June 26, 2011

Levels of translation quality proposed by Yan Fu: A small example

Yan Fu (严复, 1854-1921), a thinker, translator and educator, proposed three levels of translation quality, i.e., progressively, 信, 达, 雅, roughly, fidelity to the original, sentence fluency, and elegance of the translation, respectively. Numerous books and articles talk about these standards. I just want to give a simple case to illustrate the point. At my first job after graduation in China, I worked with a coworker that recently graduated just like me, except she had an English major. One day she suggested we translate a short paragraph in an English novel, separately. I don't remember any part of it, except this sentence, "He put his hands on her waist". Naturally, my translation goes, "他把手放在她的腰上". Then I looked at hers, which is "他搂着她的腰". I almost gasped at the perfect choice of the word (or character) "搂" (hug or embrace). I don't know why she picked that paragraph to test my translating skills, perhaps because she or her teacher or schoolmates tested it before and found it interesting.

Back to the 信-达-雅 standard. No doubt my translation has fidelity (I got the meaning right), and fluency (the Chinese sentence is natural and understandable), but definitely lacks elegance. If the material were from a technical book instead of a novel, my rendering of "put hands on" would be good, or even better without elegance. But it's a novel, a literary piece of art. Mr. Yan's highest standard 雅 is not just desired, but really required!

On the other hand, the original sentence, "He put his hands on her waist", begs the question whether it's elegant in itself. I think not. Should the translator inject a bit of literary element in translation? Well, I guess it depends. In this case, it looks appropriate. It's not uncommon a translated piece of work is more beautiful than the original, although the opposite is more common.

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