The Never Perfect World of Translation

 

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I’m coming towards the end of my data analysis involving Chinese/Mandarin data. It has been an exhausting process of working in two languages, whether at the technical level of translation or the analytical work of making sense of utterances in one tongue and articulating the analysis in English.

I’ve taken different approaches toward translation for two different types of data. For the data sets involving mobile phone messages, I did the translation on my own and asked my primary participants to verify my interpretation. I felt confident of undertaking the translation on my own as the data was textual and was therefore faster to process the meaning from one language into another in the same textual medium. Furthermore, I was able to dictate the style of translation, aiming for a similar informal style of exchange in English. Also, because I had continued contact with my informants who had provided the data, I was able to consult them to verify my interpretation of the text messages.

For the data set involving audio-recorded interactions, I asked a professional translator to do the transcription and translation. The reasons for not doing the translation on my own were related to my  own limitations: i) The exchange was fast-paced and it would have taken me an inordinate amount of time to undertake the translation; ii) Translation was also difficult for me as I was not familiar with the style of speech of one of the participants. I wanted a full transcription of the audio data in order to do a comprehensive analysis, and I needed to have this textual form in a matter of weeks, not months, in order for my data analysis to progress and not stall. Thus engaging a professional and experienced translator outweighed the benefit of undertaking the translation on my own.

The process of the two different approaches have been illuminating in understanding the nuances of translation from the broader perspectives of pragmatics and linguistics. I learnt a few lessons about translation. One, there may be several possible translations but one may fit the cultural context of the interactants more appropriately than others. Two, in using a Conversation Analytic approach to analysis, there is an inevitable tension between idiomatic and literal translations.

The many face of 恩 (ēn)

In both text messages and face-to-face interactions, the character 恩 or the sound represented by the character 恩 was used throughout. In English, the sound of 恩 is equivalent to ‘uhm’ or ‘um’. If you heard ‘uhm’ in an exchange, it would be transcribed as such and be understood as a continuer in most cases. However, to transcribe it literally as ‘mhm’ would be to miss the point of the 恩 utterance in Mandarin. In text messages, it is more often than not, a response to acknowledge or agree with what was said in the previous turn. In verbal speech, it can be similarly used, or it may also occur as a continuer. Even in the use of as acknowledgement or agreement, there are choices when deciding on an English equivalent: ‘Yep’, ‘yeah’, ‘yes’, ‘ok’, and the like.

When translating the text messages, I read the original exchange several times before deciding on whether 恩 was a nodding ‘yeah’ or a resounding ‘yep’ or an agreeable ‘ok’. In my participants’ review of my translation, there were times where they indicated a preference for a particular translation, e.g. ‘yeah’ instead of ‘ok’, which I incorporated into the final translation. With another similar sort of acknowledgement, 喔喔 (ō) (the character is used in duplication), my initial translation of ‘oh ok’ was replaced with my participant’s preference for ‘O I C’, a common shorthand for ‘oh I see’ in text messaging.

How much translation do you need?

Another lesson in translation came about when I dealt with the audio-recorded data that had been transcribed and translated by a professional translator. After I had received the transcription, I listened to samples of the recording to check against the transcription. My translator had done a stellar job. There were parts of the conversation that were difficult for me to ascertain such as particular words and phrases and what was said during overlaps. But the translator had meticulously captured the details and I was satisfied that it was a job that I could not have accomplished as well on my own.

When I started to read through the transcription and the translation, I then noticed that the translator had taken a particular approach. She had chosen to provide an idiomatic translation at the sentence level, rather than at a phrasal level. This only became obvious to me as I had done the translation of the text message data set on a phrasal level to preserve as much of the sequence and structure of the original text. While it was relatively easy to do a phrasal translation for text messages, doing so for the verbal interaction was not so straight forward. There were many false starts and instances of careless speech which goes mostly unnoticed during actual conversation, but stand out most clearly in transcription. I could appreciate her choice of a coherent translation that conveyed the intended meaning of the speakers, rather than a slavish translation of odd sounding phrases.

However, as I read and re-read, analysed and re-analysed my data, I found myself amending the translation to bear closer resemblance to the sequence and structure of the original language, as far as it was intelligible in English. This allowed me to note what the speaker was emphasising, as well as identity specific points where topic changes occurred.

Another issue I had to grapple with was the level of detail I wished to show in my transcription. In the Conversation Analysis (CA) literature, Hepburn and Bolden (2013) recommend a three-line transcription comprising the original orthography in the first line, a morpheme-by-morpheme translation in the second, and an idiomatic translation in the third. I hesitated to incorporate this detailed level of transcription as I felt that the bulkiness of having a three-line transcription would detract the reader from ease of reading and understanding. Although I used a CA approach in analysis, my research was not solely centred around the CA methodology but rather CA was used as tool to support my analysis. Thus for the verbal data, I decided on a two-line transcription with the Chinese characters in the first line, and the English translation in the second. For the text messages, however, I wanted to re-create the appearance of the text messages as it was on the mobile phone which meant placing the original text in text boxes. The translation of the messages were then placed below the box, rather having it after each line of text.

And the moral of the story is …

Never work alone in translating your data. Tap on your own linguistic and cultural resources but also recognise your limitations. Apart from making accurate translations, other equally important considerations are understanding context and speaker preferences, as well as the analytical goals of transcription.

 

Reference

Hepburn, A., & Bolden, G. B. (2013). The conversation analytic approach to transcription. In J. Sidnell & T. Stivers (Eds.), The handbook of conversation analysis (pp. 57–76). Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell.

From Zero to Hero – How I Learned Chinese


How I Learned Chinese

I stared at the textbook in front of me, mechanically reading the Chinese characters that appeared on the page, or rather, parroting whatever the tutor said, even instructions on what I was supposed to do. At 7 years old, I started  Chinese tuition, and like many of my peers, stuck to it until I cleared the major exams.

There was no Mandarin speaking environment at home, no social circle which required any knowledge of Chinese, and no inner desire to figure out the language. Tuition was the answer and led to reasonable results for the national exams. While the exams were taken care of, my actual knowledge of Chinese was quite rudimentary. Outside of answering assessment book questions, I was clueless as how to respond to the language. When it was no longer as crucial to pass the Chinese exam, I did away with tuition and my incompetence in the language was further exposed.

The worst period of studying Chinese was in junior college. After getting a B3 for Chinese at O Levels, I did away with tuition; I no longer had a crutch. My foundation in Chinese was so weak I had to attend remedial lessons, all in the hope of salvaging whatever was left in this near empty vessel in the hope of passing the exam. I eventually passed the written exam, but failed the spoken component.

The story of my life learning Chinese culminated in that excruciatingly painful 15 minutes or so where I was assessed on my ability to speak Mandarin. There were two parts to the spoken assessment: one, reading a passage and answering questions, and two, conversing on a topic chosen by the examiner. For part one, I could hardly read the passage set in front of me. The exam strategy of reading whichever part of the character I recognized if I didn’t know how to read the whole character, or skipping the character altogether, blew up in my face as I applied the principle to probably most of the key words that made up the meaning of the passage. I have little recollection of what happened in the Q&A – but probably nothing much since I didn’t understand most of the words.

Part two would seem easier since I only had to speak. Alas, it was not to be. The topic seemed fairly easy to handle – ECAs or extra curricular activities. Except that my ECA was Writer’s Circle – a group of us would contribute poems and short stories to a quarterly in-house publication. What was so difficult about that, you might ask. First, I translated ‘Writer’s Circle’ as literally as I could since I knew no other way.  The examiners looked puzzled and asked what I did in that ECA. In as brief a phrase I could muster, I said, “Write poems.” As luck would have it, my anglicized pronunciation of Mandarin made ‘poems’ (shi) sound like ‘eat’ (chi). Another wave of puzzled looks led to the next question, “Eat? What do you eat?” I repeated ‘shi’ several times, finally blurting out in perfectly crisp English: “Poems, I write poems!”

The next exchange I had with the examiner got personal. “Are you a Canadian?” she asked, “Your pronunciation is strange.” “No! I am Singaporean!” I proudly exclaimed. (When I relate this story to my friends, they remarked that I should have just played along and pretended I was a foreigner with a bad accent. Maybe I would have gained sympathy marks.)

Fail

My formal Chinese learning ended in humiliation. My actual Chinese education, however, started when I realized people around me at university were using Mandarin in their day-to-day conversations. I was finally in an environment where the Chinese language was being used in authentic manner! Or perhaps, I was finally in a more realistic representation of society at large?

I decided to improve my Chinese. I listened to Mandarin pop songs. My favourite singer was (and still is) Winnie Hsin (or Hsin Hsiao Chi) from Taiwan. I bought almost all her albums, read the lyrics as I listened to the songs, and soaked in the MTVs. Apart from taking up a hobby, I got out of my comfort zone. I switched from the English service to the Mandarin service in church. But the one thing that decidedly turned me from English speaking, Western cultured to Mandarin speaking and pseudo-Sinophile was living in China.

After getting my CELTA, I got a job teaching English in China and I was there for about two years. In no time at all, I was using Mandarin for most of my daily activities and that got me comfortable and more proficient in using the language. My recognition of Chinese characters improved as well but only as much as it helped me in getting from point A to point B and figuring out how to read food labels. Writing was still a challenge and never really improved since I never had to correspond in that manner. But certainly, listening and speaking the Chinese language notched up several levels and since I came back from China several years ago, I’m still as comfortable with the language.

Not by campaign but by immersion (Speak Mandarin Campaign in Singapore, circa 1990)
Not by campaign but by immersion
(Speak Mandarin Campaign in Singapore, circa 1990)

The moral of the story? Language immersion seems the way to go in learning a language. Learning is not forced since it becomes necessary for you to learn the language for survival! When I apply this to my own teaching, in particular for ESL/EFL, I make it a point not to use the student’s native language as a reference point unless it’s absolutely crucial. When the teaching / learning environment forces students to use the language form beginning to end, however uncomfortable it is, it slowly conditions them to think and speak in the language.

It’s kind of like being thrown into the deep end of the pool – sink or swim! Most of us won’t allow ourselves to sink. At the very least we will try to keep our heads above water.

 


Image credits (in order of images):
Flickr: Learning Chinese by nik (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Flickr: FAIL STAMP by Nima Badiey (CC BY 2.0)
Flickr: Speak Mandarin Campaign by chinnian (CC BY-SA 2.0)


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