Crab-Eaters and Trailblazers: My Adventures in Chinese-English Translation

Since I have some downtime at work, one thing I’ve resolved to do to make myself a more productive person in general is use my downtime to translate articles from China Daily’s business section (as opposed to aimlessly browsing whatever Wikipedia pages are allowed through the Great Firewall) so I can improve my Chinese reading skills and get good enough at translating to put it on my resume as a marketable skill.

At first, translation seems easy: bust out your dictionary app, clean up the syntax, and voila. But I’ve found during my impromptu exercises that translation is a tricky, tangled business. As I’ve mentioned before, Chinese transliterations of foreign names and brands are common, which occasionally leads to odd strings of characters (why does this say “Onomonopeia for laugh, Buddha, University?” Oh…Harvard). If you can get the sounds of the characters and figure out the name from the phonetics, that’s not a huge challenge. The real challenge is Chinese idiomatic language and cultural allusions, which are downright impenetrable when you’re a laowai.

I’ll give you an example: in one article I read about the growing e-commerce business in India, I came upon some characters I didn’t recognize in a paragraph about the two founders of an online shopping site and the obstacles they encountered when they started their business. I copy-pasted the characters into MDBG (the most reliable Chinese dictionary on the web, and no, that was not at all a shameless plug, whyever would you insinuate that), and the translation I got mystified me: “to eat crab”? What did seafood have to do with an e-commerce startup in India? I could not for the life of me figure out the phrase, so I approached my boss about it.

“So, I have a Chinese question,” I said.
“Sure, what is it?” She responded.
“I’ve been reading some articles to practice doing translation, and I don’t understand a phrase; what does “to eat crab” mean?”
“It means to try something no one’s tried before,” she answered.

Now it made sense: “As the first people to eat crab in Indian e-commerce…” became “As the trailblazers in Indian e-commerce…” in my Word document. But that got me thinking – even though “trailblazer” pretty much lines up with what “to eat crab” means, was my translation missing some sort of feeling or hidden meaning that the original turn of phrase held? Being a trailblazer evokes an explorer in the wilderness cutting away previously untouched foliage with a machete, that others may follow his or her path. A crab-eater? In English it sounds a bit odd, but in my head, I imagined my first time eating seafood (pretty early in my life, considering I’ve always lived on or near the coast). It did seem like something strange and entirely new, even though others had done it long before me. Perhaps it’s the same idea with the CEO of a startup – yes, you’re trying something new, but you’re neither the first nor the last to try it. In a way, it makes a great deal more sense than “trailblazer” in the context in which it’s used.

Even with words I already know, I run into translation roadblocks. I found an article about young wealthy Middle Easterners showing off their fancy luxury cars on their vacation in London. The term the headline used to refer to them was “tuhao”. It is exceedingly hard to give a precise explanation of what “tuhao” means in English, or to give an exact equivalent. The best I can come up with is “nouveau riche”, but even that doesn’t quite cover all of it. Someone I know once likened “tuhaos” to the Beverly Hillbillies: rural, somewhat uncouth folks who suddenly come into untold amounts of money, and tend towards the tacky in their displays of conspicuous consumption (in China, the limited edition gold iPhone is sometimes called “tuhao gold”). But it feels a bit wrong to use a very American cultural reference to explain or translate a very Chinese cultural phenomenon. Furthermore, it seemed a bit weird to apply a term that is very, very tied to the changes in Chinese socioeconomic class dynamics to Middle Easterners. Though then again, I’ve seen plenty of English-language journalism use American cultural allusions to make certain other cultural phenomena easier to understand (even though, again, I think that that over-simplifies or changes the meaning of the original phrase or idea). I eventually settled on “Middle Eastern Nouveau Riche Display Their Luxury Cars in London” as the translation for the headline. But Nouveau Riche still didn’t capture the connotations that “tuhao” holds in Chinese popular culture.

The translation game is stranger and more convoluted than the game of thrones; how do you contextualize very specific cultural references and idioms? How permissible is it to substitute the idioms and allusions of the language you’re translating from with ones from your native language? What meaning or connotation is lost or unwittingly gained?

I guess I’ll just have to keep working and thinking and copy-pasting into MDBG.

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