Translation: Illuminating Cultural Difference.

Just short of a month ago, I wrote a post about Helen, a Chinese woman, translating some of my stories into her language. My hope was that would place my work before a wider readership. But there has been an unexpected and positive additional outcome.
I’m no linguist. But I’ve travelled, both within the land of my birth and to various places on the European continent. One result of such travel is an appreciation of the similarities of people regardless of race, ethnicity, or national origin.
However, the translation project has revealed a truth about some of the hidden subtle differences that might divide us as a species.

Naturally, I write my stories in my native tongue, English; that is, British English. That means I employ metaphor, simile, and, of course, idiomatic language carrying certain national traits, humour, and viewpoint. And those factors have resulted in some interesting questions from Helen as she attempts to translate superficially simple sentences into a language based on a different culture.

The first questions were related to ‘Perfect Solution’, a romance narrated from the p.o.v. of a writer and including some of his internal thoughts. He’s trying to solve a problem with his current novel and has therefore gone on holiday to relax in the hope it’ll give him some answers.
There’s some humour in the story, but I hadn’t considered how ‘English’ this was until my translator asked these questions. And some colloquial expressions can’t be translated literally, so I had to explain them to answer her questions.

‘The sunbed next to him creaked a little as the girl turned to face the sun, adjusting straps so she wouldn’t be striped at the end of the day’s worship. He studied her without her knowledge; designer shades covering his wandering eyes.’

Helen’s question: What is the meaning of “the day’s worship”?

My answer: In England we talk about sunbathing as ‘worshipping the sun’, as our inclement weather makes us welcome sunshine perhaps more than is good for us. So, here, the phrase, ‘at the end of the day’s worship’, simply means ‘when she finished sunbathing’.

‘(There, that should do it). It was half a lie and he still couldn’t quite determine what it was about her face. Frustrating to remain unable to identify the problem when he prided himself on his powers of observation.’

Helen’s question: Could you explain this sentence? especially the part in brackets.

My response: Difficult without a full explanation, so here goes: This sentence follows a short conversation between the narrator and the woman on the next sunbed. He’s been admiring her, quite openly, which is unusual in an Englishman, but his attention had wandered, as it will for most writers. She’s noticed his stare but also seen his expression has changed. His mind is seeking some slight flaw, as he doesn’t believe it’s possible for anyone to appear so perfect. To explain his position, and to avoid embarrassment (most sensitive men in England would be embarrassed to be caught staring frankly at a woman sunbathing in a brief bikini) he says to her, ‘I’d begun by admiring you but then my mind went off on a tangent. It does that. I wander into daydreams. Absolutely nothing wrong with you. You’re perfect.’
He knows she isn’t perfect, but hopes his explanation will stop her from being offended by his frank staring. So, ‘There, that should do it.’ is an internal thought in which he’s trying to reassure himself that he has now said something to avoid further embarrassment.

‘This wasn’t right. She was beautiful, apparently unattached and on a package holiday, (so it was obvious she’d have an awful voice or a mind fit only for a mouse). But she spoke like honey and used thought processes.’

Helen’s question: What does the bracketed sentence mean? Why?

My reply: Another cultural reference here, Helen. Some English people believe ‘package holidays’ are only taken by people without money and/or good taste. It’s a form of snobbery and is entirely false: many people with a comfortable income and good taste take package holidays because it saves them having to organise things for themselves. So here the narrator is making fun of this attitude, it’s a form of irony. He’s again using an internal thought to express the misconception that because the woman is on a package holiday she must be flawed: perhaps she has a dreadful voice to balance out her undeniable beauty, or maybe she’s ignorant and poorly educated – that’s the reference to the ‘mind fit only for a mouse’. He knows this isn’t true, but he’s trying to use humour to express his surprise that he’s apparently found an ideal partner in this unknown woman, who is, it seems, perfect. That concept, of someone being perfect, is alien to the British mind, so he’s having difficulty accepting it.

‘You’ll have to be more explicit. You appear to be asking the question of my breasts but about my swimming. (My ears are on the side of my head); just like yours.’

Helen’s question: What does the bracketed sentence mean?

My answer: Another aspect of conservative British life: men are not supposed to look at women as sexual beings if they are not in a relationship with them. They do, of course. But English society is full of hypocrisy, so it is often denied that men are attracted to the exposed flesh of women. Here, we have a beautiful, sexy, woman wearing a very brief bikini that exposes a lot of the flesh of her breasts. His eyes are naturally drawn to these attractions, but social etiquette requires him to deny this. Women are used to such attention, and generally more honest about it than men, so it’s common for women to refer to the male duplicity with humour, unless the man is crude. Here we have an obviously educated man admiring an clearly attractive woman. He’s asking her a question about her swimming, which he admires, but his eyes are focused on her breasts. She’s making a joke by explaining that her ears are placed on her head, like his, and suggesting he should perhaps look at her face as he talks to her. There’s no unpleasantness here, the whole event is presented in a humorous way. How you would translate that into Chinese, I’ve no idea. But I hope my explanation helps!

‘(It was too much. She was taking charge, and he liked it). He had no argument. How could he? He nodded. They sauntered. He watched, as more and more of her became exposed by the dropping level of the water, until it reached the top of the bottom triangle.’

Helen’s question: What does the bracketed sentence mean?

My attempt at explanation: Another cultural reference. In our world we have a totally false idea of the relationship of men to women. I won’t go into the complex reasons for it, as it’s not important for this story. But the point here is that it’s generally accepted that women defer to men. Of course, that isn’t actually true, but much of society accepts it as normal (as I say, our world is full of such hypocrisy). So, here, we have a situation in which the woman is taking charge of things, and that’s not supposed to happen (it does, often), and he isn’t at all worried by the fact that she’s taking charge. In sexual matters especially, the man is ‘supposed’ to take the lead. Here, there’s a subtle reference to potential sexual activity later in their relationship, and his internal thought is a gently humorous acceptance of her real equality in their forming relationship. He’s not supposed, socially, to enjoy being led by a woman, but he knows such ideas are false, outdated, and stupid, so he’s making his thoughts express that aspect.

Helen: ‘Walking Under a Rabbit’s Foot’ has been checked by my friend. I translated it into 天佑佳人, which means God bless the beautiful and talented woman; my friend translated it into 走上幸福路, which means walking on the road to happiness. I don’t know which one do you prefer? In Chinese culture, 才子佳人, talented scholars and lovely ladies, it is a symbol of romance and talent. 佳人, who is not only beautiful but also talented, good at lyre-playing, chess, calligraphy and painting, dancing and things like this.

My response: I’m not at all surprised you have some difficulty with these two stories, Helen. They are very ‘English’ in tone. And some of the expressions will only be understood fully by those raised in English society. ‘Walking Under a Rabbit’s Foot’ is about the silliness of superstition. Here, it’s considered ‘lucky’ to carry a rabbit’s foot (not very lucky for the rabbit!), and unlucky to walk under a ladder propped against a building. Here we have a woman, raised by a superstitious mother, approaching a situation where a ladder is leaning against a building so her only route past is either to walk on the road, which is narrow and carrying traffic, and therefore intrinsically dangerous, or to ‘risk’ walking under the ladder. The woman in this story is aware she’s inherited certain superstitions from her mother, but also knows these are stupid. She’s at war with her own upbringing, and the man on the ladder, the bookshop owner, is aware of her internal battle, so he tries, in his very English way, to persuade her that her move away from superstition is the best way to go. The story opens with lots of references to frankly idiotic superstitions and is an attempt to ridicule such beliefs using humour. The idea behind the story is to show that most of what people believe in as ‘luck’ is the result of coincidence or simple happenstance.

I hope all this explanation will help. My writing is quite idiosyncratic, so there are a lot of references to English and Western social habits, sayings, and beliefs, many of which I see as idiotic, false, and harmful. But I try to deal with them with humour. And, as you’ll know, humour is the most difficult quality to translate. Good luck with this, Helen (see, I use the phrase ‘good luck’ even though I don’t believe in luck!) And thank you for your efforts.

Simple phrases we hear, use, and understand every day, can suddenly be seen as carrying great amounts of cultural baggage when we are required to examine them so they can be translated sympathetically into another language.

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If you’ve read to the end of this post, many thanks for your patience! The stories featured are from my personal anthology, Ten Love Tales. If you’ve become intrigued, you can read the whole collection for £2.17 ($2.99) here, or as a Kindle edition through Amazon at your local store.

8 thoughts on “Translation: Illuminating Cultural Difference.

  1. Stuart,I have read your post to the end with a lot of knowing giggles. I moved to England quite some years ago with a good working knowledge of the language. I soon understood you need to ‘ live ‘ the language to properly understand and to get to know the ways of locals. So I find your explanations to Helen hilarious.

    The cultural differences do make it challenging to translate but rewarding when you catch what they really mean.
    Have you seen Helen’s finished work?

    Miriam

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    1. She hasn’t finished the whole anthology yet, Miriam. But she’s sent me sections to look at. Unfortunately, as they are in Chinese, I can make no judgment about the accuracy of her translations. However, she and I have conversed over a number of years and I know her to be a diligent, caring and honest person.

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  2. That is a very interesting post, Stuart; I very much enjoyed it. I encountered similar difficulties when as an adult, I started learning German when I moved there. As you note, it’s not just the language, it’s the cultural overtones and nuances as well as body communication.

    Since we are next door to the US, it’s often assumed that they are similar to us. They are in some ways, but as nations we are diverging more and more, and over time that will start to include language (it already is).

    Good luck with your project. I really like the explanations and backgrounds you are giving for these culturally embedded references.

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    1. Thanks, Lynette. It’s easy to understand the challenging differences between countries, but the internal differences that occur between counties can be just as difficult to comprehend. Here in the UK, we have a word, ‘butty’ or ‘buttie’, which means ‘sandwich’ in some counties and ‘friend’ in others that are adjacent. So, ‘I’m just off to pick up a butty.’ can mean different things depending who you’re talking to!

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  3. You’ve struck a chord here, Stuart. Oops. “Struck a chord” would confuse many people. Imagine how aliens would feel when their universal translators fumble over the many expressions we take for granted. Strike out “would” in the previous sentence, and we have a story prompt.

    I encounter this frequently when watching German movies, especially comedies. Idiomatic expressions often won’t translate into anything recognizable.

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    1. My wife learned much of her German while living in the country and watching English TV programs on German TV, Kathy. She picked up a staggering amount of the language but, yes, some of the English expressions were untranslatable and so were some of the German ones!
      An example: ‘Well, I’ll go to the foot of our stairs!’ an expression of surprise at something heard. But why going to the bottom of the stairs should be a signal of surprise, who knows?

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  4. Learning a 2nd language brings up these issues daily. When I was teaching English As A Second Language, I often told the students “Don’t ask me why. it just is.”
    Of course, they would all then shout to me “Why, Miss?”
    American English has some weird sayings that I understand come from the Irish. They may have been misunderstood (maybe they were in Gaelic?) so it’s no wonder that it is often impossible to translate them.
    Best of luck in your Chinese translation.
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    Author, Sherrie Miranda’s husband made the trailer for “Crimes & Impunity in New Orleans.” He wrote the music too.

    Review: Shelly’s journey in “the city that care forgot.”
    Sherrie Miranda’s new novel “Crimes and Impunity in New Orleans” puts the reader into a whirlwind of political protests, abusive police, sexist attitudes towards women, and “good old boys” racism in 1980’s New Orleans. Miranda’s second novel follows Shelly, the young northerner, as she quickly finds out that she “isn’t in Kansas anymore” while encountering a slew of picturesque, colorful characters. Reading her book makes you wonder if justice and respect for blacks, immigrants, and women can be reality in America.

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    1. Many colloquial sayings emerge from a tiny minority of speakers but then catch on with the rest of the local population. Sometimes, it’s impossible to work out the etymology of such expressions and, as you say to your students, ‘It just is’, Sherrie. Even within the small land I occupy, there are many expressions that are totally alien to people living just over the border of the next county. We live close to Wales, where another language is also spoken, so we often come across incomprehensible sayings and sometimes have to ask for an explanation.

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