Manslaughtered in translation

In an article titled Why the West shuts out subtle Chinese concepts published in Shanghai Daily, German scholar Thorsten Pattberg (裴德思) complains that the West has for centuries remained ignorant of some key concepts and ideas unique to the Chinese and demands the West to learn from us the Chinese about how the world should be run. As long as there are different peoples who speak different languages, translation is an indispensable trade that makes this exchange of concepts and ideas possible in the first place.

Ironically, the something missing in translation Pattberg so laments is in many cases not actually lost, but manslaughtered, as shown in the translation he posts of a slightly modified version of the Shanghai Daily piece. A little surprisingly, the translation is not done by Pattberg himself, who is “a German scholar at the Institute for Advanced Humanistic Studies at Peking University”, but by a person who seems to have all the qualifications ever required to do translation. As shown by his short biography, the translator works as associate professor and holds a Master’s degree, presumably in English. He is also a published author and a contributor to newspapers, periodicals and online media.

A closer examination of his translation, however, reveals a serious problem that has always plagued translation as a trade: The translator simply does not understand what the original author says. In a better scenario, the translator only finds himself struggling with how to write in his language what he has correctly understood of a foreign text. The worst scenario, however, is his fatal success in completely misrepresenting or distorting the words of the author.

Unfortunately, this is also the case with the translation of Pattberg’s piece.  Let me present some examples that will make clear my points.

The translation: 从欧洲历史的视角看,这意味着任何一个德国哲学家都确切地知道中国人在想什么,只不过他不明白这些想法罢了。所以无需学习外语,他只要译文即可。

Pattberg’s original: From a European historical perspective, that has always meant that, say, any German philosopher could know exactly what the Chinese people were thinking, only that he couldn’t understand them. So instead of learning the foreign language, he demanded a translation.

My comment: The author’s little intelligent word play is totally lost on the translator, as shown in his translation in which he produces a self-contradictory sentence (确切地知道中国人在想什么 vs. 不明白这些想法). What the author actually says is that the German philosopher does know the thoughts of the Chinese, but does not understand them when they are spoken about or written down in Chinese.

The translation: 巧合的是,《圣经》之后是大写H的历史。

Pattberg’s original: Coincidentally, or maybe not quite so, History with a capital ‘H’ followed the Bible.

My comment: The translation does not make any sense at all in Chinese. What can an average Chinese reader have known about 大写H的历史 (History with a capital ‘H’) before consulting a good English dictionary? Also, the translator omits “or maybe not quite so” in his translation.

The translation: 我想,他的反应是既担忧又觉得可笑。

Pattberg’s original: His reaction, I think, is as funny as it is disturbing.

My comment: What is funny and disturbing is actually his translation, a very good example of what I call “manslaughtered in translation.” If translated back to English, it would read something like: His reaction is both to worry about it and think it laughable.

The translation: 我认为,历史在沃尔夫那里终结的说法就如此建立起来了,或者至少变得疲惫不堪和玩世不恭了。

Pattberg’s original: It’s thus pretty much established, I think, that “History” stopped with this Wolff, or at least became too tired and too cynical.

My comment: Very obviously, tired in Pattberg’s prose is not feeling fatigued, but overused or no longer fresh.

I have long ago noticed the weird Chinese translation of cynical into 玩世不恭 or 愤世嫉俗 in dictionaries published in China. Philosophically, a cynic is a disciple of a Greek philosophical sect which “strove to destroy social conventions (including family life) as a way of returning to a ‘natural’ life” and whose followers “lived as a vagabond pauper, slept in public buildings, and begged his food … also advocated shamelessness (performing actions that were harmful to no one but unconventional in certain circumstances), outspokenness (to further his cause), and training in austerity.” In later uses, cynical has come to mean “distrustful or incredulous of human goodness and sincerity; skeptical and mocking.

However, literally, 玩世不恭 means “disdaining worldly affairs” AND “taking nothing seriously“. And, 愤世嫉俗, taken at its face value, is “hating the society and its manners one deems as irrational”. I think that the Chinese translations are only factoids that so many of China’s dictionaries repeat again and again even though they don’t make sense at all.

The translation: 如果德国人审查所有重要的外国术语,德国公众可能被引导独自思考,知道世界上的一切都可以搞明白,隐喻地说,像它那样行动。

Pattberg’s original: If Germany censors all important foreign terminologies, the German public is lead to think it alone knows everything there is to be known in the world, and – metaphorically speaking – behaves like it.

My comment: If translated back to English, it could read: … the German public can be lead to think alone and understand that everything in the world can be understood

But obviously the translator doesn’t understand Pattberg. A very good case in point indeed.

This post was soon picked up by Thorsten Pattberg. And I feel too greatly flattered by him describing me as an “activist” and a “well-known” blogger. I’m merely a “weekend” blogger, far from being well-known and really, not at all an activist! Update added: Jan. 31, 2013.

8 thoughts on “Manslaughtered in translation

  1. That’s why I usually stick to translating economic and political articles. Had a try on a not-so-difficult article on Confucianism long ago, and it worked reasonably well, but mostly in informing myself, and waiting to input from others on certain questions that remained. I actually got some input, especially during the last few weeks (years after writing the post). But that really requires focus, and I can only do that during a vacation, and on things that don’t involve much word-play. And of course, it’s nothing that goes to print.

    Seen a number of novels translated from English or French into German, and sometimes translated into German once again decades later (the original remained the same, of course). Frequently, I felt that there hadn’t been a need for a new translation, and that the older version was in fact better.

    One problem, besides qualificatons, seems to be payment per line. It seems to be the renumeration standard for translators, and it’s too cheap to expect them to spend more than a limited number of minutes on thinking about a problem there. A publishing house should either truly make an investment into a translation project, or simply leave it.

    1. Many Chinese translators of foreign novels claim that they “have retained in their translations the style of the original texts”. This claim is absurd and dubious because their favorite foreign language-style Chinese translations are not a style at all. They are instead a mockery and even bastardization of both traditional and vernacular Chinese discourse.

      Payment is a big issue. The value of translation is underestimated in China. In this case, that translator should not be blamed for it: everyone get what they pay for.

  2. 常老师:您好!感谢您的评论。裴老师向我提供了您文章的链接。内容我已经看过,您指出的问题我基本认可,批评得很到位。这些令人尴尬的错误有些是水平问题有些是态度问题,感谢指教,同时也对原文作者表示歉意。吴万伟

  3. Pingback:What’s Up Wednesdays: June’s Top Thinkers « Beyond the Rhetoric

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