Category Archives: Translation

Pulling a China: David Miranda, Glenn Greenwald, Lao She

Exhibit A:

David Miranda, who lives with Glenn Greenwald, was returning from a trip to Berlin when he was stopped by officers at 8.05am and informed that he was to be questioned under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. The controversial law, which applies only at airports, ports and border areas, allows officers to stop, search, question and detain individuals.

The 28-year-old was held for nine hours, the maximum the law allows before officers must release or formally arrest the individual. According to official figures, most examinations under schedule 7 – over 97% – last under an hour, and only one in 2,000 people detained are kept for more than six hours.

Miranda was released, but officials confiscated electronics equipment including his mobile phone, laptop, camera, memory sticks, DVDs and games consoles.

Exhibit B:

Although the officials of the English Customs vary in appearance, you would never mistake them for those of any other profession. One of their eyes is always looking at you while the other is consulting some dog-eared book of regulations. A pencil, which is always a half-pencil, is stuck behind an ear. There are invariably a few wrinkles on their noses, contributing to the overall animation of their faces. Towards their fellow countrymen they are most affable, jesting and joking as they examine passports, and when it’s a lady they encounter, they’re particularly chatty. Towards foreigners, however, they have a different attitude. They straighten their shoulders, set their mouths and bring their imperial superiority to the fore. Sometimes, it’s true, they go so far as to give the ghost of a smile. Which is certain to be followed by refusal to permit you to land.

    — Lao She, Mr. Ma & Son, 1929. William Dolby, tr.

5,000 Years Is Not Enough

Exhibit A:
From the English Global Times/Xinhua, “Archaeologists push back origin of Chinese characters by 1,000 years,” July 10, 2013:

Archeologists in China have confirmed that the inscriptions found on artifacts unearthed in Zhejiang Province represent the earliest record of Chinese characters in history, pushing the origins of the written language back 1,000 years.

Archeologists and linguistics experts gathered in Pinghu, Zhejiang Province, Saturday to discuss the meaning of the symbols found on pottery pieces and stone vessels that had been unearthed at the Zhuangqiaofen archeological site between 2003 and 2006.
Experts concluded that the symbols represented the earliest known Chinese characters, which could be traced to the Liangzhu civilization, one of China’s earliest civilizations dating from the Neolithic Age some 5,000 years ago in today’s Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, China Youth Daily reported Tuesday.
The inscriptions existed some 1,000 years before the oracles, commonly held as the origin of the Chinese language system. The oracles are inscriptions on turtle shells, and date back to the Shang Dynasty (C.1600-1046BC).

Exhibit B:
From the new Sino-Platonic Papers, “Was There A Xià Dynasty?” (PDF). By Victor H. Mair, with contributions from E. Bruce Brooks. (Spoiler alert: Betteridge’s law of headlines holds true.)

By way of summary, one would suppose that — had there been an actual Xià Dynasty called by that name that existed before the Shāng Dynasty — the name would have filtered down through the written records of the late Shāng, the Western Zhōu, and the Spring and Autumn period. This is especially the case if, as K. C. Chang and others claim, the Xià, Shāng, and Zhōu coexisted. Yet we cannot find any evidence that the word Xià in any of its various senses, much less as the name of a dynasty or state, existed during the Shāng period. I have not even been able to ascertain that the word Xià occurs in the Western Zhōu BIs [bronzeware inscriptions] in any of its later senses. In any event, there is no evidence that it was employed during the Western Zhōu as the name of a dynasty that was supposed to have preceded the Shāng. Xià comes to be used as the name of an ancient dynasty only in Warring States texts, a good thousand years after the alleged Xià Dynasty was claimed to have been defeated by the Shāng. Simply as a linguistic factuality, how did the name of the alleged dynasty survive the gap from the middle of the second millennium BCE to the beginning, or perhaps even middle, of the first millennium BCE? What was the linguistic carrier of the name Xià from the middle of the second millennium BCE to the beginning or middle of the first millennium BCE? How did the morpheme for the name Xià survive those five to ten or more long centuries?

Exhibit C:
Scholars will continue to debate the import of the Zhuangqiaofen axe-head for years, of course, but for the time being I thought it might be helpful to translate the inscription for the benefit of lay readers. Caveat: I haven’t got my Qiu Xigui to hand, and given the uncertainties that still surround the find, the translation below should be considered tentative in the extreme.

Tentative translation of the stone axe-head inscription

Corrections welcome.

Basically this looks like one of those news stories that could have been avoided if the journalist had talked to someone who knew their stuff. I am not that person, and I bet I’ll feel really dumb if archaeologists end up finding a massive underground cache of inscribed axe-heads, proving conclusively that the Liangzhu culture had both writing and a lot of time on its hands. But this doesn’t look like writing to me.

For starters, the signs look nothing like oracle bone or bronzeware inscriptions. Something must have predated those, because by the time of the early oracle bones we’re already dealing with a fairly mature, developed writing system — but even so, Shang and Zhou inscriptions look a lot more like pictures than the modern forms of the characters do. Not these. The sign at the bottom might be an old form of 卜, “to divine,” or maybe 人, “person,” but there are really only so many ways you can arrange two lines. (People trying to push back the origin of Chinese characters sometimes point to any instance of a horizontal line as proof that 一, the character for “one,” has its origins far back in the prelapsarian, pre-Sumerian, pre-Egyptian, pre-all-y’all past; top scientists are so far not convinced.) The other sign looks a little bit like the modern form of 日, “sun,” or 曰, “quoth,” but not very much like the oracle bone forms of either character.

We might be able to explain that one away — people do weird stuff to characters all the time — but then we’d be stuck figuring out what the inscription says. The earliest recognizable Chinese texts we have are the oracle bones, which date back to the late Shang period, around 1200 BCE. There are a lot of those, and they all say different things, and we can (more or less) read them and compare them against one another in order to figure out the function of a given graph. All we’ve got here is a string of the form “ABABAB,” occurring in isolation. “Hot grits hot grits hot grits?” “Here kitty here kitty here kitty?” “Oh boy oh boy oh boy?” Your guess is as good as mine and anyone else’s.

from William G. Boltz, 'The Origin and Early Development of the Chinese Writing System,' p. 36

Finally, and most importantly: although the Shang oracle bone inscriptions are the first Chinese writing we have, they are emphatically not the first brushed or carved graphs. (You can see some examples of other markings above, taken from William G. Boltz’s The Origin and Early Development of the Chinese Writing System) There are Neolithic markings all over China going back to around 4800 BCE: markings on ceramics produced by the Yangshao culture in Shanxi, gorgeous painted pottery from the Majiayao culture in Qinghai and Gansu — and, as you can see, markings from the Liangzhu culture, which produced this axe-head.
These signs probably did have meanings for the people who made and owned the pots and jugs and axe-heads — clan markers, or tokens, or something of that sort — but we can’t reconstitute them. Insofar as they can’t be shown to represent words in a language, they are not actual writing.

New post: “Peking Opera Masks and the London Book Fair”

Only ten days too late to be truly timely!

A few years ago, a few other translators and I were talking with employees of a Chinese publishing house who said that they had some books that they wanted to translate into English — things that they said would show foreigners the real China. There was a brief and intense period of excitement, until the publishers said that these were coffee-table books about Peking Opera masks and different varieties of tea. Ever since then, I’ve used “Peking Opera masks” as mental shorthand for the Chinese habit of attempting to interest the world in aspects of itself that most Chinese people don’t give two-tenths of a rat’s ass about. (This same thing affects Chinese-language instruction, but I’ll save that rant for another post.) Even just a couple of years ago, almost all officially backed Chinese cultural offerings were of this sort — books about tea and opera masks, yes, or Foreign Languages Press translations by non-native English speakers, or poorly subtitled documentaries about the Potato Festival in some godforsaken corner of the Shandong peninsula. (“Since late Ming dynasty, the town of Pirang is acclaimed as ‘hometown of potato!’”)

What we’re seeing now is something different — a willingness, even an eagerness, to promote authors whose work presents a more complicated China than the one on the front page of the China Daily.

Read the whole thing at

archy and mehitabel and du fu


Written After Seeing an English Translation of 300 Tang Poems in the Philadelphia Public Library on June 26


what is with all these
translators who make
tang poetry read like e.e. cummings

don’t they know
classical forms never used