That Exact Feeling of Familiarity

Posted on: September 20, 2021

I recently watched a rather good production of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. One of the lines towards the end of the play struck a chord with me and made me think about translating. (That’s when you know you have been doing the same job for too long).

There’s a character who seems very nice but can’t find a wife, partly because he has a huge wart on his head! As we go through the play eventually one of the ladies decides she loves him after all and will have him “warts and all”. Suddenly I realized where the expression came from.

It made me think back to the movie Red Cliff, which showed the origin of a common Chinese idiom. As I watch it (it’s to do with straw being used to catch arrows), I saw it coming a mile off, and I wondered how many of the Chinese in the audience would see the scene and react the same way I reacted to “warts and all”.

I got the sense that if I, a foreigner, was able to see it coming a mile off, and also since Chinese learners spend a lot of time at school learning the origins of idioms, I don’t think it would hit Chinese people the way it did me.

I think part of the joy of seeing “warts and all” was that I had invested in the character and the idiom isn’t that common so it didn’t come rushing to my mind. I also think it was striking because we don’t normally have stories that end with “and that’s where the expression la la la comes from” In Chinese, practically any web article or dictionary entry will end up taking you back to the Tang dynasty and an emperor who did something which has now changed meaning and become an idiom.

I wonder how we could create that familiarity in translation. Let’s say I was translating Red Cliff into English. The moment where we realize that the scene of showing the origin of the idiom will lose a whole level of meaning. I guess we might be lucky and find that there’s an English idiom which randomly fits really well, but that’s unlikely. Maybe we could add a a translators note. We could get all the other points correct so the intelligent viewer will realize something is being hinted at, and they may go away and do some additional research.

The English subtitles on the version I saw ignored the problem, which in practice would probably be what I would do. it’s an action movie after all.