The years have flowed swiftly. In a blink, where had all of them gone? I cannot touch nor feel them. All of them are lost in the fortress of my mind’s eye; yet even as its Lord and Master, I cannot enter without its keys. Fortunately, unlike most, I do possess the keys: my diaries, formerly handwritten but nowadays, in electronic form with the capability of storing photos and videos together to aid in triggering the opening of this vault of the eons. Again I can take a nostalgic stroll amidst the dusty corridors and relive the past.
Only once in my childhood did I receive a present from a certain aunt for my birthday. In the end, it was just a farce; in that my cousin and I shared the same blessed day and nothing more. At the same time, deep down in my heart, I knew that it was a gift not out of love. It was just an extra present; a toy car that my cousin didn’t want. When I opened the box, I knew the reason exactly; for I had been hearing him earlier in the week about what a crappy car his birthday present was going to be. As if to verify my suspicion, no longer was there any birthday present came from this particular aunt after this fiasco.
My next round of birthday presents came when I turned twenty-one. Sure, there were many. That was because my mother wanted to make a big fuss for this turned-into-an-adult ritual. However, cynically, once more my deadened heart told me that these were not true gifts for me but as gifts of display for the eyes of my parents throwing this lavish party. It was more of their party than mine; for the majority invited were their friends and cohorts. Only five came; two friends and three sisters of one of them. What I truly wanted, did not materialize. Oh well, it mattered not now, like waters flowing under the bridge, it is far into the mists of time.
My family was never into birthday presents. They claim times were hard and that a birthday cake and a photo of remembrance at the photographer’s shop were good enough. So never did I expect any but was envious to see others with such presents when invited to their parties. I was once invited to a party because a friend took me to this unknown birthday boy. It was at a grand house. To this day, in my mindscape, I see that huge fountain in front of the main entrance. How jealous I felt to see ice cream being served and a cartoon reel being played out for the children even though I was entering my teen years. Though our place was not small at all compared to this one; could be even bigger but its display of wealth was on a grander scale.
To be fair, there were two real presents in my life. Both were Christmas gifts. One was an electric train set that ran on real electricity. On the brochure was a picture of the train engine billowing out real smoke. I knew this was true because inside the set was a bottle of a viscous looking yellow liquid which I had determined to be some kind of oil. I was very excited. However, mother told me that I was too young to play with it because of her concern of the train need the electric mains to operate. She promised that I could play with it when I am older. I understood her concern. She placed the set at the bottom of her large bedroom armoire, safely tucked under other heavy boxes.
Each time, when she was out, I would surreptitiously creep into her room to lift up the red cover of the set with other boxes still on top of it. There I would smuggle out the rails and read the booklet lovingly. Joy and imagined excitement filled my mind as I lambently touched the parts. After playing, I would carefully replace everything back. I knew mother was not a stupid woman. After all, I was her son!
Then one day came, around twelve or so, when I declared that I was old enough to handle my true and secret love of so many years. She acquiesced. Upon opening the box, I was horrified to see where the oil bottle was used to be was now an empty spot! The rails were there but not the train engine nor the boxcars. Even so, as I started to set up the rails, there were parts missing! I had been conned! Now I realized that the set was not just only one box. The booklet had shown a much larger toy. I demanded the truth. Finally she told me that she had given most of the set away. She thought it was too dangerous for me to play with real electricity! Battery ones were okay. I was furious but held my rage; after all she had her own reason and I was her only son. All these years, some lucky kid somewhere in the world was playing with my train set with real smoke billowing out of its chimney.
Needless to say, my world fell apart. I swore that I will get my own real train set with my own money. Of course, this never happened… I grew up and trains no longer fascinated me as it had once. Its magical spell had been broken and I was no longer entranced. This taught me a lesson – never to trust anyone; even one’s own parents. Everything had to be verified. Thus this incident changed me forever; an indelible mark had been engravened upon me to which I would be carrying it into my grave. Never a naïve person I shall be anymore. Thus you can say my very own mother had stolen my innocence.
Finally, there was the chemistry set a family friend had given me for Christmas. There was real fire involved to heat, to boil all those exotic colored looking materials and things my parents don’t even understand due to their lack of higher education. Again mother wanted to have a hand in here. This time, I did not budge at all. All I said accusingly was, “Are you also going to steal my presents and give them away like you did to my train set?” Yes, I had learnt the art of fencing with words. Indeed, this stopped her cold. As an expert sword woman whom she was, there was a dramatic pause and decided aloud to all who could hear – that it is also an educational toy to which my studies would benefit immensely. Mother was a wise woman, knowing when to attack and when to retreat. This gift changed my entire life. With the greatest curiousity, I forayed into this new secret world; being unbeknownst to all my peers – the realm of chemistry. I excelled. My insatiable thirst for its arcane-like magic led me to the real books of knowledge and power. I spent all my pocket money on chemicals and apparatus. In a tiny room built as my laboratory, I would spend many hours of joy and wonderment practising my magical arts in there. Peace reigned. My parents were pleased with my school grades and all those who used the kitchen, meant that there are no more foul smelling stuff and good riddance to my dabbling. I pity all those born after 9/11…
I was especially proud of all my science classes except biology. Practical examinations was a cinch for me, I knew my chemicals well. I fondly remembered that during one such important chemical analysis exam, the lab assistant did not mix the chemicals well. From the pale chalk teal color and texture, I knew what it was – copper sulphate. The rest in the mixture were duds. Knowing the shortcuts (one drop of water will turn it into a deep and intense blue and while drying by a flame will return back into its former color); I performed some non-standard schoolbook text procedures to verify my hunch. My suspicion was confirmed. Of course, giving out such secrets was a no-no. So I wrote in the paper the standard but more laborious procedure of testing. Still I had plenty of time to spare and skipped school for the rest of the day going to a bookstore in search of more clandestine books… Which schoolboy of that age would pass up the chance to look for ways to make “bombs”?
I say, “Learn to work with the system until one gets to the pinnacle of power and then ram one’s way down their throats!” These are my life lessons. Yet those were the days of yore that I sorely missed today. It was a different world then and not beset by suspicion of being a terrorist anytime one is doing something out of the ordinary. I am glad to be part of that time of world innocence.
Whatever “presents” came was demanded by what I wanted. Never were they given freely. I always have to pay for them in one way or another. Another important life lesson. I envied those have such “loving” parents. To be fair again, my tastes tend to be on the rather expensive side. Why settle for less? In my teen years, besides my love affair with chemistry, I too had another love – to be able to learn how to play music. I once asked my mother to let me have piano lessons. To my surprise, she agreed. It was because the in-thing to do and more of a status flouting display of their personal success and what children of culture they have. Then at the age of sixteen, I wanted an electric organ. So not only that I had to pass my GCE ‘O’ Levels but good enough to remain in the prestigious school and to score better than my cousin. In the end, luck smiled upon me. I triumphed to be able to remain in the same school and at the same secured my place in the elite classes of science. My cousin did not make it and had to depart for another less prestigious school. From then onwards, such family rivalry ceased as there was nothing on the same level to be compared and put an end to the bragging rights of the older family members. It was an enormous boulder rock heaved off from my back. Another reason I opted for my further studies in the US rather than in England – the mother country where all my other cousins went. Years later, they all came flocking here. However, the land is large enough for us all. We don’t have to see each other and that the senior members of the family had died out. I regret to state that whatever love we cousins have for each other are solely the fault of the older generation.
Perhaps I have mellowed a bit. Now, I feel like I am jaded and because of hard work and a wise course my parents had charted out for me that I can simply go out and buy things I desired. However, time tempers everyone and changes every mind. Older but hopefully wiser, I feel the emptiness in such kinds of spending spree. Whatever I bought I could not remember except for those three gifts I had in my younger days. If I do remember, it must something for the house and not for my very own. The magic in possessing thing had gone.
However, this year, I felt like a child of yesterday once more, a world of magic had being reopened for which I am eagerly waiting to enter and spend my time there. My magic wand is the pen I now wield. I write at my pleasure alone. This essay is a present for myself for it will speak to me each time as I read it. Since I am at it, why not extend even further and let my keyboard do the notation of wiggly tadpoles on an electronic musical staff? A perfect gift for my ears as well? Yes, this is going to be a unique gift; a gift born of being whom I am; and something once created cannot be destroyed; perhaps forgotten but never its destruction.
This melody, I shall entitled it as Happy Birthday to Me to celebrate all my yesteryears of pain and joy. Hopefully, some day I would be talented enough to provide the lyrics. For those who are interested… Here’s the link:
Friday, April 04, 2014
This article started off as an entertaining distraction from a formal translation of Hsun Tzu’s Exhortation to Learning. Luring me away from the far more serious work ahead, this Chinese Musical was just the ticket. The lyrics are short and whimsical, and as an added temptation, there were two Chinese characters that I did not know. Besides, the song is quite melodic. To my dismay, however, as I began writing and trying to explain the choices I made for the translation, it became clear to me that it was going to a laborious and pedantic affair after all. So I came to this idea in the end: why not a comparative look at how books are translated and how movies are subbed or subtitled? Each medium comes with its own set of rules, obstacles and inherent limitations. It should prove to be quite interesting. I shall only touch lightly on these topics and not go off tangent from the real goal of this article, that is to translate the song’s lyrics. So I shall just dispense with all the details on how I arrived at my translation.
Subtitling is an art form unto itself. Some view it as a summarization of the original language in another language; in other words, a very loose translation. However, this is very deceptive thinking. First of all, the biggest limitation is the size of the screen estate. It can only hold so many words without distracting the audience from the movie. Unlike translation in a book form, there are no pages and pages of space for footnotes and commentaries. Such information can exceed the size of the translation piece. One must remember that the main reason of a movie is to provide visual enjoyment comfort, it is preferable that the target language line be no longer than the original and yet the crux and crucial information must be present to convey the actual emotion and tone. This means that many details are elided and even excised completely.
In Chinese movies, there are two lines of subtitles shown in movie theaters, especially those screened in Southeast Asia. One is in English and this is understandable; but Chinese also? Really! The reason being that we may be Chinese as an ethnic group but our dialects are unintelligible to each other. Therefore standard written Chinese is displayed so that all Chinese subgroups can enjoy the movie. Remember first and foremost is that the movie is a visual entertainment money-making business. Having these many lines of subtitling can be quite daunting and distracting to those who are not used to it. At the same time, the audience is not going to be interested in the scholarly details. As such, as long as the dialog is understood with all the tones and moods reflected accurately, then it is considered a good one. Reading subtitles consumes more mind processing power. Screen clutter must be avoided at all costs. Another big constraint is that subtitles must synch with the dialogue; otherwise the delayed effect is of great annoyance.
Subbing, the art of making actors speak in a foreign language is nothing more than oral subtitling in my opinion. However, this time the additional constraint to make sure that spoken words must match the lip movements exactly. Giving a title to a book or movie is even a shorter form of subtitling. Not only is the real estate is at premium, the size of the book cover or the width of the page is even more limited than the screen. It has to summarize the content in just a few words. Even if this is achieved, the main goal is to sell! Thus titles must double as seductive advertisements. Not without affection, I call this, the art of titling, as the whore of translation! Any inaccuracy or precision in the translation can be thrown out of the window. Following are some examples. I have provided the back translation for the benefit of the English reader. English titles to Chinese:
Gone With the Wind = 亂世佳人 (Beauty of Chaotic Times)
The Wizard of Oz = 綠野仙踪 (Fairy Footprint of the Green Wilderness)
Oz, the Great & Powerful = 魔境仙踪 (Demonic Border/World of the Fairy Footprint) Frozen = 冰雪奇緣 (The Wondrous Adventure of Snow Ice)
Chinese titles to English:
紅樓夢 = The Dream of the Red Chamber is sexier than The Dream of the Red Mansion
西遊記 = The Monkey King is more exciting than Journey To the West.
三國志 = Romance of the Three Kingdoms is more interesting than Records of the Three Kingdoms.
封神榜 = The Investiture of Gods is more intriguing than The Scroll of Conferring Gods. 鏡花緣 = Flowers in the Mirror is more romantic than the Tale of Destined Love.
My last example is to illustrate the mastery of the translator. Lolita is a classic movie known to the Chinese audience outside the Mainland before the country was opened to the world as 一樹梨花壓海堂 (A Pear Tree Crushing the Begonia Blooms). This colorful and poetic Hong Kong title says it all. The educated Chinese will understand the allusion. I doubt that this 1962 movie would have been shown in Taiwan before Hong Kong because of the then martial law imposed there. The drab translation from Mainland China is 洛麗塔, a transliteration of the name. No imagination and a quick and lazy way out.
Back to the task at hand. The lyrics I am translating are from a Chinese musical called 血手印. The exact and precise translation is The Bloodied Hand Imprint. This blah title has no oomph in helping to sell the movie. It lacks imagination and luster. However, The Crimson Palm! Like their svelte and curvaceous counterparts on the street, the whores of translation can sell charms and make dreams come true.
Here is the background to the story behind the lyrics. The hero and heroine were betrothed when they were young. However, the guy’s family fell into poverty and the girl’s family tried to renege on the match. Of course the lovers refused. The girl wanted to give him her golden hairpin so that he can sell it so that he could go to the capital and take the imperial examinations. By becoming the Number-One scholar, he can lift himself from a life of obscurity. This way, his father-in-law can no longer refuse the match. The plan was to have her maid hand him the golden hairpin in the night at the inner court garden. When the appointed time came, the scholar had to pass through a patch of wilderness to get to the backdoor of the inner garden. Upon reaching his destination, he discovered the maid had been murdered and he was accused…
The original lyrics and subtitles displayed originally on the screen while the actor is singing as he passed through the wilderness patch are in italicized blue. The green is my pedantic but precise translation. The italicized brown is my commentary.
郊道 Through the Wilderness Path
夜沉沉,聲悄悄, 月色昏暗. It’s dark and late
Late is the night, so late, My steps so stealthily light, And the moonlight so dark.
風淒淒,影搖搖, the wind is howling.
Cold are the winds, so freezing cold, And shadows are swaying back and forth,
隕星曳空, 怪鳥長鳴. And the birds are crying.
A falling star dragging the skies along, And strange birds in their prolonged cries.
This is the phrase that caught my attention! I didn’t know the meaning of 隕 and 曳. In Cantonese, 曳 has a totally different meaning, being “naughty” or “inferior”. 一路行來,
無人烟, The road is desolate
Since I have been walking,
Nary a sign of human life,
嚇得我胆顫心寒 and I’m scared.
Scaring me witless Literally, So scared that my gall is trembling and my heart grew cold.
佳人贈金 情義重,使我又愧又喜歡 I’m happy and ashamed too about the gift of gold. A beautiful woman is bestowing gold upon me, Her affection for me is strong and true, She made me feel so ashamed and yet so happy.
眼見園門正半掩 The door is left ajar,
I see the garden door left ajar
想必是雪春在裡面 Xue Chun must be waiting.
I assumed Snow-Spring must be in there.
Snow-Spring is the name of a maid who was supposed to meet the scholar in the garden.