From English to Chinese to Chinglish: “Expanding the colour space”?

As the weeks have passed, I realise that I am happy with the name that I settled on for my blog: “Snippets“. It allows me to include quite modest pieces that haven’t yet been worked up into more solid, more recognisable genre, such as short stories, novels or collections of poems. And so, over the next few weeks, I think I will feel free to share some cross-cultural stories—a few slender autobiographical snippets—but I probably won’t be including any more complex, personal,  poetic tidbits. At least not yet.

However, despite that reticence,  I thought it might be useful to include an amusing example of a back-translation involving one my early poems. Back-translation, as you would know,  is a common technique used in cross-cultural research to test the equivalence of words and concepts across languages.

Years ago, while on the road, I composed a few lyrics on the general theme of inspiration. This was one of them:

Deep in the heart of a growing pearl
Through the soft whirl
Of colour and unfolding space
A tiny crystalline speck
Is agitating spheres, without fade or blemish.
And so would I,
A little mind at large,
Devise mandala worlds of translucent perfection.

When translated in Chinese, the poem was rendered as follows in simplified characters:


and in Pinyin:

Shēn cáng zài yuè lái yuè zhēnzhū de xīnzàng
Tōngguò ruǎn huí
Yánsè hé zhǎnkāi de kōngjiān
Yīgè wéixiǎo de jiéjīng bāndiǎn
Bèi jiǎobàn qiú bù tuìshǎi huò wūdiǎn
Děng huì wǒ
Yǒudiǎn tóunǎo zàitáo
Bàn tòumíng de shèjì wánměi de màn tú luō shìjiè

The other day I thought I would back-translate the Chinese version into English. The result was quite wondrous to behold. Although the first line, “Deep in the heart of a growing pearl”, was preserved, the central idea of the poem progressively lost itself in a bizarre, obscure wordscape, in which the evolving pearl became a “stirred ball” residing within  the pearl oyster’s “expanded color space” and the poet pluralised into multiple identities.

All verbs and pronouns fell away at the end, leaving behind a terse, almost impenetrable summary of what had been produced as a result of the “stirred ball’s activity: Mandala translucent design the perfect world. It’s a phrase that would need to be said slowly in English, with lots of pauses, to make any sense; for example: Mandala: [pause]  translucent design [pause] the perfect world. 

Here then is the quite venturesome and weird back-translation in full:

Deep in the heart of a growing pearl,
By soft whirl
And expanded color space,
A tiny speck crystallization
Was stirred ball,
[Which] does not fade or stain,
And so will I,
Little minds at large,
Mandala translucent design the perfect world

Yes, indeed. Still, perfect world is not a bad note for the back-translation to finish on!

Brian Devlin
March 29, 2014


One thought on “From English to Chinese to Chinglish: “Expanding the colour space”?

  1. I can’t help but “LOL” at that one… It reminds me of the many times I played “interpreter” for my parents at parent/teacher interview nights… Unfortunately for me I was never able to come up with any versions which made me look good! I was troubled and troublesome!


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