Summary of Translation Practice Based on My Assignments
Note: this essay is more about Chinese to English translation (CE translation for short) since I encountered much more difficulties in this area, thus it is worth discussing a few things I learned from it.
Doing translation is like dancing gracefully with one’s feet shackled. It would be an easy task if translation is all about translating words of one language into another, which can be decently done by today’s seemingly almighty software like Google Translation. Admittedly, machine translation can help translators a lot in saving their time, especially when dealing with general texts that do not contain cultural specific contents. In my case, machine translation helps me a lot in the assignments of English to Chinese translation, though the results of which are far from satisfying and still require efforts in polishing. However, when it comes to Chinese to English translation, any software I find available online is either of no use or would interfere with my workflow. It turns out that I actually spend more time and efforts in correcting ridiculous and funny mistakes made by computer than doing practical translation. A few attempts in machine translation is enough to push me back to a more traditional way.
CE translation is especially hard because: A. English is my second language that I started to learn in the middle school, and even after years of intensive learning I can barely call myself an affluent user of English. B. Chinese is so different from English that there is very little comparable experience that one can draw from his native language. I took some French lessons last semester and I found it a quite painless process in learning since there are so much similarities no matter in sentence structure or in the spelling of commonly used words. It is fair to say that the difficulties of learning French for an American is pretty much the same as a Chinese learning Cantonese. C. when doing CE translation, I spend more time struggling with cultural specific contents that need deep understanding of my own culture. Ironic as it may seem, I know basically nothing about the texts that I am required to translate. Fortunately in the age of technology, I can resort to a search engine for any information I want to know. Baidu, Google, or even academic papers, I should express my gratitude towards them.
Talk is cheap, so I am going to analyze some excerpts of my CE translation in the following paragraphs, in comparison with Mr. Luo’s more acceptable version to highlight the difficulties as well as the charm of translation.
My Translation: Three Residential Blocks and One Screen Wall
Bai people live in courtyard houses, usually in the form of three residential blocks and one screen wall. The courtyard is opened through the screen wall. The three principal rooms facing the screen wall form one block, and the middle one is the main room, an important place for home activities. Two sub-rooms on each side of the main room are bedchambers for the elders. When it comes to matrimonial ceremony, one sub-room can be used as wedding room. Two sides of the screen wall are connected with wing-rooms, which constitute the other two blocks. As the symbol of Bai people’s courtyard culture, the screen wall is often exquisitely decorated，and serves as partition wall to reflect light. The local people believe that it can withstand evils and bring about happiness.
Mr. Luo’s Translation: Sanfangyizhaobi
Bai-style houses are mostly courtyard houses, the major form of which is sanfangyizhaobi. Beside the front gate of the house stands a screen-like wall, zhaobi. Face-to-face with zhaobi are three rooms, which form the first or major fang or unit of the house. The room in the middle is the living room of the house, the place for important family activities. The other two rooms are elders’ bedrooms. One of the two rooms will be used as the bridal chamber if someone in the family gets married. The left and right sides of zhaobi are connected with two wings, which make the other two fangs of the house. Usually exquisitely decorated, Zhaobi both serves as a screen and reflects sunlight. It is also believed to be capable of keeping out evils and taking in blessings. Zhaobi has become the signature of Bai-style houses.
Obviously Mr. Luo’s translation is concise and coherent. A major difference between the two versions is how we expound on the meaning of “Sanfangyizhaobi”. A fang should be a single house instead of a residential block which consists of large buildings, so my translation is totally wrong. But here I’d like to defend my approach of translation against Mr. Luo’s transliteration. Surely it is not easy to fully understand the concept even in the Chinese context, unless one has seen it with his own eyes. When dealing with the translation of cultural specific concepts, transliteration plus illustration is always a feasible and comparatively comprehensible approach. But a translator should keep in mind that any cultural significance is doomed to dissipate in transliteration because to foreigners it is no more than a cluster of meaningless sounds. Our intended readers can only rely on the illustration of the concept, and therefore the transliteration serves nothing. Of course one may argue that since words like “Guanxi” “Fengshui” have entered English vocabulary, then why we should make an exception for “Sanfangyizhaobi”? Here are my thoughts about this: whether transliteration is appropriate or not depends on the purpose of translation and its expected effects. Words like “Guanxi” and “Fengshui” are the trunk of Chinese culture that any foreigner who’s within the culture can hardly ignore them, in which case transliteration is a better choice because it bears both meaning and sound. But “Sanfangyizhaobi” is at most a regional concept that constitutes a small branch of Chinese culture, thus understanding and memorizing the meaning and sound of this word can be extremely hard for English readers. If our purpose is to introduce this sub-cultural concept to an English reader, then paraphrase is perhaps more acceptable. After all this is probably the only chance in one’s lifetime to come across this word. With what is said above, I think a more comprehensible translation of ”三坊一照壁” would be “The Architectural Style in the Form of ‘Three Units and One Screen Wall’”(This is disputable).