From Yan Fu to translations of Chinese language textbooks

One of the best ever translated works from other languages to Chinese should be《天演论》(Evolution and Ethics, by Thomas Huxley), when it was translated by Yan Fu (严复) and published in 1898. This book had single-handedly transformed the mindset of Chinese intellectuals at the time.

When writing Evolution and Ethics, I am pretty sure that Huxley did not write for China or Chinese people specifically. Yet, Yan Fu made this book so relevant and so pressing for the Chinese people and the dire situation China was in. On top of a string of failures, China just lost badly in the war with Japan in 1895, and had to sever territories and to pay an astronomical amount of money as repatriation.

Yan Fu used a rather free style of translation and incorporated his own commentary, which connected the theories in Evolution and Ethics to the Chinese society. He sounded the alarms that Chinese previously superior civilisation and race were in great danger, and urged Chinese to “struggle for existence”. Many Chinese intellectuals were immediately converted. Darwinism became their dominated thoughts for the next decades.

That was the power of good translation.

Yet translating technicians can legitimately criticise Yan Fu’s translation for the reason that he distorted the original texts. This criticism can be compounded nowadays because he translated Huxley’s work into Classical Chinese which few people can read freely today. 

However, in the 1900s, when China was going through difficult times, and when Classical Chinese was the language of Chinese intellectuals, Yan Fu’s translation was the most appropriate. 

While there are good translations, there are more bad ones. 

Chinese language is rather loose, and usually uses short sentences to achieve impact. Also, different from European languages, Chinese language does not follow rigid structures. For example, 没做早饭, méi zuò zǎofàn, (Didn’t cook breakfast) and 早饭没做, zǎofàn méi zuò, (Breakfast didn’t cook) mean the same thing in Chinese. 

Bad translations disregard the uniqueness of Chinese language, only want to achieve the exactness of the original texts, and therefore produce stiff and long sentences which are difficult to understand. There have been countless bad translations. When the translations are hard to penetrate, the original texts lost its ardour as well. That is a lose-lose situation. 

Translating writings of other languages into Chinese is something very difficult to do well. The reverse, that translating Chinese into other languages appropriately and fittingly, must be equally difficult.

That is a task for skilled translators to ponder and to figure out, as we all need to read good works written in different languages to broaden our minds.

But, how about Chinese language textbooks? It seems to me that both bad translations and good translations will do a disservice.

The function of Chinese language textbooks is to teach Chinese. So a dilemma arises.

If the translation achieves the exactness of the original Chinese texts, it is probably bad translation, which can be repulsive to the native speakers. It is not fit for learning Chinese.

If the translation achieves translating the meanings of the original Chinese texts well, but at the expenses of distorting Chinese language’s uniqueness, it is not fit for learning Chinese, either.

Previously, I wrote Why English translations should not be included in Chinese textbooks. Really, not only English, we have to think really hard on whether or not to include any translations at all.

My two cents are that, from a perspective of learning Chinese, to translate Chinese into other languages, without either presenting bad translations or distorting Chinese, is a mission impossible. When translation is needed, it is best to have a communicative approach between teachers and students, to discuss the meanings of words (the ideal situation is to use as many Chinese as possible for the discussions), so that students can draw their own conclusions. Many times, not only students fully appreciate the Chinese texts, but also come up with some wonderful translations. It takes a bit longer time than simply printing translations on the pages. But it is a win-win solution. 

Therefore, perhaps the textbooks for the appearance of two languages side by side are those books teaching translation techniques.


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