InYo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives Feb 2002
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Chinese Boxing Classics in Translation: Problems and Perils

By Brian Kennedy
Copyright © EJMAS 2002. All rights reserved


"Translation is like a woman: if she is faithful, she is not beautiful; if she is beautiful, she is not faithful." -- Russian proverb

That Russian proverb encapsulates the core problem facing any translator. When attempting to translate Chinese boxing classics or training manuals (quan pu) (see my "Introductory History of Xing Yi Training Manuals," from their original Chinese into English, that core problem is exacerbated by a number of other factors. Those factors are the topic of this article. Even if one never intends to do any translations, these factors are worth understanding. That way, as one reads English language translations of Chinese boxing classics or training manuals, one has a better understanding of why the translation may seem odd or disjointed, or was not quite what the reader had hoped for.

Good Chinese Essay = Bad English Essay

A good Chinese essay generally makes a bad English essay. The reason is that what makes a "good" essay (word choice, sentence structure, coherent paragraphs, overall structure, thesis, and so forth) have different criteria in the Chinese and English languages. As a result, the qualities that would make a Chinese essay literate, beautiful, and well done are not the same qualities that would make an English essay equally literate, beautiful and well done. This works both ways. An essay that is rhetorically well done in English is often a poor essay in Chinese. Put most simply, the aesthetic and literary criteria are different. This is particularly true in the case of classical Chinese ("classical" in the sense of a style, not an era of writing).

Let us look at an example. This is a paragraph taken from Sun Lu Tangís preface to his book The Study of Form-Mind Boxing. The translation is from Albert Liu. It reads:

I have been unceasing in my literary study and interest in martial arts, since my childhood. I donít want to be bold with powerful force, but hope to have the proper way to health. The real courage is not based on bold force, but on the interrelationship of hardness and softness without boldness. There is a common saying that the principle of martial arts training is the same as that of literary learning. Both have the same value and importance. Literates do not like martial arts seeing that common martial arts are too bold and lack elegance. As an English essay this gets an "F". It is incoherent, it lacks a thesis, it contains hyperbole, and it rambles in no apparent direction and towards no apparent purpose. It is, however, an excellent piece of Chinese writing and the translation is very well done. Sun Lu Tang did write very well and Albert Liu is a skilled translator. The problem is that the piece simply does not translate well. It does not translate well because it is good classical Chinese and the aesthetics and rhetorical standards are so different than English.

A number of specific factors contribute to the classical Chinese-modern English impasse. Among them:

Thus Master Sunís paragraph mentioned above is a perfect example of these translation problems. It contains three topics that are only vaguely related. In them, we learn that:
  1. Master Sun was interested in martial arts and literature his whole life.
  2. There are two types of courage.
  3. Martial arts and literary studies have something in common although practitioners of the two arts do not seem to like each other.
Unless one intends to completely rewrite the essay, there is not much that a translator can do about the disorganization. My partner and I often translate modern Chinese essays for the local Taiwanese newspapers and this lack of organization is the bane of such translations.

Another challenge facing the translator is word choice. Classical Chinese is often filled with hyperbole, and literal translation can make the Chinese author sound like a used car salesman. Careful word choice by the translator can often go a long way toward making the work sound more intelligent. The question here is one of "translator ethics" or perhaps "translator philosophy": how far should the translator substitute words that s/he thinks are "appropriate" with what the author literally said?

In Master Sunís example above, the translation of the second sentence reads, "I donít want to be bold with powerful force, but hope to have the proper way to health." The phrase "bold with powerful force" is 100% literally correct. I would paraphrase that to: "I donít practice martial arts in order to be seen as aggressive or belligerent, but rather hope to improve and protect my health." I think that makes a better English sentence, but it is not what Master Sun wrote. Instead, it is what I think he meant. How far a translator should go in re-writing or paraphrasing an author is a subject that has been much discussed in translation circles. However, its resolution lies outside the scope of this article.

Differing literary aesthetics is more of a problem with earlier works, earlier being defined as pre-1950s. For example, Chinese boxing training manuals written during the Republican period by such authors as Sun Lu Tang, Hwang Bo Nien or Jiang Rong Qiao are written in a classical Chinese style that does not translate very well into modern English. More recent works often have a more modern style of Chinese writing that translates with greater ease into English. This is especially true for those written by Mainland Chinese authors, due to the fact that under Communism classical literary styles were "disfavored," to put it mildly. Taiwanese authors have to a greater extent maintained the older literary style, although that varies from author to author.

The bottom line is that if you read a translation of a Chinese boxing classic or training manual and the translation seems awkward, do not automatically think that the translator lacks skill. Instead, it may be that the work simply does not translate well.

The Perfect Team

That is not to say that the translator is never to blame. Translators need a wide set of skills to translate Chinese boxing texts well, and as a practical matter the translation usually requires a team of at least two people. Furthermore, the team will have to bring to the project knowledge of classical Chinese, and such knowledge is not necessarily common among modern Chinese speakers.

Admittedly, one sometimes reads in popular articles about the Chinese language that "the written language of China is the same all over the country, and that it has remained unchanged over thousands of years. Thus any modern speaker of Chinese is able to read Chinese classics going all the way back to Confucius." However, that statement is wrong on both counts. First, there are regional differences in writing style. For example, most Taiwanese can quickly spot something that was written in Hong Kong, and vice-versa. Although the characters are the same, the vernacular is noticeably different. As a result, on several occasions my partner has been hired to "translate" documents from "Hong Kong Chinese" into "Taiwanese Chinese." Such translations are not the result of simplified versus traditional characters (Hong Kong still uses the traditional characters), but rather due to the differences in vernacular. As to the idea that a modern native speaker of Chinese can read any Chinese document stretching all the way back to Kung Tzu, that is an equally inaccurate statement. By way of rough analogy, a modern native speaker of Chinese has about the same degree of comprehension of a Ming era text as a modern native speaker of English has with Shakespeare. Likewise, going back to Lao Tzu or Sun Tzu for a modern Chinese reader is about the same as a native speaker of English trying to read Chaucer or Beowulf in the original. Thus, without special training or lots of annotations or a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary, full comprehension simply is not possible.

One member of the translation team also needs to have at least a "journeymanís" level of skill in writing English. That statement may seem foolishly obvious, but I see it routinely violated. (Just look at a microwave or car instruction manual if you disbelieve me.) While it is true that a good publishing house editor can do wonders improving a rough manuscript, the house editor is not in a position to rewrite the translation. Bottom line: the translator (or at least one member of the translating team) must have reasonably good English writing skills.

Some member of the team also must be familiar with the specific martial art being discussed. One reason is that one must already have a good idea what the work is going to say, especially if the book is discussing how to do techniques. If one does not, then the chances of getting things mixed up rises astronomically. Another reason is that each of the Chinese martial arts has it own cant, its own jargon. Unless one is familiar with the jargon, the translation can again go far astray, as much of it is not self-explanatory even to an educated native speaker of Chinese, nor is it covered in standard dictionaries. Bottom line here is that some member of the translation team needs to already know the martial art being discussed or a closely related one.

In sum, the translator needs to:

Since there are few individuals who are skilled in all three areas, you can see why teams produce the best translations.

A good example of this is the team that put together the book Xing Yi Nei Gong (Unique Publications, 1999). The team consisted of Tim Cartmell, Dan Miller, Wang Jin Yu, and Zhang Bao Yang. The four team-members brought together extensive knowledge of xing yi and classical Chinese, plus considerable English language writing and publishing experience. The result was an outstanding book on xing yi.

Too Great of Expectations

When preparing to read a Chinese boxing classic or training manual in translation, especially if it is a classic such as Sun Lu Tangís work or Li Cun Yiís book, one should have reasonable expectations. Many times modern practitioners (and especially western practitioners who are just getting started in Chinese martial arts) have an exaggerated sense of what Chinese boxing classics or training manuals will contain. The basic thinking or hope often is this: "Oh, once I read Master Sunís or Master Liís or Master Whoeverís book on Chinese boxing, my understanding of Chinese boxing will greatly improve."

Maybe not. Most historical classics, such as Sun Lu Tangís book or Li Tsun Iís (1847-1921) book Yueh Feiís Intent Boxing, are interesting from a historical or philosophical perspective, but they do not really provide much practical information that the average practitioner can use to improve his or her martial arts. Put most simply, many of the Chinese boxing classics are long on poetry and philosophy, and short on practical advice. (By practical advice, I mean detailed information that the average practitioner could use right here and now to improve the quality of his or her practice.) Oftentimes too, what practical advice that is given in Chinese boxing classics is "bad advice," at least when measured against modern standards. A prime example is the exhortation to not drink fluids before or during practice. This bit of advice routinely turns up in Chinese boxing classics or training manuals. Here in Taiwan, a very hot and humid country, I see it routinely followed by practitioners who cite the classics as a source of this advice. Here in Taiwan I also routinely see practitioners faint from dehydration from following the advice of the classics.

Modern Authors May Have More to Say

I will now risk excommunication and utter a "Chinese boxing heresy": many modern authors have more to say of practical value than do the masters and classics of old. For example, I practice xing yi. If I had to choose, strictly for the purposes of improving my xing yi practice, between owning Sun Lu Tangís book or any of a number of modern books on xing yi, I would take the modern books. There have been a number of xing yi books released on both the Mainland and on Taiwan in the last 20 years that are very fine, very detailed books on xing yi. They far surpass the xing yi classics in their practical discussions of how to improve oneís xing yi practice.

There are a number of reasons for this. As mentioned earlier, most of the Chinese boxing classics and training manuals are long on philosophy but short on practical advice. For example, large sections of Sun Lu Tangís xing yi book are devoted to showing how the practice of xing yi ties in with Taoist cosmology. While interesting from a historical or philosophical standpoint, the discussion does little to improve oneís xing yi.

Another reason that modern Chinese boxing texts are more useful is that oftentimes the classics devote large amounts of text to vague discussions of qi. (See my article, "Chi the ĎXí Factor," However intellectually interesting, these discussions, as a practical matter, do little to improve oneís daily practice.

A third reason is that the classics often do not provide complete information about the actual mechanics. By mechanics I mean does the hand or foot move first, or at the same time? That sort of "timing information" is critical, but often overlooked in old texts.

The bottom line is that old does not automatically equal better or best.

"Classical Blues"

It has not been my intent to disparage either the Chinese boxing classics, or the translators who bring them to the English-speaking public. Instead my intent has been to point out two basic things. First, translating such text is quite demanding and second, old texts, however classic, may not have as much to say as the eager martial arts student would hope that they would. Thus my single recommendation in this article is that in future, translators of Chinese boxing classics and training manuals should turn their translation skills to more modern texts that would be of more practical value to English-speaking martial arts students.

InYo Feb 2002