Review Chinese Translation of Stephen King (斯蒂芬·金)’Bag of Bones’ (尸骨袋)


It’s no longer a surprise to me that translations from English to Chinese are substandard. What is disappointing is that major authors are treated with disdain. What is even worse is that a specialist translation press gets it so wrong.

In the case of the English to Chinese translation of Stephen King’s (斯蒂芬·金)’Bag of Bones’ (尸骨袋), the Shanghai Translation Publishing House (上海译文出版社)  and the translators 许静雅 (Xu Jingya) and 陶昱 deserve a fail. That’s the same Shanghai Translation Publishing House that blatantly plagiarised Fu Weici’s 傅惟慈 translations!!

Things don’t go well from the first paragraph where sinus problems are translated as “呼吸道疾病” which is more like “respiratory tract disease” (correct me if I’m wrong). Still in the first paragraph, the translators fail to understand that the “naked body rolling out of a chilly drawer on casters” means the drawer has casters, not that the body is transferred to a gurney. And the colloquial tone of “yep or nope” is totally missed by translating it as “是或不是“。

I could forgive these relatively minor errors, but things get significantly worse quickly. Basically it’s the old story of translators who lack native proficiency in the language they are translating from (and don’t get me started on the post-modern crap we hear about that issue). We all make hypotheses about what we read. It’s part of reading. But translators are duty bound to check their hypotheses. And a good translator knows when to get another translator to check their work. In this case the simple yet critical two word sentence which sets up a major part of the plot is mistranslated. King’s narrator Mike Noonan says he knows nothing about his wife’s other life. Then he says “Not then.” The translation is “此后也没有.”  This translates back to English as “Afterwards I also didn’t know.” Which is the exact opposite of what King means.

The translators can’t be bothered doing their homework either. I guess time is money in this sector of the translation industry in China. So they translated Rotary Club as Round Table Meeting (圆桌会议) which is kinda funny but totally wrong. The translation for Rotary Club is 扶轮社, so I guess the Shanghai Rotary Club in the city of this Chinese publication may be a mit biffed.

Yes I know this is a bit picky of me, but that’s what good translators have to be. Here’s another funny error. The narrator is talking about his wife missing her period, her monthly menses. The translators don’t get it, so they translate that she might be missing (longing for) her brother. An understandable mistake since the conversation was along those lines. Here it is:

‘I’m going to miss her so much.’

‘Me, too,’ I said. ‘Frank … listen … I know you were her favourite brother. She never called you, maybe just to say that she missed a period or was feeling whoopsy in the morning? You can tell me. I won’t be pissed.’ (page 10)

Here’s the translation into Chinese:


“我也是,” 我说。弗兰克······听着······我知道你是她最喜爱的大哥。她从来没有给你打电话吗?也许只是说她很想你或者在早上觉得不舒服。你可以告诉我。我不会生气的。

Note also the lack of the important comma after “me”. Does King mean that “Me, too” is not the same as “Me too”? In any case the reader isn’t given the chance to think about it. Note again the translators also get the register wrong. Whoopsy isn’t 不舒服. Pissed isn’t 生气。And speaking of register, Mike isn’t Mikey. The translators don’t distinguish between the two.

Naturally there may be a certain cultural bias in expecting a Chinese reader (in this case translator) to accept that a husband might mention his wife’s periods to her brother. A further cultural problem crops up again soon and is a salutary warning to translators. In this case is concerns human feelings. Mike says:

“It’s not a question of love or affection. I can give those and I can take them. I feel pain like anyone else. I need to touch and be touched.”

But the translation into Chinese is:


This is problematic. The language of love and relationships is complicated even between two people of the same culture, let alone within a culture. And when it comes to translation … [throws up hands in supplication to the muse of translation]. Nonetheless the translators here need to sit down and talk about love. 喜欢 is not “affection” in my language, especially in this context.

As a side comment on dictionaries, I checked 抚慰 on and other sources and was given “pacify, solace, conciliation, placate, appeasement, soothe” and to which I’d add console. But on further research found the more direct idea of physical touch, particularly in a romantic and sexual way which and others completely missed. Another warning to young translators is to treat with a grain of salt. While checking the usage of 抚慰 I came across this little pearler:

“The mother postponed all other business to the task of smoothing her crying child.
Soothe has become smooth, unless the kid was getting a bit cut up.

Later in the same first chapter the translators misunderstand another fundamental point which is important to the plot line. In the story Frank warns Mike to be careful. The warning startles Mike who says “but that got through”. The Chinese translation is “但是这些都已经过去了”. My back translation is “But all that is in the past.” which is NOT what King means. So we have another example of not checking the translation with a Chinese translator who is a native speaker of English.

One last one to sign off on: Mike says that in his grief he felt disconnected from reality, that “I was more or less phoning it in.” The meaning is similar to the first definition given in the Urban Dictionary, that he was living by proxy, that he was on auto-pilot. But the translators haven’t understood this and instead the translation from English to Chinese says “一种我多多少少隔着电话听到的感觉”. My back translation is “A type of feeling that I was more or less hearing a phone from a distance.” Guys, sometimes you need to phone a friend.


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