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  Give them an inch...
[ 2006-07-06 15:41 ]

Putting a Chinese idiom into English gives translators a lot of headaches.

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 in general.

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 a foot".

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).

 

About the author:
 

Zhang Xin is Trainer at chinadaily.com.cn. He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at: zhangxin@chinadaily.com.cn, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.