Translator Musings: Who is Ben, and why does he have a gong and a wang?

“Wangye, nubi apologizes for the slight to da furen! Nucai’s zhuzi wanted to bring erye’s gift into the wangfu, but er furen once told san taitai that she’s allergic to flowers so xiaode used the chaos of wansuiye’s arrival to put erye’s gift into the dafang!”

Welcome to etvo’s inaugural post on random translation musings, in which I share some thoughts on possible best practices and reflections after two years of webnovel translations.

Of course, these are my opinions and preferences only, take ‘em with a boulder sized grain of pink salt! And this scandalous Ben fellow certainly has a party going on!

Ben… I think you dropped this.

Today I’d like to address a pet peeve that’s creeped in over the years—leaving pinyin in novel translations. This is most frequently done for forms of address, cultivation ranks, and location names.

Did… did anyone make sense of that first quote? Did you want to close this post?? Of course, it was exaggerated due to consideration of space, as posting 200 chapters to illustrate a point is silly.

Imagine being a reader and coming back to this beauty after a month of exams/crazy work and following 20+ novels at the same time. Or look at it from the perspective of someone who doesn’t understand much Chinese. Rather than struggled to follow all of the ins and outs, a reader might just give up. At the very least, this is a chore to read and I’m left struggling with how weird and foreign everything is.

The opening quote is about a servant babbling reasons why she offended the senior madame. Senior madame wanted to bring the second master’s gift into the prince’s residence, but second madame once told the third wife [1. Change in title indicates lower station, likely just a concubine] that the former is allergic to flowers. Therefore, the servant used the chaos of the emperor’s arrival to stick the gift (presumably of flowers) randomly into senior madame’s residence.

Who got all that after major cameos from what I call the Alphabet Soup clan?

Not this kind of alphabet soup!

I’ve discussed this with some translators/readers before, and some prefer pinyin for the flavor. The non-English words lend an air of authenticity, and truthfully, it’s so much easier to not translate something and leave it in pinyin.

However, I feel that defaulting to pinyin is a hindrance to fully enjoying a novel. It makes people pause when they reach the pinyin, try to decipher this new word, and recall the definition. All this takes away from them purely enjoying and reacting to the novel itself. Instead, they’re tripping over Alphabet Soup clan members.

But! The use of pinyin shouldn’t be entirely eradicated. Rather, it can be used sparingly, when there really isn’t an English equivalent or for stylistic emphasis. I myself use jianghumama, and yamen in my translations, because to translate them into English would necessitate behemoth footnote explanations. Now back to our previous program.

“Prince, sluga apologizes for the slight to wielka dama! Stowry’s mistrz wanted to bring drugi mistrz’s gift into the dwor ksiazecy, but panie dwa once told trzecia zona that she’s allergic to flowers so ten sluga used the chaos of cesarz’s arrival to put drugi mistrz’s gift into the dworek!”

The pinyin was switched to Polish in this version, thanks to help from the wonderful TranslationRaven over at WW. It will look like a train wreck to fellow translators as well now. That’s likely how it appears to newcomers of translated novels—which, are what most new readers tend to be.

I think even long-time fans of translated novels would find this an utter headache to wade through. Instead of being lost in the world of the novel, we’re stumbling over deciphering part after part of a foreign language.

But at this point, one might point out, “Harry Potter has tons of weird phrases and non-English words too! And look at how popular it is!”

Sure, but it’s also a fantasy world. Made-up words are found much more often in fantasy settings, and mashing two words together is frequently how something is named. No writing and/or grammar rule is the be-all and end-all, and adjustments are always made based on context.

Okay granted… this is also an example of bad subtitling.

While I do advocate mostly translating raws into English, sometimes one does want to highlight the foreignness of the word, ie. the spells in Harry Potter. But as one flings around accio and wingardium leviosa, one’s also brewing the Draught of Living Death and not its equivalent in Latin.

Just because it’s a fantasy world doesn’t mean one goes off the deep end with non-English words as well. Imagine if all the names of places and titles were pinyin, ie. Diagon Alley = Xiexiang, Hogwarts = Huogewoci, and Dementors = Shehunguai. Doesn’t this lose some of the beauty of this world?

We still haven’t gotten to our scandalous resident Ben and his clan yet. He gave me the inspiration for this writeup! Please meet his brothers bengong [2. Autocorrect keeps changing this to banging, oh dear], benwang, as well as sisters chenqie, furen, aunties nubi, nucai, etcetera in the great Alphabet Soup clan. Ben sprang into existence after reading many passages like:

Benwang will not be denied! Minnu will enter the wangfu as my wangfei! If you do not comply, you will enter as a qie then!”

“How dare you speak to bengong this way! Bengong is the most exalted guifei of His Majesty! Bengong will have your head for this!”

I burst out laughing the first time I saw benwang in pinyin because in the States at least, “wang” is slang for a certain male organ. So er, Ben won’t be denied hey! Rather than getting sidetracked about gongs and wangs, why not:

“This prince will not be denied! Commoner woman, you will enter my manor as my princess consort! If you do not comply, you will enter as a concubine instead!”

“How dare you speak to this seat this way! I am His Majesty’s most exalted noble consort! I will have your head for this!”

Fully translated, we can instead focus on what an ass the first speaker is, and understand the haughtiness of the second. I also switched around the structure of the second more, to reflect better flow in English. Being overly beholden to the Chinese syntax is another pet peeve to be tackled another day.

Not only does too much pinyin make a passage nonsensical, there are also incredible relationships in Chinese culture that are apparent just from forms of address. So much meaning is denied by pinyin’ing everything.

The beizi only smirked coldly when he saw the beile, and both were taken aback when Huang jiangjun strode in and took a seat without a word of greeting.

After reading this, it’s apparent that lots and lots of drama is about to erupt. Or is it?

A beizi is a Prince of the Fourth Rank, whereas a beile is a Prince of the Third Rank. So for the former to not greet his higher ranked brother respectfully… well that is a very big deal. And Huang jiangjun aka General Huang? How dare he walk in and take a seat without acknowledging the two royal princes?

Some epic face slapping is about to explode in the next paragraph after this. But by leaving everything in pinyin, we’re bereft of the subtle undercurrents.

H-here be wangfu?

At the end of the day, I feel that translation is an art. “You just sit at a computer and type whatever random crap, right?” Someone once asked me that. We-ell, not quite garbage in, mindless garbage out like that.

As translators, we should convey the author’s meaning as faithfully as possible, but as appropriately as possible in the target language. It’s essentially painting the author’s creation on the canvas of another language. How does one evoke the same feelings of anger, pity, glory, and awe that we felt when reading the raws in their original language?

As the founder of volare, I always encouraged my folks to translate in proper English as best one can. “Let’s not have our work smack of a translation.”

Wouldn’t it be better for readers to lose themselves in cheering for the MC finally getting his revenge or aww’ing over couple interactions, rather than getting hung up on “wait, that should’ve been peek instead of peak…” or being clobbered over the head by Ben and his crew?

I’m always excited to share my work with friends and recommend translations around the community based on what they like to read. But I also often get feedback that they didn’t read past a few chapters because of the mighty Alphabet Soup clan turning out in full force, idiom errors, or awkward sentence structure getting to them. That’s always sad, and a lost opportunity to convert a new reader. 🙁