What We Can Learn from Yang Wen’s “Lost in Translation”

I rarely do book reviews on this blog (in fact I think this is the first one!), but after coming across Yang Wen’s Lost in Translation: Common Errors in Chinese-English Translation (LifeRich Publishing, 2016) I felt compelled to share some of the more interesting parts of the book that might be useful for students.

Yang Wen (温洋) is obviously an experienced Chinese-English translator with an excellent command of English, but what impressed me most were the depth of his observations and his highly accessible writing style. Native speakers of both Chinese and English can glean a lot of practical advice from this book.

In this post I’d like to share a small portion of the many innovative translation methods he outlines in his book.

Yang Wen is particularly good at finding terms in Chinese that create expressions or metaphors in ways that differ from English. The section he writes on the common sentence structure “从……出发” is a good example of this.

我们要我国实际出发,先进口设备,然后自行研发。In light of China’s actual conditions, we should import equipment first and later develop it on our own.

我们要全局出发,不能只考虑自己。We must keep in mind the larger picture and not be preoccupied only with our own interests.

制定计划时,我们要长远利益出发,把眼光放远一点。When making plans, we must take into account long-term interest and look far into the future.

It’s rare you see this level of sophistication in Chinese-English translation, much less explained so well in a textbook. We could learn a lot from his style.

Another thing Yang Wen is good at is explaining how a simple word in Chinese can be translated using vastly different sentence structures in English. For example, he provides an excellent outline of the nuances of the verb 坚持, which I summarise below.

1) insist on doing sth; insist sth is sth
我们不同意他一个人去,可他坚持要去。We didn’t want him to go there alone, but he insisted on going all by himself.
我们都说不可能,可他坚持认为可能。We all said it was impossible, but he insisted it was possible.
坚持认为他一点也不知情。He insisted on his innocence.
This 坚持 means “It’s my way, or the highway”.

2) stick to sth; follow sth; adhere to sth;
坚持自己的看法 stick to one’s opinion
坚持党的路线 follow the Party’s line
坚持改革开放 adhere to the opening-up and reform policy
This 坚持 implies the adoption of a view or policy; it doesn’t have the stubborn tone of the first usage.

3) persist in one’s efforts; persist with sth; continue with sth; not give up on sth
他一直坚持寻找,最后终于找到答案了。He persisted in the search and finally found the answer.
尽管天气炎热,队员们还是坚持训练。The players continued with their training, in spite of the scorching heat.
只要坚持,就能成功。Persist in your efforts, and you will succeed. (Don’t give up, and you will succeed.)
This 坚持 expresses determination and perseverance.

Yang Wen provides similarly useful explanations for other terms like 认真 (serious / earnest / sincere) and 有效 (effective / efficient / valid).

Similar to the work I’ve done on this blog, Yang Wen has dedicated much time to suggesting better translations for common terms in the interests of updating Chinese-English dictionaries. His analysis of the term 启示 is spot-on; we should not be misled by dictionaries which claim “enlighten” is the only method available. See the examples below.

此次卢布贬值对中国市场有什么启示。What the current ruble devaluation means to the Chinese market.

APEC蓝给我们什么启示?What does the APEC Blue tell us?

这个案子给我们的启示是什么?What can we learn from this case?

老师,这个题怎么答,能给我个启示吗?Teacher, can you give me some hints on how to solve this problem?

Another good example is the term 条件 which the professional translator should know is used much more flexibly in Chinese than the English equivalent “condition”.

It can be rendered as “criteria”: 评委们定出了几项评选条件,供评选时参考。The judges have put forth several selection criteria as a reference when making decisions.

It can be rendered as “qualifications”: 是否让他担任这个职务要看他的政治条件。Whether or not he is given this position depends on his political qualifications.

It can be rendered as “credentials”: 申报“千人计划”的人选应具有下列条件。Applicants to the “1000 Talents” program should demonstrate the following credentials.

For some other terms which have little or no equivalence, Yang Wen suggests some creative solutions that may not be well-known. Take for example the term 针对:

针对你今天的表现,我们决定你不适合再留在公司了。In light of what you did today, we decided you should no longer work in the company. (Carl suggests: In light of your performance today, we have decided you should no longer work in the company.)

针对你提的问题,我们有以下几点解释。In response to your questions, we have the following explanations.

针对没有上网经验的人,我们制定了一系列计划。For those who do not have online experience, we have made a series of plans.

针对百年罕见的旱情,村民们采取了各种方法。The villagers were doing all they could to combat the drought that would hit the region in a century.

针对消化不良的患者,医生建议要放松心情,多多运动。To help those with indigestion, the doctor suggested that they should relax and exercise more.

他的这番话不是针对你的。His words were not meant for you.

针对他今天在会上提的问题,咱们还是找个解决方案吧。Regarding the issues he raised today at the meeting, we had better work out a solution.

One last example is the term 被动 which Yang Wen suggest can be translated as “reactive” in some situations. I think this makes sense when translating the term in more formal or official contexts. Its connotation is slightly different than “passive” though. The OED defines it as “acting in response to a situation rather than creating or controlling it” and gives the example, “a proactive rather than a reactive approach.” Sometimes 被动 captures exactly that kind of situation. Note the example Yang Wen provides in his book:

不做好准备,谈判时就会陷入被动。Without thorough preparation, a person might have to make only reactive moves during a negotiation.

In other contexts he adopts a more communicative method of translation:

由于不了解市民的要求,政府的调解工作很被动。Because the government failed to understand what the residents wanted, its mediating efforts were ineffective.

All of these examples are taken from the first chapter, “Word Choice Matters”, which actually takes up over half the content of the book. I would have liked to see that level of detail in the other chapters, for example in the parts on awkward translations and common grammar mistakes committed by Chinese students. There are also some careless typos throughout which could have been avoided with better editing.

We’ve seen hundreds of Chinese translation textbooks come onto the market in recent years. However I have yet to see many that are really all that practical. Yang Wen’s Lost in Translation a highly useful resource that I would recommend for Chinese translation students and professionals alike.

Yang Wen’s Lost in Translation: Common Errors in Chinese-English Translation can be purchased on Amazon here.

4 Comments to "What We Can Learn from Yang Wen’s “Lost in Translation”"

  1. Paul's Gravatar Paul
    06/08/2017 - 12:32 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the tantalising glimpse into this book.

    One thing I still don’t have a very clear picture of from your review is exactly what the sorts of “common errors” are in some cases. What common error do translators commit, for example, in translating the structure 从……出发?

    Staying with that example, I must say I’m struggling to see the justification for the variation in choice of translation in the three sentences given; “keeping in mind” for the first sentence and “keep in mind” for the others would be quite acceptable to me. Yang Wen’s choice of three different phrases in this case seems a little gratuitous and hard to explain.

    I would have no objection to seeing such variation in a passage of real-world translation, of course; my objection is to the idea, implicit in the didactic purpose of this book, that the different English solutions the author chooses in each case are actually necessary in order to convey some essential nuance that, say, “keep[ing] in mind” for all three would miss. Maybe the 从……出发 example is simply unfortunate, because it’s apparent that the variations in translation for most of the other terms you’ve cited are much more justifiable.

    I suspect the book will be of more use to native Chinese than native English speakers, but the latter are used to such inequalities, which, let’s be honest, actually help from quite early on to sift the committed learners from the merely indifferent.

  2. Ting's Gravatar Ting
    31/08/2017 - 2:15 pm | Permalink

    I will definitely follow your next review for this book. Thanks Carl.

  3. Henry Barrett's Gravatar Henry Barrett
    24/09/2017 - 9:23 pm | Permalink

    Yang’s approach is definitely something I would like to see more of in the field of translation, especially between Chinese and English. It highlights the often overlooked capability as well as the benefits of encouraging flexibility in translating between these two languages.

    This book does a great job of being a guide for translators who are working between these languages when it comes to navigating the different systems of idiomatic reference. Not only that, but it inadvertently contributes to the field of translation studies itself; the details provided by Yang on the particular points of difficulty can serve as evidence in favour of the fact that equivalence as a theory has been superseded (Baker).

    Yang’s work also highlights potential bottlenecks where semantic inconsistency between different translators may occur. This is an issue particularly in the context of large, complex localisation jobs (Qian & Teng) where many different translators may be working on different segments of text.

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