I must admit it’s a shame that, as a translator, I often take existing translations for granted and seldom question whether they are really good translations.
This year, in the Chinese zodiac, is the niu nian (牛年), commonly translated as “Year of the Ox”, but I never realized “ox” means “a castrated bull” until I read somewhere else. That led me to think how niu nian should be translated.
Traditional image of niu in the Chinese zodiac sign is a hard-working, calm, dependable, modest, quiet and patient animal. These were (and hopefully still are) highly valued traits in China. A niu is expected to be capable of enduring great hardship without complaint. Meanwhile, an ox is a “castrated bull”. Castration is supposed to make the bull less aggressive and more trainable for heavy duties. In this respect, “ox” seems a fitting translation as it shares the characteristics of the traditional Chinese niu.
But let’s not forget that the Chinese New Year is all about being auspicious. A castrated animal certainly doesn’t fit in the festive mood. Nowadays niu has taken on a new range of connotations in China. It has come to be associated with the bull market, or more broadly a strong drive for great wealth, success and achievements. This kind of niu more closely resembles the masculine, ambitious and raging “bull”, as in “bull-fighting”, “bullishness” and “a bull in a China shop”. Modern Chinese people would probably find “bull” a more appealing translation in the context of the CNY.
I guess in the end it all boils down to what people hope life in the new year will be. What about you?