Satire Lost In A Foreign Language

As a regular reader of Tsao’s Chinese columns and as a bilingual Hong Kong native, I find it easy to detect at once, upon reading his controversial piece, his ridicule of the harsh treatment of Philippine maids by Hong Kong employers and his mockery of the inaction by the Chinese government over some national security and sovereignty issues and of its unceasing use of propaganda. When read in context, the reference to Philippine maids cannot be said to be insulting. Still, as the piece was written in English, Tsao’s second language, his overall mocking tone has not been appreciated by all readers and a specific part of the article has been taken by some to be offending.

Had Tsao written the same piece in Chinese, I’m sure that all Hong Kong Chinese readers (not so sure about mainland Chinese readers) would have been able to take it for what it is – a piece of satire – and to have a good laugh, like with most of his satirical columns in Apply Daily and Next Magazine. And there wouldn’t have been a single stir among Philippine maids. But if such a piece had first been written in Chinese by Tsao and then translated into English by any proficient translator other than Tsao, I wouldn’t be sure if it would not have resulted in the same belligerent response from the Philippine community. The translated text wouldn’t have been a lot different from Tsao’s own English version and thus could have been just as offending to some.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges in translation work is the near-impossible task of bringing out the tone and nuances of a piece in Chinese, in, say, an English translation, especially when they have to do with deep emotions, humor, sarcasm or satire which can readily be understood in the original language and attendant culture but which may not be so plain once translated into another language. Very often, in the translator’s zeal to express the writer’s words as accurately and truthfully as possible, the tone and nuances get lost in the translating process.

I say this out of my own experience with translating Chinese pieces into English (mostly grouped under the category “China Current Events” in my blog here). One example is the piece “Ego and Freedom” – I was unable to convey the sarcastic tone of the writer of the original piece, and one English reader made a comment that showed he was unable to detect the sarcasm (due to my translation inefficacies). The writer was actually sneering at his own countrymen’s placing their ego (or face) above their desire for freedom, but the commenter thought that the writer was trying to use lame excuses to defend Chinese people’s inertia in seeking freedom.

The same problem exists in translating an English piece into Chinese.

Blogger John Pete over at seems to think that “proper translation from Chinese to English requires a native speaker of English”. I am not sure that I agree with that. I would think that any quality translation in a language pair (English-Chinese and Chinese-English) requires a translator who is equally proficient in both languages and equally familiar with both cultures. I am not a native speaker of English (Chinese being my first language and English second) but I would like to think that my Chinese-to-English translation work is “proper” enough. Training in this area was mostly from my previous office job as well as from writing for my blog (where I regularly post translated pieces) in the last couple of years. During my younger days, I had done English-to-Chinese translation for eight years for a Hong Kong property tycoon. I think that experience in translation work both ways is conducive to perfecting the skills and I am still a long way off from reaching perfection.

I must say that I am heartened to find that more and more Westerners are now willing to learn the Chinese language and culture and many are becoming as proficient as the natives. One of the most fascinating aspects of translation may be the inherent power bestowed on the translator of connecting people from what may be two totally diverse cultures and of informing and educating both peoples about their counterpart. Translators are the bridging devices that serve to eliminate as far as possible any misconception or misunderstanding between the two peoples.