Humor and Translation

Lady Nicotine 
By Mark Herman


There is an anecdote, which may even be true, about the American humorist James Thurber (1894-1961). After being told by a Frenchwoman that she enjoyed his writing more in French than in English, he responded, “Yes, madam, my work often loses something in the original.” If this is ever indeed the case, could a translator rectify the situation by writing a new “original”?

Such an attempt appears to have been made, either on purpose or inadvertently, with respect to a humorous essay by Lin Yutang (1895-1976), a Chinese writer, translator, linguist, and inventor. He wrote in both Chinese and English, and his piece about smoking exists in both languages, as “Wo De Jie Yan”1 and “My Last Rebellion Against Lady Nicotine.”2 The two pieces are not identical in every respect, but are sufficiently alike, within the normal bounds of literary translation practice, so that either one can be considered a translation (a self-translation) of the other.

Both versions appeared about the same time. Lin may have been thinking in both languages simultaneously when he wrote the essay. However, a recent article by Dongwei Chu gives pretty convincing evidence that the English version was written first, and is therefore the original.3

Dongwei never asks why Nancy E. Chapman, whose English translation of the Chinese4 he compares with Lin’s own English version, should have undertaken a back translation into English. Although Chapman’s translation more closely corresponds to the Chinese than Lin’s English version, her translation is still not entirely literal, and so does not provide a version for those non-Chinese readers who want to closely compare Lin’s own two versions. Perhaps she or her editors at Columbia University Press didn’t know of the existence of Lin’s own English version. Perhaps she indeed wanted to write a better “original.” If so, at least in my opinion, she failed.

Starting with the title, Chapman seems not to have realized that a translation of something funny must be funny or it is a mistranslation. According to Dongwei Chu, the literal translation of the Chinese title is the not funny “My Giving Up Smoking” (49). Chapman’s title, “My Turn at Quitting Smoking,” is neither a literal translation of the Chinese nor funny like Lin Yutang’s own “My Last Rebellion Against Lady Nicotine.” According to Dongwei:

Lin’s own translation of the title—if it is a translation—enriches it so that it becomes something new. “Lady Nicotine” alludes to J. M. Barrie’s enjoyable humorous essay collection My Lady Nicotine, which glorifies smoking and points out the “perils of not smoking.” … Chapman’s translation neither enriches the title nor creates an exact copy (50).

Also, according to Dongwei, Chapman’s translation is “bumpy” (50) in ways that Lin’s never is. Chapman also does not seem to realize that brevity is the soul of wit:

Every smoker has, in some foolish moment, attempted to abjure his allegiance to Lady Nicotine, and then after some wrestling with his imaginary conscience, come back to his senses again. (Lin, 275; Dongwei, 40).

Anyone who has been a smoker has, in moments of confusion, made the grand resolution to give it up. For a certain period of time they vow to wrestle with the demon of tobacco to see who will be the victor and who the vanquished, only coming to their senses after ten days or so. (Chapman, 616; Dongwei, 50)

Lin also domesticates his version, naming works that an English speaker might know or could look up and eliminating Chinese works generally unavailable to English speakers:

I doubt whether this race of matter-of-fact people would ever be capable of tuning up their souls in ecstatic response to Shelly’s Skylark or Chopin’s Nocturne. These people miss nothing by giving up their smoke. They are probably happier reading Aesop’s Fables with their Temperance wives. (Lin, 277-78; Dongwei, 54)

… their souls impose no other demands. They can rest easy at night, having read through a few Aesop’s fables with the women from the temperance society—the lyrics of Xin Qiji (1140-1207)—the poetry of Wang Mojie, the music of Beethoven, and the tunes of Wang Shifu (ca. 1250-1300)—all are irrelevant to them. To these people, the waterfalls on Mount Lu are nothing but water flowing from up above to down below. Let me ask you: is it conceivable that one could read Xin’s lyrics and Wang’s poems without smoking at the same time? (Chapman, 611; Dongwei, 54).

None of Chapman’s choices are bad per se: wordiness and bumpy syntax, non-English references, even not making everything funny, can, under the right circumstances, contribute to a successful translation. However, as evidenced by the examples shown, in Chapman’s case they do not contribute to a successful translation, as is made all the more apparent by comparison with Lin’s own English version.

  1. Yutang, Lin. “Wo De Jie Yan,” in Xing Su Ji, 1934, reprinted in Complete Masterpieces of Lin Yutang, Volume 14: Xing Su Ji, Pi Jing Ji (Changchun: Northeast Normal University Press, 1994), 118-22.
  1. Yutang, Lin. “My Last Rebellion Against Lady Nicotine,” in The Little Critic: Essays, Satires and Sketches on China (First Series: 1930-1932), (Shanghai: Commercial, 1935), 275-81.
  1. Chu, Dongwei. “The Perils of Translating Lin Yutang: Two Versions of ‘Wo De Jie Yan’ in English,” Translation Review, Volume 89 (Taylor & Francis, 2014), 49-58.
  1. Chapman, Nancy E. (translator). “My Turn at Quitting Smoking” by Lin Yutang, in Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature, edited by Joseph S. M. Lau and Howard Goldblatt (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 616-20.

Submit items for future columns via e-mail to Discussions of the translation of humor and examples thereof are preferred, but humorous anecdotes about translators, translations, and mistranslations are also welcome. Include copyright information and permission if relevant.

1 Responses to "Humor and Translation"

  1. Augustine says:

    This is a pretty shallow analysis of the two translations.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The ATA Chronicle © 2023 All rights reserved.