What Gets Lost in Translation Gets Transformed

August 28, 2017 | 1 17 min read

One day before I came to the residency in Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Gu Xiang, a young Chinese novelist, chatted with me in Shanghai:

Last week I came across two young men in the countryside. They were both migrant workers in a local factory. Standing on a bridge, they talked about how to get some fish from the stream below. As a young writer craving new stories, I hid myself behind a bush and eavesdropped on their conversation. They came up with quite a few plans, but all were rejected because of the various inconveniences they may cause. For example, they couldn’t fish because they didn’t have a fishing rod. After about three hours of scheming and observing, one man said to the other, well, let’s forget about the whole plan and go home. We can find some eatery to have some fish if we want to. The other man replied, sure, but I don’t think I crave fish. So they headed home. And I ended up with no story.

I told Gu what she just said could be developed into a typical Carverian story—a chronicle of blue-collar despair.  However, my response was not a tribute to the great American short story writer but quite the opposite. A boring piece without a real narrative: this formed all my impressions of contemporary American short fiction.

Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Richard Yates, and John Updike—the list can be prolonged endlessly—all read very similarly, if not the same, in Chinese translation, and even their different subject matter does not help. They seemed to speak in a unanimous voice about the similar, repetitive, and desperate contemporary American life.

Not until I reread these works in English and carefully compared the original texts with Chinese translations did I realize that translation plays a pivotal role in influencing readers’ understanding of these works. It is both interesting and sad to see how the so-called “translation style” has compressed these very different writers into one boring contemporary American voice.

The beauty of the language is always the first to go. Perhaps all of us have heard the saying “three moves equal one house fire.” Unfortunately, things can be even more dismal to those writers who build their style on symbols—a single move brings off a catastrophe. Take John Updike’s short story “Separating.” The story is about Richard, who struggles with how to break the news to his children of his separation from his wife. Updike employs at least two major natural images to lay clear Richard’s inner life—the wave and the mountain. Hearing his daughter’s harsh comment on the separation, Richard bursts into tears at the family party. Updike writes,

Richard’s crying, like a wave that has created and crashed, had become tumultuous; but it was overtopped by another tumult, for John, who had been so reserved, now grew larger and larger at the table.

Except for the challenge a translator has to meet such as some wordplay here (e.g. the alliteration of create and crash, and the stress on the word tumult), the image of the wave is even more tricky because it is linked somewhere later in the story: “They sat on the crest of the rise, shaking and warm from their tears but easier in their voices, and Richard tried to focus on the child’s sad year…” As we all know, crest in English does not only refer to the top of a wave but also the top line of a mountain or a hill. Therefore, the crest here connects with both the afore-mentioned image, “wave” and the later important image, “mountain,” which represents the psychological burden on Richard. When Richard’s wife tells him to deal with Dickie, their mature elder son, in person, Updike depicts Richard’s gloomy moment as “The mountain before him moved closer, moved within him; he was huge, momentous.” Then, after breaking the terrible news to Dickie, Updike says, “He felt immensely lighter, saying this. He had dumped the mountain on the boy.”

Clearly, the two symbols here carry significant weight of the tension within the family throughout the story. But it is almost impossible for the Chinese translator to retain the double meaning of the word crest. Having tried his best, Yuan Honggen, the Chinese translator of Updike’s short fiction collection, writes, “They sat on the top of a hill, shaking from their tears while warm in heart…” The abstract connotation of crest becomes a concrete place mark where the party is held. Thus, the Chinese readers are no longer able to track the symbols that are embedded in the story.

Of course we can argue whether Yuan’s choice is good enough in terms of rendering the symbolic structure of the short fiction. But one reason why a translator has to forsake some symbols is a simple wish not to let the translation read awkwardly to the target readers.

Eudora Welty, the fabulous southern American writer famous for her skillful mastery of symbols, offers another example of how style is flattened in translation.

As the translator of her short story “Livvie”, I am amazed by how many vivid symbols she implanted in her detailed depiction of Solomon’s house. The story has plenty of contrasts, old and young, life and death, etc. To attain the full effect of those contrasts, Welty brings out a particular pair of symbols, spring and winter. With that in mind, the readers will find that the details of Solomon’s house work very well on both realistic and symbolic levels. The core of the house, Solomon’s bed, oozes winter: the iron bed, the snow-white curtains, and the thick quilt Solomon clutches though it’s the first day of spring. Nevertheless, the outside of the house seems already bathed in the light of spring. There are “fern baskets hanging overhead from the ceiling” and “dishpans of zinnia seedlings” in the corridor. But one specific detail that puts me under tremendous pressure is “one easy chair with high springs.” I feel certain that Welty manipulates the double meaning of spring on purpose, but in Chinese translation, in order not to let the text sound jarring, I have to translate the phrase into “one easy chair with thick cushions.”

From time to time, I feel that we translators are knocking out the rungs of an exquisite ladder the author fabricates in order to help his/her readers claw through multiple levels of the story; after the ladder falls apart, the readers can only rest on the surface of the fiction. One of the major reasons I found contemporary American short fiction boring in the past is that all that is left after the “move” of the story to Chinese is an undramatic plot.

The use of symbolism aside, even the very distinct American writers’ prose style can hardly be differentiated in Chinese translation.

The day was fair. Brilliant. All that June the weather had mocked the Maples’ internal misery with solid sunlight—golden shafts and cascades of green in which their conversations had wormed unseeing, their sad murmuring selves the only stain in Nature. (John Updike, “Separating”)

…He (Francis Weed) had traveled faster than the newspaper or the rain, and the weather in New York was sunny and mild. It was a day in late September, as fragrant and shapely as an apple. Trace listened to the story, but how could he get excited? Francis had no powers that would let him re-create a brush with death—particularly in the atmosphere of a commuting train. Journeying through a sunny countryside where already, in the slum gardens, there were signs of harvest. (John Cheever, “The Country Husband”)

These two passages read quite different in English, but one may find the Chinese translations of the two texts pretty similar.

The weather was fair and sunny. Throughout June the sunny weather seemed to pit against the Maples’ internal misery. Their conversations had inched along as worms did in golden shafts and layers of green, unbeknownst to others. The shadows of their sad murmuring forms the only stain in Nature. (Yuan Honggen’s translation)

The Speed of his travel exceeds that of the newspaper or the rain. The weather in New York was fair, sunny, and mild. This is the weather in late September, fragrant and fair like an apple. Trace listened to him, but how could he get excited? Francis had no capacity to recreate the atmosphere of how he fled from death—particularly on a commuting train. The train pulled along through a sunny countryside, and the poor family had already shown the signs of harvest. (Shi Xianrong’s translation)

Judging from the language, those two translations are rendered in fine standard Chinese that forms the so-called “translation style.” “Translation style” is beautiful in its own way, but, as I see it, it is also a process whereby handicrafts production is replaced by machine manufacturing. In the two cited translations, a progressive shade of meaning in Updike’s word choice of fair and brilliant is lost in Chinese, which makes it little different from Cheever’s more concrete choice of sunny and mild. To make things worse, Chinese translators are in a habit of using four-character/syllable idioms as a proof of their high command of their mother tongue. Therefore, the meters of those lines are similar, which leads to a similar rhythm.

The day was fair. Brilliant.
tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh, tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh

the weather in New York was sunny and mild.
XXX-tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh, tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh

A default use of the four-character/syllable idioms does not only apply to the description of nature (the setting of a story so to speak), but in fact everything. For example, a line in the opening paragraphs of Eudora Welty’s “Death of a Traveling Salesman” sounds like this:

…He had had a very high fever, and dreams, and had become weakened and pale, enough to tell the difference in the mirror, and he could not think clearly…

……病中他高烧不退幻影重重体力衰弱面色苍白,一照镜子就知道自己的变化,而且他脑子也混沌不清…… (Wu Xinyun’s translation)

…XXX-tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh, tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh, tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh, tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh, XXXXXXXXXXXX, XXXXXX-tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh…

coverIn the Chinese rendition of A Curtain of Green and Other Stories, a certain basic rhythm develops like a steady drumbeat in the background, which I doubt Welty would like.

Besides, due to the linguistic difference between Chinese and English, the counterparts for certain English verbs do not exist in Chinese. The verb worm, if the translator purports to keep to the precision, can only be translated as something similar to “moves like worms,” and the additional simile in translation makes it read closer to the simile Cheever puts in his original text, “fragrant and fair like an apple.” The same is true of the adjectives that end with “-ing” (e.g. exhausting). Chances are that such adjectives as “exhausting” very often cannot secure their alternatives and have to be translated as “makes someone exhausted,” which does not only give the author a wordy style, but also equates the phrase “makes someone exhausted” with “exhausting.”

Disaster strikes the passive voice. In “The Country Husband,” Cheever elaborates on a vibrant scene of a female prisoner, who is now the main character Francis’s maid, during WWII.

The prisoner arrived sitting on a three-legged stool in a farm cart. She stood by the cart while the Mayor read the accusation and the sentence. Her head was bent and her face was set in that empty half smile behind which the whipped soul was suspended.

Here, the passive voice inherent in Line 3 can only be rendered an active voice in Chinese, otherwise it will sound verbose even to the most patient reader. But Cheever utilizes the passive voice intentionally to contrast with the prisoner’s later spontaneous actions: “she undid her hair and let it fall across her back” and “the prisoner pushed her (a woman) aside and undressed herself.”

The following three sentences are what I plan to have the undergraduates ruminate in my creative writing class, but sadly these are also the examples of certain nuances of prose style that are not working in Chinese.

(1). No tear was shed by her.
(2). She shed no tears.
(3). All came to the funeral but no tear was shed.

The first sentence can only be translated identical to the second sentence in Chinese, and the third sentence has to become “All came to the funeral but no one shed tears.”

The cited excerpt of Cheever’s story also contains another example of how certain nuances of syntaxes make no sense in Chinese.

(1). The prisoner arrived sitting on a three-legged stool in a farm cart.
(2). Perching on a three-legged stool in a farm cart, the prisoner arrived.
(3). Here was the prisoner, sitting on a three-legged stool in a farm cart.
(4). The prisoner came all the way here on a three-legged stool in a farm cart.

Sadly, these four sentences can only be rendered as “the prisoner came, sitting on a three-legged stool in a farm cart.” Very often, the difference in the source text, as striking as that between “Her bedroom light burned” and “Her bedroom light was on,” has to be erased. The difference of word choice does not go alone; it takes the mood with it.

Good writing relies on good description, which turns readers into sensory participants in the story. Ironically, if the key adjectives or verbs are unable to find their equivalents in the target language, the whole vivid description is hollowed out.

…He (Francis) took her free hand, letting his fingers in between hers, climbed at her side the two concrete steps, and went up a narrow walk through a front garden where dahlias, marigolds, and roses—things that had withstood the light frosts—still bloomed, and made a bittersweet smell in the night air. (John Cheever, “The Country Husband”)

The adjective bittersweet here is of crucial importance because it does not only give a visceral sense of how those flowers smell, but also foreshadows the bitter aftertaste of Francis’s ephemeral romance. Unfortunately, the translator is not able to locate a word that can convey the two shades of meaning, and he chooses the adjective “扑鼻” which means “tangy.” The Chinese readers are therefore disconnected with the concrete fragrance of the flowers, the names of which, by the way, are purely exotic and do not ring a bell in the Chinese context. Furthermore, “扑鼻” is a cliché word in Chinese, a word that carries hardly any valence—a typical consequence of relying on “translation style.”

The same is true the other way around—the translation from Chinese to English. Yu Hua, one of my favorite Chinese writers, loses his signature writing style in English and becomes someone like a distant relative of himself.

coverYu Hua’s early short story collection came out in a new English translation with a subtitle that did not exist in its original Chinese version: Stories of Hidden China. As Drew Calvert put it in his book review published in the Boston Review, “(The subtitle) may seem like a marketing ploy to give the book an exotic appeal. It may also seem redundant: isn’t it standard for writers of fiction to explore life’s obscure realms?” This “exotic appeal,” according to Calvert, shapes the mentality of English readers, for whom “the default response has been to view it through the lens of modern politics.” Yu Hua, a highly stylistic and apolitical writer in Chinese, is transformed to a less artistic but highly political writer to accommodate an English-speaking audience.

In China, Yu Hua is known as an avant-garde writer who emerged in the 1980s. His avant-garde elements of style include his clear and concise language that fits into what the French critic Roland Barthes called “writing degree zero,” suggesting a break-up of Bourgeois writing. Yu boldly confronts violence in his work, interweaving it with minimalist prose. In contrast, though the violence is retained within the totality of the plot in the English translation, Yu’s signature language is rectified and polished by the translator, thus losing his avant-garde style.

coverYu’s narrative in Chinese is often compared to Albert Camus’s The Stranger. Like Camus, Yu employs a lot of independent clauses. But in the English translation, perhaps in order not to let the readers feel the language is too fragmented or even broken, these independent clauses are connected by conjunctions to form complex sentences. Consider the opening paragraph of “No Name of My Own” as an example. In Allan H. Barr’s translation this paragraph is rendered as follows:

One day, as I crossed the bridge with my carrying-pole on my shoulder, I heard someone say that Pug-nose Xu Asan had died, so I laid down my baskets and took the towel that I wore around my neck and rubbed the sweat off my face while I listened to them talk about how it had happened…

But if translated literally from Chinese to English, this paragraph should read like this:

One day, I crossed the bridge with the carrying-pole on my shoulder. I heard them say Upturned-nose Xu Asan had died. I put down the carrying-pole, took the towel hanging on my neck, rubbed the sweat off my nose. I listened to them talk about how Upturned-nose Xu Asan had died…

It seems the two translations bear no major difference, but it needs to be pointed out that Yu refuses to use such linking words as as and while. The narrator of this story is an old man with an intellectual disability—his limited command of the language only allows him to make simple sentences. Yu also dislikes the conjunction word but. Barr adds but whenever he finds the logic unclear, whereas, in the original Chinese text, but is nowhere to be found. Take another two sentences in “No Name of My Own” for example, “their goggling eyes blinked shut, but their mouths opened even wider;” “the kid was crying louder than anyone, but he asked me as he wept, ‘Hey, am I your daddy?’” But in these two cases implies the narrator has the capacity to understand a contrasting relation between two facts, whereas in reality the narrator should not demonstrate such a high level of nuance. Further, by adding but, the perspective in viewing Yu’s fictional world may go through a certain degree of distortion from Chinese to English.

The second example is set in a funeral scene. The kid seems to behave properly according to traditional Chinese rituals (i.e. to cry very loud for his late grandpa), yet he does not really feel grief, given the proof of his derision of the narrator on the way to the crematorium. By getting rid of but, Yu entitles the narrator to offer his observation of the society without providing any specific understanding or interpretation. The removal of nearly all conjunctions in Yu’s original text does not only do justice to the narrator’s mental disability, but also, like the aesthetic effect Camus has achieved in The Stranger, maps out a genuine and objective panorama of the absurdity of the society; the mode of writing is intended to be, as Roland Barthes put it, “a transparent form of speech.”

On a similar note, the repetitions in Yu’s stories are either trimmed down or refined in the English translation, thus failing to carry the weight of the embedded emotions of the original text. In “No Name of My Own,” the narrator meditates on death: “I know I’m an idiot. I know I’m getting old and will die soon.” But in the Chinese version, this line goes: “I know I am a fool. I know I, the fool as I am, am getting old. I know, the fool as I am, will die soon.” The word fool keeps bothering the narrator and thus causes the repetition. However, in the English translation, in order not to let the prose sound jarring, Barr deprives both the narrator and readers of the right to be bothered.

In certain cases, the refinement of the original prose violates the authorial intention to keep away from bourgeois writing and intellectual writing. The title story, “Boy in the Twilight” tells of a series of brutal punishments a boy is given by a vendor after the boy steals an apple from the vendor’s stall. Yu’s violent world in Barr’s translation is rendered like this:

Sun Fu swung his arm and struck the boy, knocking the apple out of his hand and connecting so firmly with the boy’s chin that he collapsed on the ground. He shielded his head with his hands, all the time chewing vigorously. Sun Fu, incensed, seized the boy by the collar and hauled him to his feet.

coverHere we need to pay special attention to two specific details. One is that such verbs in English translation as swing, knock, and connect are written originally as the same word in Chinese, da, which means “hit.” Yu ventures to challenge the lavish profusion in Chinese literary language before his time by using raw and simple word choice and sentences. That is, he does not only use his storylines to connect with regular people in China, but also lets the characters speak their minds using their own language. Thus, the violent world reads very authentically and vividly in the Chinese context. It is understandable that Barr’s variation of word choice is in a translator’s concern to connect with target readers. As James Wood comments in his review of War and Peace in a new English translation, “Flaubert, the agonist of style, swatted repetitions like insects, and today’s copy editor, no less than Tolstoy’s early translators, is post-Flaubertian in this way.” Yet we cannot deny the fact that Yu in English is forced to be more Flaubertian, closer to Bourgeois writing so to speak, something Yu has explicitly avoided throughout his writing career.

The other detail that is worth mentioning is the last line in the paragraph above: “Sun Fu, incensed, seized the boy by the collar and hauled him to his feet.” In the original text, there is no such interpretation as incensed, but it should be: “On hearing the chewing sound, Sun Fu seized the boy by the collar and hauled him to his feet.” There are perhaps two reasons why Barr has made the modification: first, Barr, like today’s copy editors, cannot endure the repetitions; second, after cutting the repetition, he has to add the interpretation to smooth over the logic. But in doing so, Barr has also changed the original logic of this line in a very subtle way. Yu purports to emphasize that Sun’s brutal violence is all triggered by trivial matters such as an apple, the chewing sound, etc. The chewing sound in the Chinese context may also remind the readers of Japan’s infamous “Piano Murder” in 1974 (a man killed a female neighbor and her two young daughters because he could not tolerate their piano practice). Yu has no intention to remark that Sun is incensed. The trifles of daily life add up little by little to an eventual unbearable burden to Sun, and Sun is always on the lookout for a justified excuse to let out a flood of his repressed emotion—a mixture of boredom, grief, despair, grievance, anger, and perhaps something more. By trimming down the repetitions and appending “smart” interpretations, Barr has narrowed down the original, much broader scope of these stories.

Yu also rejects the use of conventional metaphors in his works. But in Barr’s polished English version, certain images are given so much focus that they turn into metaphors in a perhaps inadvertent way. The opening paragraph of “Boy in the Twilight” is beautifully rewritten by Barr in English: “When a car drove by, it shrouded him in the dust stirred by its passage, plunging him into darkness, and it was a moment before he and his fruit re-emerged, as though unveiled by a new dawn.” In Chinese, however, this line is written by Yu in a very neat, curt fashion: “A car drove by. Dust stirred up covered him like the coming darkness. In a little while, he and his fruit re-emerged like the dawn.” This example alone may not become a serious problem affecting interpretation. Yet Barr’s elaboration on such natural imagery is evident throughout the text. One page later, Barr’s translation reads, “It was afternoon now. Dust flew as the boy fled along the highway.” A literal translation from Chinese would be: “It was already afternoon. The boy was running on the dusty road.” Neither dust nor highway are highlighted, as neither darkness nor dawn are highlighted in the first place. By imposing a new intellectual writing style on Yu and providing the misleading subtitle, Barr encourages the English readers to imbue these stories with political connotations: darkness may refer to the Cultural Revolution whereas dawn indicates the Reform and Opening period, and dust could represent the pain one experienced during the transitional period. However, in Yu’s original text, it is clear that he defies such interpretation. A final flashback in the story explains where Sun’s cruelty originates—the loss of his son, followed by his being abandoned by his wife. Yu’s stories deal with very personal relations and have no bearings with politics. Also, all of those images—darkness, dawn, dust, and highway—are never mentioned in the later part of the story, which means they should not be over-interpreted.

Indeed, Barr’s translation is beautiful, but perhaps it is too beautiful to lend fidelity to Yu Hua, a writer who has no interest in receiving praise about the beauty of his writing.

Since there are certain linguistic and cultural gaps that translators may not be able to negotiate, what should we do?

I cannot speak for all the translators, but I set some expectations for myself.

First of all, get rid of the canard that all works should be rendered in a fine standard language, that is, rule out the “translation style.” As a translator, I am often caught in the fear that if I do justice to a strange prose style without refining it, the readers may think it is I, rather than the original author, who has a mediocre command of the language. But translators need to take such risks; otherwise we can see from the various examples mentioned above how different fiction writers are given one serene, unanimous voice.

Second, try every means to retain the style of the author. Last semester, I was in Professor Aron Aji’s translation workshop at the University of Iowa. Whenever a certain word choice or a sentence structure read awkwardly in translation, Professor Aji would confirm with the translator first: “Does the word/line read awkwardly in the original language? In what ways?” The author’s style, like museum artifacts, are the treasures we must restore and feature in the translation.

Third, give as much thought to the sound and sight of the prose as a poet does to his verses. Almost all the greatest writers care about the music of their prose. This is also something I learned from Professor Aji. Under his guidance, I am translating Zhu Yue’s short fiction collection from Chinese to English. I was surprised to hear one rule of his the first time: “if this is one sentence in Chinese, no matter how long it is, we need to make it one sentence in English.” I never asked him why, but I knew this has to do with the rhythm of the original text; until one day I happened to reread “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” by Flannery O’Connor, I came to understand more reasons behind this rule.


All the sentences in Madame Bovary could be examined with wonder, but there is one in particular that always stops me in admiration. Flaubert has just shown us Emma at the piano with Charles watching her. He says, “She struck the notes with aplomb and ran from top to bottom of the keyboard without a break. Thus shaken up, the old instrument, whose strings buzzed, could be heard at the other end of the village when the window was open, and often the bailiff’s clerk, passing along the highroad, bareheaded and in list slippers, stopped to listen, his sheet of paper in his hand.”

The more you look at a sentence like that, the more you can learn from it. At one end of it, we are with Emma and this very solid instrument “whose strings buzzed,” and at the other end of it we are across the village with this very concrete clerk in his list slippers…

What I have learned from Flaubert’s second sentence in the quote is that if the translator breaks down the long line into several short sentences, which many translators do when confronted with a dilemma to decrease the difficulty of translation, readers may never get an opportunity to know how much a great writer like Flaubert can accomplish in a single sentence by constructing a bridge of various vivid details to connect the two sides of his fictional village.

Translators are hunters who are always on the lookout for equivalents in the target language, equivalents of words, syntaxes, and rhythms, etc. Perhaps one thing we need to keep in mind in this fun but demanding game is that we also need to work hard to become the equivalent of the great author of the original text.

Image Credit: Flickr/Gary Denham.

is a staff writer at The Millions. She writes in both Chinese and English. In Chinese, she has published a story collection, a novel, and an essay collection. In English, her works have appeared or are forthcoming in The New York Times, Guernica Magazine, The Bare Life Review, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in fiction from The Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

One comment:

  1. As an American that (poorly) reads Japanese language texts and English translations (less poorly), I find this fascinating but sobering. If stylistic flourishes and euphemistic nuance are often unwittingly incapable of making a transition to translation, what hope is there of getting a genuine technical feel for modern Chinese literature for the English reader?

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