When to translate? When not to translate? What to translate as? Sometimes, the most basic of terms are also the most headachy of terms, especially when their is no direct comparison or word in the output language. I’ll give you an example below the jump. As always, the previous six parts of this quasi-regular series have been included.
Part 1 – Fun With Languages and Names
Part 2 – Fantasy Terms
Part 3 – Translating Techniques
Part 4 – Translation Time Breakdown
Part 5 – Between Laughter and Tears of ‘Fun With Translations’
Part 6 – Grammer Slam!
As I begin, let me draw a parallel. In Asian fiction, there is a type of person known as a 忍者. These guys are kinda like thieves/assassins/martial artists, and they have their own techniques known as 忍術. Many of you already know what this is, but just play along. Let’s pretend I’m the first person to translate this. How to translate it?
From a translator’s viewpoint, 忍 literally means ‘endure’, while ‘者’ refers to a person, and is used like the English suffix ‘er’; ie ‘kill’ to ‘killer’, ‘break’ to ‘breaker’, etc. So 忍者 literally means ‘endurer’ or ‘one who endures’. As for their badass techniques, it literally translates as ‘enduring techniques’. But this is a weird translation, and ‘endurer’ and ‘enduring techniques’ sounds…corny.
Now, one way that we translators can ‘bypass’ this sort of whacky translation is of course to transliterate the sound and just go with ‘renzhe‘ and ‘renshu‘, which is how it is transliterated, but that’s always seemed like the cop-out to me, so I try to avoid it as much as possible.
A second way to bypass the problem is to translate based on what a 忍者 is/does, rather than what the words themselves mean; a 忍者 is a sneaky type, sort of like an assassin (which has its own word, 刺客, literally ‘guest who stabs’), or a thief, or a spy. To be perfectly honest, to me, the closest English equivalent is the D&D class ‘rogue’, and if I were the first person to translate 忍者, that’s probably what I would’ve translated it as – Rogue. Assassin would have been a very close second as well, even though there’s already a specialized term for it. Rogues can spy, can thief, can kill….can do all sorts of things, and are the closest thing to a 忍者 that exists in the English language. 忍術, I probably would’ve gone with ‘rogue arts’ or ‘rogue techniques’.
Luckily enough for you guys, the original translator went for the ‘cop-out’ and just transliterated the sound. 忍者 is ‘ninja‘, which is basically how ‘renzhe‘ is pronounced in Japanese (the exact same two characters are used in Chinese and Japanese, and each character has the same meaning). 忍術 is what we commonly call ‘ninjitsu‘. These words have now become popular, well-known parts in the English lexicon.
As I translate Chinese novels and discuss them with other translators, I often think of the above.
This happens all the darn time in these novels, and is one of the reasons why fiction can be such a pain to translate (well). In some ways, it isn’t quite as bad for Coiling Dragon, as Coiling Dragon doesn’t have as many Chinese concepts, since it belongs to a subset of Chinese fantasy that isn’t true Xianxia (more on that in a later post) and thus has fewer distinctly Chinese terms and concepts, but for many of the other novels, this isn’t the case.
Now, I still remain a firm believer in translating whatever can be easily translated/there is a direct parallel for. But at the same time, many of the basic concepts, there really is no direct parallel for, so what should we do? This is why deathblade agonized over terms like yuanying in this article (he eventually went with ‘nascent soul’), and the two of us have had more than one conversation about how to translate the term 修士 (‘xiushi‘) which is currently translated as Cultivator in ISSTH; the word literally translates as friar/monk in the real world, but obviously that carries a lot of baggage that isn’t applicable to 修士. If we break up the term into its components of 修 and 士, 修 means to train/cultivate (the same character is used to describe Linley’s training in CD, 修炼), while 士 is an honorific for a person; thus, 修士 literally means ‘one who cultivates’, which is why in the end, deathblade went with Cultivator, which I suggested. I’m going to be honest; I still don’t like it, even though I helped suggest it! But what’s a better option? I’m not sure.
Similarly, I had almost the exact same conversation with IEatWatermelons, who is working on Desolate Era, regarding the term 修仙者 (xiuxianzhe). 修, as you may recall from just earlier, means ‘train’ or ‘cultivate’; 仙 means ‘Immortal’, and 者, like in ninja, is a suffix that makes it a person. Thus, 修仙者 is ‘one who cultivates to be an Immortal’. I think in the end, IEW shortened it to be an ‘Immortal practitioner’, which is certainly one way (albeit a bit weird), and I honestly am not sure of a better way to put it. Much like how ninja have their ninjitsu (忍術), Immortal practitioners have their 修仙術, ‘cultivating Immortal techniques’…which would be what, ‘Immortal practitioner techniques’, I think IEW uses? Quite a mouthful. Still don’t like it. We’ve had numerous discussions about the ranks ‘Houtian’, ‘Xiantian’, ‘Zifu Xiushi’, ‘Wanxiang Zhenren’, and I don’t think we’re any closer to an agreement on them (in fact, I’m not even sure I know where I stand!).
And even here at WW, we have divergences. In Coiling Dragon, there is a term battle-qi, which is how I chose to translate 斗气, which to me was an easy translation. The exact same term in Battle Through the Heavens, however, is kept as ‘Dou Qi’ (sometimes also called Dou Zhi Li, but it’s the same meaning). For BTTH, my friends and colleagues at Gravity keep the terms ‘Dou Zhe’, ‘Dou Shi’, ‘Da Dou Shi’, ‘Dou Ling’, ‘Dou Wang’, ‘Dou Huang’, ‘Dou Zong’, etc., whereas I would have used ‘Fighter’, ‘Warrior’, ‘Grand Warrior’, ‘Spirit Warrior’, ‘King Warrior’, ‘Emperor Warrior’, ‘Grandmaster Warrior’, etc. Which one is better? Personally, I would’ve gone with my ‘warrior’ series…but then again, I’m the same guy who just told you I would’ve translated ninja as ‘rogue’. 😛 😛 😛
Honestly, this question keeps me up at night, and when I’m on a walk, I can literally spend hours and hours just thinking about this. This is the type of most fundamental stuff, which will make the biggest difference. When to leave a word which does not have a direct parallel in English untranslated? When to try and ‘piece’ it together? When to try and let it enter the popular lexicon and become a ‘loanword’?
‘Xiushi‘ or Cultivator?’
‘Ninja‘, or ‘Endurer’ (or ‘Rogue’)?
‘Yuanying‘ or ‘nascent soul’?
‘Dou Qi/Dou Zhi Li‘ or ‘battle-qi’?
‘Bushido‘ or ‘the way of the warrior’?
Xianxia and Wuxia, or ‘Immortal Heroes’ and ‘Martial Heroes’?
Xiuxianzhe‘ or ‘Immortal practitioner’?
Believe it or not, this sort of stuff sometimes keeps me up at night. 囧囧囧 It gets even funkier with family relations, certain personal pronouns, titles, etc…but that’s for another day!
Note – This short article is not meant in any way, shape, or form as criticism or an evaluation of any translator or translation whatsoever. It’s just meant, as always, as a look into the minds of translators as we ponder what to do, as well as the separate decisions we end up taking! 🙂