Translating My Love for Chinese Music

Chinese is in my blood. It gives colour to my skin and forms the first legible sounds through my teeth. Despite my childhood prowess in math, there was a pride to being in a Higher Chinese class and, later, in entering Hwa Chong. That pride turned out to be a response to affirmation, to being formally recognized as excellent. In time, encircled by more excellent company, I began to appreciate Chinese assignments. They encourage us to form thoughts on matters of moral significance. They encourage our selves to participate.

Ah, I identify with Chinese.
啊, 中文化是我一部分.

Chinese is the choice language of my home, but not the language beyond. The language beyond is, of course, English. All through my schooling years, English has been the dominant mode of casual conversations, even in Hwa Chong (i.e. “The Chinese High”). It was the natural verbal order. Don’t be surprised if you meet a former Hwa Chong student who struggles to string coherent Chinese sentences together. They exist. It is not necessarily negative, because English is the shared language allowing different races to interact.

Such is the hegemony of English.

Yet in writing, I needed help – at least I was thought to need help. Ironically, it was in Hwa Chong that I gradually discovered a love for writing in English. In JC, without Chinese as a subject, General Paper became my lifeboat amidst the sea of personally meaningless experiments and calculations.

This blog is, obviously, written in English.
这博客, 明显的, 是英文所写.

I write in English because it is where I have gained the widest vocabulary to express myself. Yet unlike many peers, I never turned my back on Chinese. In JC, I had the chance to conduct Hanyu Pinyin classes for mature adults in Sichuan. In my first semester in NUS, I brazenly took Introduction to Chinese Studies (almost failing it :p). Here, I’ve long been seeking a way to systematically include Chinese, since it is core to not just my identity, but that of multilingual Singapore. There is ‘SG’ in the title for a reason.

I found a sensible solution – ironically again – in Australia of all places.
我找到了合理的方法. 又意想不到的是, 竟在澳大利亚找到.

I went on exchange at the Australian National University, took a module in The Translation of Literary Texts (link), and was told I had flair in it. Translation of this sort involves infinite creative decisions with no right answers – finding a fit indeed! Still, what can I translate here? If Singaporeans don’t already read much English literature to begin with, what hope have I of convincing anyone to read my entry-level translations of Chinese literature? The purposes behind my translation efforts would be lost. And then the answer surfaced.

I could translate Mandarin song lyrics.

Singaporeans do listen to Mandarin songs. I’ve received many visits to my lists of Mediacorp theme songs. I do love Mandarin songs, because the Chinese language makes it possible to fit a lot of meaning into short poetic verses. And while translating a song was more tedious than translating other genres when in Australia, the need for sensitivity to the syllabic structures and moods of the original song made it the most fulfilling. Moreover, the length of lyrics is ideally suited for a blog post.

But which Mandarin songs should I translate here?

The immediate thought was: songs by Singaporeans. After all, SmartCasualSG, no? No. Good music deserves to be shared, wherever it’s from. “Going local” would mean an unnecessary division, just when I’m trying to bridge the divide between English and Chinese. I decided I will prioritize songs which convey the ethos and lend relevance to the particular themes of my blog. Not gonna have many love songs, then.

But still, how should I translate?
可是, 该怎么翻译?

In my course, I gained the impression that lyric translations from English to Chinese become richer, whereas translations from Chinese to English tend to become more generic or much distorted. Of the latter, fluent translations “invisibly inscribe foreign texts with English-language values and provide readers with the narcissistic experience of recognizing their own culture in a cultural other.” (Venuti 15) Thus while I try to render the translated lyrics easy to sing, I will take care to retain the moods and meanings of the original, even if some losses are ultimately inevitable (as you can observe with my lukewarm attempts here).

Let’s listen to the splendour of both English and Chinese!

Chinese English Lyric Translations

琵琶 = Pipa =/= Guitar! [Source]

Venuti, L. (2008). The Translator’s Invisibility: A History Of Translation. Routledge.

Socio Empath

Hi, my name is Eugene. I am a Sociology graduate from the National University of Singapore. This blog is an invitation: To see our selves as colored by cultures, and to brighten the colors of our society. I seek to help you create freedom in everyday life, with empathy and the sociological imagination.

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