The song Chinese Translation by M. Ward. has been on my radar for a while after having seen the video for it, but only recently have I come to appreciate M. Ward’s other songs. Chinese Translation is still my favorite, so I’ve found two covers for you today.
What I really like about this song is that it can actually bring to light “translation theory.” This is apparently a newly-emerging field, and some universities even have departments dedicated to studying the act of translation. For one– should a translator have a “voice,” or should he remain in the shadows and present only the best approximation of the original words in a new language? And what is the best approximation? Should the work be localized and made contemporary for the audience, or should the audience view the work through a foreign and ancient lens?
In the case of M. Ward, I’ve searched the internet (although not exhaustively) and have yet to find an original Chinese tale from which this has been directly translated. Some people offer the view that it’s a loose translation (see footnotes), or from a folk tale by Chuang-tze (see footnotes). If this is the case, it seems as though Ward has decided to have his own voice in a translation, as well as both modernizing and localizing the work–Ward’s song rings with American folk, while still retaining a twinge of Chinese traditional music. The concepts of fixing a broken heart definitely seem a bit modern, but the idea of going on a quest and asking a wise old man 3 questions seems both ancient and Eastern. The question now is whether this is an accurate translation, a quality translation? Does it mean the same to the modern Occidental listener as it does to an ancient Chinese student wondering about the Tao? Is there a problem if it doesn’t have the same meaning?
We could discuss this at more length, but seeing as this is a blog an amateur covers, I’ll get to the music. The first cover comes from youtuber swammy05. He’s got a really nice voice, and I love the multiple tracks with guitar and voice. Ward’s original kind of fades out on the low notes at the end of the phrase “he sang/played for me this song,” and swammy05 does the same, which I always enjoy. Give it a listen here:
The second cover, from thewhoorwhom, while lacking the multiple voices in the original, has something additional that most other covers don’t. A lot of the covers I viewed stopped singing after the second verse, when the old man says “he played for me this song.” But what’s important in the original is the movement backwards in time. A young man asks an old man under a weeping willow tree 3 questions. The old man sings a song about how he once asked the same questions to an old man underneath a sapling tree, and the old man played a song. At this point Ward continues to play out the melody on his guitar, but doesn’t sing. The backward progression from weeping willow tree to sapling tree is just as important as the progression from singing a song to playing a song–and thewhoorwhom’s cover plays out the melody in the original, making the song complete. I really enjoy the little things he does differently with the song–including changing octaves where it is more convenient (I assume) for his voice. Check it out here:
Isn’t it fun to watch these? It’s kind of like a translation of a translation.
Anyway, here’s the original: Chinese Translation by M. Ward
Footnotes: Here’s a link to some places I looked for some info on Chinese Translation by M. Ward:
SongMeanings.net. The user named frivolity makes a connection between this song an excerpt from “The Tao of Pooh,” which recounts a similar story from Chinese philosopher Chuang-tze.
Living in Peace – The Natural State. A site where you can read a longer excerpt from the story from “The Tao of Pooh”.