Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Translation Commentary

As I'm translating, there are a lot of things that pop up that I'd like to share with readers. Occasionally, I'll be posting little commentaries like this one to keep readers abreast of what is happening behind the scenes, in the translator's mind, or in the world of wuxia fiction in general.

What is Wuxia?
Strictly speaking, "Swallow and Dragon" belongs to the genre known in China as wuxia. The quickest way to explain the genre is to point to the most famous example of this genre in the west: Ang Lee's movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon". It has all of the elements that define the genre in the public's mind: martial arts, clandestine sects, Buddhist and Daoist philosophy, superhuman powers that are cultivated through internal training, a bit of romance, themes of loyalty and vengeance, and, of course, a pseudo-historical Chinese setting. However, If you dig deeper into the roots of the genre, you'll see that the modern perception of wuxia has strayed somewhat from the original roots. The key to understanding these roots lies in understanding the concept of the xia (俠), the second of the two characters used to write wuxia (武俠). The use of xia as a label for someone who forgoes the norms of society to whole-heartedly devote themselves serving the ideal of justice dates back to some of the earliest historical records in China. In a feudal society where class and clan defined your position, power, and loyalties in society, the notion of rejecting these structures in favor of viewing all members of society equally was quite radical. Many Confucians even condemned them for their willingness to abandon their own families in order to avenge an injustice done to a complete stranger. While the flying kung fu kicks and power struggles between vying sects are what define many modern examples of wuxia, you will still find that the original spirit of the xia lives on in many of these works.

For a fantastic discussion of this original concept of wuxia, and how it relates to the new Donny Yen film "Wuxia", take a look at this blog by English wuxia author, Albert Dalia.

Is it Wo Longsheng or Wolong Sheng?

I was recently asked this question by a reader on the spcnet forums, which forced the realization that I may have made an error in representing this author's name in English! For the majority of Chinese names, the first character represents the family name, and the following one or two represent the given name. Thus, I get in the habit of placing a space after the first syllable of their romanized name to separate the two (I like to preserve the convention of family name first because that is what most readers are familiar with, whether they know it or not, from reading names like Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong in history books and newspapers). Also note that spaces are not used between Chinese characters, so they can't be used as a guide to where to place spaces in English.

The problem is that Wo Long Sheng is actually a pen name, so the parsing of the name into family name and given name simply doesn't make sense! The story I heard is that the author attended the "Wolong" Academy as a child (literally the "Crouching Dragon Academy"), and the word "Sheng" indicates that he is a student. Thus, his pen name means, "Student of the Wolong Academy". If I were to correctly parse the name then, I suppose it really should be "Wolong Sheng". A quick internet search reveals that "Wolong Sheng" is, indeed, the more commonly used form.

I hate global edits on my blog, but it looks like I'll have to update this very soon!

Kung Fu Technique/Nickname Overload!!!
One of the tough decision points is approaching for this blog, and I would love some reader assistance on this one. The question is: have we reached proper noun overload?

In the world of wuxia writing, everyone has a nickname or two ("The Twin Jiangnan Fiends", "The Ying-Yang Judge"...), every martial technique has a designated name ("Swallow Piercing the Clouds Gongfu", "Heavenly Airs Palm"...), and on top of that we have all of the sect names ("Kunlun Sect", "Dragon League"...), proper names ("Xialin", "Cheng Yin", "Yi Yang Zi"...). Before you know it, readers are going nuts trying to sort it all out.

My approach so far has been fairly hands off. My goal has been to get the story rolling and see how it looks in English. However, every book needs a good edit, and the time has come to cut away some of the fat. My thinking is that techniques that are often referenced ("Heavenly Air Palm", "Spectral Light Sword") can stay, particularly since they are written into the plot. Techniques that are simply mentioned to add atmosphere to a fight, but which don't reappear with any frequency should probably be cut out. Then again, perhaps that little touch of atmosphere is desirable? Let's hear some feedback, dear readers!

We've hardly gotten started on sect names yet, and there isn't much that can be done with those, since they are central to the plot. However, I will try to translate sect names into English and simplify them when it is appropriate (ie: "Dragon League", instead of "Tianlong League"). Same goes for character names that read more like titles or nicknames, hence the "Soulstealer" and the "Yin-Yang Judge"). This should reduce the frequency of exotic Chinese names that are difficult to remember.

But one question remains: for characters that have both a proper name and a nickname, should I eliminate one of them in favor of reducing the total name load? This would particularly apply to minor characters. Thus, the "Soulstealer" would always be the "Soulstealer" and never "Li Tong", or maybe the other way around. Reader feedback would be great!

Thanks for reading, everyone! Watching those reader stats slowly climb is a great motivation to keep translating!

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