Archive for Translation

The Great Translation Movement, part 2

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The value and validity of translation for learning classical languages

Two years ago, during the middle of lockdown when we had to teach all of our courses via zoom, one student was conspicuously superior to all the other dozen or so students in my first-year Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese (LS/CC) class.  She was clearly an innately smart student, but in addition she seemed to possess a special knack for grasping the grammar, structure, and meaning of the texts we read day after day.  When it came to parsing a particularly difficult passage, she was consistently the one who could figure it out fastest and most accurately.  I had no idea to what particular talent or prior training her excellence could be attributed.

I should mention that this student was from China, as were two-thirds of the others.  Only one-third of the class were from other countries.  I should note, parenthetically, that by and large the more languages a student knows well when he or she takes LS/CC, the better she or he tends to perform in my class.  For example, one of the best students in recent years was a Mexican whose native tongue is Spanish and who is advanced in Korean.  I let him pronounce the texts in Korean.

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Startling discrepancies in translations of the Lao Zi (Daode jing)

The Daoist / Taoist classic, Daode jing / Tao-te ching (The Classic of the Way and Integrity / Power / Virtue), a brief text consisting of approximately 5,000 characters in 81 brief chapters, is one of the most frequently translated books in the world.  Even people who don't know Classical Chinese, such as the first translator quoted below, somehow feel that they are qualified to try their hand at it, and are sometimes paid enormous sums to do so by distinguished publishing houses. 

In this post, I will focus only on a single chapter, number 13.  Out of the hundreds of versions I could cite, I will give here only half a dozen by way of example of what can be done with the same text.

Stephen Mitchell's version of chapter #13 is so different from Derek Liu's that it's mind-boggling.

Success is as dangerous as failure.

Hope is as hollow as fear.

What does it mean that success is as dangerous as failure?

Whether you go up the ladder or down it,

your position is shaky.

When you stand with your two feet on the ground,

you will always keep your balance.

What does it mean that hope is as hollow as fear?

Hope and fear are both phantoms

that arise from thinking of the self.

When we don’t see the self as self,

what do we have to fear?

See the world as your self.

Have faith in the way things are.

Love the world as your self;

then you can care for all things.

(translation by Stephen Mitchell, 1988)

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John Kelly (1750-1809): Manx grammarian, lexicographer, and translator

[With an added note on the monumental encyclopedic dictionary of Sinitic by Tetsuji Morohashi]

In researching our previous post on the revival of Manx (11/26/22), I learned about John Kelly, whose life and work on behalf of Manx studies is so moving that I believe it is worthwhile to introduce him to the readership of Language Log.  His heroic feats are truly mind-boggling.

Kelly was born at Douglas, Isle of Man, the only son of wine cooper and farmer William Kelly and his wife Alice Kewley. He was educated by Reverend Philip Moore in the Douglas Grammar School and later at St John's College, Cambridge, where he took his LL.D degree in 1799. He was ordained in 1776 and married Louisa Dolland in 1784.

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Unknown language #14

Here is the first page of a letter sent from China (Tongzhou, Beijing) to the US (Trenton, NJ) by a missionary in 1888. The missionary’s name is James Ingram (1858-1934).  My colleagues in China are very interested in what the letter says, but they cannot read the script.

(credit:  Yale Divinity Library)

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Speech to speech translation of unwritten languages: Hokkien

Everybody's talking about it.

"Meta has developed an AI translator for a primarily-spoken language

It only translates between Hokkien and English for now, but offers potential for thousands of languages without official written systems."

By Amanda Yeo, Mashable (October 20, 2022)

If true, this technology could be an enormous boon for illiterates everywhere.  It also has important theoretical and linguistic implications.

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Translation strategies: open protest at Sitong (Four-Way) Bridge

Pro-China democracy flyer posted outside University of Miami classrooms:

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Upaya: the joy of teaching Classical Chinese

One of my favorite books for everyday living is Irma S. Rombauer's Joy of Cooking.  The author's cheerful approach to her craft in the kitchen is similar to my jubilant upāya उपाय ("expedient pedagogical means; skill-in-means; skillful means" > fāngbiàn 方便 ["convenient"]) in the classroom.

In my classes, especially Introduction to Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese (LS/CC), we don't just read through texts with the aid of vocabularies, commentaries, annotations, and grammar notes.  We live the texts, act them out, draw them on the board, debate them, chant them, analyze them, get at their profound philosophical significance, plumb their esthetic depths.

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Zero-COVID: null with a difference

In Chinese, it is called "qīng líng 清零" (lit., "clear zero").  Because the concept never made sense to me as a practical means for coping with the pandemic coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2, I wrote a post trying to understand what the Chinese authorities mean by it:  see "Dynamic zero" (5/19/22).  In that post, I discussed the problem from many different angles, including:

  1. "zero moment point" in robotics
  2. "zero-sum game" in mathematics
  3. "zero dynamics" in mathematics

If "Zero-COVID" genuinely interests / concerns you, I recommend that you spend some time on the "Dynamic zero" post.  Here I will cite only this brief passage from it:

…before it was rushed into use for the current "zero [Covid control]" policy, "qīng líng 清零" started out in literary texts as an adjective implying "lonely; lonesome; solitary; desolate".  More recently, it was employed in computing as a verb denoting "to reset; to clear the memory".  From there, it was adapted by Chinese epidemiologists in the sense of "to reduce to zero; to zero out".  That may be their goal, but it is not happening, despite their fiercest efforts at FTTIS ("Find, Test, Trace, Isolate and Support").

Not to mention mass prescription of mRNA and other medicines, plus masks.

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English French Toast

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Translated abstracts and titles

There are many different subfields in Chinese Studies:  religion (Buddhism, Daoism, Islam…), art history, archeology, anthropology, language, literature, linguistics, esthetics, philosophy, economics, ethnology, and so forth.  Each of these subfields requires specialized knowledge and command of the requisite terminology.  One cannot expect a generalist to be adequately equipped to deal with all of them.

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Omnibus Chinglish, part 4

Yet more fun (see parts 1, 2, and 3).

Don't JuYiGe


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The word direction is common in the English versions of the "operational updates" from the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine . For example, from the August 6 update:

In the direction of Bakhmut, the enemy from tanks, barrel and jet artillery shelled the areas of the settlements of Bakhmutske, Toretsk, Bilohorivka, Krasnopolivka, Pivnichne and Vershyna.

It led offensive battles in the direction of Yakovlivka-Vershyna and Kodema-Zaitseve, it was unsuccessful and left.

Leads an offensive in the direction of Bakhmut, hostilities continue.

It led an offensive in the direction of Lozove-Nevelske, was unsuccessful, withdrew.

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