Sci-Fi Titles in Chinese

19 May 2006

Busy with work and classes, I don’t have a lot of time for pleasure reading, but I manage to read a bit here and there. Lately I’ve been on this extended classic sci-fi novel kick. I’m almost through the entire Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, and I’m currently reading Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein (1961). Since these are classics, they have all been translated into Chinese already, as our friend Joel Martinsen reminds us on Danwei.

I’m not really very interested in reading these novels in Chinese, but I’d be interested in discussing them with Chinese people, so I thought it would be a good idea to learn these books’ titles in Chinese so that I at least would have a starting point for my nerdy wild goose chase of trying to find Chinese people who have read them. Some of the titles are interesting.

First is Stranger in a Strange Land. I think this is a cool title in English, and interesting that it comes from the Bible:

> And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land. (Exodus 2:22)

The Chinese name of Stranger in a Strange Land is 《异乡异客》. When I first saw this name I parsed it as four parts, literally meaning “strange country, strange guest.” But it can be taken as two parts, meaning “alien land, stranger” (Wenlin’s translation). This strikes me as a very nice translation. But does it keep any of that Biblical reference? I was curious.

The original “stranger in a strange land” quote comes from the King James Version. In the New American Standard Bible, for example, the quote becomes:

> Then she gave birth to a son, and he named him Gershom, for he said, “I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.” (Exodus 2:22)

(Yeah, not quite as catchy.) So I didn’t think there was much hope of the Chinese book title matching the Chinese Bible verse, but I thought I’d check anyway. I checked two different online Bible versions. Results:

> 西坡拉生了一个儿子,摩西给他起名叫革舜,意思说,因我在外邦作了寄居的。 (出埃及记 2:22, source)

> 她生了一个儿子,梅瑟给他起名叫革尔熊,因为他说:「我在外方作了旅客。」 (出谷纪 2:22, source)

Not even close. That satisfied my curiosity. I still like the name 《异乡异客》 anyway.

The other translation I was interested in was the name of the Foundation series. I kind of suspected what it would be, but I hoped it would surprise me with something cleverer. Nope. The Chinese translation is 《基地》 (literally, “base”).

Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that this translation falls a bit short. The whole premise of the “Foundation” is that it is an organization that will become the foundation of the new galactic empire. Yes, the Foundation starts out as a base on a planet, but by giving the Foundation the Chinese name 基地, you’re just calling it “base,” and without the abstract, far-reaching implications. (The abstract meaning of “base” is a separate word in Chinese–基础–which can also be translated as “foundation” but would never work as a book/series title… It would be like calling the series “Basis.”)

OK, so I can’t think of anything better, but “Base” is just lame. Boo, translators. Hiss.

Also, what’s up with translating Brave New World as 《美丽新世界》 (literally, “Beautiful New World”)?

At least no one tried any funny business with the translation of 1984 (《一九八四》).

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. It was my impression that the word “Foundation” was meant more in the sense of the noun form of the verb “to found”, as in “the founding of the new galactic empire”. So my Chinese translation would involve some more formal version of the word 建立.

    Translating Brave New World as 《美丽新世界》makes it sound like the translator totally missed the point of the book.

  2. As for “基地,” I think that would also then translate as “Al-Qaeda” in Arabic.

  3. Oops, so it looks like you’re reading both Christian science fiction and Islamic science fiction.

  4. 1) Religious references generally aren’t going to have the same resonance – Michael Moorcock’s Behold the Man is translated as 走进灵光, for example, which is fine by me since absent the biblical, 瞧这个人 sounds really lame.

    2) Some people think that Al-Qaeda chose its name from the ‘Foundation’ novels. More seriously, ‘Foundation’ would also refer to the organization that edits the encyclopedia, would it not, so something along the lines of Micah’s suggestion might not capture every nuance.

    3) 美丽新世界 draws from the context of that line in Shakespeare, which talks about the beauty of mankind. I’m not sure who’s to blame for it (朱生豪 translated the line as 新破的世界, so it’s probably either 梁实秋 or maybe even something from the 林纾 translation of the Lambs’ Stories from Shakespeare). Other titles are 美妙的新世界 (孙法理) and 美好新世界, so there’s considerable debate as to the meaning of the line – what does ‘brave’ there mean, anyway?

  5. maybe I’m missing something here, but why not just call it ‘基?’ Would that simply be too simple? Too easy? I dunno….

  6. Micah,

    Have you read the novels? I haven’t finished them yet, but I’ve read 5 of them, and they’re nowhere close to actually founding the new empire yet.

  7. zhwj,

    Good points, but how many meanings does “brave” really have? I’d be inclined to translate it more literally and not worry about it sounding a little weird in Chinese, because doesn’t it sound a little weird in English too?

  8. kit,

    Yeah, too simple. 基 by itself isn’t a word, and besides, the Chinese are more comfortable with multisyllabic words in most cases.

    That raises an interesting question, though… How many Chinese book titles use only one character? I know Ba Jin has a few…

  9. Ah, a geek post!

    I read the first couple of foundation books in middle school before getting side tracked by Zelazny‘s Amber Chronicles, but I came back to the foundation series last summer and read through them all in about a week. I loved them! Unfortunately, I haven’t met any Chinese people who’ve read them yet. I do know a few who are going through the Robot series (which takes place in the same universe but long, long before the Foundation series), though.

  10. Chinese characters are amazing,right? sometimes they can drive you crazy.

  11. how about something with 根? google indicates that 建根 is used as a given name.

  12. The translation of “Stranger in a Strange Land” reminds me more of the first line of the Wang Wei poem “九月九日忆山东兄弟” — 独在异乡为异客 (I translated this one for my senior thesis last year – there are some interesting things going on with ping/ze tonal prosody throughout the poem – as, if I recall, “Alone in a strange land, and I a stranger.”)

  13. do you know the meaning of 客家人? it can mean “Stranger in a Strange Land”,but its official name is Hakka. those people’s ancestors were forced to move to Canton 1000 years ago because of a war between ancient China and ancient Mongolia.

    根 can be root,ancestor,base,cause and even radicel. in addition,it has a special meaning. i don’t think English-speakers living in China know it. ok,let me tell you all. it means dick, a male sexual organ.

    so you’d better be careful when you use that word in China.

  14. If you enjoy “Stranger in a Strange Land”, then I highly recommend Heinlein’s “Time Enough for Love“. I liked it even better, back in the day.

    Found the following Chinese tranlations of the title online:
    《时间足够你爱》
    《及時行愛》
    《足夠時間去愛》

  15. Carol – yes; an American friend of mine has the unfortunate Chinese name of 丁根. He’s refused to change it, even after I told him what it meant.

  16. Theo Vermeulen Says: May 21, 2006 at 6:48 pm

    Was ending the entry with references to both Brave New World as 《美丽新世界》 (literally, “Beautiful New World”) and 1984 (《一九八四》) purely accidental??:)

  17. Well, I just started reading Heinlein for the very first time. I am currently reading Stranger in a Strange Land. Admittedly, I am not much of a Sci-Fi lit fan, but over the years, I have strived for some reason–mostly for a change of pace–to attempt to develop an interest.

    Anyway, I picked up Stranger in a Strange Land at the local library after reading a few glowing reviews and essays about Heinlein and his work, and I picked Stranger in a Strange Land as my first exposure since it received so much accolade.

    Man, I am so disappointed in this book: the dialogues remind me of a rather badly scripted B grade fifties movie: it’s filled with cliche-ridden hackneyed expressions and I find myself equating reading this book to getting a root canal without any anesthesia or a castration with a swabbing of sulfuric acid. It amazed me that he ever found a publisher for it!

    I could attribute such bad dialogue to the time it was written (in the early sixties), but I can’t. Writing wasn’t that bad even in the sixties. I could attribute the bad dialogue to the early sci-fi genre but I can’t, because I’ve read other sci-fi writers from that time, and it wasn’t this bad.

    I hope it would be more interesting in Chinese, but I won’t ever find out. The original language was enough to repell me.

  18. Of course most people won’t pick up on Biblical references, but there’s another reason not to use them in translations: the Chinese translation translates for meaning and kind of cuts through the beauty of the original language, probably in an effort to be accessible to readers with lower education levels. This makes it easier for everyone, including foreigners, to read, but not as pleasant as in some English translations and therefore probably less attractive to some classically educated potential readers. Besides, Chinese college students who want to read the bible tend to do it in English, according to my tiny experience. Of course, that’s quite interesting in itself. So if you want people to catch the references, they might do it in English.

  19. I saw a movie ad in a subway station today. The Chinese was 理发师, but the English was “The Music Box.” I never would have guessed that one in a million years.

  20. So does anyone know where I can find a Chinese language copy of Stranger in a Strange Land?

  21. Scott Bi Says: March 17, 2007 at 9:09 pm

    I found this article through the GOOGLE. I am seeking for the “Stranger in a strange land(1961,English version)” on network. Could you give me some advice? About the translation of “Foundation” , i suggest 根据地 . Although it sounds like a 革命小说

  22. Mario Brown Says: October 17, 2009 at 11:50 pm

    ‘Beautiful’ is a correct translation of Shakespeare’s use in ‘The Tempest’ of the word “Brave” in his expression “Brave New World”. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the meaning as “splendid, showy, handsome” in the year 1596. When in the play Miranda uses the expression, this meaning is rather obvious

  23. Mario Brown Says: October 17, 2009 at 11:50 pm

    ‘Beautiful’ is a correct translation of Shakespeare’s use in ‘The Tempest’ of the word “Brave” in his expression “Brave New World”. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the meaning as “splendid, showy, handsome” in the year 1596. When in the play Miranda uses the expression, this meaning is rather obvious

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