"Sherlock Holmes" and "clubfoot" in Chinese

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Over at China Economic Review, Hudson Lockett has written an interesting piece worthy of the celebrated British sleuth:

"The game is afoot! Why Chinese Sherlock fans are as confused as everyone else" (1/3/16)

It's all about how the Chinese term — mǎtí nèifān zú 马蹄内翻足 — for a congenital deformity referred to in English as "clubfoot" (talipes equinovarus [CTEV]) figures in the "slaveringly awaited"

New Year’s Day special episode of the series starring Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch.

I do not wish to steal Hudson's thunder, so will limit myself to a couple of comments on the detective's name.

When my wife was in high school and college, she read all of the Sherlock Holmes stories in Chinese translation.  She loved them dearly and was thoroughly familiar with the adventures of the fabled detective and his sidekick Watson.  She often cited the cases he had solved, but never said anything like "Elementary, my dear Watson", because that famous line was not in the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  It occurred, rather, in the play "Sherlock Holmes" by the author and the actor William Gillette.

Li-ching always referred to the detective in Mandarin (even when she was speaking in English) as Fú'ěrmósī 福尔摩斯.  From the very first time she spoke that name, I always thought that it was an odd transcription for "Holmes".  Today, having looked up the origin of that transcription, I realize that it was due to the Fuzhou tongue of the first translator, the eminent Lin Shu (1852-1924).

Lin transcribed the full name of the detective as Xiēluòkè Fú'ěrmósī 歇洛克·福爾摩斯, but the first name did not stick, and now he is usually called Xiàluòkè Fú'ěrmósī 夏洛克·福尔摩斯 ("Sherlock Holmes")

Curiously, Xiàluòkè 夏洛克 is also the Chinese transcription of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender and principal antagonist in "Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice".

A note from Wikipedia on the name Shylock:

"Shylock" is not a Jewish name, nor are instances of it before its use in Shakespeare's play known. However, scholars believe it probably derives from the biblical name Shalah, which is 'Shelach' (שלח) in Hebrew. Shalah is the grandson of Shem and the father of Eber, biblical progenitor of Hebrew peoples. All the names of Jewish characters in the play derive from minor figures listed in genealogies in the Book of Genesis. It is probable that Shakespeare originally intended the name to be pronounced with a short "i", as rather than a long one. The modern pronunciation has changed because the standard spelling with a "y" signifies to readers a long i pronunciation.[1]

And here is a note from Wiktionary on the etymology of Sherlock:

Supposedly from an Old English scir-lock "bright-lock". One of a group of surnames originally denoting hair colour, parallel to Blacklock, Harlock (har "grey"), Silverlock.

Incidentally, Lin Shu, whom I mentioned above as the translator of Sherlock Holmes into Chinese, knew no English!  Though he knew neither French nor English, he is famed as the first translator of Western novels into Chinese — Classical Chinese, mind you — including Alexandre Dumas's La Dame aux Camélias, Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop, and more than 170 other titles.  You might wonder how in the world he did that.  The answer is simple, my dear Watson:  he did it with a little help from his friends who did know those languages and who would tell the stories to Lin Shu in Chinese, enabling the translator to render them into florid, polished written form.  While this may seem like a strange procedure for translating literature, many of the Buddhist translations from Sanskrit were produced in a similar fashion a thousand five hundred or so years ago.


  1. Robert said,

    January 3, 2016 @ 1:05 pm

    Apparently Marcel Proust "translated" the works of John Ruskin into French in a similar manner, not knowing English well enough.

  2. John said,

    January 3, 2016 @ 1:31 pm

    The Chinese Wikipedia page for Lin Shu has a comprehensive list of his translations, and I find it fascinating which ones have stuck and which haven't. Some variation on 劫後英雄略 (Ivanhoe) and 塊肉餘生錄 (David Copperfield) are still common Chinese translations for those two books, but 孤星淚 for Les Miserables is pretty uncommon now and most of the rest are downright unrecognizable.

  3. Bob Ladd said,

    January 3, 2016 @ 2:20 pm

    Arthur Miller's "adaptation" of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People involved the same translation process.

  4. julie lee said,

    January 4, 2016 @ 5:51 pm

    It seems Lin Shu's Fuzhou Province speech pronounced the h- as f-. The Hunan Province speech does that too. Hunan and Hubei are pronounced Funan and Fubei. Because of this conversion of h-to f-, I've had great difficulty understanding Hunanese people when they speak Mandarin.

  5. Alyssa said,

    January 5, 2016 @ 2:19 pm

    Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that Lin Shu had friends translate the stories for him, and then he wrote down and edited the results? I'm not sure you can call listening to a story in Chinese and then writing it in Chinese "translation", by any definition.

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