Fun With Translation – Titles, part 2

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?

45 thoughts on “Fun With Translation – Titles, part 2” - NO SPOILERS and NO CURSING

  1. One option, of course, is (and this would certainly be a longer and more time consuming process) to, either in the footnotes or elsewhere, explain all the meanings and history behind the words when they appear as you did here with this word.

    It certainly would be more time consuming, and most definitely probably not worth it, but (and this is assuming the same translator works on it from start to finish / future translators keep it as it was previously) it would allow for future references to simply be along the lines of Mighty Jin-Gang Fist. With this, however, those of us that read the footnotes/explanations would have a better understanding and sense of the author is intending when using the words.

    It doesn’t make sense in this environment (easily an extra 1-3 person job, depending), but this explanation does wonders to help explain the thought process into what translators face, as well as why names/titles change so often between translators, or even the same translator at different points in their understanding / mind set.

  2. I would go with “Diamond Strong Fist” or “Might of Diamond Fist”(sounds better, but is further from original meaning) because Migthty something fist sounds too casual to me

  3. Been there Ren. I would prefer the most original meaning as it should encompass all the meaning. I would probably end up translating somewhere in line of Mighty Vajra Fist

  4. To be honest, I would pick the one that sounded best (imo Mighty Vajra Fist), then just use a footnote to *briefly* explain it (as in, 30 words or less, a brief explanation, plus just enough info for readers to do further reading if they wanted). For example;

    * Da Lie Jin Gang Quan (大力金刚拳), Mighty Unyielding Metal Fist. Jin Gang (金刚) literally “unyielding metal/gold” (i.e Adamantine), symbolizes the Four Warrior-Attendants of Buddha, originates from the Sanskrit “Vajra”.

    Now all the relevant info is there, so it’s easy to research it (or if you have really good general knowledge, understand the extra definitions more easily).

    But seriously, this stuff is nuts, and it seriously blows my mind when you post these kinds of things 😀

  5. to make it simple and for laughs you could just simply use google translate and whatever the result, that would be the title to use.
    大力金刚拳=Omega Boxing lulz xD

  6. I consider the immersion broken when I’m taken to a completely different place, at which point I might get distracted (specially the case with Wikipedia). On-page references help, but it’s still annoying to go back and forth.

    My ideal would be to keep it Vajra and add Wikipedia style on-hover pop-up to explain the BG concisely for only the first appearance, and at the same time, add the term to the glossary for future reference, possibly more detailed if need be.

    Or you can go Baka-Tsuki style and write two meanings in the same spce (Wiki formatting feature, I believe).

    1. This also brings to mind my thoughts on translation balance: use the target language’s term if there a direct translation for it, but simply transliterate words like Qi and naming terms like the one you cited this time with multiple meanings and/or no direct translation. It’s better for these words to be simply understood by the readers (with the help of the appropriate notes and explanations) rather than awkward and incomplete translations.

      I believe this would achieve an ideal balance of translation and accuracy.

  7. Hahaha…

    I always wondered why translators would lament over the hours they spent translating chapters no longer than 2000-3000 words (BEFORE SOMEONE SKINS ME ALIVE FOR THE FOLLOWING WORDS, LET ME MAKE IT CLEAR: I’M NOT COMPLAINING!!), thinking to myself: ‘Why do they even need hours?? I could probably translate the entire chapter from English to Italian in… 30-40 minutes??’ or ‘They are probably dramatizing…’

    I guess now I know why you (translators) need so much time…


    Even if it ruins the reader immersion, I would go with ‘Mighty Vajra Fist’, obviously, followed by a proper and short explanation in the footnotes.

  8. Indra is the king of heaven actually not a god of heaven (wiki problems). People have tried to take his title, which means that he cannot always be the king of heaven. (There is an actual hindu ritual for this!) Sanskrit is a very confusing language, because as you said words can mean differently when used in various sentences. But in this case, Vajra is actually meant to describe two properties: indestructible and unyielding. I hope this helps!

  9. Interesting. I sometimes stumble onto a problem like this when I translate Korean. It gets really annoying when I translate things like clan names, mostly because of the way the Korean language itself is structured. For example, Shaolin (少林) in Korean would be 소림 (少林). Korean authors almost never provide readers with the Chinese characters that stand for certain Korean words, so it’s basically like trying to work out what something means with just the pinyin…. It sucks. A lot.

    Oh, and about the fist translation thing… I also think that “Mighty Vajra Fist” sounds better than others.

  10. Well, I feel your pain Ren. Translation is always so difficult and terms are so good especially because they encompass so many possible meanings. I feel like the best way to handle this as others have said is to simply use the all purpose vajra and simply include footnotes to allow readers who care about all possible meanings or translations to be able to explore that information at their leisure. I feel like if the term carried that many different connotations in the first place, the native reader would still probably pause for a bit to consider all of the possible meanings of that phrase or title or word and then proceed reading which would already sort of destroy or at least affect the immersion. I don’t see it as a negative to look at footnotes in the middle of the reading. Sometimes, readers will just not know what the word means and come back to it later and then read the footnotes which also works. (I do that with ISSTH a lot…)

    I think you can try to take multiple stances as well. Do you want to be faithful to what the author intended or do you want to have your own interpretation of the author’s work? This can also affect how you end up translating. This is arguably lazier, but it could just have to do with your ‘ideals.’ You could also just sort of change the wording and the structure of the paragraph and phrasing to accommodate a translated way of referring to all possible (or at least many of the possible) meanings of the original wording. In this manner, I think that it is possible to maximize comprehension in a natural way. Of course, that destroys one’s respect for the author so that’s also a grey area since you are also literally rewriting what they are saying in semi-equivalent terms which doesn’t exactly count as a translation.

    My main opinion is that translation is an exceedingly difficult task, and I’m always quite impressed with your guys’ and gals’ work when you all manage to somehow turn the multiple meaning translation into something pretty darn close, accurate, and immersive, which is released in a relatively short amount of time.

    I honestly often forget how much effort it takes to translate what you guys translate with so much care and effort. It’s really a nice change being able to see such high quality work here on this site.

  11. I’d go with varja fist, varja turns up enough in various translations to get a slight sense of it’s meaning, and it allows the reader to slightly place their own interpretation and assumptions about the word into the novel, i may just read too many novels, but i know some others do too 😀
    i thought that varja was slightly holy-ish and a high tier of power, which is kinda correct-ish, now i have a more complete understanding of the word and that’s great too ty

  12. It all depends on context honestly…. The reason author chooses to use terms with multiple meanings is most likely so reader can interpret in themselves but in our case, its the translator that has to make that decision. As long as the wording makes sense in context of the novel and is consistent, its fine to make a decision on how to translate

  13. The Chinese characters can carry multiple meanings, but that also depends on the knowledge of the reader. Certainly makes hard work for the English translator. Keep up the good work.

  14. I love your thoughts on translation, Ren. Always very interesting 😮

    In this particular case, I think translators should go with whatever sounds best and makes the most sense to them personally (even if it means somewhat disregarding the literal translation of the term). Mighty Vajra Fist sounds badass, btw, so I agree with you there. 😛

    And I feel like “Jianghu” is always a prime example in discussions like these, haha.

    Leaving a footnote afterward to link to relevant information or explain the various possible meanings is a great idea. I’m the type of person who really appreciates that and will spend time later looking stuff up. 🙂 Deathblade’s particularly good about doing this!

  15. Personally, I absolutely adore translation notes, If I spend more time on translation notes for a chapter than the actual chapter, I will be a happy camper. Sometimes stuff just doesnt translate, I think the best option is to leave it in and enlighten the readers about what it can mean.

  16. When translating other languages into English, sometimes the order of the words in the translation is not necessarily how they are written in the native language. So why couldn’t Da Li Jin Gang Quan be “Mighty Fist of the Diamond Guardians”, or even “Fist of the Mighty Diamond Guardians”?

  17. I feel your pain Ren. I once had to translate a 64 character ~600AD Chinese poem into english, the end product (one that made sense) being almost 500 words. The english language lacks the depth of meaning that Chinese characters can convey.

    1. “The english language lacks the depth of meaning that Chinese characters can convey.”

      I don’t want to start a culture war here, but no, the English language doesn’t “lack depth”. Of course you need to use more words in English to express what the Chinese language uses, but that is because words and ideograms are totally different concepts of writing.

      What you said above is a fallacy that many people think regarding their “native tongue” when considering different languages, but it is only a lack of familiarity with, or comprehension of, the other languages that leads people to believe it.

  18. I think “Vajra” is the best translation because it more closely reflects the original multiple meanings in a single easily searchable term. To use “Jin-Gang”, in contrast, would in fact sound like gibberish and not be easily searchable.

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