Summary of Professor Goran Malmqvist’s “Reflections on the Craft of Translation” – A Talk On 9th February, 2015

By James

Being a well-experienced translator who has been working for sixty years, Professor Malmqvist stressed the importance of appreciation. Words are indeed labours who work for the spread of message. Despite the popularity in the 1960s of the idea between meaning and images initially proposed by linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), Chinese thinker Xun Zi (荀子) (ca. 312–230 BC) has already worked out that the relation between signifying words and the signified objects is arbitrary, and it is difficult to find meaning behind the naming. Translation thus, according to Malmqvist, is not only the means to crossing of two languages but also to the crossing of cultures.

Regarding culture, professor attempts to analyse the Chinese term etymologically. The first character Wen (文) signifies pattern, ornament, culture and craft concurrently, and in ancient China, the transmission of Wenhua (文化), or culture,  is to teach people how to write. Yet when years lapse, meaning of words evolves and changes. Since words might strain and crack, they do not stay in peace and do not stay still. When it comes to translation, the use of words might or might not acquire ontological proof, for sometimes a Chinese character might either exist as an intransitive verb  or as a copular. Rendering a word-to-word translation is always doomed to fail.

Following the delineation of literary and cultural background, Professor Malmqvist begins to mention the Western influence on China as Chinese literati became more interested in Western literature from the end of the 19th century. Through the example of Hegel’s dialectic system – thesis (thoughts and notions), antithesis (thoughts that are against another) and synthesis (creation of new entities), he puts the translation to a social context. He cites the German term “Aufheben” which gives respective meanings of (1) to preserve, (2) to cancel, (3) to raise up to prove the flexibility of language and the multi-layered meaning. If what Malmqvist proposes is true, then how did Chinese literati translate Western concept? People in effect first transliterated Aufheben until translation technique started to improve in the 1930s. Language and meaning is further elucidated by him with the theory of double truth especially between the worldly and heavenly, which might contradict each other; He touches upon Mahayana philosophy, if not in detail, about the idea of plurality of truth.

An interesting question between words and meaning is further thought-provoking: What would happen if all dogs disappeared in the city or, in other words, what would happen when the common Chinese word Gou (狗) vanished? Professor Malmqvist explains if the word dog loses its content, then it can become a tiger, a lion and a lamp, thus “dialogue obstruction” indeed exists in the language per se, let alone the crossing of two or more languages, and such a situation makes maintaining universal rigidity and perception even within the same social, political and cultural contexts hard. Take the idea of Marxism in China as an example, the word liberty, when translated into Ziyou (自由) carries negative connotation.

Moving back to the idea that “words are labour”, he uses the translation of the English word yellow into Gelb in German and into Huang (黃) in Chinese. Though translation might come from the conscious, the sub-conscious and even the unconscious, these words nonetheless cover different sections of “yellow” physically and visually. In the case of the Chinese word Dao (道), it underlies different layers of meaning: (1) the principle of earth, heaven and men, and (2) Buddhist thoughts of Dharma. To Professor Malmqvist, the task of a translator is to be a crafter instead of a creator and such requires the compliance of moral rule and tailoring of segments, i.e. to cut appropriately the sentences, or to reassign the stressed and unstressed rhymes. He cites translation of Liu Zhong yuan (柳宗元)’s poem Du Diao Han Jiang Xue (獨釣寒江雪) as an example to expound that if a translator opts for word-to-word translation like thousand mountains  birds fly stop(千山鳥飛絕), a thousand path people traces disappear (萬逕人蹤滅), lonely boat straw hat old man(孤舟蓑笠翁), alone fish cold river snow (獨釣寒江雪), it will be a completely bad translation and a translator did not accomplish the task well.

Undoubtedly, professor confesses, lost in translation is inevitable especially when there is such a stark difference between two languages. Take the case of Chinese-English translation, it is hard to translate the universality and timelessness of Chinese poems into English. He mentions how James Y Liu the Chinese literary translator and scholar’s theory on tackling definite and indefinite nouns as a way of synthesis.

Malmqvist likewise mentions another stark difference between Chinese and English, the former being a tonal language while the latter a non-tonal one. It is thereby necessary to do some cutover when a translator translates. Arthur Willey attempted a meter-translation albeit difficult but possible. Pertaining to Chinese translation principle, he cites the great name Yan Fu (嚴復) (1854-1921) – First President of Peking University in 1912 – and his translation principles Xin (信) faithfulness, Da (達) expressiveness and Ya (雅) elegance. Of the three principles, professor sees faithfulness as the most importance since originality should speak the loudest.

Since translators are all craftsmen, and craftsmanship are slaves, translators should imitate the authors and should not exceed the original work though during the translation process some editing and interpretation might be involved. He quoted a 19th century Swedish poet’s interesting line: Beautiful translations are beautiful women but they might not be a faithful one. He mentions how Hu Shi (胡適) (1891-1962) strongly criticizes Lin Xu (林紓) (1852-1924) translated Charles Dickens’ work in a way as if he speaks a dead language. He rates highly another less well-known Chinese literary figure Xia Mian Zun (夏丏尊) (1886-1946) who complies an anthology of American and European poetry in Chinese and adopted four media levels of translation (1) Gu Wen (古文; old prose), (2) Wen Yan Wen (文言文; classical Chinese) , (3) Bai Hua Wen (白話文; vernacular Chinese) the style of which is similar to the Water Margin (水滸傳) and Journey to the West (西遊記) and (4) Xian Dai Bai Hua Wen (現代白話文; modern vernacular Chinese). Original and translated works are a pair of Mandarin ducks.

And speaking of the pragmatic process, translation to professor is a work of love. Personally he reads and re-reads the texts several times to feel the structure and he always articulates them silently. Principal-wise, dialectic features must be mirrored in translation which fundamentally involves (1) normalizing and (2) Levelling. By levelling he means the essence of cutting off segment. He further gives an example that it is incorrect to use subjunctive forms when it comes to translating colloquial Chinese.

Last but not least, he regards translation of text as tantamount to translation of a culture. He thus abhors and loathes footnote. He finds more suitable to explain things in the introduction. Another advice from Professor Malmqvist is: We should observe the silence, and listen to the silence of the source text – short pause, long pause or slight pause. He ends his speech by few lines of parallelism:

The fish trap is for the sake of trapping fish.

Once you caught the fish, you forgot the trap;

words are for the sake of conveying meaning.

Once you got the meaning, you forgot the words. (得魚忘筌 得意忘言)

[First written on 12th February, 2015; edited on 6th March, 2016]


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