This is Why Translation is Difficult

A translator friend of mine commented today on how one translated article of mine, an essay from Chinese contemporary philosopher Zhou Guoping, read as slightly awkward and stilted. And she’s absolutely right; it is.

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Some of this awkwardness probably comes from my inexperience as a translator. Some of it, however, comes down to choices — difficult choices that every translator has to make. Reading a translated book, it’s easy to subconsciously assume that the writer’s original language has simply been transferred over. If the translation is between, say, Spanish and Italian, then that may be mostly true. The further apart the languages, however, the more abstract the act of translation becomes.


In order to make the final version readable, the translator has to bend the translation further and further from its roots. Reading Chinese, my adopted language, I always struggle to find a balance between readability and accuracy.

Let me give you an example.

Here’s another passage from Zhou Guoping. He’s talking about his idea of philosophers and writers as “watchmen,” protecting the spiritual future of humanity (original Chinese here). First of all, I’m going to do a quick and dirty translation in which I stick directly to his words, sentence structure and meaning.

In the progression of history, we also need watchmen. Watching is a perspective. When I say this, I already recognize that in facing the progression of history there can be other perspectives, and they also have reasons for existing. For example, you might as well be a warrior, or even a general, and charge the front lines and issue commands on the battlefield of an era. You might as well throw yourself into any kind of current, go into business, run for office, rule over academia, command culture, direct the clouds and order the rivers, and become the modern hero of any aspect. However, apart from all of these obviously exciting figures, we also need the silent figures of watchmen.

Bleagh. Did you get through that? I hope not. It’s decipherable, but extremely awkward and toneless. The long sentences are difficult, and the the transitions obscure. There are some phrases, like “might as well” and “direct clouds and order rivers” that don’t really work in English at all. But it sure is accurate.

All right. Let’s clean up the rough spots, change the most offensive phrases, and gain a little clarity.

Within the progression of history, we need watchmen. Watching is one perspective. Saying this, I recognize that one can face history from other perspectives, which have other reasons for existing. For example, you could be a warrior or even a general, fighting on the battlefield of history. You could throw yourself into the current of business, politics, academia or culture, shake the world and be any kind of modern hero. But, as well as all of these people, we also need the silent presence of watchmen.

Well, that’s readable, and stays close to how Zhou chose to order his essay. This is usually my stopping place for difficult writing like Zhou Guoping. It still feels stilted though, because it doesn’t fit English rhythmic and sentence structure sensibilities. To really make it smooth, we’ll have to depart from the original structure altogether and build something new.

We need watchmen with us in the course of history — we need their perspective. Of course there are many other ways to face the world, all with their own reasons. Be a warrior! Be a general! Go fight on the battlefield of history. Go throw yourself into business or politics or academia. Go save the world and be a hero. But aside from all of this, we need the silent presence of watchmen as well.

Now that reads prettily. But is it Zhou Guoping, or Niko Bell? This passage would be much easier to read — especially if you were trying reading a whole book. On the other hand, I would be horrified if anyone quoted Zhou Guoping based on this translation; it simply wouldn’t be accurate.

I would like to think that there is a perfect translation out there — some magical combination of absolute accuracy and readability. But between English and Chinese, especially, I doubt such thing often exists.