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.