Holden Caulfield’s Mandarin Miscommunication

Being able to read two or more languages provides you with an interesting perspective on things. Especially when you read the same content from one language, after it has been translated into another. Sometimes this helps you to see things that you had missed before, and other times you are left questioning the choices made by the translator.

I recently dusted off the Taiwanese Mandarin version of Catcher in the Rye that I bought when I first started reading Chinese, with the hopes of one day being able to read it. It’s such a descriptive book, and even though Holden’s language is sometimes a bit dated and not so commonplace nowadays, it still stands up really well. It’s this colourful use of language, however, that really sticks out in the translation – some of the language just doesn’t make sense at all in Mandarin.

Here’s just a few I have encountered in the first few chapters that stand out. See if you can guess the English saying they were translated from, then scroll down a little further for the answer.

1. 冷得像巫婆的乳头 (冷得像巫婆的乳頭)
lěng de xiàng wūpó de rǔtóu

2. 连自己的屁股和手肘都分不清了(連自己的屁股和手肘都分不清了)
lián zìjǐ de pìgu hé shǒu zhǒu dōu fēn bù qīng le

3. 他没有跳起来捶天花板什么的(他沒有跳起來捶天花板什麼的)
tā méiyǒu tiào qǐ lái chuí tiānhuābǎn shénmede

Here’s the original English language sayings:

1. As cold as a witch’s tit.

2. Can’t tell his ass from his elbow.

3. He didn’t hit the ceiling or anything.

The story is full of these kinds of English idioms and sayings that require an understanding of English, and sometimes American culture, to make any sense. In the Mandarin version, rather than use Mandarin-equivalent sayings, or translate the meaning behind them, the sayings have been directly translated. While native Mandarin speakers can understand the meaning (you don’t have to understand the relation with witch’s tits in the sentence above to know it means really cold), the language usage isn’t familiar. The result is that to really understand the Holden, and the book, properly, you really need to have already read the English version.

So it poses an interesting question to translators – what are you to do in a situation like this? Do you directly translate the language even though it makes little sense in the target language? Or do you take it upon yourself to alter the language to suit the target language, while at the same time running the risk of damaging something that is essentially a piece of art.

  • It’s an interesting conundrum, isn’t it? My primary work is doing translation and it’s always a question that comes up. Usually, I will first do a direct translation into English, then alter it to make more sense (natural?). Translating itself is a form of art, I think, and if you can capture the essence of the original text, and put that into the translated text, then you’re still retaining the artistic element of the original.

    But this is also why, recently, I’ve been avoiding translated material in my reading. Not to mention often feeling “this was so much better in English/I like the way it sounded in English better”.

  • Jay

    Douglas Hofstadter (Nobel-prize winning author of Godel, Escher, Bach) wrote a book – well, more of a tome – about this very issue of translation. It’s called Le Ton Beau de Marot: In Praise of the Music of Language. It’s a very interesting read, especially if you’re familiar with French, Italian, or any of the other Romance languages. Hopefully your local library has it; if not, you can find it on Amazon here.

  • Pierre

    Cool topic!

    One of my friend is a profesional translator (French-English), so I sent her your article, and here are her thoughts about it; hope you’ll find it useful!

    Ok, so this is THE classic , age-old dilemma in translation studies and theory. Most of the theorizing in the last few hundred years has been revolving around this dichotomy: do you stay “loyal” (loyalty is a big word in translation studies) to the target audience OR to the source text?
    Is your translation going to be a domesticating translation or a foreignizing translation? Meaning, are you going to make it easier for the target audience to read it (to domesticate) or are you going to be faithful to the art and style of the original author and translate more literally, making the text sound more foreign? Foreignizing techniques will take today’s readers back to a different time and culture, it won’t be as easy of a read, but they’ll be transported to a different cultural framework. It’s not for everyone, some argue it’s more for intellectuals.

    What I can say is that standards and expectations have fluctuated over the centuries and countries, but generally today in the publishing industry, when novels are translated, they are translated for the readers, because of course, they want to sell the book. They want the readers to be able to understand it. So, to do this, translators will have to find “cultural equivalents” when it comes to sayings and proverbs, for example. But, you have to anchor your translation in one culture to make it consistent. I mean, you can’t translate into English by making it sound a bit British then a bit American from the South, then a bit Long Island New York English and phrasing. It has to be consistent.
    What good translators will try to do is try to find an equivalent expression or phrase in the target culture but one that resembles the original the most For that, translators need to be very knowledgeable and familiar with the folklore, literature and the richness of the language and culture they are translating into. So they can have the widest possible repertoire of choices.

    For expression 1., the translator could look for some Christian or old folkloric expressions that have something to do with the cold. Or, if not, then the translator could try to find an old, not very used but very vivid expression for cold in Chinese.
    For expression 2., I can think of a Serbian expression that goes along the same lines like the expression in English: he doesn’t know where his ass or his head is. It’s not the same, it doesn’t use elbow but the body imagery is there and the meaning is the same, to be lost or confused.