Only in Hong Kong…

… do an American folk song and a millennia-old Chinese tradition mix.

I’m talking about the Chinese New Year song “齊齊賀下你 (Let us all wish you)”. I bet few Hong Kongers who grew up hearing the song every spring realize that the lyrics were written to the tune of Oh Susannah, an American folk song commonly associated with the California Gold Rush in the 1840-50s.

While the light and fast tune is suitable for a happy occasion like the new year, the original lyrics are much less auspicious – they tell a rather sad story:

I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee,
I’m going to Louisiana, my true love for to see
It rained all night the day I left, the weather it was dry
The sun so hot I froze to death; Susanna, don’t you cry.

Oh, Susanna, don’t you cry for me
I come from Alabama,
With my banjo on my knee.

How did Oh Susannah end up as a Chinese New Year song is a mystery. Some may find it a strange combination; I say this is a fine example of Hong Kong’s cultural adaptability.

In any case, it is a pleasant piece of music to listen to.

Except when it is blasted into your ears repeatedly at deafening volume by every loudspeaker in the Chinese restaurant amid all the clatter of crockery and chatter of diners – exactly the ordeal I had to go through yesterday evening.

10th anniversary

I went to Lingsoc’s 10th anniversay dinner at HKU last night.

I expected to see many familiar faces and a chance to catch up on old times. Instead, only two guys from my year were there. At least two full committees went missing, and Dr. Luke, the “founding father” was not in Hong Kong. It was quite disheartening.

I guess this is just what happens after so many years have passed.

The effeminate and creepy dude at our table, though, was a real eye-opener, albeit in a disturbing way.

After dinner came the dreaded “sharing session”. A round of applause to those who had the good sense of not pushing me to speak. I do enjoy public speaking, don’t get me wrong, but by that I mean a well prepared and rehearsed speech. My mind goes blank if I have to improvise one.

DipTrans

I sat the Diploma in Translation (Chinese into English) today.

For those who have never heard of DipTrans, it is a translation exam organized by the Chartered Institute of Linguist UK. Passing the DipTrans is a requirement for CIoL membership. DipTrans is notorious for its difficulty, with a first-time pass rate of only 20%. It is, however, a widely recognized international qualification and I believe it is considered an “unofficial” professional qualification here in Hong Kong, as least by those in the translation industry.

Candidates have to translate a text of moderate length in each of the three papers. Passing all three papers is required for award of the DipTrans. Candidates may re-sit any failed paper in the next year and have five years to pass all three.

This year’s paper 1 (general translation) was of average difficulty. The main challenge came from the text’s heavy use of figurative language and unusual comparisons, such as “語言是一個漂移不定的框架,而人們生活於其中” (or something like that, I don’t remember the exact wordings). In some parts I (literally) pulled my hairs out trying to understanding what the author was saying, something I didn’t expect as a native speaker of Chinese.

For paper 2 (semi-specialized), I chose the business text. It was an excerpt from an investment report and therefore quite similar to what I translate routinely at work. Overall this was the easiest of all three papers, except a few difficult areas. The other two options were technology and literature. The technology text was rather difficult, and I ruled out literature even before the exam.

For paper 3 (also semi-specialized), I chose the science text, which concerned eutrophication and blue algae bloom in China’s lakes. I was actually more familiar with the content of the legal text, but closer inspection of it revealed many traps. The third option, social science, was full of obscure jargons and therefore too hard.

I was quite surprised to know that I was the ONLY candidate, which also meant I had my own room. The invigilator told me there would be 20 candidates in the English-Chinese exam on the following day. A stark contrast but understandable. People are often more comfortable translating into their mother tongue, which, for most people in Hong Kong, is Chinese.

I hope I can pass at least one paper (I dare not expect too much, since it’s so easy to fail in DipTrans – if you’ve read the examiner’s report then you know what I mean). I would get REALLY depressed and demoralized if I fail all three, not to mention that re-sitting is very expensive. The exam costed me about HKD8,000 this time, and the fees go up every year.

心有餘而力不足

語言學有所謂false friend(「假朋友」)一詞,意思是來自兩種語言的兩個詞或句表面上甚為相似,了解不深的人往往誤以為兩者意思相等,但實際上卻有分別,甚至差天共地。例如英語裏的gift與德語的Gift串法一樣,但前者解作禮物,後者卻解毒藥!

英語裏有這麼一句諺語:「The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak」。乍看之下,豈不是漢語「心有餘而力不足」的意思?連句子結構也一模一樣。簡直是如獲至寶,不得不馬上記下來。

如果看倌也這樣想,那便墮入false friend的陷阱了。

「The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak」除了解一般工作時力不從心外,還有一層道德上的意思,即「心裏有很高的道德標準,但肉體卻無法抗拒誘惑」。事實上後者也是這句諺語的本意。例如,《天龍八部》裏虛竹和尚在漆黑的冰窖被裸女投懷送抱,雖然他素來嚴守戒律,但也「經不起天地間第一誘惑」,終究犯了色戒。

遇見「The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak」,不了解清楚原文是哪一個意思,就隨便譯作「心有餘而力不足」,有機會出現誤譯。

反過來看,「心有餘而力不足」也不一定要譯成「The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak」。用得不好會有拋書包之嫌,給讀者做作的感覺。其實,簡單一句「I wanted to but I couldn’t」便可以了。

破釜沈舟

又從羅馬史聯想到翻譯問題。

公元前49年,凱撒帶兵南渡今意大利北部的盧比肯(Rubicon)河。此舉觸犯了當時羅馬共和國法,被視為宣戰之舉,凱撒也因此遭羅馬元老院列為公敵,觸發羅馬內戰。其後幾年,凱撒掃蕩國內反對勢力,開始實行集權。雖然未幾即被刺殺,但凱撒在羅馬由共和國到帝國的演變中,實扮演了關鍵的角色。

史稱,凱撒渡過盧比肯河時,為激勵士氣,曾有「Alea iacta est(英文:The die is cast;中文:骰子已擲,大局已定之意)」之豪言壯語。

因此在現代英語中,「Crossing the Rubicon」和「The die is cast」皆有義無反顧,視死如歸的意思。

《史記‧項羽本紀》載:「項羽乃悉引兵渡河,皆沉船,破釜甑,燒廬舍,持三日糧,以示士卒必死,無一還心」。這就是「破釜沈舟」的由來。

兩者何其相似?

因此「Crossing the Rubicon」和「The die is cast」皆可作為「破釜沈舟」的英譯。現代英語中類似的成語還有「Burning one’s bridge behind」及「Passing the point of no return」。

捉到鹿唔識脫角

最近上youtube重溫《帝國驕雄》開首羅馬軍團與日耳曼人的一場大戰,勾起我對羅馬史的興趣。

今日讀到公元前216年,羅馬宿敵迦太基的主帥漢尼拔(Hannibal Barca)在坎尼會戰(Battle of Cannae)大挫羅馬軍。漢尼拔手下騎兵統帥Maharbal認為應該乘勝追擊,直搗羅馬城,不讓敵人有喘息的機會。然而,漢尼拔卻表示要從長計議,沒有聽取Maharbal的意見。當時Maharbal就「贈」了漢尼拔這一句:

「No one man has been blessed with all God’s gifts. You, Hannibal, know how to gain a victory; you do not know how to use it.」(「人無完人。漢尼拔,你懂得取勝,但不懂得乘勝。」)

職業病發作的我不禁想,這句話,不正是廣東話「捉到鹿唔識脫角」的意思嗎?那麼,「捉到鹿唔識脫角」可否譯成:「He/she knew how to…; he/she didn’t know how to…」的結構呢?

不過這樣好像太過拋書包。其實視乎上文下理,簡單一句:「He/she missed/wasted a great opportunity」也就可以了。

Happy 2009!

Today is 1 January, first day of a new year. Is there any better day to start a new blog?

2008 was a rather unpleasant year, for the whole world of course, but also for myself. And no, I’m not talking about losing money in the stock market.

2008 was also a year of relevation for me. I discovered a lot about myself and people around me which I wasn’t aware of before.

So I’ve closed my old blog at wordpress.com, to put the past behind, and opened this new one, to signify a new page in my life, a fresh start.

Of course 2008 wasn’t entirely bad. Indeed, there were memorable things, and they are erased from the cyberspace forever with the closing of my old blog. It’s just that, you’ve got to put the past behind before you can move forward.

You probably have no idea what I’m talking about here. That’s fine.

Happy new year, friends! Wish you all the best in 2009!