This is especially true in Chinese, because names are often selected and created from words that have multiple meanings, with the multiple meanings often all being relevant. And yet, as translators, it’s almost impossible to find a word in English which will encompass all of the meanings, and so we have to pick and choose…and often agonize over doing it. One of my all-time favorite examples is a simple term; 金刚 (Jin Gang). Let’s analyze a real-life Shaolin martial arts (often mythologized in Wuxia) known as 大力金刚拳, Da Li Jin Gang Quan.
So what exactly is this Da Li Jin Gang Quan? The first two characters are easy; ‘Big’ ‘Strength’ (ie ‘mighty’). The final character, Quan, means ‘fist’. So this is a type of powerful fist technique. As for Jin and Gang, Jin means ‘gold/metal’ while Gang means ‘tough/unyielding’; as a combined term, Jin Gang is now often used to refer to an extremely tough sort of metal. For example, in China, the Transformers franchise of transforming robots is known as 变形金刚 (Bian Xing Jin Gang, ie Shape-Changing Jin Gang), while Wolverine from X-Men is known as 金刚狼 (Jin Gang Lang, ie Jin Gang Wolf). So I suppose you could use the term ‘adamantine’, and thus simply translate Da Lin Jin Gang Quan as the Mighty Adamantine Fist.
But it’s more complicated than this. Shaolin is a Buddhist school, and all of its names have religious connotations. If you knew a bit more about how the term was used historically in China, you might know that 金刚 was originally used to refer to the warrior attendant/servants of the Buddha. The term 四大金刚, Si Da Jin Gang, ‘Four Warrior-Attendants’, is a very common one in reference to four mythical guards of Buddha. Even in the modern era, when four people join together in a team, others might refer to them as the ‘Four Warrior-Attendants’; for example, when three of my cousins and I were taking a picture together, my family members joked that we were the ‘Four Warrior-Attendants’. So you could also translate this technique, Da Li Jin Gang Quan, as Mighty Warrior-Attendant Fist, which would better reflect the religious tenor of the technique.
But here’s the thing. Buddhism actually came to China from India. If you did even more research, you would discover that the very term Jin Gang itself is actually the Chinese translation of the Sanskrit term ‘Vajra’, which can mean either ‘thunderbolt’ or ‘diamond’. This is why the Buddhist religious text known in Chinese as the 金刚经, Jin Gang Jing, is often translated as Diamond Sutra. In addition, the Vajra is also a scepter-like weapon that is said to be used by various Hindu deities, such as Indra, the god of heaven, who basically used it like thunderbolts to punish sinners (a la Zeus of Greek mythology), as well as Vajrapani, one of the earliest bodhisattvas and a protector of Buddha in certain branches of Buddhism. So you could also translate Da Li Jin Gang Quan as Mighty Diamond Fist, Mighty Thunderbolt Fist, or even Mighty Scepter Fist.
I think the problem is beginning to grow clear. In the original Chinese, the name Da Li Jin Gang Quan evokes a powerful fist technique that is as tough, unyielding, and as adamant as diamond…and also brings to mind (for Chinese readers) religious overtones regarding mighty Buddhist warriors and protectors, as befitting a type of martial arts from Shaolin Monastery. So as translators, what do we go with? How much of it do we try to fit in before it starts to sound stupid and awkward?
Mighty Adamantine Fist?
Mighty Warrior-Attendant Fist?
Mighty Diamond Fist?
Mighty Thunderbolt Fist?
Mighty Sceptre Fist?
Mighty Adamantine Warrior-Attendant Fist?
They are each correct in their own ways, but lack a certain something. So what do you choose?
You could alternately go with Mighty Jin-Gang Fist, or even Mighty Vajra Fist (my personal favorite), but when you are doing that, it’s just gibberish to your readers, unless they stop reading and go look the terms up, which breaks their immersion.
Again – translating can be awesomely fun, but this stuff can make dedicated translators really pull at their hair. I can easily stop translating for hours when I ponder over this sort of stuff, and honestly, there sometimes isn’t a perfect answer. Funny enough, the better a writer is in Chinese, the more often they will use titles like this, that have multiple meanings that are all relevant to the person/organization/technique in question…so, which one(s) do you wish to keep, and which will you/must you discard?