thoughts on translation

It started when I wrote an essay explaining the phrase 阳光灿烂, which is one of my favorites in Chinese. It’s difficult to describe just how beautiful I find 阳光灿烂: the literal English translation is ‘brilliant sunlight,’ but when the four characters (yáng guāng càn làn) filter through my teeth the way light filters through leaves, when I see the sun at the front, the mountains, the fires that rage in between, and the smoke that shrouds flowers on the mountainside as they burst into flame, I know that ‘brilliant’ is only an adequate translation, nothing more. There are nuances to the phrase that exist only on paper, in the original language; English loses the neat precision and perfect square aesthetic of the four characters.

Later, I read an article in which the author, who’s from Mainland China, describes her deliberate erasure of Chinese in order to fully embrace English. I’m still unsettled when I think about it now. Politics aside, Chinese is an elegant and ancient thing, crafted with artistry in mind. A mere two to four characters can hold boatloads of wisdom and meaning. How can anyone choose to forget this language for English? To be fair, English is just as fascinating and complex, if not even more so, since we can continually add words from different languages to our vocabulary and create exceptions to any rule we have. But wouldn’t it be better to know both languages intimately? There was a quote I came across that went along the lines of, “Everything I know about language is everything I know about life.”* So the more you forget, the less language you know, and your world just – shrinks.

I mean, I know where the author’s coming from. Whenever I visited China when I was younger, even if it was only for a few weeks, my conversational English always deteriorated. I could still write in English quite well, since I kept (and still keep) notebooks wherever I went, but I’d forgotten “how to English” and became proportionally better at speaking (and reading and typing) Chinese. It’s so easy to focus on mastering one language and forgetting others through disuse. But I think it’s important to know more than one language, particularly if your first is English. In this globalized era, everyone knows English. And that can be awesome and convenient, but I’m afraid that if we’re all monolinguals, we’ll miss much of what’s going on in the rest of the world.

There’s another kind of translation that I keep thinking about, lately – the translation of thoughts into words. For me, at least, there’s disconnect between what I think, what I want to say, and what I actually end up saying. This disconnect got Darcy in trouble with Elizabeth, and he had to fix it with a written letter. And this makes sense, since writing gives you time to contemplate, to take back mistakes. I can articulate my thoughts on paper so much more eloquently and fully than I can ever speak them, and it can be frustrating, especially when I meet people for the first time and I struggle to talk to them. It’s like my mouth opens and words nonsensically and uncontrollably tumble out of my mouth. But what happens when the writing stops? If I stop keeping a journal, if I don’t document my thought processes in written form, do those thoughts cease to exist? What if in the future, my notebooks are posthumously published? People will judge me based on what I’ve written, even if it was originally in private – think not just of Kafka, Plath, and Nin, but also of Shostakovich, Warhol, and Napoleon, among so many other figures in our history. Notebooks provide insight, but only if you write in them. Didion, in The Year of Magical Thinking, is able to revisit both her life and that of her husband’s through the extensive records they’d both kept – notebooks and index cards, paper scraps and Word documents. My fear of forgetting is one reason why I keep writing. I don’t want to lose my grasp on Chinese, and I don’t want to lose my thoughts. To lose those things is to lose parts of myself.

In school, we recently covered a unit over translated poetry. We read different versions each of Rumi’s poetry (in snippets) and Borges’s “Historia de la noche,” then discussed what was more important in interpretation – accuracy or poetics. When you translate, what do you abandon and what do you preserve? How well do you need to know the language you work with? (Nabokov knew English and Russian with equal fluency, and he translated his own work, thus retaining the original intent of his writing. The same goes for Samuel Beckett with English and French. So I wonder what I miss when I read the English version of Camus’s The Stranger, Rilke’s poetry, or Ocampo’s short stories – anything written and translated by two different people.) For our assignment, we had to translate a poem from a language in which we’re at least familiar. I chose a poem by 骆绮兰, a female poet from eighteen-century China. This particular piece happens to come from a set of eight, called《纪梦诗八首》 (“Record of Dreams, Eight Poems”), so you can probably tell why I was attracted to it.

I haven’t formally studied Chinese for a year now, so it felt nice to return to it. This translation’s not perfect, of course, but I like to think it’s fairly accurate. I loved the imagery she evokes here; in preserving that, I ended up with a more literal interpretation. I hope you like it!


*I just Googled this quote to verify the source, but all I got were Tumblr posts for some reason?? If any of you recognize this quote, please comment below or message me!