Monday, June 2, 2008

On Chineseness

In his Perpetual Folly review of Apologies Forthcoming today, Clifford Garstang talks about the book's "unstinting authenticity" and its "Chineseness". The review is generous and insightful but not all rosy - and I appreciate its honesty. Apparently, Cliff has a mixed feeling toward the book's language. This is interesting and might be worthy of some discussion.

In my English writing I sometimes like to invoke Chinese adages or direct translation of Chinese expressions. A Chinese adage is often both pictorial and metaphorical, and I feel that, when rendered it in the right place, it adds freshness and color. While many native English speakers seem to enjoy this aspect of my writing, it is curious that the mixed feelings come mostly from those who know the Chinese language. Cliff is one example - he has worked on World Bank projects in China and his Chinese is quite good.

Another bilingual friend, Carma Hinton, after reading the galley of Apologies Forthcoming, called me to say that although she felt the stories filled a void in the English literature on the Cultural Revolution, she found my rendering of some Chinese proverbs awkward. One particular example Carma gave is the Chinese expression 徒费唇舌 - meaning idiomatically to waste time on explanations, which I used in the story "Second Encounter" as follows:

If he says Chongqing, he will have to spend too many lips and tongues in explanation.

Those reader comments interest me very much. What is the appropriately apportioning of an immigrant writer's native language idioms, that is the question.

On a related note, a reader of Peking Duck, schtickyrice, made the comments that my work "examining the complexities of the CR from an apolitical, humanistic perspective fills a major void in this subject in the English language medium." It is comforting to know that some English readers have seen through to this.


Rocking Offkey said...

徒费唇舌 is more like falling on deft ears.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Thanks for the note, Rocking. I think you meant "falling on deaf ears." That would be another idiomatic translation when the adage is used to lay blame on the audience. On the other hand, if you dissect this proverb character by character, you get an imagery translation, and that was what I tried to do. IMHO, pictorial nature is the beauty of the Chinese language. But the question exists whether such direct translation makes the English feel awkward to the reader.

Rocking Offkey said...

Yeah, I mean deaf, my mistake, sorry.
It's certainly difficult to have a successful blend of "chineseness" in English writing, much more than the difficulty of creating fusion food that is both authentic and appealing in taste.

I'm no expert in languages, I'm more of a numbers and equations person, but here's my take:

1. 徒费 means waste. 唇舌or口舌,means lips and tongue or mouth and tongue literally, and referring to talk.
The problem though, is that part of the innate beauty in Chinese adages are phonetic, a tradition from 诗经 and made popular by 曹操 and his sons. four words phrases like 徒费唇舌sounds good, where as 徒费唇sounds weird. So, at least part of the reason both lips and tongues are in there is phonetic. Since the phonetic part is already lost when translated into English, I don't know it's most necessary to keep both lips and tongues there.

2. There are instances I would prefer to translate imagery. For example, 三人成虎。 A lot content would lost if it's simple translated as "rumors get validated after repetition". But in this case , I think a western proverb is fine. Deaf ear is as pictorial as tongues.

3.English uses plenty of metaphorical or pictorial phrases also. For example, "hold your tongue" as a way to say "don't speak". So the claim is somewhat suspect.

4. Most importantly, and this applies directly to your example of "spend too many lips and tongues", English is a much more (logically) structured language then Chinese. In Chinese, you learned to think 唇舌 as talk, so something you can waste on, not to worry about logical structure, it all comes natural. An English reader would by puzzled by "spend too many lips and tongues", even if he knows the Chinese proverb, mainly because he doesn't know how to "spend" lips, he doesn't think of lips as talk. So you see, there's a innate logical relationship between noun and the verb. And I think this should be observed on.

In summery, I tend to agree with the critics. If you really want to reemphasize the pictorial factor, I think the correct way to do is to say "tiring out lips and tongues", rather than "spend lips and tongues".

Hope this helps.

Xujun Eberlein said...

You are clearly very knowledgeable about Chinese - glad to see that.

Translation is a tricky thing, isn't it. There is always a trade-off between imagery and easy comprehension. Many other trade-offs as well. "Tiring out lips and tongues" is a good alternative, with a different image. Thanks for this, Rocking.

However, I don't think a literary writer has to always be logical. :-) There are numerous examples of exceptional writing that does not follow the "innate logical relationship" in grammar.

This is a very interesting discussion. Look forward to more in the future.

Matthew said...

I'm beginning to think I'll have to pick up a copy if I go back to the states this summer...

I also enjoy mixing in some Chinese in my conversations now that I've learned a little bit. Writing a good book is about unique language, and using direct translations into English can change that language that we, as readers, enjoy. Have you read Aleksander Hemon's Nowhere Man? He writes quite a bit about language barriers in that book that are interesting when considering translations and use of other languages in writing.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Thanks, Matthew. Haven't read "Nowhere Man," but now I will. In fact I'm going to look for it now.

spacedlaw said...

I love the "chinaness" of the expression as you wrote it and its strong visual impact. But I have seen the Chinese language mocked by prejudiced people over using such flowery expressions and this is probably - just a guess - what might trouble your readers that are fluent in Chinese. Nobody likes to see the subjects they like being ridiculed. They are probably afraid of the cliché effect that such expression would trigger in the mind of culturally blind people. On the other hand, I am thinking that maybe those people are not your readers anyway, so you cna charm the rest of us with visual and poetic expression.

Xujun Eberlein said...

That's a very interesting take, Nathalie! Thanks.

Anonymous said...

in english the word lip is associated with speach eg loose lips sink ships, don't give me any lip and lip service