Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Sorry, What Was Your Name? Translation Theory and the Translation of Chinese Names to English.

Chinese names are problematic in English literature. They often have meanings that are easily identifyable to the Chinese reader, whereas this does not occur so much with English names. They can also be difficult to pronounce for those who are not familiar with pinyin. They then present an even larger issue for literary translation as they get repeated so much, and can be connected to other elements of narratives such as naming ceremonies or word plays. Looking at Cognitive stylistics on the MA in Literary Translation course at the UEA, has helped me see how the translation of names may work, in theory.

When aproaching the theory and practice of translating literature, one idea strikes me as particularily crucial to understanding what happens. This was put forward by Roman Jakobson, and it is the idea that 'languages differs essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.' This is a haunting idea in terms of translating languages. I work on translating Chinese literature into English, and this idea haunts the decisions which I must make about how to express exciting literary features of a Chinese text in English. Chinese does not have articles, gerunds, plural noun forms or tenses displayed through verb forms, but English does. Whilst a Chinese text may convey the meanings of such grammatical structures, it often doesn't need to, whereas in English the text must explicate these aspects. Most of the time the situation of the text, especially in prose texts,  gives an indication of what tense or article should be used. However, the translation of names presents another issue of what is explicated in the Chinese, but what is not obvious to the readers of English from the sound of the Chinese names.

《射雕英雄传》(She Diao Ying Xiong Zhuan -The Eagle Shooting Heroes/ The Legend of the Condor Heroes) Is a Kung Fu classic in Chinese literature. It is currently being translated online, and I recommend anyone take a look at it. It is an exciting novel about the interweaving and action-packed lives of kung fu masters in ancient China, and to me the online translation project of it is just as exciting. The issues of the translation of character names, though, is an interesting one in terms of Chinese-English translation. Even translating the Author is interesting; should I use the English 'Louis Cha' or pinyin 'Jin Yong'? The meaning of Chinese names is often a lot more obvious than it is in English names. Therefore linguistically, one must consider for the purpose of translation what 'must' the names say, and what 'may' the names say. Below is an example in which a key character is introduced in the novel;

Zhe wei shi Yang Tie Xin Yang xiong di.
This is Yang Tiexin, brother Yang.

The Chinese character's name is Yang Tie Xin, in Chinese, but will this do in English? The literal meaning of the name is (poplar) (Iron) (heart). This meaning of these characters in this character's name is available clearly to the reader of the Chinese, so it can be argued that the names should be translated by meaning. One way of looking at this issue, and perhaps trying to solve the problem, is to consider the notions of foreignisation and domestication, as explored by Lawrence Venuti, and make a decision according to the principles of the translator. This is problematic as both translations of 'Yang Tiexin' and 'Poplar Ironheart' are perhaps so unusual as English language names, that they would be foreignising (calling attention to the foreign elements of the text within the target language). I believe, however, that the way to look at this problem, and the way which is perhaps more useful to allow communication between the two drastically different languages of Chinese and English, is to consider the cognitive effects of the style of the text, and in this instance the names.

The arguments about the cognitive effects of language on the reader, as explored by Ernst Gutt, suggests that when translating areas such as this, it is important to consider the processing cost of the target language, in this case the way that the names are written in English. Keeping the names with the pinyin would make the words clear as names, therefore the reader would not need to connect the words deeply to their understanding of their names in reference to English lexis, so this would involve a relatively low processing cost. However, if the character's name were to be translated as 'Poplar Ironheart', then the name would involve the reader in the process of associating the character with the elements and images related to the English language.So this would involve a relatively high processing cost.

Looking at such translation issues in this way allows the translator to think of what the processing cost will be to the reader of the target text; so that they can translate according to what they believe will be the processing cost of the target text in comparison to the processing cost of the source text. As the name in translation of 'Yang Tiexin' involves a relatively low processing cost, which it would to the Chinese reader as it would be taken as a name first before a series of connected meanings, and as the novel is wide spread in popular culture, so demanding a high processing cost over the reading of a name would be antagonist to the source text's popularity, it is perhaps the better choice of translation. Throughout this process the reader is then haunted with this idea; What is the name saying in Chinese, that I 'may' say in English, and what is it saying that I 'must' say? This idea is perhaps so haunting, at least to me, because maintaining the style, in cognitive terms, often means obscuring some of the interesting lexis from the target text. Translating often involves such an engagement with the source text that, as a translator, my instinct is  to celebrate its complex lexis, and even interesting functional language, and favouring one thing over another is often frustrating. However, by understanding more about these theories of translation, I can see that the translation of names, especially from Chinese to English, is no simple matter. And the pronounciation of Chinese names for non-reader or speakers of Chinese pinyin, is also not easy, but I shall leave it there. What was the man's name again...? Yang...?

Thomas Newell translates from Chinese into English, and is currently a studying for an MA in Literary Translation at the UEA as well as an interning for Arc Publications. Contact

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