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Translation Appreciation Log: Context Knowledge and Word Pairing

Today I want to celebrate how extensive background knowledge can make a big difference in the appropriateness and accuracy of translations. I also would like to appreciate the art of choosing words that share similar origin and derivative meaning with the original. The article I am reviewing today is truly exemplary in these regards.

Original English title: Cultural Revolution Shaped China’s Leader, From Schoolboy to Survivor

Translated Chinese title: 从文革浩劫中走出来的习近平

Dual-language texts link: http://cn.nytimes.com/china/20150924/c24revolution/dual/

My rating for the translation: 4.7/5.0


1. History, in China, is a unified account canonized by official appraisals. The words and terms used to describe major historical events are therefore a matter of convention. When you write about the Cultural Revolution, you have to know the lingo. For example, in English, one might say that the Cultural Revolution was a decade of chaos, terror, horror, violence, turmoil, et cetera: however far your thesaurus might take you. In China, however, we almost exclusively use the word “浩劫.” Such association is as intuitive as a knee-jerk reaction. Why? Because that’s how the government assessments phrase it, how the media talk about it, how our textbooks teach it.

The translator for this article has a solid contextual grasp of the Cultural Revolution. In the first paragraph, “the pandemonium of the Cultural Revolution” is appropriately translated into “文化大革命那场浩劫.” Similarly, “武斗,” a designated term for the physical conflicts during the Cultural Revolution, is accurately employed as a translation of “warring Red Guards.” Another example, from paragraph 5, is “exiled to a rural village.” Someone unfamiliar with the Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement (上山下乡运动) during the Cultural Revolution could easily mistranslate “exile” into “流亡,” the word often used in the context of, say, “Dalai Lama in exile.” The article’s translator successfully adapts to historical context and uses “下乡.” In paragraph 24, the translator’s use of “揪出来” immediately infuses the combativeness of the Red Guards into the translation of the simple yet flat word “targeted.”

2. An expert translator masters the art of pairing a source word with a target word that shares similar trajectory from etymological origin to derivative meaning. This article contains two great examples. In paragraph 3, in which the authors discuss Xi Jinping’s “first immersion in politics” during the Cultural Revolution, the translator uses “洗礼” to pair with “immersion.” In this context, “immersion” carries a sense of “baptism” or “initiation.” The Chinese word the translator chooses has the same literary attributes: “洗礼”has its root in the religious ceremony of baptism and comes to mean “experiencing a challenge or difficulty,” especially when one emerges stronger or better afterwards.

More prominently, in paragraph 7, the translator’s rendition of “in the bosom of party privilege” deserves a standing ovation. In English, the phrase “in the bosom of,” meaning being loved and taken good care of, comes from the idea of a mother holding a child against her breast. We can translate this phrase into “在母亲的怀抱中” (in the arms of a mother) if it is in the context of something nurturing and caring. This, however, wouldn’t make sense in this particular article, because being “raised in the bosom of party privilege” is not necessarily a positive thing. One can instead opt for “庇护,” which means protection with a negative undertone. Even better, we can find a way to both convey the meaning and preserve the maternal etymology. In a stroke of genius, the translator chooses “襁褓,” which means the blanket a little baby is swaddled in. Just like its English equivalent, 襁褓, has its original in maternal care and now bears the meaning of protection.


1. “Student militants ransacked his family’s home…” (Paragraph 2)

Translating “ransack” into “洗劫” certainly works. But to cling to the historical context of the Cultural Revolution, I would suggest use the word “抄家.”

2. “…an unmoored life as a teenage political pariah.” (Paragraph 10)

The translator’s phrasing of “失势政治人物无依无靠的子女,” unmoored son and daughter of a politician who fell from grace, is rather odd. For one, we are sure that Xi Jinping cannot be both a son and a daughter. I would translate it as “被逐出政界而孤苦伶仃的青年.”

3. “Mr. Xi and a friend “would hang out all day,” Ms. Qian said. (Paragraph 9)

Translation of this sentence is missing. I was not able to find this interview online to locate the original quote in Chinese, so I would offer my own translation “习近平和一个朋友成天玩在一起.”

#Translation #TAL


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