Lost in Translation

by Zhiyuan Wang

One Saturday, as I was flipping through the pages of a Star Wars short story collection, an idea struck me: why shouldn’t I translate my favorite piece of the collection? When I started exploring my interest in the Star Wars universe a couple of years beforehand, Chinese publishers were reluctant to translate Star Wars novels because the lack of new movies since the prequels had led to a dwindling fan base; therefore, I was always grateful for the translation pieces or plot summaries posted on fan-sites that opened the portal to boundless imagination for me. Scrolling down the translation-publishing panel on the starwarsfans.cn forum, I swallowed every story that caught my interest. Not only was I staggered by the vastness of time  the novels cover beyond the movies –almost 3 million years– but also by a broad range of genres that they encompass. Compared to  suspense novels that incorporate elements from zombie films or graphic novels that take inspiration from the western movies featuring Clint Eastwood, Star Wars fictions might not necessarily be great pieces of literature, but the sense of an epic mythology that entails stories of generations of the Jedi, the Sith, and other civilizations was great enough to draw me towards the galaxy far, far away.

When thinking about how translations increase accessibility for people wanting to join the Star Wars fandom, I decided to make my contribution. As I opened my laptop and started putting down words, I immediately found myself as anxious as “an ant on a hot pan,” as the old Chinese saying goes. Right from the start, I was stranded with all the clauses,  modifiers, and dictions that need to be translated into an inherently different language. The first sentence reads:

“The last statement of the Journeyman Protector Jaster Mereel, known later as the Hunter Boba Fett, before exile from the world of Concord Dawn: Everyone dies.”

The main clause is followed by two modifiers that indicate two points of time, a structure that is rarely seen in Chinese. To conform with the norms in Chinese, “the last statement,” as a subject, had to be put behind the modifiers. Therefore, I wrote,

“贾斯特∙梅里尔 (Jaster Mereel),即后来为人所熟知的赏金猎人波巴∙费特(known later as the Hunter Boba Fett),在被逐出谐晨星前(before exile from the world of Concord Dawn)所作的最后一番陈述(the last statement made): 所有人都难逃一死(Everyone dies)。” 

What bothered me the most wasn’t the fact that it sounded  a bit awkward. To me, translating is more than merely communicating the original ideas; it has to recreate the exact aura of the words. For instance, the statement “everyone dies” is concise yet forceful, which establishes the personality of Boba Fett as a ruthless bounty hunter. However, when it was translated into Chinese, the effect was gone: in order to make the phrase more natural in the context, I had to use the passive, four-character phrase “难逃一死”, which approximately means “difficult to evade from dying.”  I felt like it was pointless if I could not recreate the aura, because that’s what Star Wars is all about. It is the sentiment elicited from details and elements that makes Star Wars relatable,  like the awe I felt when Luke Skywalker looked towards the binary sunsets 

Another issue I came across was the translation of proper nouns: English speakers can refer to the fiction terms in Star Wars regardless of their literal meaning, but the translator must pin down expressions that narrow possible connotations. One example is “Stormtroopers”, the iconic elite forces of the Galactic Empire that wore full sets of white armor. Although this term is? prevalently translated into “暴风兵”, literally from the weather condition, the term actually originates from a special division of the Nazi German army. A more official translation is “帝国冲锋队”, or “Imperial assault trooper”, but this translation didn’t deliver the alienating and intimidating effect that descriptively indicated the troopers’ nature, as in the popular version of “暴风兵”. This put me in a dilemma because from my point view, the estranging effect of science fiction terms seemed equally important as their roots in the real world. There are other Star Wars phrases that are even more problematic due to the cultural barriers between English and Chinese. Sayings such as “a wild bantha chase”, derived from “a wild goose chase”, or “what in the galaxy”, coming from “what in the world”, exemplifies a typical Star Wars tradition of borrowing phrases from real life. However, when these sayings were translated into Chinese, they sound stiff, and weird, and not nearly as  funny as they should be. After several attempts to consolidate my translation, I found my effort was in vain: it was simply impossible to make a perfect conversion in words, connotations, or something as simple as a tone-shift. Once again, the gap between English and Chinese appeared immeasurable.

As a child, I had always enjoyed the works of translators. From a practical standpoint, they fulfilled my craving for foreign literature and movies, a personal habit that reminds me of my experience abroad. My year-and-a-half stay in America made  a deep imprint on me, as it was then that I gradually adopted? the English way of thinking. Even though I was only three, it seemed clear to me that my mentality changed when using a different language: I felt more expressive, or more imaginative speaking American English. The same thing would happen when I read a piece of translated work. After all, my English ability wasn’t good enough to allow me read through a full-length novel. In hindsight, my preference for  foreign literature was due to their “翻译腔”, or “translationese”. At that time, I was almost proud of my ability to distinguish original and translated pieces in a magazine: it was particularly intriguing for me when the nuances in expressions, the way words were arranged, and the sentence structures left hints  that it was translated from a foreign language. One example, which I encountered in my own attempt of translation, is the excessive use of modifiers. English writers tend to use all kinds of adjectives and clauses in describing the subject, which makes it difficult to translate. In most cases, the grammar and structure of these sentences are kept in the translation to remain faithful, creating a tongue that sounds exotic. This is where translation’s attractiveness comes from: its distinction from everyday language gives space for my own imagination. When reading Charlotte’s Web, I could smell the freshness of mud and grass in the first scene. When reading The Fellowship of the Ring, I could see the golden woods of Lothlórien and hear elfish songs floating through the air. When reading The Great Gatsby, I could place myself into the ethereal life of the Jazz Age. Foreignization of language gives me all the incentive I need to evoke my boundless imagination, so why would I bother to read the original work when translation gets all of its flavor?

“This is too much!” I threw away the paperback Harry Potter I brought to school and protested. Ever since I became a series fanatic in the 3rd grade, my mom tried to talk me into reading in English; in fact, the very first Harry Potter novel she gave me, before I became a fanatic, was a Bloomsbury UK edition.

“You’ll love it even more,” she said to me just a few days earlier, in the way I imagined a saleswoman trying to get rid of her books in stock might.

I overcame my hesitation because the cover did  indeed look better; but as I started reading, every word that I couldn’t recognize added to my agony. I got so used to the translated versions I smoothly read through that every intrusion during my reading experience was painful. Reading in English was like swimming in the deep sea; I just felt like I was drowning when surrounded by the unknown. Soon enough, I returned to the warm embrace of translations. 

As time went by, doubts over translations emerged. It began from things as superficial as the different translation of character names in older and newer editions of The Adventures of Tintin. Names such as “Professor Calculus”, the twin detectives “Thompson” and “Thomson”, and the dog “Snowy” were translated from the English version, while translations in newer editions were made according to the original French names of “Professor Sunflower”, “Dupont” and “Dupond”, and “Milou”. Then, it became sudden detachments from the story, as more and more often I found the translator’s personal touch distracting. Instead of using the foreignization strategy that I preferred, which deliberately breaks the convention of the translated language to preserve information in the source text, the translator of Harry Potter assimilated characteristics of Chinese into her work to make it more “indigenous”. For instance, the modal particles embedded in dialogues, such as “呀(ya)”, “呢(ne)”, “啦(la)”, are typically colloquial in Chinese; when used excessively though, it is an annoyance as I could never have imagined these words coming from the mouths of Englanders. The use of four-character idioms and other Chinese expressions also adds to the same effect, making the overall tone of the book discordant with its mixture of British and Chinese expressions. I could clearly feel that the words were  being manipulated by the translator, because they didn’t match up with all the expectations I had, like how the characters talk: Ron would never use “哥们儿”, or “buddy”,  all the time. The way a British person would say the word “fella” is simply irreplaceable .

One day, I decided that I couldn’t stand it anymore and complained about my predicament  to my friend Simon, who was? also a Harry Potter fan. As I was sitting in the large, wood-furnished room, waiting for our choir practice to begin, I flipped  over the English version of Half-Blood Prince that Simon brought along every time. Even though I was usually intimidated by the book’s thickness and thus the potential frustrations I would suffer, surprisingly I immersed  myself into the paragraph I jumped to. Then Simon came by, and we started discussing the differences between the Chinese and English versions.

“Well, the best translations are the ones that induce you into reading the original work,” he said thoughtfully after I expressed my dismay over?  the inconsistencies before and after translation. 

“So you’re saying that…” ,I stammered. 

“You should really start reading in English,” he replied firmly. 

“But what about all the new words? They’re  just overwhelming.”

“Just gloss over them, or make a good guess. The most important thing is that you have to have the confidence to read through it.”

It was  then that I bid  farewell to translation; as I realized in the end, I do love the original version of Harry Potter better. After letting go of all my frustrations, the deep sea of the unknown isn’t suffocating anymore, as I found its words matching up with all that I’ve imagined.

Even though translation brought so much joy to  me, it is destined to be riddled with compromises and imperfections . Translators have to make choices that either affect  the fluency in language or diminish the aura of the original work. In a sense, it’s like rescuing stuff from a house in flames; no matter how hard you try, there’s always something left behind that turns into ashes.