Dong Li — Aug 25, 2021

The nineteenth-century scholar YAN Fu (严复) admirably laid out the most influential Chinese translation theories, and the first principle is XIN (信). XIN means »trustworthy of what the text says.« Obviously, this principle demands that the translation be faithful to the original. However, this is often problematic when it comes to idioms and poetic images. Inspired by the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur’s idea of untranslatability and approximation, I would, by way of anecdotes, propose a new interpretation of XIN as »authenticity.«

In his book On Translation,1 Ricoeur introduces notions of translation as »work of mourning« and »work of remembering.« For Ricoeur, languages are a priori untranslatable into each other. However, this is not a point of despair, but rather one of acceptance and possibility. As the translator »mourns« the inevitable loss of the original text, s/he also »remembers« the vision of the text and imparts, or more technically, »approximates« it into another language. Herein lies a kind of »linguistic hospitability« – welcoming the foreign text into the home of another language.

Ricoeur highlights some of the fundamental questions in translation that resonate with me as a literary translator. Should I translate an idiom literally into a hodgepodge of words that might not make much sense in the receiving culture, so that the foreignness could be preserved? What about an image in a poem that sets off a constellation of associations in the original text, but becomes bland in the target language, if rendered word for word? How do we, in our everyday practice, »mourn« a text and its departing culture, and let a translated text »remember« in the receiving culture? The more I contemplate this, the more inadequate I find the interpretation of XIN as faithfulness and trustworthiness.

From my experience, rather than faithfully translating an idiom into a literal word-hoard, a transformation of the idiom to a comparable one that evokes similar meaning or emotion might be a solution. Similarly, an image should ignite close feelings or intensity for the reader in both cultures. In this way, the translated text could stay approximately true, or in other words, authentic.

Take this line from the Chinese poet Zhu Zhu, which I have translated into English.

我 看 见 过                 生活    的  全 部    色彩。

I see past indicator      life     ’s   all          colors

My translation: I saw all the brilliance of this life.

The context of this line is wind blowing every curtain on the street, and the poet reflects and has a revelation. »Colors« sounds either bland, or a bit unclear, as to whether it denotatively refers to »true meaning« or »intentions.« What Zhu Zhu meant here is in fact straight forward, »colors« in the sense of wonderful things in life. Instead of »colors,« »brilliance« might be a quick fix to the problem. »Brilliance« is not a literal translation of the original, but stands closer to the original in its emotional impact. Here’s another line from Zhu Zhu:

…从.      任 何 / 博 物 馆   的   窗口        向

… from   any / museum     ’s    window    toward

外           看,      总是        美丽的。

outside    see    always     beautiful

My translation: peering / from every museum window, it is beautiful out and out.

The challenge here is not about choosing the most appropriate word, rather, how to make this typical line from Zhu Zhu understatedly poetic. A literal translation in English seems lackluster. In this poem, Zhu Zhu is making a statement that Chinese poets should not be expected to just write political poetry, and there is so much openness that one does not see in contemporary Chinese poetry. I added »and out« after the first »out« to emphasize this yearning for this openness, but also to give the line a kind of strangeness that draws attention. This add-on literally adds an effect that might not be obvious in the original, but this emotive force of the poem demands a special treatment.

The last example is from an innovative use of an idiom from another contemporary Chinese poet Zang Di, which I, with the poet Lea Schneider, have translated into German. The idiom

狗      血        喷       头

dog   blood   gush   head

normally means to overwhelm somebody with reproaches. With humor, Zang Di breaks this idiom and adds a turkey to the party:

狗     的   舌头     上 / 火鸡      也    会    喷     血?

dog  ’s   tongue  on  turkey  also  can  gush  blood

With no one-to-one counterpart in German, the closest we could find is another idiom jemandem etwas um die Ohren hauen, literally in English, »to knock something around somebody’s ears.« To add a bit of humor to this, Lea put »a bag of rice« in German, einen Sack Reis in the mix for emphasis, thus we have einen Sack Reis schnell um die Ohren gehauen kriegt; literally in English, »to quickly have a bag of rice knocked around the ears.«

The playful »turkey on a dog’s tongue« turns into »a bag of rice« with both meaning and humor preserved. Languages sometimes work out their own magic. If translated literally, it would not make sense, and worse still, the reader might be totally lost.

As a translator, if I conform entirely to the original text and to the interpretation of YAN Fu’s first principle, XIN, as faithfulness, translation would be not only impossible but also a constant source of total despair. Ricoeur’s meditation on translation as a kind of »linguistic hospitality« presumes the impossibility of the literal rendition between languages, and by accepting it as the basic condition of translation, opens up new room for translators to engage and even play with the text to the extent that meanings and feelings are imparted and thus become possible. It is time to read XIN not as trustworthy of what the text says, but rather, as authentic to what the original text truly conveys. In other words, it is time to shift the reading of XIN from faithfulness to authenticity.

  1. Paul Ricoeur: Sur la traduction, Paris 2004.

Dong Li was born and raised in the People’s Republic of China. He was educated at Deep Springs College and Brown University. He is a poet of the lost world. For his poems and literary projects, he has received fellowships from Akademie Schloss Solitude, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Camargo Foundation, Yaddo, and others. A recipient of the PEN/Heim Translation Grant, Dong Li also translates from the Chinese, English, and German. His translated or co-translated collections have been published or are forthcoming with Deep Vellum/Phoneme Media, Giramondo Publishing, Carl Hanser Verlag, East China Normal University Press, and Shanghai Translation Publishing House.

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