For those who have been reading about my exploration of Tolkien’s Flammifer of Westernesse in translation (Part One and Part Two), I had something in front of me which I had no idea how to approach — the Chinese translation from earlier this decade. Footnote: the translator’s name is Lucifer Chu. How perfect is that? :) But what do I mean that I had no idea? Well, when it comes to brute force translation — i.e., looking up one word at a time in a dictionary — it helps to know how to use the dictionary. We tend to take for granted the fact that being able to look up a word efficiently implies some knowledge of the sequence of letters in the alphabet. Occasionally, some confusion can arise (e.g., do you put ð after d or after t?), but for the most part, this is the least of one’s worries when attempting translations of western languages. Even foreign scripts like the Greek, Cyrillic, and Hebrew alphabets can be memorized, and in any event, the Latin alphabet is clearly related to these scripts. It also helps that, in addition to a set order, alphabets contain a manageable number of distinct symbols.
But Chinese? How exactly does one look up Chinese ideograms in a dictionary?! I mean, there are thousands of them! The Kangxi Dictionary, in fact, records almost 50,000! Nowadays, one can use any number of machine translation services (e.g., Google Translate and Altavista Babelfish) — but these require you to be able to type the Chinese characters*, or at least cut and paste them. What do you do when what you have in front on you is a printed book?
This is the sort of thing to which I was referring when I wrote recently that I had no ‘foothold’ for approaching Chinese, so I decided to learn more about Chinese dictionaries. Apparently, you’re supposed to identify the “radical” — that is, the key graphical element of the character in question, then locate the radical among the headwords in the dictionary. But how exactly do you recognize the radical?
It’s supposedly easy, but I’m not so sure. Take 升, for instance. The radical, it turns out, is that little stroke at the top left. But why isn’t it the vertical stroke on the right, which also happens to be an actual radical? Why isn’t it the horizontal stroke, which is also an actual radical? And even learning the radicals is a challenge — there are about 100 of them!
To a native speaker (writer) of Chinese, I’m sure all of this is pretty self-apparent, but to me? Not so much. What about you? Here, try this. Follow this link for a demonstration of looking up ideograms in a Chinese dictionary, courtesy of Yale University, and tell me you don’t find it confusing as hell. And now imagine following this procedure for every single character in the text you want to translate. Insanity seems inevitable, illiteracy preferable.
So, in the end, despite a fascinating — if necessarily much abbreviated — crash course in Chinese orthography, I tackled the problem at hand from a different angle. I cheated. Yes, that’s right. I cheated. No one dropped me a line to help (I get more traffic from Egypt than from China), so I had to take matters into my own hands.
What I wanted was to get the Chinese characters comprising the last few lines of the Song of Eärendil onto my computer’s clipboard so that I could simply paste them into a machine-translator. Lazy and clever — who knew it was possible! :) How to do it? OCR, of course. With a little Googling, I found a freeware Chinese OCR utility which I have to say is really quite excellent — especially for the price, hahae. The utility, with the original scan on the left and the selectable post-OCR text on the right, is pictured above. The tool is slightly tricky to use, because you have to highlight each character manually, then select from the several suggestions the program makes — and if a computer program can’t recognize the characters automatically, what hope do I have? But with a little human assistance, the utility recognizes more than 10,000 characters!
So what happened with the Chinese rendition of Flammifer? I ran the text through Google Translate and Babelfish — and with the caveat that I may have made one or two mistakes in the semi-manual OCR process — here’s a more or less combined version of the two outputs (and I’ll include the selectable Chinese so that you can play around with it if you like):
上古岁月化尘土,It’s somewhat inscrutable and sounds a bit like haiku, but between the two machine translations, it looks like we’re on the right track, or at least getting close. I’d still like to know how a native speaker would translate this. Machine translation is clearly showing its limits here, but “White Light to the West” and “bright messenger” certatinly seem to approach the ideas of the Flammifer and Eärendil. But Lunar-crown-forever-limitless help me if I ever try to learn Chinese! And for native Chinese speakers, I’m sure learning English is just as great a challenge. :)
Ancient years of dust,
Yu Jie [?] lives forever limitless.
The lunar crown obscure time passes,
The heaven on earth parting the sky.
West of White Light to the West,
The bright messenger does not stop.
* Typing Chinese ideograms is not so difficult as it sounds, apparently, judging by the millions of text messages sent using Chinese characters every day. I heard just a little bit about this on NPR recently — in the aftermath of the earthquake in Szechuan Province.