The Wonderfully Elusive Chinese Novel

Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri/John Lamberton
‘Pan Jinlian (Golden Lotus) Humiliated for Being Intimate with a Servant’; from Illustrations for the Novel Jin Ping Mei, or The Plum in the Golden Vase, seventeenth century

In teaching Chinese-language courses to American students, which I have done about thirty times, perhaps the most anguishing question I get is “Professor Link, what is the Chinese word for ______?” I am always tempted to say the question makes no sense. Anyone who knows two languages moderately well knows that it is rare for words to match up perfectly, and for languages as far apart as Chinese and English, in which even grammatical categories are conceived differently, strict equivalence is not possible. Book is not shu, because shu, like all Chinese nouns, is conceived as an abstraction, more like “bookness,” and to say “a book” you have to say, “one volume of bookness.” Moreover shu, but not book, can mean “writing,” “letter,” or “calligraphy.” On the other hand you can “book a room” in English; you can’t shu one in Chinese.

I tell my students that there are only two kinds of words they can safely regard as equivalents: words for numbers (excepting integers under five, the words for which have too many other uses) and words that are invented expressly for the purpose of serving as equivalents, like xindiantu (heart-electric-chart) for “electrocardiogram.” I tell them their goal in Chinese class should be to set aside English and get started with thinking in Chinese.

This raises the question of what translation is. I’m afraid it is something quite different from what the person on the street takes it to be. It is not code-switching. Let’s take a tiny example, chosen at random, from David Roy’s translation of the immense sixteenth-century Chinese novel Chin P’ing Mei, or The Plum in the Golden Vase, written during the Ming dynasty, the final volume of which has recently appeared. Here the doughty female protagonist, Golden Lotus, is waiting in a garden for her latest lover, who is also her son-in-law. To tease her, the son-in-law hides under a raspberry trellis, then jumps out as she passes by and throws his arms around her:

“Phooey!” the woman exclaimed. “You little short-life! You gave me quite a start by jumping out that way.”

Two other English translations of Chin P’ing Mei, both published in London in 1939, put this line differently. Clement Egerton (assisted by the distinguished modern Chinese novelist Lao She) writes:

“Oh,” she cried, “you young villain, what do you mean by rushing out and frightening me like that?”1

Bernard Miall, retranslating an earlier abridged German rendition by Franz Kuhn, has this:

“You rascal, to startle me so!” she cried, scolding him and laughingly releasing herself.2

A translation into French in 1985 by André Lévy reads:

Lotus-d’Or s’exclama: “Oh, le mauvais…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Online Subscription

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.