The never ending story of translating Chinese texts

The 14th-century stone tablet inscribed with the Ming founder’s life story.

It took the founder of China’s Ming Dynasty ten years to get his life story published – as a text carved into a stone tablet still standing in northern Anhui Province.

It took another 639 years to get that story translated into English – as a PDF on my blog.

The original text was finalized back in 1378 when the carving was complete and the tablet was placed on the back of a huge stone turtle.  The English final draft will probably never stop getting tweaked, most recently today, when I took the suggestion of a student at UC, San Diego and revised the concluding line. That’s the nature of translation: an imperfect but necessary process that can always be improved.

When I first became aware of the Imperial Tomb Tablet of the Great Ming 大明皇陵之碑 (the title of Ming founder Zhu Yuanzhang’s autobiographical essay, written to be placed before the graves of his parents), I was surprised to realize it hadn’t been fully translated. 

It’s an amazing text, a concise account of a legendary life, and a unique story of a peasant who rose to become one of China’s most powerful emperors.  It’s widely quoted in historical work in English, but is among the many important Chinese documents that simply hadn’t been published in a complete form in English. 

Translation of old Chinese texts is time-consuming and is best done in consultation with native speakers of both Chinese and the translation language.  The resulting product is not necessarily going to be of interest to publishers, which makes it a thankless effort for many scholars.  (Though the Ming History English Translation Project is an important new web resource.)  Also, classical Chinese is terse to a degree that makes putting it into English a daunting task.  It’s usually much easier to just quote the relevant passage and move on.

However, since I was working on a novel about the Ming founder’s family background, I needed to understand this text in its entirety.  And I had the notes (in Chinese) of a scholar, the late Wang Jianying, who studied the Chinese original and examined the tablet in Anhui.  Thus began the translation project that resulted in a free downloadable PDF first posted to this website in 2017. 

As I have mentioned elsewhere, one fascinating aspect of this text is that it does not focus on the glory of founding a Chinese dynasty.  Zhu Yuanzhang spends the entire first third of his story on a single incident: the plague deaths of spring 1344.  The second third depicts how the survivors reeled from those losses, and how Zhu ended up a Buddhist monk, wandering the Huai River valley until the gods instruct him that he must set aside his monastic life to become a soldier.

My novel, the Lacquered Talisman, is a fictional version of the first two thirds of Imperial Tomb Tablet of the Great Ming.

Also of interest is that the tablet standing today in Anhui is a revision.  Zhu Yuanzhang did not like the first draft, which was commissioned shortly after the founding of the Ming in 1368.  That version was crafted by a Confucian scholar, and Zhu decided it had been embellished “to the point that I feared it would not sufficiently admonish later generations and descendants.”  So he had the original taken down and he wrote the final text himself.

My translation is based on my own understanding of Zhu Yuanzhang’s words, but I have benefited from suggestions by history students at UW-Madison and elsewhere.  Most recently Qiupeng Guan, a sophomore in international business at UCSD, pointed out that my final line had Zhu offering “this text” for time everlasting, when in fact he was wanting to see “ritual offerings” for time everlasting.  So I tweaked that line. 

This is one benefit of translation in the age of the internet.  Imagine trying to explain to Zhu Yuanzhang that a Zoom chat with a history class resulted in an improved PDF of his life story for upload to my blog. 

Of course, the Ming founder would not have seen any need to put his story into English, a language irrelevant to his world. But I think he would have smiled at the thought of his text being transmitted to other languages as a kind of “ritual offering” in words to his parents.  And so he would have thanked the UCSD student for the correction, and ordered that the revision be carved into my PDF tablet at once. 

Translations, even ones carved into stone for time everlasting, are living texts.  The words can be written down in a final form and posted for all to see, but will always be one click away from refinement.







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