Switching Languages While Reading Coiling Dragon

I found this post that I wrote a few years ago in my drafts. I don’t know why I didn’t publish it before. At the time I was reading the English translation of Coiling Dragon it was still freely available, but now it’s only available via Amazon/Kindle.

Over many months, taking many breaks, I read Coiling Dragon by I Eat Tomatoes. Sometimes I read it in the original Chinese, and sometimes I read the English translation by Ren Woxing (yes, seriously, he calls himself ‘Ren Woxing’, that’s a bit like calling oneself ‘Tom Riddle’ or ‘Anakin Skywalker’, I think that’s why the translator’s name is often abbreviated to ‘RWX’). I read quite a bit of this novel during multiday hikes (only in the original Chinese, because I don’t have the English translation on my ebook reader).

It’s a really trashy and fun novel (or at least it was fun for me, your mileage may vary). It required relatively little intellectual effort on my part. The English translation was particularly low effort for me to because that’s my native language (and that was why I was bothering with the English translation at all – if I took this novel more seriously, I would have insisted on reading / listening to it strictly in Chinese so I would know exactly how the original writer phrased things).

This is the first time I’ve ever read a novel while frequently switching languages. That made the novel more interesting than if I had read it in just a single language.

Sometimes a new concept would come out, and I would wonder how that concept would be described in the other language, and then I would find out. For example, in the novel there are three levels of deities – 下位神, 中位神, and 上位神. If you can read Chinese, then you know those literally mean ‘low position god’, ‘middle position god’, and ‘high position god’. Those terms would sound pretty terrible in English (especially since they are frequently used), so instead the English translation labels them as ‘demigod’, ‘god’, and ‘highgod’.

Much of the story is set in a place known as ‘dì​yù​’. The protagonist goes to ‘dì​yù​’ to avoid boredom and look for his ancestors, he discovers many delicious foods in ‘dì​yù​’, he sometimes goes on tourist excursions to see the more interesting parts of ‘dì​yù​’, his wife gets pregnant and they have a child who they raise in ‘dì​yù​’, etc. In the English translation it’s called ‘the Infernal Realm’. That’s a good translation, especially if one takes the art of translation seriously, but I think it would have been much funnier if translator had used the the English word most commonly used to translate ‘dì​yù​’. (That’s right, the protagonist literally goes to hell to find his ancestors).

In short, seeing how the Chinese and English descriptions of ideas mapped to each other added another layer of richness to the novel. (And since this is such a trashy novel, that had a disproportionate effect on the level of intellectual stimulation).

I’m also in a good position to judge the English translation. Overall, I think it is excellent. The English translation is almost as good as reading the novel in Chinese. With any translation, it’s inevitable that some nuances are going to be lost, yet the translator succeeds in keeping these losses very small. And this novel is so trashy that I think those small losses don’t matter.

The one criticism I have of this translation – and it’s almost a hair-splitting criticism – is that I think it sometimes does not strike the best balance between semantic correctness and good idiomatic English. For example, many English language reviews complain that the words/phrasing are very repetitive. This is true, but the English translation makes this problem worse than it is in the Chinese original. I definitely noticed the ‘repetitiveness’ a lot more in the English translation than the Chinese original, even though technically they are equally repetitive.

How does this work? One very common phrase in the novel is ‘Lín​léi​ àn​ jīng’​. Even if you don’t understand that, you can tell that it is a concise phrase. That phrase is translated into English as ‘Linley was secretly shocked’ which is a much more bulky phrase. It’s a semantically correct translation, but the flow is very different from the Chinese original. That’s why ‘Linley was secretly shocked’ eventually irritated me, whereas I never felt that the phrase ‘Lín​léi​ àn​ jīng’​ was grating. There are various ways the translator could have addressed this problem. They would have involved a small sacrifice of semantic accuracy, but in this case I think taking the hit to semantic accuracy would have been worth it, especially since the word ‘àn’ (‘secretly’) is thrown in there mainly to improve how the phrase flows in Chinese (90% of the time it does not matter whether or not Linley’s shock is ‘secret’ or not). (That said, it’s neat that Linley is shocked so often – I love stories where characters are frequently shocked).

I think I ended up enjoying this novel more this way than if I had read it in just one language. And it helped me appreciate the art of translation a bit better than I had before.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.