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How I do translations here (and why)

I do a lot of translation here on East Asia Student, particularly of poetry. Before I say anything else, I should point out that the vast majority of translations on this site are based on notes taken in class at the Chinese Department at Cambridge, and so should be attributed to the staff there. However, when I’ve asked about doing this they’ve said they’d prefer it if I didn’t, so attribution isn’t generally given.

I actually have a very narrow, specific aim for the translations on this site, which I’d like to explain here. The main purpose of East Asia Student is to be useful to people studying East Asian languages, particularly students at university level taking East Asian Studies classes.

I try to create content that I would have found useful when covering that material in class and when revising for exams (you might notice that a lot of content here is actually just my own revision material).

Because of that, the translations I type up tend to favour quite rigid, direct conversions from the original language to English. I’m well aware that this does not make for elegant or poetic translations. Those are available in abundance elsewhere online and in books.

What this kind of translation is good for, though, is making the original accessible on first viewing. The translations here are in no way intended to be the final word on the meaning and depth of the original texts. They’re just a way to get started with understanding and appreciating the literature.

I also add literal glosses to a lot of the translations, which show explicitly how each character has been interpreted. This makes it even easier to see where the translation is coming from, and to pull apart the grammar of each line if you’re not too clear on the characters.

As far as possible, I try to first convert each line into a sequence of literal glosses, and then change it as little as possible when writing out the full translation. This comes from advice given to us by our second year Tang poetry teacher. I find it’s also a good technique in exams with unseen poems.

In my view, translation can’t hope to be a real conversion, especially when it comes to literature. It’s just not possible to produce a wholly equivalent text in another language and context. What translation really is, I think, is a derivative work inspired by the original.

On that basis, what I’m doing here isn’t really translation at all, it’s just annotation.

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