The Hexacoto

Listening to the sound of one hand clapping

Tag: Chinese

Landscape of a rice harvest by the river and mountains

rice harvestMany know that Chinese characters began by looking like the thing they describe, and even today, many of the characters still do. For example, the character for man (人) looks like a man with two legs.  Other characters, by combing, form other characters, such as the character for forest (森) which is a composite of three wood (木) characters stacked together.

I can’t be the first one to do this, but since Chinese characters are pictograms, why can’t they just be used in a picture wholesale? Thus this illustration, Landscape of a rice harvest by the river and mountains.

On the top left is the rice field, where bushels of golden rice (米) wait to be harvested by the farmer wearing a hat (农) and wielding a sickle. The already-harvested rice simply turn back into fields (田). His field is irrigated by the river that flows (川), and there is a boat (船) that is floating on it. The river is lined by the mountains (山), covered by forests (森).

The path leading from the field leads to the farmer’s home, It is but a simple house, with a single door (門) flanked by two windows (窗) and topped by red tiles (瓦). The house is by a forest, build out of large trees. A tree is essentially wood (木) topped by leaves (叶), yet the difference between wood and leaves are the little circular mouths (口) that feed the tree without the roots.

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The inevitability of translating poems

There will always come a point where poetry written in one language cannot be accurately translated into another, because of the very nature of the language itself. It is often cited that certain words in certain languages have such precise meanings that they usually cannot be translated into English. Common examples are ‘schadenfreude’ in German and ‘wabi-sabi’ in Japanese.

But a much simpler reason some poetry cannot be easily translated is simply for its puns, stress, rhyme or rhythm. A Czech person once told me in English, “I was smashed on concrete too much last night,” and that actually turned out to be a pun. In Czech, concrete is ‘beton,’ but it is also the name of a mixed drink ‘beton,’ which is short for ‘becherovka’ and tonic water. So simply saying you were smashed on concrete in English slightly takes away the meaning of the pun.

Such shortcomings become a lot more apparent in Chinese and Japanese, when many words share the same sound, and are only truly differentiated by context and the characters used.

用心听,用心走
Listen with your heart, walk with your heart/Listen carefully, walk carefully

听一听,只听见心在跳的声音
Listen, and only hear the sound of the heart beating
为过去的遗憾而跳
beating for past regrets
为现在的疑问而跳
beating for present doubts
为将来的一切而跳
beating for everything in the future
所作所为
but when all’s said and done
尺有所长,寸有所短
there are goods and bads
而这一页
and this chapter
将会结束
will end
我只能不理不睬心在跳的声音
I can only ignore the sound of the heart beating
往不定的前程
headed for an uncertain journey
往前走
headed forward

This was something I wrote that I found hard to translate, especially when the words were rife with double meanings. The title 用心听,用心走 means two things at once, depending on how you bind the words. “用心” as a compound means to be careful, but as a verb-noun construction means to use your heart.

Regrets, doubts and everything (遗憾,疑问,一切) are three different words, but they all share a fundamental sound of ‘yi’ at the beginning, creating a repeating rhythm and linking all three concepts to a basic fundamental. That is untranslatable in English.

The cadence of the past, present and future is also untranslatable. The structure used was “For the past’s regrets, it jumps/ For the present’s doubts, it jumps/ For the future’s everything, it jumps” where the heart “beating” and “jumping” use the same characters.

The line of ‘There are goods and bads’ is actually a proverb which literally means “A foot is as long as it is, an inch is as short as it is,” and a part of that section of the poem was written in four syllables per line, which cannot be adhered to in English.

阿嬤 (Grandmother)

我好想念每当我被雨淋湿透时,回到了家门,阿嬤一定会问 “你有没有淋到雨?快点去换你的衣服。” 虽然我整身湿湿的,我的回答一定会是 “淋到一点。” 她就会重复 “快去换你的衣”,我就会说 “哦。”

我好想每次考完试时,回到了家,阿嬤就会问 “你今天考什么?” “文学” “考到怎样?” “可以啦。”

“你等下要吃什么?”

“随便.”

“下来吃饭!”

“哦。”

我不需要非常华丽的词来表达我心中的话。我阿嬤只会用简单的华语来说她要说的话。

(13 Dec 2009)

I miss whenever I get caught in the rain, when I reach home, Ah Ma will definitely ask, “Did you get caught in the rain? Quickly, go change your clothes.” Even though I would be completely drenched, my reply would always be, “Just a little bit.” And she would then repeat, “Go change your clothing.” To which then I would say, “Ok.”

I miss whenever I finished an exam, when I reach home, Ah Ma would ask, “What exam did you take today?” “Literature.” “How was it?” “It was ok.”

“What do you want to eat later?”

“Anything.”

“Come down for lunch!”

“Ok.”

I don’t need very fancy words to express the words in my heart. My Ah Ma can only use simple Chinese to say what she needs to say.