Putting a Chinese idiom into English gives translators a lot of
Lin, from Beijing, says: "Once I had to put the Chinese saying De Long
Wang Shu (得陇望蜀) into English. I didn't think I was given enough space and
time to explain the story behind this age-old idiom, so I had to
paraphrase. Since De Long Wang Shu is similar in meaning with De Cun Jin
Chi (得寸进尺), I effectively translated the latter instead, saying 'Give them
a meter, and they'll take mile.' "
I think Lin did a really good job that time. In trying to put a Chinese
saying into English, one tip to remember is that one must learn to look
pass the words for meaning. Do not be daunted by Chinese idioms and their
long and winding history, shades of meaning, hidden or obvious, just dig
out their fundamental meaning and put that across in simple, intelligible
English. This is not an advice for the beginner, by the way. This is for
an advanced learner like Lin. The reason is simple, this is the safest,
surest way to avoid Chinglish in translation works. Most often, you see,
translators are so bogged down by the Chinese-language quagmire that they
sink with it in translation. The more they try to be verbatim-accurate,
the deeper they sink.
The idiom De Long Wang Shu, for example is a quotation from the Book of
Latter Han Dynasty dating back almost 2,000 years. The story tells of an
army general launching an invasion into Shu (today's Sichuan Province)
right after taking over Long (today's Gansu, to the north of Sichuan). The
story reveals one's insatiable appetite for territories, power, and greed
De Long Wang Shu is a saying often on the lips of the lettered people
in China. For the less literary folks, they mostly use a similar saying in
De Cun Jin Chi, meaning literally "giving someone an inch and they'll take
Lin, an advanced translator I am sure, did an excellent job that time,
conveying exactly the right idea without getting dragged into explaining
what could have been a long tale to tell.
Lin's effort, "give them a meter, and they'll take a mile" rhymes too
(meter, mile). The nitpicking English might complain that "meter" is a
metric measure unit while the "mile" belongs to the old imperial measuring
system, but the meaning is clear and therefore, I'm fine with it.
Speaking of the imperial system, it's interesting to note that even
though all governments, including the British, encourage people to use the
international metric measures (millimeter, centimeter, meter, kilometer,
liter, etc), many British still prefer the customary imperial system
(inch, feet, yard, mile, gallon, etc).
That's where there's actually a phrase in English to dovetail with
(perfectly match) the Chinese De Cun Jin Chi - give them an inch, and
they'll take an ell. An ell, which as a length unit is now obsolete, is 45
inches (1.143 meters).
To wit, unless the situation calls for it (say, you're speaking with
writers from Britain who may actually enjoy the fact that you're familiar
with "inches" and "ells" - give them an inch, and they'll take an ell),
plain English (give them an inch, and they'll take a mile) is best.
Or perhaps only let them "take a mile" if you think they're really,
really, really greedy, hahaha (because, you see, if they take an ell, it
is just 45 inches. But if they take a mile - 1,609 meters - that will be a
whopping 63,360 inches).