(This is a post originally posted on Kung Fu Tea.)
When talking about old martial arts texts from China, one thing that is often observed is that for a considerable period, the tradition had been to render the information in verse form. Some times these verses are even called “songs” by martial artists today. While this tradition has been kept by some, others have explicitly shunned the practice in favor of more straight forward instructions. The fact remains that a good number of martial arts texts from the historical record are written in a kind of verse.
Proponents of the verse method of recording martial arts knowledge cite the ability to communicate more than just sequence of movements or a specific response to an action but to give the reader a frame work for interpreting the technique in different contexts. They also serve as a very convenient nemonic for the memorization of traditions that, for some time, have been passed down orally. The issue with that method, is that by keeping the language vague and open to interpretation, you make the act of understanding the information more difficult. When attempting to translate these poems in to another language, it invites a large number of possible translations and makes consensus more difficult to reach.
Translation versus Interpretation
My background is as a (former) professional interpreter. Therefore I am coming at the act of translation from a specific place. Most people do not know the difference between interpretation and translation or that there is a difference between them at all. In the general sense, translation is the art of finding the equivalent words or phrases and interpretation is the act of discerning their meaning within their context. Professionally, “interpretation” happens live with little to no preparation or fore knowledge of what is being said. Translation is the act of taking information in things that are unchanging as in being written down or recorded.
These two process are related, of course. Translation is a part of interpretation but because interpretation happens live, there are certain methods one must follow in order to ensure that the information and intent of the speaker are being communicated. In translation, since the information is in frozen form, the translator has access to all of the linguistic information during the entire process. This allows a translator to form solutions to problems more carefully and thoughtfully.
The result is there is often a slightly different approach each professional will take toward a job translating any text. The translator looks for (in general) the most accurate an similar translation of each concept including structure and word choice. The interpreter is more concerned with “equivalency” within the target language rather than a more “word for word” approach. This may take the form of restructuring sentences, using different words, or finding completely unique idioms in the target language that serve the same function as the ones being used in the source language. A simple example of this is the greeting in Chinese “Nihao ma?” (你好嗎). Literally, this phrase means “Are you well?” But it is used much more frequently and in a wider context than the English phrase. It is therefore most often translated (or interpreted) as “hello” as it is used as a generalized greeting in Mandarin the same as the word “hello” functions in English. These are of course generalizations and there are schools of thought for both translating and interpreting that take harder or softer stances on these issues.
Expansion and Contraction
When attempting to translate anything, there are certain issues which must be attended to through the very fact that languages have different solutions to the same problems. One of these is the issue of linguistic expansion and contraction. This is when a single word in the source language cannot be expressed with a single word or “gloss” in the target language. It is necessary then to explain the concept in as concise language as possible to communicate the meaning and intent. This is a common occurrence in any language, but in written Chinese it happens with considerable frequency and can have lasting effects on the understanding of terms and concepts.
When translating and interpreting poetry and verse, the job becomes that much harder. Not only does one have to contend with the almost intentionally obscure and aesthetic literary style, but one must now also render it in a similar fashion in the target language. This makes it necessary to approach the task with more of an interpreter’s mind set, being willing to alter things to make them adhere to the same type of experience for the reader in which ever language there are experiencing it. There are concerns of meter, rhyme, structure, devices used and many many more things that are indicative of poetry and verse beyond what is found in prose.
These factors come together with the nature of poetry and verse to create a very difficult scenario for the translator. The will be numerous different ways to translate he same text and none of them will really be more correct than any of the others. In “19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei”, Eliot Weinberger looks at 19 different translations of a four line Chinese poem. Just among the English translations one can find a distinct and unique takes on the simple verse. This underscores the fact that there are many ways to interpret what is being said and therefore, many correct translations of any text in verse.
This is not to say the effort is wasted. It is absolutely possible to render excellent verse to verse translations of songs, poems, and other forms of expressive writing. A good example of this is the song “Les Tomber les filles “ written by Serge Gainbourg and performed by Franz Gall and translated and performed by musician April March in 1995. March’s translation of the ’60’s era French pop song displays much of the techniques needed for translation of these types of texts:
Original by Gainsbourg:
Laisse tomber les filles, laisse tomber les filles
Un jour c’est toi qu’on laissera
Laisse tomber les filles, laisse tomber les filles
Un jour c’est toi qui pleureras
Oui j’ai pleuré mais ce jour-là, non je ne pleurerai pas
Non je ne pleurerai pas
Je dirai c’est bien fait pour toi, je dirai ça t’apprendra
Je dirai ça t’apprendra
Translation by March:
Hang up the chick habit
Hang it up, daddy,
Or you’ll be alone in a quick
Hang up the chick habit
Hang it up, daddy,
Or you’ll never get another fix
I’m telling you it’s not a trick
Pay attention, don’t be thick
Or you’re liable to get licked
You’re gonna see the reason why
When they’re spitting in your eye
They’ll be spitting in your eye
The first thing one notices is the title of the song. “Les Tomber Les filles” literally means “let the girls fall” or “drop the girls”. March’s translation of “Hang up the Chick Habit” does some fairly impressive things. First, it takes account of time period and chooses a phrasing with ’60 era flavor in the slang term “chick” used as an adjective. This immediately places the language in time and gets the listener into the right mindset. The idiom used in the French is reversed, conceptually, in the English translation. Where in the French we are told to “drop” the girls, the same sentiment is expressed by “hanging up” the habit of womanizing. Because of the nature of idioms and of course musical styles and concerns, finding equivalent phrases based on what they mean rather than the words they use is essential.
Without going into too much detail on each the lines and their translation, a quick glance at the selection above will reveal that there is a significant difference in the literal meaning of the French and the transition by March. Again, due to the confines of music, restructuring, rephrasing, and finding equivalent words and phrases if not directly translated ones. It is the underlying meaning that needs to be addressed and since verse is often used as a tool for delivering information, it is this meaning that needs to be understood before a translation can be rendered.
The question is then brought up, what value is there in the effort to translate and render these verses into western equivalents? Besides the scholarly and linguistic isle such an exercise provides, it can add value to modern practitioner and those who are interested in the content of these text and ignore much of the academic discussion. Martial artists often take inspiration from these texts in their teaching and practice. Making them accessible to more people would seem to be a laudable goal.
Writing in verse often takes form over function sacrificing clarity and attempting to not only understand the original message but then render it in verse form in the target language is a laborious process. But ultimately rewarding. I have tried to keep the changes to a minimum or in service of the verse structure. I have used my own experience in Chinese martial arts, specifically Taijiquan, as a base for my interpretation of the techniques. I offer them only as an example of a single interpretation and do not claim authority on the matter.
In translating the verses of Qi JiGuang into English rhyme, there are some instances of linguistic and translation liberty being taken. A certain amount of linguistic expansion and contraction is necessary to achieve proper meter and rhythm that is internally consistent within the translation. The form of the verses is also changed to find an equivalent form in English that encompasses several metrics in the original.
The verse structure I have chosen for these translations is based on U.S. armed Forces “Cadences” or marching rhymes. I have chosen this form as it is related to the military context, of which the text is a part, and for it’s simplicity. I have imagined as if these verses were used as a call and response drills for large groups of provincial soldiers. As such I have kept the language on the courser side, although still giving nod to Qi JiGuangs practice of poetry. Although I have little knowledge of classical Chinese Poetic forms, Qi and his fellow military people were often criticized on their writing as being overly simple and naive. Although some did find Qi’s poetry to be pleasing, writers like Shen DeFu claimed their success was due to their uneducated audience and low brow environment of the frontiers and borderlands .
Settling on the military cadences, I used two forms; a quarter note version and an eighth note version. Most fit better into the eighth note form but there are several that are in the quarter note cadence.
- Quarter note: Ta Ta Ta Ta Ta Ta Taaa
- Eighth note: Ti-Ti Ta Ti-Ti Ta Ti-Ti Ta Ta
The Rhyme scheme I have chosen is a simple AA,BB structure to reflect the simplicity the succinct and brief nature of the originals. The simple rhyme scheme also is a feature of nemonic rhymes to facilitate their memorization. The simple paired scheme is a one that is intuitive to most languages and cultures.
At times in the text, the first person is used. At other times the second person being given instructions is used. And at still other times it is unclear on whether the passive or active voice is being used. I have attempted to keep it as consistent as I can. The particulars of Literary Chinese grammar make it sometimes difficult to determine the subject and/or object in the sentence. Again, these factors are in addition to the already mounting factors when the target translation is to be in verse.
The following is a sampling of my attempt. I have chosen the first four entires as they relate to modern Taijiquan practice and are often seen as antecedents of the present day techniques. I do not attempt to draw lines of origin or make authoritative statements onto the connection between modern naming conventions and Ming Dynasty ones. While the names and many of the positions are similar, the nature of the drawings and the text make it difficult to discern the original intent. Still, these are iconic techniques and positions that form the foundation of many practices today.
These four entries also provide a good sampling of the various types and flavors of techniques presented. Qi’s text has a few basic structures and approaches. Some are straight forward step by step instructions. Others are explained in general terms as responses to situations and changing variables. Lastly, Qi ends each verse with a superlative, often making statements of prowess that seem right out of kung fu movies or modern professional wrestling.
My first attempt tried to take all linguistic information contained in the lines. The resulting translations were in my opinion, too verbose stylistically and did not match the succinct and brief nature of the originals:
Lazily Tie Your Coat and come to stand outside,
Sink into single whip, with single sudden stride
Without the courage to attack, when your enemy is caught,
The sharpest eyes and the fastest hands will both be all for naught.
While far more skilled and expert translators like Douglas Wile have produced excellent translations, I hope to add a small amount to the depth by offering a glimpse into what they would sound like in verse. I feel that having them rhyme in this way can give a little extra flavor, and maybe foster more thought about the content of the text. Either way, I accept any and all criticism and know that there will be many errors in my work. These errors are mine but I have tried to accommodate alternate perspectives when available.
Tie your coat and come outside,
Single Whip with sudden stride,
With out the courage to advance,
Sharp eyes fast hands will have no chance.
“Lazily Tie the Coat” begins the set.
Lower your stance and lightly step into Single Whip.
If you lack the courage to attack when facing an enemy,
Your sharp eyes and fast hands will be for naught.
The first verse. The verse is about the technique called “Lazily Tie the Coat”. It states that this is an opening move to the “set” or form (架子 JiaZi). The poetic liberties taken should be obvious. Reframing the same information as a command brought about a more literal yet figurative relationship in the sentence. “Come and stand outside” is used to mean a beginning relating to 出門– literally “out the door”. While it probably means ‘to begin’, keeping the poetic nature of the phrase offers a good equivalent in English.
The interpretation of the passage seems to be more general in it’s scope. The first two line describe the technique “Lan Zha Yi”-Lazily tie the Coat and the step into “single whip”. Any practitioner of Taijiquan, especially Chen Style, should be able to picture this move in a particular way. The grappling of Lan Zha Yi and the step into Dan Pian (single whip) are ubiquitous in the various styles. Although the illustration of Qi’s Move shows a standing position with feet together, a difference from the current practices in Taijiquan, it s reasonable to assume that the name of this technique is focused mainly on the upper body. Very much like Single Whip, Lazy Tie the Coat is an image or mime of an action of tying a long belt around a coat as was done in old China.
The last two stanzas give general advice for fighting. Essentially, take the initiative in an encounter and do not let up. Violence tends to favor the aggressor and if you lack the courage or fortitude to press your attack, it will fail no matter how good your other attributes are. Qi has put an number of these general axioms for combat amongst the verses.
Golden Rooster stands on top,
Present your leg then sideways chop,
Rush in low and trip the bull,
They cry to heaven loud and full.
Jīnjīdúlì diān (diān) qǐ
zhuāng tuǐ héng quán xiāng jiān
qiāng bèi wò niú shuāng dào
Golden Chicken Stands Alone rises up.
Brandish the leg and cross the fists together.
Thrust forward and turn the back in “Reclining Bull” to throw them.
Those that encounter this move will cry of their hardship to heaven.
This verse differs a bit from the first in that it is more akin to step by step instructions or “plays” denoting martial application. The instructions are for it’s application in fighting, one assumes in a one on one encounter. Modern practitioners may be more comfortable thinking of this technique as a solo exercise or mime of a combat technique.
However, the verse contains another named technique “卧牛” or “Reclining Bull”. Which seems to indicate a throw where the opponent’s legs are in the air. Essentially hitting the ground supine. One possible interpretation of this technique is a standard “fireman’s carry”. Coming in low and scooping the opponent up and throwing them over your shoulders. I have chosen to translate this technique as “trip the bull” to stay with in meter and rhyme.
Testing Horse was Song TaiZu’s,
Stances all can drop and move,
Advance attack, retreat to dodge,
Come in close with a fist barrage.
Testing Horse was taught by Taizu.
Several stances can drop down and change.
Enter to attack and retreat to dodge with full vigor.
Come in close range where the fist’s reach is best.
This verse seems fairly straight forward as well. The first line is worth examination in a few aspects. First the name of this technique “Tan Ma” (探馬) is similar to the Taiji posture, “Gao Tan Ma” 高探馬 often translated as “High Pat on Horse”, it is more likely referring to testing a horse to see if it is able to be saddled. The high outstretched arm being the testing hand and the pother arm folded but he side as if holding a saddle. Although like most of the illustrations, it is difficult to match them to real world actions.
The first line makes the claim that this technique was taught by “Taizu” the Emperor of the Song and a frequent figure in martial arts. The intent here seems to be to give the technique a sense of antiquity or lineage. This plays into the idea that traditional martial arts should have long histories. While that is a common idea in modern days, it held true in the Ming Dynasty as well. Several authors bemoan the loss of martial traditions, arts, and methods during their time. And while writers like Mao YuanYi set out to preserve these traditions in works like the Wubei Zhi, the actual partitioners of the techniques, i.e. the military, were seeing first hand the power of fire arms and gun powder based weapons. Qi, himself, talked the superiority of firearms and later built tactics almost solely around such weapons. In this work is found in the Jixiaoxinshu, and is intended as a training manual for the training of mercenary troops in provincial armies. Even in the introduction to this section, Qi states that “Barehanded fighting is all but usualness on the battlefield”, including the Fist routines as a kind of exercise for troops. It may be that these troops responded to long histories and lineages more so than the upper classes and hereditary military families.
There is a liberal dose of restructuring in this line first line. Trying to encapsulate the idea of antiquity and prestige I opted to go out on a limb. “Testing Horse was Song Taizu’s” seems to fulfill those requirements. This was done entirely for structural reasons and I was able to keep all information in tact.
Crossed Single Whip firmly pries it’s way in,
When finding it hard from their kick to defend,
Rush in with continuous, liftings and chops,
Knock down Tai mountain into low stances drop.
Crossed single whip advances with tight circles.
When you find it difficult to defend kicks from either side,
Rush in with continuous downward and upward chops.
Sink low into the posture, Pushing Mount Tai.
“Ao Dan Bian” or “crossed Single Whip” is a common name and familiar again to practitioners of Taijiquan. The illustration provided by Qi shows the familiar stance of one hand held up in front as if in a chop and the rear hand made into a fist or hooked shape with arms stretched out straight from each other. “Ao” or “crossed” refers to the position of the forward leg to the forward hand which are opposing each other. So, if the right hand is forward the left leg will be forward.
“Dan Bian” or “single whip” refers to the upper body position and the arms. The arms are stretched out from the body and turned so that one hand is behind (often held in a hook gesture) and the other in front. The image is most likely of a mounted rider, holding the reigns with the front hand and the riding crop (bian 鞭) behind. It is a familiar position in opera indicating when the characters are riding in the narrative. In opera too, a long stick called a “bian” is used. The whip in this instance being a riding crop or short stick.
The rest of the verse explains the basic use of the technique. While there are many ways in which to interpret the movements explained, the logic of them seems salient. Qi advocates that one again be aggressive with their intent and rush in with down ward and upward strikes in which to disrupt or otherwise interfere with the opponents kicks. Once done, the practitioner sinks low into the stance “pushing Mt. Tai”. Essentially, it appears as if the technique comes in aggressively and then drops low to attack the legs, presumably for a knock down.
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