Comparative critique

First, I think Dru and Hugh both make excellent points, and Jaysen, you and I may not be as far apart on this as you think. Now, as to my own earlier comments…

…several things prompt me to support them…

Looking just at the first paragraph:
more words;
shorter sentences (one with only 7 words, as also found in paragraph 3);
more varied sentence structure;
idiosyncratic punctuation (comma splice in sentence 2, dash in sentence 5).

“compete” sounds like a dictionary choice, whereas “vie” sounds like a personal vocabulary choice;
“But” at the beginning of three sentences in a row;
in sentence 3, “reach” is a used as a transitive verb, an odd choice for a native speaker of English;
in sentence 4, a think an experienced native speaker of English would have chosen “were” rather than “are” as the final verb
“But at a time when no one is paying attention” sounds stiffer and less comfortable than “And yet, while no one is looking,” as in T1.

I’m puzzled by the T2 choice to commit what – to English language eyes and ears – seem to be two separate ideas into a single paragraph.

disclaimer: I know absolutely nothing about the Chinese language, so have based my comments on what little may be inferred (and perhaps quite wrongly) from such an exercise. For instance, other languages (those which even have one) tend not to over-use the definite article as we do in English (T1: 42 times; T2: 39 times). But it’s been an fascinating experiment.



Were you trying to make me feel stupid? I spent more time looking up “transitive verb” and “definitive article” than I did typing this response.

And kids, this is what happens to you id you don’t go to an institute of higher education.

Hi Mark,
I very much hope you aren’t leading us in the dark into either insulting you, or someone else who is likely to take offence at our comments.

I read the other comments here before deciding to take part, so my view may be coloured by others’ positive response to Translation 1 (really, only Jaysen was championing Translation 2, and well…).

That being said, I think vic-k is going a bit far to say Translation 2 was translated by a machine, but certainly it was done by someone with a tin ear for English. A few examples that stuck out to me (along with some others already mentioned):

Here the initial choice of ‘the fruit come’ was a little marked for me and slightly unnatural, but the repetition of ‘come’ gives the sentence a much better cadence than:

Note also that here, “bright and shiny” is the native English speaker’s natural ordering of those words, and have been reversed by Translation 2. I also prefer the position of ‘ripe’ in Translation 1.

Conversely, where Translation 2 does use repetition, I found it to be jarring and interrupt the flow of the sentence:

Translation 1’s deft switch from limbs to branches makes the sentence read so much better than the doubling of ‘branches’ in Translation 2. It is entirely in the rhythm and cadence and nothing to do with technical accuracy.

And I cannot possibly quote those sentences without mentioning the wonderful alliteration of “still stand stark against the bright sky” - so clean and crisp and clear and at the same time beautiful. “Their appearance exceptionally hard”, by comparison, is clunky and awkward.

I haven’t even cleared the first paragraph yet, but I will also mention:

The inversion of the word order in Translation 1 (I would hate to use a technical term incorrectly, but I believe this would be labelled Passive Voice, but it is in that area of forms of ‘be’ where I am not quite sure) could probably only be pulled off by someone with a good ear for English. It is marked as poetic and so would probably attract differing reviews, but it does lift the sentence. Personally, I think it is overused by the end of the sentence and should have reverted to the form of Translation 2, so I would have preferred:

I have said too much about the first paragraph, so I will instead jump right to the final line.

As with everything I have mentioned, it is rhythm and cadence rather than grammatical issues that mark the difference, but again, just the choice of the words ‘clearly’, ‘expect’, and ‘reply’ over ‘certainly’, ‘waiting for’, and ‘answer’ seem to suggest that the author of Translation 1 has a much better ear for the flow of an English sentence.

If Translation 2 is a better verbatim translation of the original, Translation 1 is an advertisement for the importance of deviation.

Jaysen - given that you appear to be the main dissenter, what is your take on the examples I have picked out here?

Mark - hope that helps, and isn’t offending anyone responsible for Translation 2.



This is brilliant, just the sort of thing I was hoping to get. I’ve only had feedback from one Chinese friend so far, and that very brief, but it’s really interesting. I will reveal all in due course. Oh, and Matt, no need to worry about causing any offence. :slight_smile:

Dru, I did get your PM, but it’s exam time here, and I’ve been too busy to give it much thought. I’ll PM you soon.



This is interesting. I’m not going to copyedit these since I put up my editor’s hat long ago and frankly the muscles are rusty.

My reaction, I think, is curious. I like elements of both translations but they are clearly translations. I have the feeling that neither one really is getting the original’s flavor. I don’t know the piece, I can’t read Chinese, I do, however, have long experience with Japanese culture and have poked around in Chinese culture. This experience leads me to think that the original is quite poetic and elegiac (the latter does come through in these pieces). But there is a flow of imagery whose rhythms and expression seem missing in both attempts.

My thanks for you posting this. I greatly enjoyed reading both pieces and thinking about them. Breathlessly awaiting the raising of the curtain. . . .


I guess this is part of my base for dissension.

When I read the pieces I was thinking of the other, very limited chinese writing I have come across (not the fortune cookies, but the stuff from tech work (I have two chinese nationals in my group) and a few books they have handed me). The first “essay” reads like my coworkers write. The second reads like the books my coworkers provide me.

Your example 1: “And then the fruit came …” vs “But in time the fruit appear …”

At the core this is an essay written in china by a chinese person. Not just any person but a relatively well known author. It would seem to me that the translated text should reflect the “chineseness” of the author while simultaneously respecting the prestige of the author by striving for naturalness. If you look at the sentence, translation 2 is better. At the core we have

  1. new jujube fruit (clause 1)
  2. Hungry kids (clause 3).
  3. Description of the state of the jujubes when #2 wants #1 (clause 2)
    If we were to keep the general structure we can rewrite the sentences like so:

Maybe this is too liberal a rewrite, but that is how I read those sentences.

Example 2: branches.

In this case I find the translation 2 is more moving. Limbs are not branches (limbs have a larger diameter) so translation 1 is talking about two different parts of the tree. In translation 2 the authors stops, reexamines his mind then re-describes the branches. He is thoughtful, very thoughtful, about his words. This seems to me to be a natural syntax. This also fits with the more descriptive statement comparing the hardness of the contrast to an inanimate object. This may be me reading a Buddhist reverence for plants as living where none exists (I assume that the exceptionally hard would refer to a jade or other stone object in the original (the chinese character relies on subtle differences in appearance to relate a word to a common meaning, or so my coworkers claim)).

Example 3: poetry v. description

Again, Mark said this is an “essay”. While I expect that some poetry is to be allowed (re branches), translation 1 is pushing it. Considering the whole tone of of both translations, translation 2 is consistent in its descriptive method. The writing in this passage is clear in translation 2. Each clause is independent and can stand on its own. The big one for me is the last clause. The first clause already established that it is spring so why does translation one tell us again?

Translation 2 ties the clauses describing the coloration to the point of the sentence.

Example: the end

This seems to be a matter of clarity. You really have to look at the last two sentences to see my problem with translation 1

[quote="trans 2}But every year, they still send a parcel of red jujubes, which
goes to my old address. There is no address for the sender of the jujubes; the jujubes are
certainly not waiting for an answer.[/quote]
Translation 1 falls apart at “but without”. I am not sure what that is called, but it seems incomplete. maybe adding “return” between “any address” would help translation 1, but it still read wrong when i insert it. Translation 2 just feels more natural to me; “old address”, “There is no address” and the “certainly not waiting” seem to me to complete the thoughts.

Let me clarify one thing. I am not competent to provide a real “technical” critique. What I know is that the second translation seems right. The thoughts are complete, the form is consistent, the descriptions are clear. Translation one reminds me of a deserved comment I received from druid: “… sounds like it is written by someone with too much time and too many words” (at lest this is how I remember it, I can’t find it now).

I like translation 2. I am willing to accept that my reasons are dead wrong, but I like it. Hopefully Mark will end my suffering soon and tell us more about all three authors.

Good, good, good … keep them coming. :smiley:

Interesting discussion. I haven’t had time to read more than the first paragraph of each so far, but I will finish reading them this weekend. However, on the basis of those first paragraphs, I thought I would mention a relevant comment made by my children’s Latin teacher at parents’ evening this week.

The children are preparing for GCSE Latin (external exams for 16-year-olds), and have an extremely enthusiastic, passionate and inspirational teacher in that subject. His comment on their mock exam was that they need to be careful in their translation questions, and make sure that they stick to the literal translation. “All that other stuff that we do in class,” he said, “all that stuff about what it actually means, and how elegantly can we say it, and how accurately can we catch the mood or match the floweriness of the language – don’t do that in the exam. That’s just for us, just for fun, to see if we can get into the mind of the writer we’re translating. All the examiners want to see is that you understand the meaning of each individual word, and of each sentence construction and grammar point. You have to be literal, so that when your paper is marked, your translation bears some resemblance to the marking guidelines. Keep it simple, keep it plain. It won’t be anything like what we try to do in class, but it will get you more marks and a higher grade.”

When I read the opening section of each of your translations, Mark, Mr Latin-Master’s comments popped into my head. To me, the second translation reads as though it might be quite literal, trying to get ticks from an examiner, while the first reads as though someone is trying to get into the mind of the writer (whom I assume to be rather poetic in style, since you describe him as a painter as well as an essayist). They might even be by the same translator, adopting two different approaches, or with translation 2 as a intermediate stage on the way to translation 1.

But I will read the two translations properly, and get back to you.


Much of what I would have added to my earlier comments has now been written by others.

All I’d ask now — to echo Paolo in another thread — is: what was the assignment? Or, more precisely: who were the intended readers?

I think perhaps this should be the prime criterion in judging between the two versions. Although Version 1 seems to get the majority vote here, there are several circumstances where Version 2 might, with some reservations, be judged more appropriate and therefore better, as Siren and Jaysen indicate.


Right, I’ve read them both properly now. I don’t speak any form of Chinese, and the only Chinese literature I have read has been in translation, so I am not sure how representative or authentic it might have been. This limits what I can say on the relative merits of the passages as translations, other than to reiterate my view that Translation 1 may be an attempt at recreating the feel of the original while Translation 2 may be aiming at literal accuracy. The comments that follow are based on reading the pieces purely as examples of English writing.

Both translations have their merits, and both are engaging. My immediate reaction is to prefer Translation 1, but that is largely because I am so put off by the clumsiness of Translation 2’s “But at that time”, “But at a time” and “But in time” openings to successive sentences. (Mind you, I can see that this might be a fault of direct translation. It seems perfectly possible that the original was more elegant, perhaps using different words for time in each case, or cleverly modifying a single word or similar words to create a literary/stylistic effect.)

On balance, I prefer reading Translation 1. It is more lyrical, more poetic, more reflective, and seems more polished somehow, as though it has been revised and honed before reaching its final form. But Translation 2’s less deliberately frilly tone gives it an air of immediacy (which Translation 1 lacks), as though the words might be in the speaker’s natural voice and therefore more truthful/believable, so it has its merits, too.

My children and husband have also read the two translations, and all reached the same conclusion, preferring Translation 1. They think Translation 2 tends towards clunkiness, and renders the middle passage as a purely factual list lacking the “narrative nuances” of the corresponding section in Translation 1. But it’s not clear cut – all prefer the wording of some passages in Translation 2, feeling them to be more natural.

I just wish I could read Chinese, so that I could read the original as well, and get an idea of the author’s original voice and intention.

To clarify my post above, the observations were to buttress earlier conclusions:
Trans 1 is probably the work of a native English speaker who has learnt Chinese;
Trans 2 is probably the work of a native Chinese speaker who has learnt English.

Now I find a year-old post from Mark in the “Translations” thread:

So, are you through teasing us yet?


Shortly, I promise. I have had two responses from Chinese friends only so far, but both meet my predictions … the second one “in spades” :slight_smile: One other friend had started to comment, but we had to break off and haven’t yet re-communicated … for the moment, she was focussing on detail and I want to get the answer as to which she prefers to read. I realise that one of the difficulties related to their reactions is that, knowing it is a translation, they immediately want to find the original and judge them as translations of that, rather than just judging them as an English text, which is what I really want.

On the English side, apart from all of you here, who have provided real food for thought, but also surprised me in some ways, I have sent it to my wife, my daughter and her boyfriend, none of whom have any pretensions to writing, though my daughter in particular is an avid reader, so I’m hoping for good reactions from them, and also from an American colleague here, and perhaps her son and later her husband, both of whom are due to visit her in the very near future. I am also hoping that some of the other members of the forum, like Exegete77, Zikade, and Paolo will pick up the baton.

I would love also to do the experiment the other way, but I don’t have any English-speaking colleagues or friends with sufficient ability to read Chinese.

With apologies to you all for keeping you a while longer on what I seem to remember Hercule Poirot refers to as “tender cooks”; but I promise I won’t keep you dangling much longer. :slight_smile: Further responses from people outside the forum will still be useful, after that.

OK. The flow seems to have dried up, so I’ll have to come clean — partially — now. I’m in the middle of a mountain of exam papers, so a fuller feedback will have to wait.
Siren wins the packet of cheesy wotsits; not sure who gets the wooden spoon. I did both translations myself, No 1 first and then No 2, so Siren wasn’t entirely right.
The text is a “xiaopinwen” or “sanwen”, one kind of poetic, literary essay … in fact, the sentence beginning “In March …” is virtually a poem in Chinese, which is part of the tradition of that literary form. I’ll say more about that and the language later.
The first translation was intended to preserve that poetic flavour as much as possible in “natural” English, hence the … perhaps self-conscious … language. The second follows the structure of the Chinese closely … it’s not word-for-word, but the clauses within each sentence are in the Chinese order. In doing that one, I was also at pains to try and use slightly different vocabulary in parts from that used in the first.
The original Chinese has the two middle paragraphs as a single paragraph. It is I who split it in my first translation, 'cos I felt it should be separated.
My prediction, largely borne out, but with caveats, was that English native speakers would prefer the first, Chinese native speakers would prefer the second, the reason being the discourse structure. In the Chinese, there is no linguistic link between the beginning of one sentence and the preceding sentence, which is the normal situation in English.
Only 2 people commented on this latter aspect, both Chinese. One, a former student with whom I’ve worked closely on translation for a number of years, picked it up immediately as the reason for preferring the first translation; the second, a young woman who is spending a year at Xiamen University as a teacher-trainee in translation/interpreting, got it totally upside down, saying that the cohesion and coherence in the second was more natural English, and that’s why the second was preferable.
For the rest, it’ll have to wait, as I must go off and bore the pants off myself with marking exam papers!

@Dafu: Thanks for the PMs; I’ll get back to you on them.


So can I repeat my original opening Mr. K? Bacially Mr. X has shown that I fail in two languages simultaniously. :’(

It`s a gift Mr Jaysen, cherish it.

Mr Mark,
My human Vic-k, wants me to point out, that, when he says, ‘fallen in love’ with the translator, he means copious amounts of admiration and respect, for that person, not that he wants to do the other mucky messy stuff that humans do :blush:

@Jaysen, “Dinna fash y’sel”. Judgements as to preference are highly subjective, and it’s perfectly OK to like the second … you share the excellent company of my daughter! Your post about your colleagues and the translated Chinese you have read made me wonder how long they have been in the States, or indeed whether they are Chinese Americans, as according to my lights, if they write more like the first, then they have absorbed very natural English structure; it’s very flattering that you should say the second is like the English in books translated from Chinese that they have given you, as that text is not unlike the better end of Chinese-done translations. Even Chinese friends thought it was done by a Chinese speaker; it means I got the style of a Chinese translator into English about right!

@Fluff … no problem with his Vic-ship. Actually, his reaction was very flattering indeed.

In general, I think it needs to be borne in mind, thinking of the first translation in particular, that, leaving aside the conscious attempt to preserve the poetic nature of the source and it’s language quality which will come later, it was done by a British English speaker in his mid-60s, who went through a classical education and who has a prediliction, therefore, for more complex structures and less common lexis than many, in particular those of the younger generation, and it would seem of many Americans. I am minded of the American I met in Beijing, who told me that he really admired British academics for their much richer language and wider vocabulary in one breath, and in the next, as it were, told me that I should simplify my English! :slight_smile:



Ooooh, thank you! I didn’t know cheesy wotsits were being dangled. :slight_smile:

With your record of, and propensity for, substance abuse, the mind doth boggle at just what you`ll do with them! :open_mouth:

I’m going to hang them from my sou’wester, Aussie-cork-hat-style, to keep the flies out of my face when I trek across deserts. There aren’t many deserts in rural Suffolk, but I think I will cut a sartorial swathe, regardless.