The Untranslatable (TCM translation fail)

So I unwisely agreed to “translate” an interview with a Chinese doctor for the magazine this month. Translating simple Chinese about normal everyday topics — fine, no problem, especially with dictionary tools and Chinese coworkers on hand. But a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine talking TCM-speak about how to stay healthy in the summer? Not a chance. Half of what he said doesn’t make one lick of sense in English and they weren’t paying me near enough to justify sweating too much over it anyway. But I want to share one section because it’s a great example of how translation involves much more than words and grammar; translation involves culture, and culturally-defined and culture-bound ideas.

No matter how skilled the linguist is (and I’m not claiming to be skilled or a linguist… or a translator, for that matter), some things simply will not make sense in another language; some things cannot be conveyed outside their native cultural-linguistic context. In order to make the translation have any actual meaning that approximates that of the original, you’d have write paragraphs for each sentence explaining the underlying philosophical assumptions and worldview differences. And even the long explanations still don’t make much sense because they’re talking outside of the worldview of the language that they’re written in.

Here’s part of what I translated:

On Summer Nights Avoid Wind Like You’d Avoid Arrows
Cool wind blowing on summer nights and feels really comfortable, making the night not as hard to bear. Thus, a lot of people sleep with the windows open, and even move their beds to the hallway where it’s drafty. A proverb says, “On summer nights avoid wind as if it were arrows”; pathogenic wind can cause many kinds of ailments. In the summer the body’s skin pores expand, and after we fall asleep our immune resistance drops. Additionally, in the latter half of the night the wind is colder, and at this time it’s extremely easy for the body to suffer an invasion of pathogenic wind. Getting wind can lead to a heat cold, facial paralysis, joint pain, sciatic nerve pain, shoulder inflammation, stomach pain, diarrhea, etc. Therefore one should enjoy the cool air in limited amounts and put a blanked over one’s abdomen before sleeping. It’s inadvisable to choose to stay in a drafty room, and one can’t just spread a summer sleeping mat and sleep on a cement floor.

Here’s the Chinese:

夏夜避风如避箭
夏天夜里刮着清爽的风,感觉非常舒适,夜晚也变得不那么难熬了。于是不少人都开窗睡觉,还有的把床搬到居室的过道风口处。俗话说“夏夜避风如避箭”,风邪能引起多种疾病。夏季人体皮肤汗孔张开,入睡后抵抗力下降,加之后半夜的风会更凉,人体此时极易遭受风邪的侵袭。受了风邪,可引发热伤风、面瘫、关节痛、坐骨神经痛、肩周炎、腹痛、腹泻等疾病。因此,纳凉应有节有度,睡前应用一条毛巾被盖好腹部,在室内不宜选择过堂风口之处,不能只铺一张凉席就睡在水泥地上。

“Wind” in Chinese medicine, for example, is very different from what we think of when we say wind in English. Wind (English) still counts as “wind” (TCM), but not vice versa. “Pathogenic wind” and capitalizing “Wind” are two attempts I’ve seen to indicate TCM’s Wind in English. That’s how it goes with much of TCM’s terminology. For example, here’s how the book for explaining TCM to Westerns puts it:

Obviously, the Blood of Chinese medical terminology is not the same as what the West calls blood. Although it is sometimes identifiable with the red fluid of biomedicine, its characteristics and functions are not so identifiable.

Blood moves primarily through the Blood Vessels, but also through the Meridians. Chinese medicine does not make a clear distinction between Blood Vessels and Meridians. The Chinese rarely concern themselves about precise inner physical locations — the Stomach Qi “goes upward,” or the Blood “circulates,” but it is seldom entirely clear what internal paths they travel or where, precisely, they go. The physical pathway is less important than the function. This tendency not to fix sites for things is contrary to the Western approach, but it is inevitable with Chinese medical theorizing, which emphasizes process over fixed entities.

We just now had a big discussion in the office with my Chinese coworkers trying to figure out how to translate what I’ve rendered “heat cold” (热伤风) — they looked up a bunch of dictionaries and discussed it and came back with nothing (in TCM, the name of the cold depends on how it is caused, so summer colds and winter colds are different). But reading this interview and hearing my coworkers explain how you get “heat colds” makes me realize that there’s a whole lot more to Chinese people’s apparent fear of good air conditioning than just wanting to save a few bucks.

The article assignment was to give foreigners tips from traditional Chinese medical theory on how to be healthy in the summer. How would you present stuff like the above paragraph to foreigners? What other concepts have you found that are really hard to convey in another language?

Other traditional Chinese medicine stuff:

5 thoughts on “The Untranslatable (TCM translation fail)”

  1. Had the same experience with translating “heat colds”. My friend was describing that he has this heat cold. He knew it was that, because he started having nose bleeds.

    Anyway, it is hard to explain “scientifically” what “heat colds” are. But among us who spoke the dialect, we understood my friend.

  2. Perhaps that explains my recent experience. I had a cold last month and when I told several Chinese friends about it they all asked me “why?” and I was completely unable to answer. Perhaps they wanted to know if it was a “heat cold” or some other kind of cold.

  3. Something that has more to do with syntax than TCM terminology:
    避风如避箭 should be better rendered as “avoid the Wind AS you would flying arrows,” or “avoid the wind as if they were flying arrows.”

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