For several years now, translators of xianxia fiction have been translating the term 元婴 as “yuanying,” which is in fact a transliteration of the original Chinese. I have decided to coin my own English term “Nascent Soul.” I’m aware this new term may be somewhat confusing or perhaps even controversial, so I’m writing this article to explain not only how I came up with this term, but why.
First let me explain why I’ve decided to not use the established translation “yuanying.” I have three main reasons, the first two being relatively objective, and the third, clearly subjective.
The first reason has to do with my general philosophy regarding translating. As much as possible, I prefer to translated everything into English, with the exception of names. I’d like to quote what fellow wuxiaworld translator alyschu recently said on reddit:
I translate everything. The only thing I leave untranslated are the names of people […] There are some people who leave out details and phrases that may be a bit painful to translate or word to make their lives easier. You can go that route if the detail isn’t a big deal.
I feel exactly the same. If possible, I think the best thing is to use English words to translate terminology, unless it is not possible to impart the meaning of the word. Some Chinese words are almost impossible to translate directly into English, such as Jianghu. Translating Jianghu into “Rivers and Lakes” definitely sounds cool, and does have some etymological connection to the original meaning in Chinese, but actually gives you no clue whatsoever as to what it means. However, “yuanying” is not such a word. It can be translated into English in a way that imparts the meaning of the word. And to again quote alsychu, this word is a “big deal” in the context of the story.
Some people might say that “yuanying” has come to be an established translation term, and as such, should not be changed. I would challenge this assumption. Xianxia fiction translation has been going on for a relatively short period of time. Had “yuanying” been in use for a decade, I would be more inclined to agree with that argument, but it hasn’t.
Another reason I would prefer to have an English translation of “yuanying” is relatively simple. As more levels of Cultivation are revealed in “I Shall Seal the Heavens,” you will see more English renderings of the Chinese terms, all relatively direct descriptions. I feel it would be strange to have one transliterated term in the middle of an otherwise English-only list. In my mind, it would be similar to seeing this:
Private, Sergeant, Zhongwei, Captain, General
Weird and jarring.
My third reason for changing the translation has to do with Stellar Transformations. I first came across “yuanying” in ST, and I found it to be incredibly frustrating. There was no explanation as to what a “yuanying” was, and since the term was transliterated, I had no way to even guess about it. Googling did no good, nor did looking it up in various Chinese to English dictionaries, since the term did not exist in any of them at the time. Eventually, I looked up the term on baidu, but that is a process I do not want to force readers to endure.
Now let’s delve into my term Nascent Soul. First, I need to explain why I feel there has been difficulty in the past regarding how to translate the term into English. The original Chinese word contains two characters. The first character “yuan” 元 can have a lot of meanings, but most translators seem to agree that it means primary, principal, or original. The other character “ying” 婴 is fairly straightforward; it means infant or baby. Taking a look at the word superficially, you could mix and match words to come up with a variety of terms like Primary Infant, Original Baby, etc. All of these terms sound ridiculous in English. However, some deeper research reveals that there is more to this term than meets the eye.
The word “yuanying” is actually related to another Chinese word “yuanshen” 元神. “Yuanshen” is a term related to fictional Daoist practices. A “yuanshen” is something that a Daoist can obtain that will not only control their life and fate, but will enable them to live forever and be reincarnated upon death. Sound familiar? If you look it up in the dictionary it will say primordial spirit or soul. I think in the context of the fiction we are reading, the best translation would be Immortal Soul. The “yuanying” is essentially the form created as the first step toward obtaining the “yuanshen.” It’s appearance is like that of a small person, or an infant, thus the character “ying.”
Now, why did I pick “Nascent?” Well, I could have gone with Infant Soul, Soul Infant, or any number of such possibilities. But sadly, in English they all sound silly. Nascent does not. It sounds really cool, actually. What does it mean? It means something that is “beginning to exist or develop.” I think that accurately captures the meaning of original Chinese, without using a word like baby or infant to describe a stage of incredible magical power. I’m a firm believer that a translation should be accurate, but not at the sacrifice of the translation sounding awkward or ridiculous to the ears of a fluent speaker of English.
I know that for some time, “yuanying” has been the accepted translation for 元婴. I mean no disrespect to previous translators, or any current translators who will no doubt continue to use the transliteration “yuanying.” However, I also am very confident that “Nascent Soul” is not only accurate to the meaning, but also is worthy to stand next to the other terms within in xianxia fiction.
Special thanks to Madam Deathblade, Zhang Jing and Song Zikang for help with all of this.
Here is a Chinese article about “yuanying.”
And here is an article for “yuanshen.”