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Translations: Victorian, non-native, communist, contemporary, machine

March 21, 2012

Many claim that among classical Chinese novels, Dream of the Red Chambers is the most difficult to translate.  The text uses an unusually wide variety of styles (both classical and vernacular language; including many quotations from classical poetry), literary allusions, class references, and vocabulary ranging from the elevated to the taboo.

Here is spoken dialogue from Chapter 9 that is highly vulgar in the original:

Original text:  「我們肏屁股不肏屁股,管你籴舻相干,橫豎沒肏你爹去罷了!」

It is interesting to see how cultural norms for translation and expression have resulted in highly different treatments of this text.  Below are five translations – one from the Victorian period, one by a non-native English speaker, one under communist supervision, one by a contemporary translator, and one by a machine.

1892:   H. Bencraft Joly – a Victorian translation.  (Joly was British consul in China; he was an English native speaker):

“What we do, whether proper or improper […] doesn’t concern you!  It’s enough anyway that we don’t defile your father!”

1958:  Chi-Chen Wang – a non-native English speaker translation.  (Chen was a Chinese native speaker):

“Hey, you son of the Kin clan, what business is it of yours whatever we choose to do?  You should be glad we haven’t violated your own father.”

1978:  Xianyi Yang and Gladys (Taylor) Yang – a communist translation.  (Xianyi is a native Chinese speaker; Gladys is a native English speaker.  They were imprisoned, each in solitary confinement, during the Cultural Revolution.   They were assigned to translate the book, under strict Chinese government supervision, as part of their penance for release):

“What we do is no business of yours.”

1973:  David Hawkes – a contemporary translation.  (Hawkes is a native English speaker.  I have partially obscured certain English vulgar words; the original prints the full words):

“Whether we f*** ar**holes or not, […] what f***ing business is it of yours?  You should be bl***y grateful we haven’t f***ed your dad.”

2012:  Google Translate (the text appears exactly as Google Translate presents it):

“We f # # k ass f # # k ass, pipe down and buy thee henashi coherent, if they had not
f # # k your father went to nothing!”

Which of these translations do you prefer?

7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 22, 2012 6:29 pm

    As usual, you’ve written a wonderful post. This is one of my very favorites!

    I love how you name the rhetorical angle/agency of the translator: “Victorian, non-native, communist, contemporary, machine.”

    I find the machine translation interesting, because Google Translate, as David Bellos puts it, “deals with translation on the basis not that every sentence is different, but that anything submitted to it has probably been said before”; the (quote) “f # # k ass” (unquote) is probably close to how a young bilingual internet using Chinese-English reader might write it. The etymology of the first character in that translated phrase seems to be on not a few webpages.

    I think I like Chi-Chen Wang’s translation most.

    The most fascinating translation, to me, is one you didn’t show (perhaps more Victorian than the Victorian one you do give). It is a Christian missionary translation. It’s this below [for that original text you give above] with a little context added:

    Here Ming-yen walked in, grabbed hold of Chin Jung, and shouted some abusively indecent remarks at him and said: ‘You are a good little boy. Come out and have a round with your Lord Ming.’

    This is from “the Rev. Bramwell Seaton Bonsall, M.A., B.D., D.Lit. (Lond,) … a Wesleyan Methodist missionary to China from 1911 to 1926.” His son, “Geoffrey Weatherill Bonsall, [from] Hong Kong, [in] July 2004” remembers the following:

    After his return to England he continued his interest in China and the study of its language and literature. In the late 1920s he obtained his Doctorate, that involved a complete translation of the Zhan Guo Ce (Chan Kuo Ts’e), the Records of the Warring States.

    In his retirement in the 1950s he completed a translation of all 120 chapters of the Chinese novel, the Hung Lou Meng, often known as the Dream of the Red Chamber. This was later accepted for publication by The Asia Society of New York, but the project was abandoned when Penguin announced its proposed translation by Professor David Hawkes, with John Minford.

    These two translations by my father, made without having access to libraries or discussions with other scholars, were probably the first to be made into English of these two complete works.

    I am grateful for the cooperation of the Librarian of the University of Hong Kong Libraries, and his staff, for making it possible to offer, in digital format, copies of the original typescripts of these two translations from the University of Hong Kong Main Library.

    The “Introduction” to the translation by the missionary Bonsall can be found here (where his son makes the above remarks as well):

    Click to access title.pdf

    Chapter 9, is here:

    Click to access 9.pdf

    The entire work is here:

  2. March 23, 2012 11:57 am

    I had not heard the of Bonsall version before your mention; just now I glanced at it and it is quite a paraphrase.

    While the Google translate version is obviously unacceptable; I also want to say that in some ways the translation of this (highly vernacular) text shows strengths of Google translate. Amid the dross and confusion, Google translate occasionally shows what we might (anthropomorphically) call “flashes of brilliance.”

    The translations that are most widely used today are those by the Yangs and those by Hawkes (and for the last 40 chapters, which are considered apocrypha, Minford.) All of them are/were professional translators (the Yangs heroically so; Hawkes resigning his university position to complete the translation of the first 80 chapters; and Minford a leading professor and translator/author.) The differences in their translation style fascinated “Redologists” (those who study Dream of the Red Chamber) in China and there was even a conference in Beijing devoted to understanding their different translation approaches.

  3. March 23, 2012 2:36 pm

    Yes, the Bonsall is quite a paraphrase of just the bit you focused on; for a missionary whose English wouldn’t include many vulgarities, that’s quite acceptable. I do love his typewritten manuscript with his handwritten revisions. And as far as I can tell, the general translation is quite a good translation.

    (Just to see what it’d do, here’s the Google Translate translation of 入 肉, “into meat,” “into the meat,” and “into the meat of”. Over time, GT will likely offer what is given, much more descriptively, at

  4. March 23, 2012 3:04 pm

    I did not spend a lot of time with Bonsall’s translation, but my initial impression was that it is a paraphrase throughout.

    I think you are making a mistake with “Chinese etymology” — when different radicals are combined into a new hanzi, the meaning of the new hanzi is not the meaning of the individual radicals. Often the combination of radicals has nothing to do with meaning, but merely has to do with the sounds associated with different radicals or characters. It is relatively rare that hanzi will actually represent a pictograph. Thus, 肏is different from 入 肉, even though 肏 is formed from those radicals.

    The same is true in Western languages as well, although perhaps not as statistically often. For example, a “red herring” is not the same as a “red” “herring.” Alternatively, one may exactly know the meaning “left” and “bank” but not understand what a “Left Bank” cafe is. And in colloquial usage, to say that my day was “incredible” does not mean that the day was not “credible.”

  5. March 23, 2012 4:40 pm

    Thanks for the reply. I know you’re limited on time. If you compare the various translations noted, looking at the first two sentences, wouldn’t you say that the Hawkes is the paraphrase of the bunch?

    I agree with everything you’ve written here (in your final two paragraphs) on phrases and/ or Chinese radicals combined into unique meanings. And, yes, I might be making the mistake – if I were making this up. Others are pulling the meaning of 肏 from the meanings of the two, as a sort of visual / semantic wordplay.

    My point is that Google Translate, based in large part on translational matches made by netizens, will likely some day catch up with what many are already saying on the web about this particular “etymology.” Social media is already changing the ways people tend to wordplay with Chinese:

  6. March 23, 2012 5:15 pm

    Well, I did not read Bonsall beyond a brief review, but I suppose I am obligated to defend Hawkes (and Minford).

    Hawkes-Minford does have a tendency to interject their own material into the text quite a bit; which has been a point of controversy, but this is primarily a result of the difficulty of translating Dream of a Red Chamber. The problem is that a literal translation fails to get at the stunning array of different forms of expression, social class, regionalism, and classical vs. vernacular issues that the Chinese has. (And yes, there is a lot of wordplay in Red Chamber too — wordplay is much more common in Chinese than in English.) In this regard, Hawkes-Minford arguably gets closest in English to capturing why Red Chamber is so widely regarded as the height of Chinese classical literature.

    As an analogy, imagine, for example, the difficulties associated with translating Ulysses (which at least some people regard as the greatest English novel — and is certainly a strong contender for greatest 20th century English novel) into a foreign language — especially a non-Indo-European language. Now I know people have attempted this, but I’ve never read any of the translations of Ulysses, so I cannot comment in detail on them. Still, I think you would agree that to translate Ulysses and preserve the sense of why it is so remarkable in English requires a great deal of liberty in the translation.

    So Wang’s translation of Red Chamber, for example, is easily criticized because it “flattens” all the language; translating only the meaning of the text, with almost no ear for the tone of the text. Hawkes(-Minford) arguably goes to the other extreme (even to the point of inserting material not in the original) but many critics argue that it more accurately captures the diversity of tone in the original.

    In the passage that I used here, the original is shockingly vulgar (so much so that another character immediately criticizes the speaker for his inappropriate language). Only Hawkes captures a notion of vulgarity that could be called “shocking” in English.

  7. March 23, 2012 6:50 pm

    Kurk, I just had a chance to look at the Business Insider citation that you gave. I think it may give a misleading impression.

    肏 is a hanzi that dates back at least two and a half centuries. It is not a recent invention, and in fact, it is not commonly used today. However, it would be recognized in spoken language by most Mandarin speakers.

    As an analogy, think of all the fine vulgarities in Chaucer’s “Milleres Tale,” for example, that are not immediately recognizable to a typical 21st century reader. So, it is not at all akin to something like a “smiley emoticon” in English or a raunchy pun — which seems to be the focus of that Business Insider article.

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