Topolect writing

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This is an interesting question raised by the Writing Chinese project at Leeds.  Helen Wang mentioned it to me in the hope that I might be willing to share my thoughts.  I'll do Helen one better and share this with many others, in hopes that they too may be willing to share their thoughts.

I'd like to call to your attention this project at the University of Leeds.  It's about contemporary fiction from China.

They have a bookclub format – with a new book and author for discussion each month. It's intended to be inclusive and open to all.

Helen went along to a one-day event they organized on 1 November – very well-attended with a genuinely welcoming atmosphere, and a good discussion. They also have an online forum.

The author for November is Yan Ge, a young woman from Sichuan who tries to bring Sichuanese topolect/local expressions into her writing.

The online forum discussion started with this:

One question that came up in our bookclub discussions today on this chapter (and also in the masterclass last week) was the use of Sichuan dialect, or local slang. From a translator’s viewpoint, how do/should/can you deal with this?

On a broader but related topic, while in our Leeds group (unfortunately without any Chinese native speakers present) we could all discuss at length the notorious obsession in the UK with regional accents and related prejudices / stereotypes of class / backlashes against class etc etc, we couldn’t quite work out whether or not a Chinese readership is likely to have a similar response — what does it mean nowadays for a Chinese reader in, say, Beijing to read a story where characters speak in a Sichuan dialect?

and is currently asking:

I suppose the question I’m wondering about really is to what extent a Chinese reader reading 我们家 feels the local Sichuan flavour of the setting, and then what that implies in terms of cultural assumptions/stereotypes etc.

Two things I [VHM] never do:  refer to Sichuanese, Cantonese, Pekingese, Taiwanese, etc. as "dialects" or "slang" (the latter is especially demeaning).  I simply call them "topolects", which is a neutral designation for them and which is also an accurate translation of the Chinese term FANG1YAN2.

"The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th edition"   (11/14/12)

"Mutual intelligibility" (5/28/14)
(see the long list of posts linked at the bottom)

"What Is a Chinese “Dialect/Topolect”? Reflections on Some Key Sino-English Linguistic Terms," Sino-Platonic Papers, 29 (1991).

Also here and, for an archive of my LL posts dealing with topolects, see here.

See, as well, The Classification of Sinitic Languages: What is “Chinese”, which is a chapter from this book:

Breaking Down the Barriers: Interdisciplinary Studies in Chinese Linguistics and Beyond


  1. Anton Sherwood said,

    November 23, 2014 @ 2:11 am

    My father once read an Italian novel that had a lot of Sicilian dialogue. His wife later read the same novel in English translation; Dad was curious about how the Sicilian was rendered, and disappointed that it was all standard English. He chuckled for years at my suggestion that Sicilian be translated into Scots.

  2. Richard W said,

    November 23, 2014 @ 3:55 am

    In one of the dialogs in Yuen Ren Chao's Mandarin Primer, there are speakers from Chongqing. Their speech is rendered in English as “Oh, the Minsen Warks [Minsheng Works]? Take this rawd and torn to the lift, —” and so on.

    Here is an audio snippet of the dialog, translated as
    “… then there will be a gross road —“
    “A what?”
    “He says there will be a crossroad.”

  3. Nathaniel Mishkin said,

    November 23, 2014 @ 8:41 am

    "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet", by David Mitchell, in English, is set in Japan ca. 1800 at a Dutch trading colony and most of the characters speak Dutch or Japanese. (Some English-speaking characters come in towards the end.) I was struck by how the author succeeded in capturing when characters did and didn't understand each other and in capturing the "class" of characters (at least the Dutch ones) by use of a variety of English accents, rendered orthographically. (I don't own the book so I can't come up with examples, but think of things like using "'im" instead of "him".) I don't know if this technique would work for translations into English of works in Mandarin. Too, I wonder how works in English that use devices like this would be translated into Mandarin!

  4. David Arthur said,

    November 23, 2014 @ 9:07 am

    Anton: I had a similar reaction to a Swedish translation of Waverley which, while it did an admirable job of interpreting the Scots language, erased the linguistic diversity in the process. It was my contention that the Scottish characters should have spoken Norwegian.

    The problem, I suppose, is that 'converting' accent/dialect/whatever aggressively draws the reader's attention to the translation. For many people it might end up feeling like Allo Allo, the sitcom where characters speak in comedy accents to represent different languages, and detract from the seriousness of the source text.

  5. Eric P Smith said,

    November 23, 2014 @ 10:17 am

    @Anton, @David Arthur

    As a Scot I take well to your suggestions regarding the use of Scots language for translation and the rendering of Scots language in translation. I am of the opinion that Scots is not a language in its own right, but the "feel" is right.

    In 1983, a translation of the New Testament into Scots by William Lorimer was posthumously published. Satan speaks in Standard English.

  6. Brendan said,

    November 23, 2014 @ 10:54 am

    I've always had a hard time deciding what to do with regional speech in translations. Anything too regionally marked will just end up sounding distracting: "The Game," as used in The Wire to refer to the criminal demimonde, is a really tempting translation for the Chinese term 江湖 — at least in some contexts — but it just sounds too weird to have Chinese knights-errant talking like corner boys from Baltimore. And of course there are matters of taste, too: I remember one translation in which housemaids from Anhui or somewhere were given cringe-inducing minstrel-show accents in English.

    Misunderstandings, like in Richard W's comment above, are more fun to translate, since you have more latitude. A documentary I subtitled a few years ago about elderly Beijing residents and their memory of the Japanese occupation had a cute exchange between the director and a deaf old lady in which the director asked if the old lady "still remembered the Japanese" (hái jìde xiǎo Rìběnr) and the old lady, who must have been lip-reading, answered with "Yìbǎi kuài? Yìbǎi kuài qián gàn shénme?" Translating this literally ("A hundred kuai? What for?") would have done non-Sinologue audiences zero favors, so I went with something along the lines of "My knees? What about my knees?" Unfortunately, the non-native English speaker responsible for entering the subtitles insisted on a literal translation, so they ended up with something that was correct without being right.

  7. Brendan said,

    November 23, 2014 @ 11:05 am

    Going back to Helen's original question, I'm not so sure that Chinese readers have ever actually had the option of reading a novel written in Sichuanhua. All non-native speaker disclaimers apply, obviously, but my sense is that although Chinese writers have ways of making it clear that people are speaking in a nonstandard or uneducated way — using 俺 or 咱 instead of 我, say, or 恁 instead of 那麽 — the characters prevent them from doing anything as immediately audible as Riddley Walker or How Late it Was, How Late. Using regionally specific vocabulary may add a bit more of a sense of place to their writing, but there's still not nearly as strong a connection between the written word and the sound of the word as the characters would speak it.

  8. William Steed said,

    November 23, 2014 @ 8:36 pm

    Brendan's option is, as I understand, the preferred option in English – not going overboard with an eye-dialect, or non-standard English, for fear of alienating readers who are unfamiliar with the variety, or shocking people who prefer their writing in standard English. A dropped 'h' here or there, an "im' instead of a 'him', or suchlike creates the atmosphere of non-standardness or a different topolect, without hammering it home.

    From a perception point of view, most readers in English will take any sort of eye-dialect, I think, as representing a lack of education, rather than a regionalism. I suspect that less-educated isn't what a book like this 我们家 is trying to achieve. Instead, it's just aiming for regionalism. In English-medium, I would expect that to turn up in lexical differences, rather than eye-dialect or non-standard grammar.

  9. Michael Watts said,

    November 23, 2014 @ 10:52 pm

    From a perception point of view, most readers in English will take any sort of eye-dialect, I think, as representing a lack of education, rather than a regionalism.

    Well… from a certain perspective, those are the same thing. Common social background is the whole idea of standardized, unified education.

  10. languagehat said,

    November 24, 2014 @ 9:31 am

    There was a good discussion at Languagehat in January about this, taking off from an interview with the great translator William Weaver, who when asked “What did you do about the dialect?” (in "a murder mystery, interlarded with rich seams of dialect of all kinds: Roman, Neapolitan and various minor subdialects") laughed and replied, “Oh, I just left it out!” I thoroughly approved of this approach, feeling as I do that the gains in having some sort of "color" are more than outweighed by the unavoidable mismatch between the English reader's perception of, say, Deep South or Ozark dialects and the Italian reader's perception of Roman, Neapolitan, etc. The contrary view was stoutly maintained by John Cowan, who said, "I think this is an abdication of the translator’s responsibility."

  11. Baylink said,

    November 24, 2014 @ 12:31 pm

    Wait. When did 'dialect' pick up a negative connotation?

    On point, though, when a writer doesn't file the accent off a character's speech, it's almost always done for a good reason, but as the piece and comments here imply, it's going to be interpreted in the social framework which the writer and readers presumably share, and that can make things rough for a translator, yes, especially in the case where what it being illustrated (the British class or Indian caste systems, frex) doesn't really exist in the target society for the translation.

    Wow, that was a long sentence.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    November 25, 2014 @ 3:49 pm


    "just a dialect"

    "only a dialect"

    Not to mention that "dialects" in China are often referred to as "slang" (lǐyǔ 俚語), even by their own speakers.

  13. Helen Wang said,

    November 25, 2014 @ 4:08 pm

    Thanks for sharing this on Language Log, Victor.
    The question also reminded me of Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights", and of her brilliant portrayal of Joseph, who speaks "broad Yorkshire". The Bronte family lived in Haworth, which is about 20 miles from Leeds (!) …. and about 10 miles from where I grew up. When I eventually read "Wuthering Heights" for the first time a few years ago, it was incredible to recognise in Joseph so many local expressions and mannerisms that I had forgotten about, and to have such vivid flashbacks of memories I didn't know I had! To go back to Frances Weightman's original question, it would be really interesting to know Chinese readers respond to Yan Ge's use of language…

    For examples of Joseph's broad Yorkshire, see the "Joseph's Speech" section of the Wuthering Heights website created by Mr Paul Thompson of Devon.

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