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
lián zìjǐ de pìgu hé shǒu zhǒu dōu fēn bù qīng le
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.