One perennial listicle favorite on the Internet is the errors that foreigners make in English. The secret hope there is if foreigners are confused enough with our language, they won’t ever find out how hard we are laughing at how confused they are. English, our mother tongue, rolls in our mouth lapping a teat of safety. Our instinctive mastery is at light years’ remove from the blunders of struggling foreigners. They’ll never catch up. But we are kind, and wish to spare them that fact.
In my case things get a tad more complicated. English isn’t my first language. I’m passing as a native speaker. Discriminating pureborn Americans have sometimes picked up on a couple of twangs and endings and caught me out. Occasionally I suspected that if I were Albino, they would not have noticed these giveaways, but I knew this to be wishful thinking. I try to overcome what I prefer to consider a mild handicap by entertaining thoughts of copying out whole books by Western writers. Mind you, not Proust, even if Moncrieff channels him better than nearly anyone has the right to hope. Only the concise ones would do. Not Conrad, for obvious reasons. Once I did type out five pages of Orwell’s defense of Wodehouse, but there weren’t enough pretty words in it, so I quit.
Talking about funny errors that foreigners make in English, I came across some listicles on the “Funniest Movie Titles in Translation.” I would really like to unpack what is funny and what goes beyond that in these reported gaffes. It always helps to go over to the other side and look back. In this trifling exercise, I’ll stick with the Chinese ones, my French being a pure distillate of American schooling, and my German an accidental liability acquired through liaisons with a man from the Westphalian hinterland. Here is a selection:
Boogie Nights > 一舉成名 > His Powerful Device Makes Him Famous
Fargo > 雪花膏離奇命案 > Mysterious Murder in Snowy Cream
The English Patient > 別問我是誰 > Don’t Ask Me Who I Am
The Professional > 這個殺手不太冷 > This Hit Man is Not as Cold as He Thought
Good Will Hunting > 驕陽似我 > Bright Sun, Just Like Me
Dead Poets Society > 暴雨驕陽 > Bright Sun in Heavy Rain
As Good as It Gets > 貓屎先生 > Mr. Cat Poop
How much of this bunch of jokes do we owe to incompetence, cluelessness, and word-whoring? Which part is the honest mistake, the catch-22, the cost you eat for intercultural communication? Any of it?
All these translations came out of Hong Kong. Here’s what I think I know about the place. The viewers there like to have an inkling of what they are paying for. Fair enough, since they are less likely to have heard of the Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje (“The English Patient.”) The city being a boom town, you should also expect a lot of hawking and a minimum of hand-wringing over artistic compromises. At the same time, the British colonial past and a workforce educated in the West that comes with the territory means that amateur mistakes are less likely.
Most Chinese novels and movies have titles that are as obvious as a boombox. Only the best and the bestselling writers can afford to be coy. The great comic writer Lao She went out on a limb with “A Collection in Clams and Seaweed” for one of his short-story volumes. The Queen of Romance Qiong Yao churned out over two decades titles that leaned on the Chinese poetic canon, replete with the haze of dreamed rain, the changeless change of red sunsets, and a thousand knots of the heart. Nary a plot line in their distant mauve mist.
Western films cannot, except for a Spielberg here and there, lay claim to such privilege. They need some sort of handle coming East. Something that can coax the viewer closer to the idea of watching a bunch of foreigners do their thing on the screen.
This brings me to the dirty secret behind some of these seemingly outlandish translations. In a word, the English translation of the Chinese translations did not return the favor the movie originals owe their Chinese handlers. In addition to pandering to cheap laughs and puerile associations, the Chinese translators also found a way to help their audience relate. When turning these titles back into English, the Western translators didn’t bother to undertake the latter. This may be understandable, to the extent that the joke would go out of some of what they are having us look at.
The backstory is that, the better job a translator does, the harder it gets to translate her rendition back to the original. It’s a bit like this: if the sugar has become one with your ice tea, you would be hard pressed to produce it intact from the sweetened liquid. “Boogie Nights” is an apt example. Some viewers in Hong Kong may have the foggiest idea of the tawdry, soul-wrenching nothing that underpins the excesses of the seventies’ porn industry in America, but you sure as hell can’t count on it to sell a whole movie. A straight translation won’t cut it. Gotta start closer to home. Good thing the Chinese have got a lot of cultural clutter to choose from. The translator hit on a juicy pun with this stock phrase, “With one blow he rises to fame.” Erections are universal, whatever claims the government in Beijing may make about Chinese exceptionalism.
Ditto with the sun beating down on two films about young people, “Dead Poets Society” and “Good Will Hunting.” “The fierce sun” is a veteran formula that checks off several selling points in one go: A Chairman Mao quote comparing young people to the morning sun; pairing up to the classical metaphor of teachers as nourishing rain to grow their students; and a fawning pitch framing the young as beloved brilliant creatures of unchecked will. You got your bang for the buck there.
The snowy cream has an even simpler explanation. That’s just “Fargo” written out in Chinese by sound. The translator probably did it on purpose, since there are more proper-sounding, less culinary words he could have chosen. Or maybe he was just pressed for time, and grabbed the words out of a hat. The Cold Professional gag and the “Don’t Ask My Name” posturing both derived from songs popular in Hong Kong at the time, as hooks to hang the proverbial hat on.
Having come this far, I see now I was wrong to accuse the Western translators of deliberately withholding information. I can’t think of a way to translate some of these back into English either.
Take the youth film bits. The only person I know of who negotiated these hairbreadth curves with flair is David Hawkes, the Oxford don who translated the Dream of the Red Chamber, a book that is in the top-two running for China’s best novel. Youth is green, according to Chinese imagery. Hawkes turned much of it into gold, to make accessible to Western readers this tale of beautiful and prodigiously gifted young people whose sojourn in an improbable Sanssouci clashes with the sordid world of adults, the scions of aristocratic houses that are run like rotting corporations. And he caught some flak from quarrelsome Chinese critics, who reacted the way a Shakespearean actor collars a translator for editing down the Bard’s lines. And Hawkes was working from the original, not translating translations.
I haven’t said anything about Jack Nicholson as Mr. Cat Poop. You’ve got to draw the line somewhere. Next time, I’ll blog about why Chinese is a bigger and better language than English.