On Thursday night my landlady called and asked if she could come over to see me because she had some translation questions for me. Anyone who's been in China for a while knows the fear and dread that well up inside at the sound of someone asking for help with translation work. "Just read it over. It won't take long." Those words always precede hours of painful and laborious mental gymnastics trying to translate phrases, like the one in the title of this post, from what we call "Chinglish" to English.
My landlady and her husband have their own business producing publicity and promotional materials for schools in China. With English as popular as it is here, these materials (from DVDs to brochures) must all be in English as well as Chinese, never mind the fact that very few native speakers will actually see or read them. In the China of 2005, one simply cannot produce anything like this without any English in it. My landlady out-sources the translations to professionals; however, there are times when, for some reason, she doubts the accuracy of the translations, so asks me to look at them to see if the English makes sense and if it indeed accurately reflects the Chinese meaning.
Yesterday, she had one such project for me. That noise you heard emanating from the western side of Beijing on Friday was the sound of cultures and languages clashing!
An interesting feature of Chinese discourse is the use of poetic and flowery language in nearly every conceivable context, formal and informal. A language that has been around for 3,000 years has quite the collection of poetry, expressions and idioms, and they are all to be used as much as possible. The phrase "twinkling with inheriting and inheriting achievement" is merely an extreme example.
The document we worked on had line after line after line of such sentences, and I was supposed to see if they were OK. After a while, one of two things happens. Either I read a sentence and decide it makes perfect sense (a sure sign that I have been in China way too long) or I have to attempt to convince her that it is impossible to translate such a sentence. In fact, after yesterday, I think there should be a law against translating such sentences.
When I read it in Chinese, it makes perfect sense, but there's no way to get it into an English sentence that both maintains the poetry and has meaning. Take your pick, Mrs. Li. You can't have it both ways!
Ah, but you see, in Chinese, they do have it both ways, because poetic language is not only permissible in formal writing, it is expected, for it is one of the main ways to demonstrate that one is a literate and cultured person.
After my brain was fried trying to disentangle that mess of a sentence, we sat back and discussed the cultural differences. I explained to her that it was so difficult because in English we have different sets of rules for business writing than for essay writing. Poetic and creative language can be used in essays but not in business writing. Therefore, when translating such pieces I may be able to come up with some suitable English words that approximate the meaning, but their presence in such a formal setting is completely unacceptable.
Translating such a sentence is nearly impossible because it will never come out in a manner that suits both sides. If the Chinese person insists that the emotional language remain, than it will be gibberish in English. If the English speaker wins, then the Chinese will feel like the translation is not close enough to the original (and they would be correct, of course).
In the course of the conversation, I learned the distinction between two Chinese words for written text: wenzhang (文章) and wenjian (文件). Wenzhang is the word for essays or articles of a literary nature. Wenjian is the word for formal documents, like something a boss or leader might hand down to his/her underlings.
Wenzhang demands emotional, flowery language. Wenjian is cold and impersonal, and implies authority, command and distance. Poetic language is not used in wenjian.
“Aha!” I said to her. “That's the problem. To Chinese, a brochure like this is considered a wenzhang. In English, it would be considered a wenjian.”
Finally, a breakthrough in understanding (for both of us)—why the languages were clashing. In her mind, what we were translating was a wenzhang and in my mind it was clearly a wenjian. Finally, she understood.
Wenzhang, wenjian . . . let's call the whole thing off!
Originally written in 2005 while Joann was living in Beijing, this post also appears on her blog, Outside-In.
Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio
Are you enjoying a cup of good coffee or fragrant tea while reading the latest ChinaSource post? Consider donating the cost of that “cuppa” to support our content so we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.