Labor of Love by Andrew Peterson in Chinese

Have you never wondered: No room at the inn? Why are they even looking for a place? Mary and Joseph would have traveled with a pile of other relatives to Bethlehem where they had even more relatives because it’s Joseph’s hometown. Yet they can’t find a place to stay? No one in Joseph’s extended family has room for a relative who’s ready to go into labour at any moment?

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The scandal of Mary getting pregnant while she was still unmarried, and Joseph deciding to marry her anyway, is more than his family is willing to take. Joseph’s family has shunned them.

Mary most likely gave birth to Jesus much like this song suggests: on the cold ground of a dark cave where a stranger kept livestock, alone except for her (helpless) carpenter husband because his family wouldn’t take them in.

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We’re perennially desperate for Christmas music that isn’t awful. A few weeks ago friends recommended the album Behold the Lamb of God. Although I’m not a huge fan of the CCM genre or familiar with the music of singer-songwriter Andrew Peterson, I thought his song Labor of Love was worth translating into Chinese. It doesn’t attempt any great feats of lyricism; it simply but vividly connects people to the experience of Mary and Joseph the night she gave birth to Jesus in a way that Silent Night, with its tender and mild baby that doesn’t cry, doesn’t even try to do.

This is just a starter translation. It needs native speaker polishing before anyone really tries to sing it. But I want to put this out there and see if I can get some helpful suggestions. More notes on the translation below.

Hear it on Youtube here, here (live performance), and here (set to Nativity movie clips). Artist’s website: Andrew-Peterson.com

It was not a silent night 那夜并不平安
There was blood on the ground 鲜血洒在地面
You could hear a woman cry 女人的哭泣声声
In the alleyways that night 在这漆黑夜晚
On the streets of David’s town 在大卫城中回荡

And the stable was not clean 马厩也并不洁净
And the cobblestones were cold 鹅卵石冷冷冰冰
And little Mary full of grace 玛利亚恩典满满
With tears upon her face 泪水滑落脸庞
Had no mother’s hand to hold 没母亲握手相伴 [*]

It was a labor of pain 那是多么的痛
It was a cold sky above 在这寒冷夜空下
But for the girl on the ground in the dark 黑夜中躺着地上的女孩 [*]
With every beat of her beautiful heart 她的每一次心跳
It was a labor of love 都是爱的跳动 [**]

Noble Joseph at her side 忠实约瑟在身旁
Callused hands and weary eyes 粗糙的双手疲惫的双眼 [*]
There were no midwives to be found 在深夜里遍寻街头
In the streets of David’s town 却找不到一位
In the middle of the night 一位助产的人

So he held her and he prayed 抱着玛利亚祷告
Shafts of moonlight on his face 月光洒向他脸庞
But the baby in her womb 但她腹中的宝贝
He was the maker of the moon 就是月的创造者
He was the Author of the faith 就是有移山信心 [***]
That could make the mountains move 的的始创者

It was a labor of pain 那是多么的痛
It was a cold sky above 在这寒冷夜空下
But for the girl on the ground in the dark 但黑夜中这女孩
With every beat of her beautiful heart 她的每一次心跳
It was a labor of love 都是爱的跳动

For little Mary full of grace 恩典满满的玛利亚
With the tears upon her face 尽管泪水滑落脸庞
It was a labor of love 却是爱的劳作

TRANSLATION NOTES

[*] Details & Syllables:
The few people I bounced this off of struggled to squeeze all of the vivid details into the allotted syllables. In some cases they revised details out to make a better rhythmic fit. So “no mother’s hand to hold” became “no mother by her side” (妈妈却不在身边); Mary “the girl on the ground in the dark” became “the girl in the dark night” (黑夜中这女孩); and Joseph’s “callused hands and weary eyes” became “utterly exhausted” (早已疲惫不堪). I opted to retain the details above even though it’s not as smooth, because those details evoke imagery that powerfully conveys a lot of the story.

[**] The “labour of love” wordplay:
A Chinese friend recommended switching my literal translation of the “labour of love” wordplay (referencing the pain and effort of childbirth) for, “Her every single heartbeat is the beat of love” (她的每一次心跳 / 都是爱的跳动). To me that’s even cheesier than the original, but that’s also par for the course in China. And each person I talked to wasn’t satisfied with using 劳作 for “labor”, but no one had a better alternative.

[***] Everyone had trouble translating “the Author of the faith that can make the mountains move”.

More Chinese Christmas songs:

More English Christmas songs: Merry Christmas Music!

Chinese characters vs. English sight words

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Our oldest daughter is loving the neighbourhood Chinese literacy class.
You don’t have to be like a Chinese immigrant we talked with this past summer in Louisiana. She said she tells Americans to not even bother trying to learn Chinese because “it’s just too hard.”

Chinese is not impossible. It’s not even all that hard. But it is slow. Without an alphabet, it’s tough on kids who grew up on phonics and spelling rules and “it’s good to colour outside the lines!” There’s just a ton of brute memorization. And memorization is not a highly valued skill in our Western education systems. But it’s an absolute necessity for a non-phonetic language.

For example, this is our 6-year-old’s box of Chinese reading curriculum, which she uses at a training centre in our neighbourhood for kindergarten and Grade 1 students (she’s the only 老外):
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It says, “Primary students’ commonly used 1500 characters.” That’s FIFTEEN-HUNDRED Chinese characters. For five-year-olds. To memorize in 4.5 months. So that they won’t be left behind next fall by the speed and pressure of Grade 1.

And this is a non-traditional, less-pressure, relatively fun learning system.

By comparison, her English homeschooling curriculum has her memorizing maybe five sight words per week for Grade 1. I googled around, and current standards for 5-to-6-year-olds seem to aim for recognition of around 50 high-frequency words by the end of kindergarten, and familiarity with 300 total words (sight words and sounded-out words) by the end of Grade 1.

Thankfully, our oldest daughter is loving the class and the teacher, who’s competent and experienced, warm but firm in a ruthlessly efficient, no-nonsense Chinese Mary Poppins kind of way.
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For more about Learning Mandarin, see:

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the Commies are hiding in my dictionary!

Simplified Chinese characters aren’t the only way to tell if your Chinese dictionary is from the Mainland or not. Sometimes the sentence examples provide clues. In case any of you need to know how to use 接受communistdictionary