Maria Holland

Archive for January, 2015|Monthly archive page

The Three Body Problem

In Uncategorized on January 10, 2015 at 12:33 am

I’m 8 pages (out of 302) into my book for the year, 三体 (although I feel like I should get to count the book jacket and the page of the foreward that I read before I figured out it was a foreword) so I thought it was time to give an update on this new reading challenge.

Yeah, it’s a challenge.  I’ve made a couple of obversations that I want to record; it will be interesting to see how many of them resonate at the end of the year.

Walking Into a Dark Cave

I talked about this when I read Corazon tan blanco, the first book I read in another language that I hadn’t read first in English – it’s hard to keep track of the overarching story when you’re so focused on individual words.  All I knew about this book was the brief summary from a NYT article about the forthcoming English translation:

“The first book in the series explores the world of the Trisolarans, an alien civilization on the brink of destruction.  When a secret military project in China attempts to make contact with aliens, the Trisolarans capture the signals and decide to invade Earth.  Back in China people split into two camps: those who welcome the aliens and those who want to fight them.”

And I read the article several months ago, so I didn’t even remember it when I was struggling through the book jacket . . .

Besides this short blurb, opening the book for the first time is like walking into a dark cave.  I had no idea, really, what the first sentence would contain.


Wang Miao thought the four men who came looking for him were an odd bunch: two policemen and two military men.  If the two soldiers had been military police, it would have been normal, but they were army officers.

Um.  I have no idea who Wang Miao is or why anyone would be looking for him.  Of course, you usually don’t know these things when reading a new book, but when reading or talking in a foreign language I rely heavily on context, which is totally absent in these situations.

The Challenge of Names

Another challenge of the first sentence is that it contains a name.  Sigh.  Chinese names are one of the hardest things for me.  Not just because they’re hard for me to remember (especially if I only know the pinyin) but because they look like everything else in Chinese – just another character.  Can you spot the name in the sentence above?  This one’s actually not tooooo difficult because I know other people with the last name Wang (汪) and the character is used much more often in names than for its actual meaning (an expanse of water).  But in the book jacket summary, there was a character named 叶文洁 (Ye WenJie) and I spent a few minutes trying to figure out what leaf culture had to do with space exploration.  (叶 = leaf, 文 =culture.)  I have a Bible that has all proper nouns underlined, which is like the best thing ever.  Apparently they don’t do that for most books, though :(

Another problem with Chinese names is that they often use characters I’m unfamiliar with, so I stuck an index card in the front of the book and I’m adding character names as I encounter them.  I make myself read out loud, so this makes it easy for me to check my pronunciation.


The book would have taken 6-8 weeks to ship from China, but a friend was at home in Beijing for the holidays, so I asked her to bring me a copy.  I didn’t get it until a few days into the year, so in the meantime I started reading a PDF version that my roommate found me.  I was excited to read it on my iPad, but after a few pages was really glad I was getting the paper book.  I found it difficult and inconvenient to try to underline or mark on the iPad.  Plus, at the beginning of the book I’ve been really reliant on the app Pleco for looking up words, and I felt kind of silly juggling two electronic devices – especially because I really try to duplicate the experience of “reading” as much as possible, instead of making this feel like studying.

Pleco has been great, though.  Especially here at the beginning of the book, there are lots of words that I can’t quite figure out from context and are essentially to my understanding of the story.  We’re talking basic nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs, which are fine to look up in batches after reading.  In Pleco, I can type in English, pinyin, or characters; I can assemble characters by radical or draw them by hand; and there’s even an OCR feature (Optical Character Recognition) that I use for characters with a lot of strokes (嫌疑, for instance).  Highly recommended!

Written in Chinese vs. Translated

This is my fourth time reading a book in another language, so a lot of the process has become familiar.  I do think that the reading is a little bit harder this time because the book was originally written in Chinese.  The writing seems a little bit more literary (书面语) than a translated book, and there are more idioms (成语).  With that said, though, most of the words I don’t understand and have to look up are just vocabulary that I had no reason to know in Chinese before.  Examples:

  • doomsday
  • science fiction
  • military police
  • plainclothes
  • migraine
  • superconduction
  • nanometer
  • kidnap
  • hostage
  • extort a confession
  • missing in action
  • major general
  • colonel
  • liaison
  • ashtray
  • sleeptalk

My dad and several of my extended family were in the military, so some of these are actually nice to know . . . So far, I’m enjoying the book and the experience, and I’m looking forward to the rest of it!

Grünes Huevos with 火腿

In Uncategorized on January 8, 2015 at 11:28 pm

In my conversations with friends, I have yet to meet an American who did not learn to read with Dr. Seuss.  And I have yet to meet a non-American who did.  How sad.

Dr. Seuss, for any non-Americans who may be reading this, is a children’s book author and illustrator so beloved that his birthday is observed as National Read Across America Day.  He’s written lots of books that may be familiar even to people who didn’t grow up reading him – The Cat in the Hat, The Lorax, Horton Hears a Who, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas have all been made into movies during my lifetime.

His books are fun to read.  The main components that you will find in any Dr. Seuss classic are rhyming and nonsense, made-up words.  In addition, the language is simple.  The story of The Cat in the Hat (from Wikipedia) is very interesting:

In May 1954, Life magazine published a report on illiteracy among school children, which concluded that children were not learning to read because their books were boring. Accordingly, William Ellsworth Spaulding, the director of the education division at Houghton Mifflin who later became its chairman, compiled a list of 348 words he felt were important for first-graders to recognize and asked Geisel [Dr. Seuss] to cut the list to 250 words and write a book using only those words.  Spaulding challenged Geisel to “bring back a book children can’t put down.” Nine months later, Geisel, using 236 of the words given to him, completed The Cat in the Hat. It retained the drawing style, verse rhythms, and all the imaginative power of Geisel’s earlier works, but because of its simplified vocabulary, it could be read by beginning readers. The Cat in the Hat and subsequent books written for young children achieved significant international success and they remain very popular today. In 2009, Green Eggs and Ham sold 540,366 copies, The Cat in the Hat sold 452,258 copies, and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1960) sold 409,068 copies—outselling the majority of newly published children’s books.

Finally, there’s often a good message in them.  For instance, Green Eggs and Ham has got to be the best way to get kids to try foods they don’t think they’ll like; The Lorax is about the environment and consumerism.

Anyway, I grew up on Dr. Seuss.  My mother, whose love of languages and books I inherited, found Spanish versions of a few of our favorites over the years, and this grew into a casual interest in collecting Dr. Seuss books in languages we were interested in.  For instance, when my parents visited in China, we bought a boxed set of six classics in Chinese.

Somehow, I was reminded of this while I was at home a few weeks ago.  The internet is an amazing thing, and a quick search revealed that “Wie der Grinch Weihnachten gestohlen hat” and “Der Kater mit Hut” existed!


Unfortunately, the former was $209.30 on Amazon, and the latter $52.08.  Because it was winter break, though, a few friends of mine were back at home – and conveniently, home for one of them was Germany!

Using a 21st century version of the Pony Express, Alex ordered the books on German Amazon and brought them back to Stanford.  I brought some English and Spanish books from back home, so check out my collection now!!

Carl  2015 01 08 17 54 25

Carl  2015 01 08 17 54 05

In addition to the novelty of having these books in other languages, I think children’s books in general, and Dr. Seuss’ in particular, are incredibly interesting examples of language for two, almost opposite reasons: they’re universal and accessible, and they present special challenges in translation.

I frequented the children’s section of the supermarket in Hunchun when I was first learning Chinese.  I love reading great writing and important literature, but in a language where I have the vocabulary of a four-year-old, I was also stuck to the literary choices afforded to four-year-olds.  The truth is, children’s literature is extremely accessible.  They use little words, avoid cultural references or confusing idioms, and Chinese kid’s books use pinyin to spell out the pronunciation of characters (a necessity because at that point I was completely illiterate).  I’m actually reading a Chinese science fiction novel right now (more on that soon!) so my reading tastes have matured, but just like in my real childhood, children’s books were an important and necessary part of my “Chinese childhood”.  My German is nicht gut, but even I can read a Dr. Seuss book in German.

The other thing that I find so fascinating about these books is the challenge of translating them.  There are so many things to consider when translating: original wording, meaning, style, tone, feel, rhythm, etc.  There’s a reason that there are so many translations of the Odyssey and the Bible; different translators choose to focus on different aspects, because it’s impossible to be exact in every area.

I’ve read two books in other languages that were translated from English – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in Chinese, and Life of Pi in Spanish.  Both of them suffered a little bit in translation (Yann Martel’s gorgeous prose was pretty dull in Spanish) but the stories, which I think most people focus on, were unchanged.  All the details were there.

In the average Dr. Seuss book, though, the details are extremely unimportant.  I mean, in some books, fully half of them is made-up nonsense . . .

So, how do you translate that?  I firmly believe that the most important elements of Dr. Seuss books are their ease of reading and the rhythm and rhyme of the words.  The best translations maintain these aspects; the worst translations (I’m looking at you, Chinese) ignore them.

A simple example here:  Green Eggs and Ham relates the interactions of two characters, one trying to get the other to try an unusual and not-at-all-appetizingly-named dish.  In a cumulative list (that has kids shouting along with the reader by the end), many places are suggested in which the dish could be enjoyed.  This is the essence.

Only one of the characters is named.  Originally, he was called “Sam-I-Am”.  This, you’ll note, rhymes with “ham”.  How convenient!!  In Spanish, his name is changed to “Juan Ramón” . . . which rhymes with “jamón”.  In German, a few more concessions are required, and we are introduced to “Jetzt-kommt-Jack” (Here-Comes-Jack), who pushes “speck” (bacon).  Excellent job, all!

But the Chinese book – oh, the Chinese book . . . . the character is named “山姆是我” and he offers “火腿”.  Both are slavishly accurate translations that don’t even attempt to rhyme-the former ends with “wo” (which sounds like “won” without the “n”), the latter with “tui” (like “tray” if you can’t say r’s).  Such a disappointment.  In Chinese, this delightful book is reduced to a laundry list that one must trudge through until it is finally over.

Of course, it’s easy for me to sit here and criticize.  But, to make a suggestion on this point, just off the top of my head – perhaps the Chinese translator could take a page (ha!) from the less-literal German and name the character something like “陈过来” (Here-Comes-Chen) and the meat could be “牛排“ (steak)?

The Polish version is on the way and we’re working on Dutch and French . . . I will be returning to this topic again :)