There have been a lot of innovations so far as Chinese translation is concerned.
By Priyadarsi Mukherji
The proposition of reconstructing the Babel Tower by the Chinese is in itself revolutionary. It seems to be an anthropocentric dream project that seeks to move contrary to the divine intervention as depicted in the Genesis of Old Testament and aims to connect the multilingual world through the bridges of translation rather than by building a tower.
When the Indian Buddhist texts were sought to be translated from Sanskrit or Pali into Chinese, the scholar-monks from both India and China found that the transcendental concepts embedded in abstractness have not been entirely translatable into Chinese since the Chinese worldview is predominantly materialistic and non-spiritual in nature. The theocentric (having God as the focal point of thoughts) worldview of the Indians found no easy path of transposing concepts into the anthropocentric or ethnocentric worldview of the Chinese. However, there have been a lot of innovations so far as Chinese translation is concerned.
While transposing concepts from an alien culture into one’s language, one cannot avoid coining new words. Coinage of new words is also a part of transcreation. Such word coinage in India can be undertaken by juxtaposing the Sanskrit root words in a grammatically flawless manner. At times, a translator for such coinage also needs to conceptualize the philosophy of an era or witness an object or a particular occurrence in an alien land so as to draw parallels and contrasts with one’s culture.
In his poem “Dolls made of Lotus Seedpod” (莲蓬人), composed in 1900, Lu Xun had called Zhou Dunyi, a rationalist from Northern Song Dynasty, as 净植 (the man who is planted firmly in purity). He goes on to describe him as the one who stands clean or born in innocence on the water surface like a lotus. I had to coin a single-word expression Jalaprishthaja, born on the water surface.
I would now like to highlight some awkward, ridiculous or humorous moments in the works of translation that I have come across. While translating one of Tagore’s songs from Bengali to English, one English scholar created a weird situation whereby people got overwhelmed with laughter. The English rendition of one of Tagore’s original song should have been “Who does stand beyond the veil of darkness?” While the word ‘timir’ means night, the English scholar mistook the word as a possessive particle added to the word ‘timi’ meaning a whale. So his rendition was—“Who standest thou beyond the whale?” While ‘timi’ is a whale, ‘timir’ is a poetic synonym for darkness.
Similarly, we find a Chinese translator while translating a Bengali folktale, mistook the phrase ‘shaapeybor’ as “Snake’s husband.” While ‘saap’ is a snake, ‘shaap’ means curse. On the other hand, ‘bor’ can mean husband and also blessings as per the context. In fact, ‘shaapeybor’ means Blessing in Disguise. The Chinese translator most probably had thought that there is some parallel between the Indian tale and the story of the White Lady Snake famous in Chinese folk literature. The phrase ‘shaapeybor’ in fact has nothing to do with this story.
Likewise, in a children’s storybook translated by a Chinese scholar from Chinese into Bengali, I found that while describing the rabbit’s efforts to affix a tail at its back, the translator inadvertently used a vulgar expression meaning the buttocks. The Bengali word ‘pachha’ is a vulgar term for buttocks. He should not have just consulted a dictionary. In the process of translation, we should try our best to avoid using taboo words from the target language.
In the poem “A Conversation of Two Birds” (鸟儿问答 1965), Mao Zedong used an unpolished expression“不须放屁” (You mustn’t talk shit). If translated, then the phrase means “One mustn’t fart.” Talking nonsense is equivalent to farting in Chinese. In translation, it was rendered as “No need of indulging in useless bragging.” The literal equivalent of farting in the Indian context is quite vulgar and discourteous.
In a multilingual society as in India, there are innumerable occasions where misunderstanding arises due to the incorrect interpretation of the same words used in different languages. This not only happens in India but also tends to wreck the bridges of communication among the Europeans. These are known as Faux Ami —the false friends of a translator. There are homophonic words in two different languages that look similar but differ significantly in meaning. There is often a partial overlap in definitions or root words which create additional complications. Similar words may fail to catch all the nuances of each word in both the languages. E.g., Bengali and Hindi, English and French, English and Spanish, French and Spanish, or even Chinese and Japanese.
Idiomatic phrases highlight particular culture-specific characteristics of a language. Sometimes such idioms bring together two or more mutually alien cultures concerning essence and connotation. At times, it also reflects the value system of an ethnic group. The Chinese word for index finger necessarily indicates ‘the finger with which one tastes one’s food’. The culture of the English people about gathering information and indexing books— has been indicated through the word ‘index finger.’ The Indian equivalent is somewhat judgmental, calling it ‘a finger that is raised to reprimand, or to scold severely.’ On the other hand, the names of other four fingers completely tally between India and China: middle finger, ring finger, little finger and the thumb. The Chinese and Indian equivalent for the ring finger has been: ‘the nameless finger, or Anamika’. We find the sign of cultural peculiarities in the phrases—“It is raining cats and dogs” in English; in Chinese, it turns out to be ‘a heavy downpour by tilting a tub.’ While in the context of Bengali or Hindi, it is ‘raining in torrents as if mallets and clubs hurtling down the sky’, containing a particular traditional element out of myths.
At times poets from other cultures have been fascinated by the Chinese poetic genre that was most popular during the Tang dynasty (618—907). They found the joy of creation especially in the rhyming pattern of the Tang. One such example is that of the famous Afro-Cuban poet NicolásGuillén (1902-1990) who used the strict rhyming pattern of A-A-B-A in his poem “Primero de Octubre” (The First of October). A famous example of the Chinese rhyming pattern A-A-B-A is that of Li Bai (701—762) in the poem 《静夜思》(“Thoughts on a Tranquil Night”). In the same pattern, Guillén wrote this poem, some extracts of which are
Guillén wrote this verse to eulogize the life in new China after 1949. Such symbolisms denote harmony between tradition and modernity that he noticed in China after the revolution.
Priyadarsi Mukherji is Professor in Chinese & Sinological Studies, Centre for Chinese & South-East Asian Studies, SLLCS, JNU, New Delhi