Literal Translation & Free Translation

Have you ever thought about why both English and Chinese would have the same linguistic phenomenon of “activeness” and “passiveness” in their expression? I do not have a comprehensive answer yet, but I hold some personal beliefs, which is illustrated in the book Self-study Chinese. I also wonder whether this phenomenon applies to other world languages. If so, I would venture to guess that all world languages originally come from “One.” This “Oneness” in all languages, which can be seen by decoding grammar, might have something to do with the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11, ESV).

As a matter of fact, before I was a Christian and even before I had any vocabulary about Jesus the Christ, I discovered from an exclusively linguistic perspective that there is a sense of “Oneness” between English and Chinese. There has to be a “Creator” of English and Chinese, and I often used to call this “Creator” some “mysterious power being” that knows everything but cannot be fully known by human beings. Otherwise, how can we explain so many coincidences regarding these bi-linguistic phenomena? It is the bridge between English and Chinese that enables the translatability between the two languages. The idea of literal translation and free translation is applicable to this belief.

Let’s consider it this way:  A = B, and B = C; thus, we can conclude A = C. However, our thoughts should not stop there. Let’s further conclude that B, as the bridge between A and C, has to fulfill both features of A and C. Thus, we can assume that B might be bigger than A, B might be bigger than C, and B even might be bigger than A + C.

Let’s say that A represents English, which includes all phenomena of observed English utterances, while C represents Chinese, which includes all phenomena of observed Chinese utterances. B represents the Truth of all phenomena of both languages.

The literal translation validates the absolutely equivalent relationship between A and C, which means A = C. As a matter of fact, A has to equal C at some point; otherwise, there wouldn’t be a viable means of translation between the two languages.  We also believe B is not more or less, but exactly equal to A and C, which means B = A and B = C.

But, in real life, we know that there are some English utterances that cannot be directly explained in Chinese, and there are some Chinese utterances that cannot be directly explained in English. So, the free translation is borrowed to fill the gap between A and C when literal translation fails to provide an explanation. For example, when you hang out with your spouse while your friend happens to be there, and you call your friend “the third wheel” in English; but we Chinese would call this friend a “bright light.” Both phrases—the third wheel and the bright light—deliver the same message, but they have to be “indirectly” translated in a relatively free way to keep preserve their meaning in each language and culture.

The added value of the “gap” between English and Chinese is that it makes B bigger than A or C. What English lacks in translating Chinese sentences and what Chinese lacks in translating English sentences is made up for in the concept of B. B represents the Truth of all worldly languages. Therefore, at this point: B > A and B > C.

The assumption B > A + C comes from the fact that there are more languages, like French, German, Italian, Greek, Hebrew, and so on. Imagine that B is an unlimited being that includes all features of A and C, while A at some point overlaps with C inside of the “magical B.” The overlapping area can be decoded with literal translation, while the exclusive parts of A and C can only be decoded through free translation.

I do want to comment: When it comes to personal faith in Christ, it is love and humility that brings us to believe, rather than knowledge.

Note: The above post is extracted from Shuang's book Self-study Chinese. Please do not use this post for commercial purposes. You are welcome to use it for academic and personal purposes. Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures is taken from the English Standard Version of the Bible (ESV). Copyright ©2008 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.