A Translation Project

I admire translators. Fan translators, in particular, who are often well-respected in Internet spaces involving content from another country. They relay information quickly for English-speaking fans so everyone can take part in the joy. But having read countless “translator’s notes”, I’ve constantly started thinking about how often meaning and nuance might get lost in translation, and how huge misunderstandings can spring from a mistranslation. I wanted to try translating text myself to experience how difficult it could be.

The first task was finding a text to translate. Translation differs across mediums, but I chose to translate an excerpt from a novel. Novel translation differs from other types of translation, such as interpreting dialogue, which I understand to be more literal. For novel translations, factors such as preserving the author’s style and intent must be taken into account.

The book I translated from is《废墟曾经辉煌》 (Fei Xu Ceng Jing Hui Huang) by female fiction writer Zhang Ling (张翎). It’s a book of lighthearted travel anecdotes, and the section I attempted translating was 成都散记 (Chengdu San Ji), a three part collection of prose about the city of Chengdu. 

I started reading the excerpt over multiple times in the original language, as well as running it through Google Translate to see if I understood the gist of it correctly. After that, I did a close reading where I took notes about the author’s style and interesting things I saw in the text, like tonal shifts or phrases I found cool. While keeping those points in mind, I started the first basic translation of the text from Chinese to English, going sentence by sentence. I consulted my notes and looked for places where I could make stylistic changes to match the author’s voice better. I also consulted Professor Rhew of the Reed Chinese department for tips on translation. Here is a bit from my final translation (along with the original): 

Colors of Clothing

Right at midsummer, all the flora that belong to this season squeeze themselves out of all sorts of narrow nooks and crannies, reaching out into the city. And so, the streets of Chengdu develop vivid color. These rich colors are typical of the season, this kind of botanical landscape present in every southern city. The flora lets me feel the warmth of the season, but it isn’t exactly enough to surprise a faraway visitor like me.

What does surprise me are the women, walking out from the vibrant, blooming shadows. The clothes of Chengdu women include a myriad of colors: faint blue, pale purple, pink, lilac, light green, lotus beige….. as if gathering all the flower colors under the sun. But it’s not only this. In the culture saturated day after day, year after year, the Chengdu women emerging from the mist of the city’s waterways learn to rinse these strong colors into light elegance. As these elegant outfits walk leisurely under the warm shade and in the midst of meadows, the flowers and trees become accessories. The Chengdu women have long since diluted the popular looks of international fashion magazines into daily routine.

This season trends a simple sleeveless dress, with a short waistline raised above the stomach. Wearing it reveals two lotus root arms, a snow white column of neck, and two doe-like legs, allowing one to appear noticeably taller. A girl following this style of dress gracefully steps into a car with a swish of lilac, the vehicle carrying along the refreshing feeling of waking in the early morning.

It is said that no matter how hard you look, you won’t find a fat person on this street. 




这个季节时兴一种简洁的连衣裙,无袖,腰短短地提在腹上。穿上了,露出两只莲藕似的臂膀,一段雪白的颈子,两条母鹿一样的腿,人便瞬间颀长起来了。跟团的小田穿了一件这样的衣裙,紫丁香般娉娉婷婷地走进车里,一车便都是清晨乍醒的清凉。 便都说,这一街怎么都找不到一个胖子呢?

Zhang Ling’s writing felt very refreshing and elegant, which I tried to emulate with my own phrasing. Sometimes a translated sentence might mean the right thing, but it reads awkwardly and feels stinted. I had some trouble with preserving the meaning of localized descriptions while making them sound natural in English. Sentence length was also something I had to watch out for. Even if some phrases may need a long explanation to carry the full meaning, I couldn’t sacrifice changing the overall rhythm of the piece and instead had to focus on preserving concise phrases that still get the point across. There are still certain phrases that don’t encompass the full meaning of the original characters and parts that might sound awkward, but this was a fun first attempt at translating a work! I feel like I did get closer to understanding the essence of translation: wrestling with words, always turning them over in your head and searching for alternatives, and immersing yourself in the crossway between languages.