Besides his world-known roles as revolutionary and Chairman of the People Republic of China, Mao Zedong was also a romantic poet. “不爱红装爱武装”, for example, is a sentence in his poem written during the Chinese Revolution after a logistic soldier proudly showed him a picture of her wearing a military uniform and carrying a gun (“七绝•为女民兵题照”). If I translate the sentence directly, the original sentence means, “Don’t like beautiful clothing but like military uniform.” Such translation, however, loses the rhyme Mao Zedong carefully wrote in the original, because a direct translation of a Chinese poem may lead to a pitfall—the artistic beauty of the original may be lost.
If you are learning Chinese as a second language, sometimes when reading English translations of Chinese literature, you may come across some sentences that artistically preserve the beauty of poetry while clearly conveying the Chinese meaning. For instance: “To face the powder and not to powder the face” is a better translation of the Mao Zedong’s verse that accomplishes both these challenges (Mao). However, translating Chinese poems is sometimes an unattainable achievement because Chinese verse seldom talks about feelings, emotions and sentiments directly and forthright. Instead, the true meaning of a Chinese verse is often imbedded in its stories or descriptions of sceneries.
A popular form of Chinese Tang poetry, Lüshi, for example, often associates the fall scenery—such as bald trees with their withered leaves falling freely to the ground—with a slight melancholy, a reason why an American student may find Lüshi difficult to understand. Du Fu, a realistic Chinese poet of the Tang Dynasty, for example, once portrayed the fall scenery with a subtle sadness in a sentence : “无边落木萧萧下”. When I first read the original sentence, I was thoroughly impressed by the way Du Fu conveyed his twilight years’ anguish of worries and illness through a compact and simple description of a bleak and gloomy fall. “The boundless forest sheds its leaves, shower by shower,” a translation given by Professor Yuanchong Xu, might be the most beautiful yet approximate translation I have ever read. Still, though, the emotion attached to the poem—an emotion called “萧条”— is lost in this translation. In the Xinhua dictionary my teacher often used when I was in high school, “萧条” means “寂寥冷落;草木凋零”, or “the feeling of silence and loneliness; grass and trees withering” in English (“萧条.”). While a Chinese word “萧条” can almost immediately grasp Du Fu’s tone, there is no such an equivalent English word that can do the same job: “desolated” is the closest one, but still not close enough. In fact, the meaning of “萧条” is much like the combination of “desolated” and “bleak”, expressing “loneliness”, “gloomy”, “hopeless”, “lifeless”, “baldness” at the same time.
When I was in China, I was intrigued by the fact that there are 32 different English words to express a smile, a fact my English teacher once told me. Although it seems that the pool of all English vocabulary is so large that sometimes several English words have to share the same meaning, I still cannot find the most accurate translations when I try to translate Chinese words like “深邃” or “静谧”. Numerous of times when I tried to describe the flowers’ blossom, share my knowledge about natural science, or write a beautiful essay, I found myself occasionally running out of words and stopping suddenly amid the talk or writing. When this happens, native speakers could often take some correct guesses about the English words I might want to use, but sometimes I realized that there were no accurate English words to substitute. For example, because “纠结” is one of my Chinese pet phrases, I’m always unconsciously tempted to use this expression when I speak English. However, even though lots of Americans had taken plenty of guesses, I still cannot find a good candidate because “纠结” works like a combination of “indecisive”, “perplexed” and “insecure”. I have to try another way to say what I mean.
However, challenges in translation happened not only in translating Chinese to English, but also in greeting American students in the school after I came to Fordham. When I traveled from the other side of the globe to the US, culture differences pervaded every aspect of my life besides languages. Before I came to America, I heard that Americans sometimes say hello to each other in the corridor even though they are not acquaintances. I was impressed by this aspect of American culture. I thought to myself: how do people who are not familiar with each other still communicate without formal mutual self-introduction? Talking to a stranger in this way is not a part of Chinese culture, so I thought it would take a long time before I became accustomed to this aspect of American culture. Truth be told, I lost my head when I came to Fordham and saw people who passed by me and said “Hi, what’s going on?” Sometimes I smiled back or even walked away with embarrassment. A few days later, my parents called me with excitement: “Dear son! Have you started to get accustomed to American life yet?” On the spur of the moment when I said “Maybe not yet,” I suddenly realized that I could take replying “what’s going on?” as my first step to get into American culture.
Because we were not quite familiar with each other at first, I thought it could be embarrassing to ask one of my roommates about how to answer “What’s going on?” Still, since he is an American, I thought it’s worth a try. It might sound funny (but it is true!) that it took me a lot of courage to ask him. “It means to ask you about your recent feelings or about things that happened to you lately,” Francesco laughed and answered me with a smile. “Aren’t people in China talking in this way?” he added. From then on, I started to answer “Hello,” and “Today is a nice day, I would like to play soccer,” every time I heard “What’s going on?” It’s really amazing that on a comfortable Monday morning, I even said “what’s going on?” first to an American. He then gave me a warm smile and replied: “I’m good!” That Friday when my parents rang me again and asked me what’s going on in America, “I’m good!” I replied in English. To their surprise, I proudly told them about this transition. The first time that I felt America life so close to me was in the burst of their laughs after I humorously retold the story.
After spending eight months in Fordham, some American friends around me have said that my English improved a lot since I came here. Yet, when I realized how fluent and proficient in English speaking and writing my Chinese and other international friends are, I’m still humble and willing to learn. While trying to imitate the writing style of Americans, I nevertheless am conscious of a process of translation when I speak English. Words in Chinese come into my mind first before I utter the English words. As a result, I have to stop to “translate” my mind into English in the midpoint of writing from time to time. When words like “含蓄” loom inside my brain, I would like to look up my dictionaries to see whether there are any words close to it—dictionaries always give me faithful definitions. Dictionary definitions have helped me numerous times in “translating” the beauty of Chinese writing into English charm. Thanks to dictionaries, I can translate phrases like “飘落” to “dance in the wind”, “触动心弦” to “tug at one’s heartstrings”, “忍不住” to “can’t stop doing”—sometimes it looks like the English translations even outdo their Chinese counterpart in terms of rhetorical beauty!
Nevertheless, even though dictionaries have helped me a lot, I prefer anecdotes. When I recalled everything I had learned from my dictionaries and textbooks to know how to reply “how’s it going,” these books that once seemed to be so reliable in explaining terms failed in telling me what I should say. However, Francesco’s anecdote, “see how I replied James a few minutes ago,” which was not so academic and rigid though, was precise, clear and straightforward enough. Actually, the more conversations I have, the more essays I write, the more occasions I notice anecdotes work better than dictionaries—a sentence from my friend exemplifies this: “you cannot define what ‘love’ is, but you can always give examples.”
Mao, Zedong, and Yuanchong Xu. Illustrated poems of Mao Zedong = Jing xuan Mao Zedong shi ci yu shi yi hua. Di 1 ban. ed. Beijing: Wu zhou chuan bo chu ban she, 2006. Web.
“Pain.” Merriam-Webster Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2013. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pain>.
Xu, Yuanchong. Tang shi san bai shou = 300 Tang poems. Di 1 ban. ed. Beijing: Zhongguo dui wai fan yi chu ban gong si, 2006. Web.
“七绝•为女民兵题照.” 百度百科. N.p., 10 Mar. 2012. Web. 5 June 2013. <http://baike.baidu.com/view/328842.htm>.
“萧条.” 在线成新华字典. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2013. <http://xh.5156edu.com/html5/70943.html>.