yan fu

Yan Fu, a famous Chinese scholar and translator

Translation activities have greatly enriched and developed cultural exchanges between different ethnic groups. There are many different types of translation in the world, but how do you qualify a good translation? What are the criteria? There tend to be different translation standards in quality between Chinese and Western translation: Chinese translators focus on emotion and the readers, preferring to use rhetoric to make the translation readable, while Western translators generally focus on following sentence structure and grammar rules.

The following are some typical theories about Chinese and Western translation standards, from which we can see the differences in their translation expectations:

Chinese Translation Standards

China’s translation standards are derived from the understanding of the nature of translation, that is, what can be expressed in any language, absolutely can be expressed in another language, so the translation must follow the original text and faithfully express the original meaning.

1. Yan Fu: “Faithfulness, Expressiveness and Elegance”

At the end of the Qing Dynasty, Yan Fu, a famous Chinese translator and educator, presented his famous three-facet theory of translation; faithfulness (信), which claims that translation must be true to the original spirit of the text; expressiveness (达), translation should be accessible to the target reader; and elegance (雅), the translation should be in language that the target reader accepts as being “educated”.

2. Fu Lei: “Spiritual Resemblance”

Fu Lei is a famous Chinese literary translator who held that “in terms of effect, translating is supposed to be like painting. What is sought for is not formal resemblance but rather spiritual resemblance (神似)”.  In other words, this theory claims that translation should convey the spirit of the source while it is fully translated to Chinese.

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3. Qian Zhongshu: “Realm of Transformation”

In his seminal article on Lin Shu’s Translation, Qian explained what he meant by “transformation”. “The highest standard in literary translation is hua, transforming a work from the language of one country into that of another. If this could be done without betraying any evidence of artifice by virtue of divergences in language and speech habits, while at the same time preserving the flavor of the original, then we say that such a performance has attained huajing, the ultimate of transmutation.”

The metaphor that Qian proposed for this kind of perfect translation is “the transmigration of souls”, wherein the body undergoes a transformation, but the “soul” is retained.

Western Translation Standards

The history of translation in the west goes back 300 years before China. There are different translation schools throughout different periods, but the discussion of the standard of translation constitutes the core of Western translation theory.

1. Nida: “Dynamic Equivalence”

Eugene Nida, an American translation theorist, put forward the famous “dynamic equivalence” theory. He defined translation as: “Translating consists in reproducing in the receptor language the closest natural equivalent of the source language message, first in terms of meaning and secondly in terms of style.” The desire is that the reader of both languages would understand the meanings of the text in a similar fashion.

2. Vermeer and Nord: “Skopos Theory”

The Skopos Theory, presented by German translation theorists Hans Vermeer and Christiane Nord, is one of the most influential translation theories in the world. Skopos is a Greek word for ‘purpose’. The Skopos Theory claims that every action has a purpose. Translation is more than a process; it is a specific form of human action. It is the purpose of translation which determines the translation method and strategy. Therefore, translation quality should primarily take into account the function and effect of the target text.

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3. Zohar: “Polysystem Theory”

The “Polysystem Theory” was proposed by Israeli culture researcher Itamar Even-Zohar in the 1970s. For Even-Zohar, the role of translated literature that is played within the literary polysystem is not of minor importance. What is more, Even-Zohar warns against regarding translated literature as peripheral and presents conditions under which it can occupy central positions. Even-Zohar says that when a translated work occupies the central position, it is generally strong in itself and doesn’t need to conform to target culture conventions. The translator doesn’t try to adapt to target language models, staying close to the original source text. If the position of translated literature is weak, the reverse trend occurs. The translator tends to adopt more features from the target culture, so the translation becomes target culture dominant, often providing a less than satisfactory translation.

In fact, both Chinese and Western translation standards are based on “faithfulness”. In order to respect the original text, they consider the readers’ acceptance of language, and the artistic and aesthetic value of the translated text. In this way, a good translation is like “re-creation”. It is not only the interpretation of the original, but also a refinement of the original.


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