November 15, 2020

"drawing" and "painting"

On Weibo or Microblog, the Chinese social network, the blogger 芝加哥艺术博物馆 (Art Museum of Chicago) made a posting about Claude Monet, and quoted him say "I never had one [studio] and personally I don’t understand why [people] would want to shut themselves up in some room. Maybe for drawing, sure, but not for painting" (my bold text), and offered a Chinese translation as "我从来没有过画室,我也不明白为什么要把自己关起来。也许是为了绘画,但不是为了绘画". Other than missing "people", the English quote is grammatically correct, and more or less faithful to the original quote in French.[note]

But the confusing part of the Chinese translation is 绘画. Its first occurrence is for "drawing", the second for "painting". What's the difference between drawing and painting (or dessiner and peindre in French)? Drawing is more about creating art with dry or somewhat dry materials, with a pencil, pen, charcoal, etc. Painting, which reminds us of painting a room or a car, is more about creating art with wet materials, including paint and acrylic. Secondly, drawing focuses on the outline while painting on colors. Lastly, drawing is traditionally black and white while painting must have various colors. These differences I list here are obviously not hard and fast rules, especially in modern art. (Note: Monet died about a century ago.) You can find other people's opinions with a Google search.

What about the Chinese words for "drawing" and "painting"? The Wikipedia page for drawing has its Chinese page titled 素描, literally "black-and-white outline", and that for painting has the Chinese page 绘画. This latter Chinese word is translated as both "drawing" and "painting" in English. Etymologically, both 绘 and 画 emphasize drawing more than painting. But as we discuss earlier, it's wrong to find the modern meaning in the original meaning of a word; we should only find its meaning as the word is used today. On the other hand, 素描 precludes the possibility of colored outline, which, needless to say, was indeed rare in Monet's times.

So, how do we translate Monet's words into Chinese, making a distinction between "drawing" and "painting"? Unfortunately, in spite of splendid Chinese culture and civilization, the vocabulary of the Chinese language is not rich enough to expose this nuance in what Monet tried to convey. A less than perfect translation of his words, judging by the context, may be "(关在画室里)打画稿可以,画一幅画不行" (literally, "(shutting oneself up in a room/studio), making a sketch is OK, making a painting is not OK"). This is a roundabout way to paraphrase Monet and it depends on my understanding of his attitude toward nature and his personal way to represent nature. Until we artificially designate one Chinese word for "drawing" and the other for "painting", the sentence cannot be literally translated. If we do go for 素描 for "drawing" and 绘画 for "painting", the Chinese reader will definitely get confused, unless a translator's note is given to that effect.

[note] "Mon atelier ! Mais je n'ai jamais eu d'atelier, moi, je ne comprends pas qu'on s'enferme dans une chambre. Pour dessiner, oui : pour peindre, non" (source: Wikipedia. Note there is no word for "maybe" as in the English translation, which misses the word "studio", and renders "oui" as "sure" instead of "yes".

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