February, 2015

"Dragon" for "龙": a mistranslation?

According to Wikipedia, "there are two distinct cultural traditions of dragons: the European dragon, derived from European folk traditions and ultimately related to Greek and Middle Eastern mythologies, and the Chinese dragon, with counterparts in Japan (namely the Japanese dragon), Korea and other East Asian countries." The two traditions are drastically different in spiritual and cultural significance. As somebody on the Internet said, "in contrast to the royal majestic imagery of Chinese 龙 (lóng), the western dragons are often depicted as menacing and devilish troglodytes". Indeed, the Chinese dragon is often depicted as an auspicious animal, capable of bringing in luck and fortune. Young couples try to have their baby in a year of the dragon, unless the time is too inconvenient. This is so even for a baby girl, if you still believe a fierce dragon can only be associated with a highly agile and muscular Kungfu fighter.

In view of these two complete independent traditions, it's unfortunate that the Chinese character 龙 was used as the translation for "dragon" or its earlier counterpart in the European tradition. Who initiated this translation and when, we don't know. Possibly by an early western missionary to China. In his call to "为龙正名" (To rectify the name "Lóng"), Prof. Huang Ji of East China Normal University believes "将‘Dragon’错误翻译成中文词语‘龙’……是从翻译《圣经》开始的。黄佶推断,当时的翻译者可能只考虑到了‘Dragon’和‘龙’在外形的相似之处,而没有考虑到中国文化中代表吉祥喜庆的‘龙’和基督教文化中代表邪恶、诱惑的恶兽‘Dragon’之间的重大区别。" (The incorrect translation of "Dragon" to the Chinese "龙" … started with the translation of the Bible. Huang Ji suspected that the translator at the time probably only considered the similarity in appearance between "Dragon" and "龙", and not the significant difference between the "龙" that represents good omen and happiness in Chinese culture and the "Dragon" in Christian culture, a vicious beast that represents wickedness and enticement.) He suggested we simply transliterate "龙" to "Loong" (not the pinyin "Long", in order to, I suppose, avoid collision with the common English word "long" and to accommodate existing Latinization of the name of early Chinese emigrants, mostly from the Cantonese-speaking regions, to English-speaking countries). I think that's the ultimate goal, because in any translation, a word encapsulating much cultural information will be distorted in the word-to-word mapping. Only a transliteration, not translation in its true sense, can preserve the rich content and prevent misconception for the readers of the target language or even the later generations of the source language. The goal is for the future, because not many people and governments are of this opinion or care about the implied semantic difference at this time.

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