Playing lutes for cows and beating grass

In Chinese there are a lot of idiomatic expressions that often don’t make sense without explanation. The most obvious is the “Mt. Taishan” one, which I believe I first read in Outlaws of the Marsh, and is now part of our common vocabulary.

The meaning of some are relatively obvious even with direct translation. For example the idiom “to play the lute for a cow.” If you read a paragraph that went something like this: “That guy doesn’t understand martial arts. Trying to teach him the Ultimate Gobstopper Fist is like playing a lute for a cow.” You pretty much get the picture, right? It’s an idiom that’s often translated as “toss pearls before swine.”

My question to you guys is, when it comes to these lesser obvious idioms, what translation do you prefer? For example, with the expression “to beat the grass and startle the snake,” do you prefer:

1) Direct translation only: “Dude, don’t do that. You don’t want to beat the grass and startle the snake.”

2) English only: “Dude, don’t do that. You don’t want to arouse the attention of the enemy.”

3) Direct translation with note: “Dude, don’t do that. You don’t want to beat the grass and startle the snake. (TL Note: ‘to beat the grass and startle the snake’ is an idiom which means to arouse the attention of the enemy.)

If you have a minute, please take the time to participate in a quick poll. (There’s no “other” option in this poll. please leave “other” comments in this thread…)

P.S. ISSTH first guaranteed chapter of the week comes out in less than 12 hours!

38 thoughts on “Playing lutes for cows and beating grass” - NO SPOILERS and NO CURSING

  1. I will fill the poll too, but here are my 2 cents for anyone who is interested
    Personally I would prefer option 1 unless it makes absolutely no sense or completely ruins the continuation of the phrase.

    “Dude, don’t do that. You don’t want to beat the grass and startle the snake”
    Most people will both understand what it means and the phrase remains easy to read. However a lot of the times, the idioms are so convoluted that it might be very hard to follow (both the meaning of the idiom and the phrasing in itself). In those cases either option 2 or 3 are OK.

    IMHO, a mix of the 3 options is the perfect solution. For situations that removing the idiom takes too much of the essence of the phrase, just keep a direct translation. In situations that it makes more sense to have an ‘english-only’ translation, use that.

    For example if a master is trying to teach his apprentice something and uses an idiom, it should remain as a direct translations because it is supposed to make the apprentice – and subsequently the reader – think of the meaning behind the idiom. Thus you become more emerged in the story/character. Plus it adds the spice of Chinese culture which I believe most of the readers here are fond of.

    In the end, you are the translators and we trust your judgement. Pick whatever makes more sense. There is no perfect solution.

    BTW sorry for the broken English. Not my first language. If you’re interested to discuss more, hit me up in the forums.

  2. Playing flute for cows? we’re still doing that in my country. Animals do enjoy music too. Mount Taishan? Change it into Mt. Everest and maybe some reader will understand it lol. Chinese idioms are part of their culture. Maybe we should try to understand it, not try to change it. You can add glossary or explanation later for those idioms without change them to English version. This is only my opinion, but the decision is yours, you are the translator. Thank you for your hard work.

  3. just to check, this question is only about the less common idioms, for the more common idioms, direct translation is the plan?
    i voted 3, i like the chinese idioms but don’t always follow them,
    and i’d choose 1 for those easily understood idioms 🙂

  4. I go with four; translate it, and then add in additional text that doesn’t exist in the original.

    A la, “Dude, don’t do that! You don’t want to ‘beat the grass and startle the snake,’ arousing the attention of our enemies.”

    1. The only problem with this is it isn’t always appropriate, especially if the explanation takes more time to say than the idiom during an action scene, and can interrupt the flow of the story.

      I think switching between this (where the explanation is short) and a variation of (3) where that note is included as a footnote is the best. Once you read an idiom a few times and learn the meaning there isn’t a need to read the lengthy description of how a line is an illusion to a Chinese folk-tale or literature such as the Tale of Three Kingdoms.

  5. I’m quite torn about this, I want the translations to be true to the original but then again if the transations were taken literally then most of the dialogue would just be a heap of words that dont make much sense unless a footnote was placed, but if idioms and sayings were changed to fit the English speaking readers then the story flow will become somewhat odd……so if anything I would really just go for option 3.

  6. Chinese idiom is can i say it..beatifull. I found it first when i was reading one of Gu Long’s masterpiece, Lu Xiao Feng saga (idk how to translate the title to english, but it should be like “the warrior with 4 eyebrows” CMIIW) , one of my fav is : Trying to win an argument with an angry woman is as easy as teaching a buffalo how to dance.

  7. Direct translation only. You can expect the readers to have some brains of their own. That goes for the idioms like the ones you mentioned, which are more or less self-explanatory. It would be best to include a footnote for those idioms and sayings that truly need further explanation to be understood. For the Mount Tai idiom, the existence of the background story made it worthy of elaboration.

  8. I’m either option 2. Or as an alternative to option 3, rather than have the explanation follow the idiom, put the explanation as a footer at the end of the entire text.

    I get jittery when I keep popping in and out of the matrix, I mean my immersion……

    1. I am frankly, amazed, that you seem to be in the minority.
      I, too, think that immersion is very important when I’m reading and get rather frustrated when things are poorly worded, as they are apt to be when things are directly translated.

      I would much rather Option 2, but it seems like I’m in the minority…

      1. Yeah, the poll was indeed quite the eye opener for me too.

        Edit: Ahh, I must apologise. I was referring to option 2 in the poll, which is No.1 in the text above….. my bad….I’m sorry misleading you.

        Shake and agree to forget this happened??

  9. Idioms often are very closely related to cultural aspects of a society. It becomes difficult to understand them if you are not a native.
    The idioms which are direct – which is easily understood should follow #1. Which are rather indirect and difficult should follow #3.
    BTW what is Mt. Taishan ?

  10. Honestly I love the direct translation, and I find foot notes a lot more appealing than the translators notes right next to the idiom. Mostly because in this genre we usually find things like those said in dialog, and having the note directly after removes me from the scene. I understand this is more work than just leaving the note there, especially with your release schedule. However, you did ask for my preference so there it is, have a wonderful day.

  11. Personally I prefer direct translations coz u can understand the idiom if u know the what’s happening but sometimes you might think u know it but u don’t so notes are good too. But doing notes on every idiom is a bit annoying so u should do notes on tricky idioms only.(personal opinion). Tough I still haven’t had any probs with idioms.

  12. Honestly I would like something like 3, but I think that having the idioms’ explainations within the chapter release post. Ppl will know in advance what the idioms means and will get used to read your announcements within the chapter release, it’s a double win! =D

  13. If you ask me, its very interesting to learn new proverbs, and it is one of the many things I like about novels i.e their respective cultures.
    So when we can make any sense out of the proverb, you can just leave the proverb as it is.
    But when its a little too confusing, you can leave a translation note. Even though this way may prove to be some extra work for you, but I would very much like it if you can manage it.
    Thanks, in the end whatever you chose, I am with you.

  14. I think the combination of option 1 + a new tab which contain all of the idioms and their meaning where readers can find out the meaning themselves ,so that the workload for the translator can be lessen because they dont have to explain the idiom every time it appear

  15. We know what the “startle the snake.” part means (alert the enemy), but what does the “beat the grass” mean?

    I think it should mean something like attack/disturb in a negative way a powerless group, or at least a group that wouldn’t be a problem to the one saying it. (thus being portrayed as “grass”).

    ps. the poll link doesn’t seem to work for me.

    1. It just means “‘don’t blow your cover”.

      You’re out to catch or kill the snake, but make so much noise moving through the grass that it was alerted and made your life more difficult.

  16. Chinese idioms are meant for a chinese audience and are confusing in translated works. I would recommend just translating idioms to English unless it is needed to help define a character, or the present situation in the novel.

  17. For those with keen understanding of English and idiomatic expressions, the direct translations will suffice. A note should be left for those of us who are not proficient in english.

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