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?
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.
That’s one of two main ways to understand the story — that Mary 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. (The other understanding is that they weren’t alone at all, relatives were taking care of them, but due to the overcrowding the best they could do was the family room which the animals were brought into at night. “Inn” is a poor translation.)
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.
It was not a silent night é‚£å¤œå¹¶ä¸å¹³å®‰
There was blood on the ground é²œè¡€æ´’åœ¨åœ°é¢
You could hear a woman cry å¥³äººçš„å“æ³£å£°å£°
In the alleyways that night åœ¨è¿™æ¼†é»‘å¤œæ™š
On the streets of David’s town åœ¨å¤§å«åŸŽä¸å›žè¡
[**] 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” (å¥¹çš„æ¯ä¸€æ¬¡å¿ƒè·³ / éƒ½æ˜¯çˆ±çš„è·³åŠ¨). 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 åŠ³ä½œ for “labor”, but no one had a better alternative.
[***] Everyone had trouble translating “the Author of the faith that can make the mountains move”.
Woman 2: “Hey, your face is fatter than it used to be, you should pay attention to control how much you eat so you can lose weight.”
Woman 1: “Haha, that’s because I’m the farthest in front. I sacrificed myself! You’re both behind me.”
Chinese (and other cultures) can be incredibly blunt by North American standards. Particularly when it comes to bodies and physical appearance. Or: North Americans are hyper-sensitive about their bodies (probably because we’re raised in a photoshop-saturated media culture, we’re taught to have very thin skin and feel entitled to society’s affirmation, and neo-platonic dualism is a major formative element in our general worldview). While Chinese may ultimately rate somewhere on the “insensitive” side of a global scale, they’re closer to the majority-world norm than we are when it comes to talk about appearance.
Jessica has an endless supply of funny-but-painful anecdotes like this.
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 è€å¤–):
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.
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 æŽ¥å—ï¼š