Do you think translators are just “movers”?

The job of translation has always been despised, ultimately because many people naively believe that this type of work does not require creativity and ideas, but only mechanical labor. Once you have mastered the language you need, you can “turn whatever you write in the original, no big deal”. Some creators even mistakenly believe that the original author is the one who completes the main work and the translator is just a “porter”.

One of the direct consequences of these misconceptions is that the translator’s pay is incredibly low when the cost of writing is already so low. In the case of English, it is not uncommon to see a few dozen words per thousand, and over a hundred dollars is a very good deal. Smaller languages are generally a bit higher, but most of them are just between one and two hundred dollars, and especially rare cases can give more than three hundred.

However, the mental work required for translation is no less than many other creative jobs.

Each language has its own characteristics, tense, order, honorific, all these things need to be adjusted accordingly when translating into another language. If you find a sentence in English and turn it word by word into Chinese, just the “order” is enough to make the reader feel awkward, which is why the best translators at this stage are awkward or even unintelligible.

“The former only requires the understanding of the mind, while the latter requires you to be well versed in two languages and to have a deep understanding of the culture, customs and history of the corresponding country or region. I am ashamed to say that my mastery of Chinese, not to mention foreign languages, is not enough to handle the work of a translator. Therefore, although I can read a novel in English independently, if a friend suddenly points to a certain passage and asks me what it means, I often stumble and hesitate for a long time, and finally I can only use inverted words and phrases to barely translate the gist of the original text.

The more subtle the language, the more difficult it is to translate the works that highlight its beauty. While factual instructions are almost machine translatable, novels, poems, and riddles with subtle meanings and implications are much more difficult to translate.

The most notable example is how you translate language-dependent humor, such as harmonic stems, which are common in all languages. In English, 1:58 to 2:02 is two to two to two two, which is pronounced like a machine gun, and the reaction is so funny. How to translate this thing? Another example is the use of the word “put” in Chinese, saying that the bicycle shook violently, fortunately I “held it with a hand”, the native speakers have to faint, and how to explain to non-native speakers?

Not to mention the fact that languages are not relative to each other in the first place.

British illustrator Ella Frances Sanders has published a book that shows more than 200 words that exist independently of each other in a language and are difficult to translate. The Japanese word age-otori, for example, means to look worse after a haircut than before; the Tulu word karelu, for example, refers to the thin traces of skin strangled by rings, bracelets, and tight-fitting socks; and the Swedish word Mångata, for example, depicts the moonlight shining on the water, forming a road-like shimmering reflection. These words are rich and unique in meaning, just a word in the original language, but in another language, it often takes a phrase or even a sentence to explain them clearly.

Speaking of words that are difficult to translate, I was reminded of rereading Kundera last summer. Kundera was a writer who insisted on writing in his native language, not only out of nostalgia, but because he deeply understood that there are many images and concepts in the Czech language that are so unique. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, he speaks of the Czech word Lítost, which he explains as “the pain caused by the sudden realization of one’s misfortune. I have read both translations of this book, and both can only use one long sentence to explain “lítost.” Imagine if a Czech writer used this word in a text, how would the translation be worded in such a way as not to destroy the rhythm of the original sentence or distort its meaning?

Assuming that the original text is in a particular form, the translation would be even more difficult. Poetry, for example, is an art form that relies heavily on symbols, signs and imagery, and a slight discrepancy in translation can make a huge difference in meaning. At the beginning of last summer, the Paris Review wrote a feature in which it interviewed people working on translations of poetry from various countries for the Summer 2020 issue. One translator pointed out that one of the basic problems with translating Portuguese into English is that English is influenced by both Latin and Germanic languages, and often has two words for the same meaning, coming from both sides. The word “serpente”, for example, can correspond in English to both the Latin word serpent and the Old Germanic word snake, which requires the translator to have a fine control of both the English and the original Portuguese, understanding that in modern English serpent has a more mythical and symbolic dimension than snake. It is necessary to understand that modern English serpent has a more mythological and symbolic dimension than snake, but also to distinguish the context of the original text and choose the right words.

Another major obstacle to the translation of poetry is rhyme and meter. It is difficult enough to convey the full meaning of the original text, let alone to preserve the formal beauty of the original work. How can these cultural treasures, Chinese classical poetry, ancient Greek heroic epics, and Scandinavian folk songs and ballads, transcend language differences and resonate in every corner of the world?

I remember when I first read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as a child, I felt no different from reading an ordinary storybook. Later, when I read the English translation, I seemed to feel some formal beauty, but it still felt like prose. It was not until I took a course on reading The Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English during my undergraduate years that I was surprised to discover the beautiful, jumpy and life-affirming rhythm of this work that I thought I had read quite well.

The Chinese say that a good translation should be “Xin Da Ya”, that is, accurate, smooth and beautiful, which is an extremely lofty standard. A good translation is also like a kind of new life, a kind of development and a kind of reproduction for the original work. In “The Silent Majority”, Wang Xiaobo recalls his childhood contact with Mr. Cha Liangzheng’s translation of “The Bronze Horseman”, which is so powerful and magnificent: “I love you, the big city built by Peter! This is the eternal charm of translation.

I also think of my own reading experience, and I can say that without the existence of translators, the world I know would be a hundred times narrower than it is today. Since I was a child, I have read too many translations. I knew nothing about Russian, but I was able to touch the great Anna Karenina; my English was broken, but I could read Hamlet; I could only speak a few words of French, but I knew Hugo and Dumas just as well. How wonderful and fortunate this is.

Nowadays I too often hear the voice, “I can’t even read all the books in Chinese, what is the point of translating so many”. I am very confused by this opinion. I think that one of the noble things about human beings is their incessant search for wisdom. The meaning of translation is to broaden the sea of knowledge for our own people. Although I can only “not reach” in my life, the efforts of translators have made it possible for an ordinary person like me to “aspire to”.

I have a great curiosity about the world, and I have a passionate love for my native language. Thank you to all the translators who work so hard to allow us to see the outside world through the prism of our mother tongue, to transcend the distinctions of region, language, race and color, and to fly to a wider world.

It is like a compound Chinese word that I am particularly fond of, “translation”. What they do is not only translation, but also introduction, introducing another new dimension to you.