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Fine Translation Points - Or How I Do It?

Please refer to the following link first.


First of all, to me, there are only two kinds of translators.  Practical and literary ones.  The practical ones translate for communication such as those use in the UN, in companies dealing with international business or with the court system in extracting information from the witness stand for those who do not speak the local lingo.  These translators must understand the colloquial terms, slang and everyday talk. 


I don't belong to this group.  My Chinese is not good enough for this sort of communication and neither am I interested.  However, I belong to the second type of translators.  They are language lovers.  They make love to the language for the aesthetics aspects. Hence we must understand both cultures intimately.  Compare this second type of translation to fine dining complete with fine silverware and the whole nine yards!


Before any more ado, I shall introduce the poem to you first before explaining the intricacies of its surrounding creation.



only watch white snow profuse fly no see plum



subtle/remote/hidden away/secluded/serene/peaceful/to imprison/underworld  fragrance pounce pounce no need prominence/conspicous flower bright/understand



complete know colored clouds chase imprison/tie together great Yin/feminine principle essence/magnificence/splendor



No/not must moon tooth/fang curve curve hook auspicious red_clouds


The first step in any poetry translation is to do a verbatim and literal translation. There may be many meanings for a single word. However, from this basis and the context, we can begin the process of elimination.  Once this is done, we can proceed to the polishing step when the meaning becomes clearer. What the first line says, is that plum blossoms are obscured by the heavy snowing.  The translation in brown is just another alternate way of saying the same thing.



See only how heavy is the snow with no plum blossom seen.

Watch how profusely the snow is fluttering but no plum blossom seen.


In the second line, we can eliminate the many definitions of 幽 into “subtle”. 撲 has many meanings including to throw oneself at/to pounce on/to devote one's energies/to flap/to flutter/to dab/to pat/to bend over. However, in this context, the meaning is clear, the fragrance of the flower is weak and subtle but its presence cannot be ignored.  "Pouncing" and "throwing" are such strong English words to use in this context.  So I used a different word to soften the tone for the English reader. 明, although is a simple and easy word to mean either bright or to understand, it is very difficult to translate because of the word play in the original Chinese.  There can be two meanings: It is understandable that the flowers need not be apparent or It is not necessary for the flowers to be apparent. I prefer the second interpretation because of the preceeding words.  However, both versions are correct.



Subtle fragrance wafting strongly, need no apparent blossom.

Quiet fragrance permeating/pervading, need no apparent blossom.


Except for the literal meaning, what do all these boil down to?  It is nothing more than a grandiose way of saying, "I smell a rat and I don’t have to see the dead body!"  You can say a kind of elegant code speak. The incident happened at work but I cannot say it openly without offending other bigwigs. However, no one can fault me for writing poetry and using it as my email signature.  Only the astute will sense and ask.  Yes, I’m sure my Taiwanese boss will inquire what I am up to now.  It is a wonderful opportunity to discuss it in the plane on our way toHong Kongon this coming Monday.  Welcome to the world of high politics in management!  Yes, we both love high level conspiracies!


The next two lines were created to throw even more scent off me!


太陰 – The Grand Femininity Principle is not a common term.  It is used in Taoist speak to denote the moon as opposed to 太陽, the more common term for the sun.  In the Eight Trigram (八卦) terminology, it is the trigram represented by two broken lines: = =.  Here in this context, the term is translated as the “Major Yin”.  For those who can access the following link, you will be treated to a spectacular visual presentation of the Ying Yang Principle.  Just be sure to turn on your sound to the max!


The image of this line came from a traditional Chinese melody, The Colored Cloud Chasing the Moon (彩雲追月). Not only did I retain the cloud chasing the moon but also to capture its essence, ie its light.  In Chinese mythology, capturing someone’s essence is to enable to enrich one’s own.  Here the meaning of essence is opened to many ribald interpretations!  Go and research on your own or send me a private email.  I won’t want to be accused of anything.



All I know is that the colored cloud is chasing and capturing the moonlight.


The last line is a rhetorical question of the reverse in the English thinking of, “The glass is half full or it is half empty.”  For those learning advance Chinese, both 非 and 不 means negation.  The difference is 非 negates the entire clause while the other just the immediate word.  However, a clause can also be a single word.  The order of the words, 非必 and 必非 is very important.  For example, 非必我要.  Here 非 negates the clause 必我要 (Not that I must have).  In the other way, 非 negates 我要 (I want).  So it becomes, It is a must that I should not have.


Moon tooth/fang is a Chinese expression to mean the crescent moon. 霞 means red clouds in sunset.  Also in Chinese mythology, auspicious cloud is the vehicle in which immortals use to travel in the sky.  Thus, to mean someone pure.  The verb “hook” can be used to mean a hookup or as in the Chinese, “to entice” (鉤引).



Is it not the crescent moon is hooking the auspicious cloud?

Nay, it must be the crescent moon hooking the auspicious cloud.


So the entire meaning of the poem is that even though things may not be visible there are other clues to deduce and even if they are, the evidence can be circumstantial.  So therefore investigate, investigate and know your people well.

Jan 12, 2013 11:44 PM
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Language Skills
Chinese (Mandarin), Chinese (Cantonese), Chinese (Other), English
Learning Language
Chinese (Mandarin), Chinese (Cantonese), Chinese (Other)