Amongst Chinese translators, one of the most revered and frequently cited principles is the tripartite translation theory proposed by Yan Fu (严复). Yan Fu is a figure much appreciated in modern Chinese history: he introduced Western sciences and social thoughts to China when the diminishing Qing Dynasty was scrambling for remedies to stave off its demise. At that time, waves of foreign aggression following China’s defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War made it abundantly clear that the nation must wake up from its imaginary superiority to institutional reforms. Yan Fu contributed to this intellectual awakening by translating works such as Thomas Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Besides simply translating, he also offered his own interpretations and explained how the texts could be utilized toward China’s political and social transformations.
Yan Fu’s 1898 translation of Evolution and Ethics (天演论) electrified the Chinese intellectual circle and imported to popular Chinese lexicon phrases such as 物竞天择 (natural selection), 优胜劣汰 (to select the superior and eliminate the inferior), and 适者生存 (survival of the fittest). In one chapter, Yan Fu identified three challenges in translation: fidelity, expressiveness, and elegance ( “译事三难：信、达、雅”). More than a century later, the three-point checklist is still upheld as the golden rule in the world of Chinese translators: stay as close as possible to the original, convey the meaning in a clear and easily understandable way, and demonstrate literary sophistication and evoke pleasure.
The three interrelated criteria can be, however, misinterpreted as being hierarchical in their importance, i.e. fidelity first, expressiveness second, and elegance last. I once had a discussion with a colleague who held this belief. He insisted in having a near-literal closeness to the original, and opposed my preferred practice of adding, deleting or adjusting inconsequential words to make the translated text flow more naturally. He raised Yan Fu’s rule as a defense, arguing that faithfulness should be the number one goal that takes priority over the others. Our difference started to resolve almost instantly when I pointed out to him the next sentence immediately following Yan’s identification of the challenges: “求其信已大难矣, 顾信矣不达, 虽译犹不译也, 则达尚焉 (Fidelity is already hard to achieve; but if fidelity is pursued at the cost of expressiveness, it is as bad as not translating it at all).”
The best way to demonstrate how to strike a fine balance between fidelity and expressiveness is through examples. And I’ve found plenty of those in the following article I’m reviewing today. While this article is smooth overall and gets the ideas across, it regrettably falls victim in several places to awkward handling and even incorrect understanding of the original phrases.
Original English title: Message from China’s Leader, Xi Jinping to North Korea May Signal Thaw
Translated Chinese title: 习近平致信金正恩，中朝关系升温
Dual-language texts link: http://cn.nytimes.com/china/20151012/c12xi/dual/
My rating for the translation: 3.5/5.0
1. “Relations between China and North Korea…after a deep chill…” (Paragraph 1)
Here, “a deep chill” is directly translated into “深冻.” I have never seen this word used anywhere, and a brief Google search shows the only appropriate contexts for this word are the deep freeze technology or the Operation Deep Freeze missions. Instead, we customarily describe an icy relationship using the words “冰冷” or “冰封.”
2. “…Mr. Xi had seemed to establish a new distance between the countries…” (Paragraph 4)
The translator again copied, word by word, “establish a new distance” into Chinese as “建立了一种新的距离.” This would completely befuddle a Chinese reader, as it is impossible to understand without considering the context or the English original. This is a classical example where the expressiveness principle is violated by direct translation. I would suggest translate this phrase into “划清界限,” which literally means “drawing a clear line.” This is the customary expression we use in Chinese when describing one party’s alienation from the other.
3. “China has signed on to United Nations sanctions…” (Paragraph 5)
In here the translator uses the phrase “签了名,” which means to have signed something, apparently confusing the original phrase “signed on to” and literally signing a document. China might have indeed signed something, but that’s not what the text says. Therefore, the correct translation should be “赞成,” which means to agree.
4. “The fulsome praise of the Kim dynasty…” (Paragraph 10)
As demonstrated in the first two examples, a good translator needs to have the ability to recognize when a phrase is not directly translatable as well as the vocabulary to find the closest match. This example here covers a parallel issue: a good translator also needs to know it when a phrase is perfectly directly translatable. When translating “fulsome praise,” the translator uses “恭维之词,” which simply means “complimentary words,” completely leaving out the “fulsome” attribute in the original text. The correct word here should be “溢美之词,” an established Chinese idiom for overflowing praises. This is what the fidelity criterion is all about.
5. “…will disappoint those…who believed that Beijing was coming around to their hard-line stance toward the North Korean leader…” (Paragraph 11)
A big point deduction in my rating is due to a severe violation of the fidelity principle. The translator’s version—“北京在改变其对朝鲜最高领导人所采取的强硬立场”—is saying that those people believed Beijing was changing its hard-line stance toward the North Korean leader. What the original text is saying is that those people thought Beijing was going to join them in assuming the hard-line attitude. So the correct translation should be “北京的态度在发生转变，会和他们一道对朝鲜最高领导人采取强硬立场.”
Violations of the fidelity principle occur most frequently when a translator takes the idioms and slangs in the target language literally or out of context, failing to consider the cultural elements. For example, when Kim Kardashian tweeted “Pope is dope” during Pope Francis’s visit in the United States, an Argentinean reporter for the entertainment website Primicias Ya misunderstood it as a reference to drug and took offense. The embarrassment could have been easily averted had he consulted a qualified translator and learned about the informal usage of dope to mean “good.” Another incidence is this BBC report about China’s furious reaction after getting called out by Hillary Clinton on twitter for its women’s rights situation. In the report, the journalist, or her translator, translated “眼红” in the Chinese editorial literally to “her eyes have turned red” when describing Clinton. This was a mistranslation because “red-eyed” in Chinese actually means “green-eyed” in English. So while the English translation made Clinton sound like some fiery monster, the Chinese paper was just saying she was jealous or envious.
No translator is perfect, but perfection is what everyone translator should strive for. In this day and age, sometimes just 10 minutes of Google search can make a difference. Yan Fu took on translation to save a country. Shouldn’t we at least do our best?