The Quest for an Accurate Translation, a Chinese Fable

images6Once Upon a Time in China…

There was once a community of monks who lived in a beautiful valley. These monks were the guardians of a holy sutra, representative of the Buddha’s divine truth in the world of men. They lived peacefully enough and enjoyed a relatively uneventful life, that is, until everything changed.

One day, the Bodhisattva Guanyin descended from the heavens and gave the monks an important mission. Guanyin directed the monks to make copies of the 1,000 scrolls comprising the sutra and spread their teachings in the lands to the far West, which lay beyond a dark and foreboding mountain range.

“There,” said Guanyin, pointing toward the western horizon, “you must cross that mountain range and bring the sutra to those who live in the land beyond.”

However, upon hearing this, the abbot of the temple protested, saying, “There is only one pass through the mountains, and it is inhabited by horrible monsters and bandits. If we take that path we will surely be attacked, and even if we do survive, the scrolls of the sutra may be destroyed in the attempt.”

Guanyin merely smiled and said, “Do not be afraid, for I will tell you of a secret trail through the mountains, which will allow you to transport the sutra safely into the new land.”

Again the abbot protested, “Surely that will take too long, and it would be much better to reach the other side faster. Is there no other direct trail we could take?”

thGuanyin replied, “No, time is not important, only the divine truth contained in the sutra is important. It must be transported safely and arrive whole and intact to the land beyond the mountain. Do as I have instructed and you will not fail in this quest.” At this, the abbot finally relented and agreed to lead his fellow monks on the journey across the mountain range.

Several days later, a group of monks led by the abbot arrived at the secret path that Guanyin had told them of and began the arduous journey through the mountains. As the path was steep and treacherous, the monks could only walk along it in single file and could bring no wagons or carts with them to carry the scrolls of the sutra. Instead, each monk carried a number of scrolls of the sutra in a basket strapped to his shoulders. The baskets were made from vines that grew near the monks’ temple. These vines were pliant enough to flex and bend under the scrolls’ weight to ensure the safety of the sutra. The monks traveled for many days along the narrow path that snaked back and forth through the mountain range.

The monks endured many hardships but finally reached the peak of the highest mountain, where they were able to see the new land stretching out before them. But as beautiful as it was, it was noticeably dryer than the lands where their temple had been built, and it became apparent as they traveled farther into the new land that the baskets holding the scrolls of the sutra were stiffening and drying in the new climate. The baskets were no longer able to support the scrolls. One by one the baskets began to disintegrate until the monks could no longer continue on their journey.

As the monks explored the new land in an attempt to find materials with which to repair the baskets, they were filled with dismay. They could find no plants that resembled those from their homeland. Instead of the pliant vines they were used to, they found straight and rigid trees with sparse branches.

One of the monks suggested building wooden boxes that could then be hung between wooden poles, but the abbot objected fiercely saying, “We know nothing about the reliability of these new plants as building materials and therefore cannot trust them with the scrolls of the sutra. We know the vines of our homeland are reliable, so we should go back and collect more of them.”

FB-Monks-traveling-324x214The monks argued back and forth, with some in favor of using the new materials to transport the sutra, and some arguing in favor of a long journey back to the temple to gather more of the vines. At this point, the clouds parted and Guanyin once again descended from the heavens to speak with the monks.

“Listen well,” she said, “for in this new and strange land you have forgotten your true purpose. What is used to carry the sutras is not important, only that they reach their destination whole and undamaged. Would it not be suitable to use the material of these lands to carry the sutra to the people who call this land home? And might it not be easier for them to understand and accept the divine truth contained in the sutra if they saw it brought forth with things they were already familiar with, and not strange materials from a foreign land? Go forth, carry the sutra into this new land using materials native to it, and you will not fail.”

The monks, upon hearing this, did as Guanyin instructed. And although the boxes they constructed out of the trees native to the new land were heavier and more cumbersome than the monks were used to, they served their purpose well in safely transporting the sutra. The people of the new land welcomed the monks and through time came to understand and love the divine truth contained within the holy sutra.

Key Ideas of This Fable

  1. The sutra = original Chinese source text. The sutra in the story represents original ideas or source text in the Chinese language, specifically what a Chinese author or organization wants to translate into English. It could be a simple news article, or it could be a more complicated cultural concept such as “Face” or “Guanxi.” Similar to a holy sutra, which is a collection of Buddhist scriptures, the Chinese people place a great deal of importance on (not to mention take pride in) their language and culture, revering it to an extent. For example, Chinese idioms are commonly used in Chinese and often possess hundreds if not thousands of years of history. Chinese authors therefore often feel very protective of these unique aspects of the Chinese language and are loathe to see the original meanings changed or degraded.
  2. The direct path = the dangers of direct translation. In the translation process, the direct path through the mountains represents the dangers of directly translating Chinese into English, either on your own or using an often unreliable tool like Google Translate. English grammar is much more complex than its Chinese counterpart, and sentence structure is often arranged quite differently. Thus while a direct translation is fast, it often results in a mishmash of words and phrases that are only somewhat comprehensible at best.
  3. The difficult mountain path = the real difficulties of effective translation. The winding mountain path represents the extra time and effort that must be undertaken to translate Chinese into an English format that is not only comprehensible to native English-speaking readers, but also accurately captures the nuances contained in the original Chinese text.
  4. The twisting vines = Chinese linguistic structures. Not only are Chinese grammar and sentence structure very different from English, the Chinese language in general is very vague and roundabout.
  5. The new materials = English linguistic structures. Unlike Chinese, the English language is often direct, clear, and to the point.

Final Thoughts

This article was a departure from my usual, more straightforward style of describing and discussing life, business, and culture in Mainland China. However, it addresses a very important topic, the difficulties of translating the Chinese language and cultural concepts into English. And while it can be both frustrating and laughable to be confronted with a poorly executed Chinese to English translation, I would suggest that reader keep the following points in mind.

take_luggageFirst, Chinese translators (I rarely see native English speakers translating from Chinese into English) are often operating in the dark. They translate material from their native language into one they may have studied, but are often inexperienced in from a cultural and societal perspective. This naturally leads to small mistakes, even from the best translators. And when translations are rushed due to time constraints, this only compounds the problem. Therefore I would suggest that anyone requiring a Chinese to English translation to learn from the monks in the story, who chose to take the long and difficult path, in order to ensure their success. After a translation is completed, always try to make sure there is time for a review of the translation, and if a native English speaker can do it, so much the better.

Second, many of the quirks of Chinese to English translations in part come from the unique characteristics of the Chinese language, culture and society, which often do not have direct counterparts in Western countries. Just as the monks were attempting to bring a foreign concept (the sutra) into the new land with unsuitable methods and materials, translating Chinese ideas into English effectively is all about the proper packaging. For editors, proofreaders and clients working with Chinese translators, it is often not enough to know all the proper expressions in English. Only by doing one’s best to understand the concept or idea from the Chinese point of view, can a truly suitable English language phrasing be selected. This can be accomplished by holding discussing with translators, as well as by learning more about Chinese culture and society. A broader understanding of Chinese culture and concepts will make it much easier to tell which language quirks are acceptable, and which need to be changed.

Finally, I will close with the following thought. Translation is not just about translating someone’s language, but also their culture. The Chinese could be said to value their culture and language above most other things, so please, tread lightly, and you will eventually be rewarded with a deeper understanding of a complex, ancient and beautiful culture.

images2Notation: While the idea for this article was inspired by my own experience working among the Chinese, the form the fable took was inspired in part by the classic Chinese novel, “Journey to the West.” This story details the exploits of the Monkey King, Sun Wukong, and his companions in their quest escort a Buddhist monk to India and procure sacred sutras. This story has strong roots in Chinese religion and mythology, and I would strongly recommend it as a way to learn more about Chinese culture and beliefs.

Thanks for reading!

Do you have any questions or comments about translating between the English and Chinese languages? Do you have any ideas you would like to share on bridging the Chinese and Western cultures? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Categories: Communication Tips

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9 replies

  1. I was once told in a business meeting that “Fish cannot live in clear water” I was unable to get an explanation of the metaphor at the time and have been unable to find one since.
    Can anyone enlighten me please.

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    • Hi Barrie, thanks for commenting.

      I have to say this phrase stumped me for a few minutes – the only idiom in Chinese I’ve previously learned involving fish is 如鱼得水(rú yú dé shuǐ). However after some research, I think the phrase you heard might refer to the Chinese idiom 水清无鱼(shuǐ qīng wú yú). Translated literally this means “clear water has few fish.” This particular idiom points out that no one can be expected to be squeaky clean, and/or those that are overly critical have few friends. See this link for more info: http://www.xiaoma.info/compound.php?cp=%E6%97%A0%E9%B1%BC&fhz=%E6%97%A0%E9%B1%BC.

      Another source regarding this idiom references a book called Ts’ai Ken T’an (Vegetable Roots Discourses), apparently compiled during the Ming dynasty. A translated quotation reads: “Soil that is dirty grows the countless things. Water that is clear has no fish. Thus as a mature person you properly include and retain a measure of grime. You can’t just go along enjoying your own private purity and restraint.”

      See this link for more info on the post I found this on here: http://enlightenmentward.wordpress.com/2009/02/27/water-which-is-too-pure-has-no-fish/

      Hope that helps!

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      • Thanks Sean
        It really helped. That comment had been bugging me for some time.
        Thinking back to the context in which it was said, I now understand that my Chinese business partners were asking me to accept that they were less than perfect.
        Barrie

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  2. Interesting read, feels very Chinese! =)

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  3. I like the title and the intro.

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    • Thanks for the comment. Interestingly the idea for the short fable came to me rather suddenly one day, likely because I have been spending a lot more time looking at Chinese language documents, which love to use metaphors to make their point.

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  4. You can only understand a culture if you speak the language of that culture. So many sayings are unique to a language and cannot get translated word by word; however closely matched translations might not provide the true meaning.

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    • Manfred,

      Thanks for commenting. There are many cases in Chinese to English translations where expressing the complete meaning embodied in the Chinese text seems near impossible. However, I do believe you one can get very close, through practice, to expressing the full meaning a native Chinese author is trying to convey. Some of the original meaning may always be lost no matter what one does, but the closer translators can get, means more value provided to Western readers.

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