Translating – The Pains and Pleasures

Apr 23, 2010

“It is easier to be a pig farmer than a literary translator.” Still, Berlin Fang ruminates on the art and beauty of translation.



berling fang - will work for good literature

Photo credit: Berlin Fang


A translator is a wordsmith.

The Gospel of John starts with “In the beginning was the Word.” I heard that it meant “logos” in the original language, but I like the English translation of the “word” which conveys at least part of connotations of the original one. From

Genesis you probably remember how God made the world with his spoken word. He said, “Let there be light!” and there was light. He didn’t start by creating the Department of Public Works, Indian Point Power Plant, and General Electric to lay the groundwork for illumination.

In the beginning the word is tied with creation. In the beginning the creative people are the wordsmiths of various sorts. The village sage. The traveling storyteller. The minstrel. Times may have changed, but our reliance on words to make meaning of the world has not changed. I once read a book by Daniel Pink in which he says that in modern boardrooms, people are not much different from men living in early caves. Today, we still wait for the wise man to come and tell us stories of what’s going on, what’s happening to us, how we compare with other folks. It looks like that we humans are busy with two things mainly: make money and make meaning, the former for survival, the latter to make survival worthwhile.

Enough of my philosophizing. I hold a day job as an instructional designer. I love the job. But I have another passion, translation. Sometimes the two jobs are not all that different. When I help a professor design an online course, I am helping to translate a face-to-face course into one to be offered online or in an online-offline hybrid format. Principles for translation sometimes apply to instructional design as well. Both require the use of dynamic equivalence. In both cases I work with content experts. Translation makes me a better instructional designer.

Translation also puts me in the presence of the most creative people in the world: writers. I had always wanted to be a writer myself, to write stories and characters into being. I grew up in a small village. The furthest place I had traveled before going to college was the county town about 30 miles away. As you can imagine, I yearned to see what’s beyond the horizon. Good literature showed me what the outside world was like.

Yet I was not creative enough to become a writer, so I put myself on sale in the market of professions, and I became a literary translator instead. What does the cliché say? If you shoot for the moon, at least you can land in one of the stars.

I am not saying that a literary translator is less important or less valuable. It is one of the toughest and most rewarding pursuits in the world. The earliest translators were actually deeply spiritual and highly respected people. In China, one of our first translators was a monk, Xuanzang, also known as the Tang Dynasty Monk (??), as fictionalized in the Chinese classic “Journey to the West”. He translated Buddhist scriptures into Chinese after his travels to India. Translation used to be one of the noblest things to do, a calling, a mission, a spiritual journey. People used translation to share wisdom from different lands. When Christianity spread to the corners of the world, missionaries often found that if they cannot translate the Bible into a native language, they cannot accomplish any mission work. Some missionaries even go so far as to invent a written language for the aboriginals in order to translate and teach the Bible.

In spite of its historical significance, literary translation is not the most profitable job in the world.

I did some commercial translation before. It seemed to pay pretty well. Translating for media is not bad either. I also did translation for management consultants, including some top consulting firms in the world. There I translated letters of proposals, progress review reports, bios of consultants, etc. It’s almost cruel to do this to myself. Many letters of proposals follow exactly the same templates. You sometimes hear these firms say that their clients can benefit from their “global knowledge base,” which sounds rather fancy, but basically that means their consulting work consists of copying a report from a Korean project and using it in a similar Chinese project -- and for that they charge clients half a million dollars! None of these jokers will get a passing grade if somebody uses plagiarism detection applications such as Turnitin as our professors do with student assignments.




That said, I wouldn’t say that doing commercial translation is all bad. Sometimes it is just bad writing that irritates me. When I translate such bad writing, I risk turning into a violent person. Once a friend of mine asked me for help translating a commercial for a company. The writing was so bad, so full of grandiose nonsense that it caused me to have very bad thoughts. I wanted to personally seek out the writer and persecute him with some torture of my own invention, which would involve hanging on the tree and the use of whips. Or send him to the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Cannot Write Good.

But, being the nice guy that I am, I didn’t go far along that path. Instead I took a safer alternative. I asked the friend never to do this to me again. She did better than that. She never writes to me any more.

While working for the consulting company, I couldn’t tolerate the thought of these mediocre people writing horrible Chinese or English that I had to turn into good Chinese or English. Six months later, I said, enough is enough. This is killing me. This is a waste of a good portion of my life that I could be using for a better purpose.