Saturday, November 11, 2017

Chinese translation of a poem by Kahlil Gibran

Kahlil Gibran (1883 – 1931) was an accomplished Lebanese poet. His well-known poem On Children

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. 
has been translated into Chinese as follows:
or in another version:

The second line, plainly paraphrased, means that the children are the offspring or outcome of the longing of Life for itself. Here Life acts as an entity as if it exists in space and time. It tries to find itself, and in the process, are born the children who appear to belong to you, the addressee of the author. The Chinese rendering of this abstract description, "生命为自己所渴望的儿女", is a grammatically perplexing one. Let's build up from the basics. "他所渴望的是工作" is "What he longs for is a job". Based on that model, "自己所渴望的" must mean "what (someone/something) he/she/it-self longs for", or here specifically, "what (something) itself longs for". (I added "someone" or "something" solely to work around the problem that the word he/she/it-self alone cannot stand alone.) Now, if we substitute Life for this something, therefore, "what Life itself longs for" or "生命自己所渴望的" in Chinese, that doesn't match the original meaning; the author intends to say the children are the outcome of the longing, not of what Life longs for. Life longs for itself and this longing process begets the children. Unfortunately, the translation "生命为自己所渴望的儿女" is not saying the same thing, either. In fact, it says something a native Chinese speaker has trouble understanding. I can't even think of a good literal translation of this ambiguous and possibly ungrammatical phrase. In contrast, the second translation, "他们是生命对于自身渴望而诞生的孩子" is a good one, thanks to the extra word "诞生" added by the translator. Literally it says "They are the children born out of Life's longing for itself", which is remarkably close to Gibran's original.

The third line is deceivingly simple. What does the author exactly mean by "through you but not from you"? The first Chinese translation, "他们是借你们而来,却不是从你们而来", uses "借" (v. "to borrow"; prep. "with the help of") for "through", and "从" for "from". The second translation, "他们借助你来这世界,却非因你而来", uses "借助" ("with the help of") for "through", and "因" ("because", "because of", "due to") for "from". Both translations interpret "through you" as "with the help of you". The first literally renders "from", while the second changes it to "because of". I checked the translations of this line into a few other languages. For example
Spanish: Vienen a través vuestro, pero no de vosotros.
French: Ils viennent à travers vous mais non de vous.
German: Sie kommen durch dich, aber nicht von dir.
Italian: Tu li metti al mondo, ma non li crei.
Only the Italian version does not literally translate the prepositions "through" and "from" in the original poem. Instead, the sentence means, plainly put, "You put them into the world, but do not create them."

The Italian rendering, in my opinion, has gone a little too far from the author's possibly deliberate wording that borders on mischievous play of words. Similarly, the Chinese translations, which change the author's "through" to "with the help of" and (in one case) "from" to "because of", would be frowned upon by the author. We know that unlike scholarly translation which should be literal, some or even a great deal of flexibility is allowed in translation of literary especially poetic works. But the Spanish, French and German translations I found all stubbornly stick to the literal mapping of the two prepositions. My take on this is that if the original poem can be understood in its original language and also in the translated language with literal translation, no word change should be made, and I believe that is exactly the case here. We can make sense of "They come through you but not from you" if we use a good analogy. Imagine the scene in which bright sunlight shines through the window and comes into the room. This sunlight (the children in Gibran's poem) comes through the window glass (you) and yet it is not truly from the window or glass, but from the sun. In this interpretation, the light travels literally through the glass, without the help of the glass (contrary to both Chinese interpretations), without the glass somehow putting the light down into the room (contrary to the Italian interpretation), and having no cause-and-effect relation with the glass (contrary to the second Chinese translation). The light belongs to the sun because the sun created it. The light can come into the room simply because only the window out of the whole external wall is transparent. Gibran's "through you but not from you", when likened to "through the window glass but not from the glass", is a clever play of the prepositions and yet makes perfect sense. There is no need to replace them unless misunderstood. The best Chinese translation may simply be a literal one, "他们通过你而来,却不是从你而来". If needed, a translator's note can be provided to help the reader. Anything else will likely tarnish the beauty of this line.