Mr. Breeches

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Introduction

This is a translation of 《马裤先生》, by Lao She. Portions are marked if I’m still wrestling with their translation. The first draft was published on 2019-10-02. The second draft was published on 2019-10-04 (with thanks to Chris Stasse for some minor improvements.)

If you want an in-depth look at the kind of work that goes into translation, see this section, in which I discuss some problems with another person’s translation of the same story.

Translation

At Beijing1 Station, the train still had not set off. The man sharing my compartment, in the upper bunk, wore plain glass spectacles, a Western-style green satin shirt, and breeches. In his shirt pocket was a small calligraphy brush; on his feet were dark2 woolen boots. The man asked, in a friendly manner, “Did you also board at Beijing?”

I was a bit perplexed. The train hadn’t moved. If I hadn’t gotten on at Beijing, then where? I could only counter-attack. “Where did you board?” I said, also friendly. I hoped he would say he’d boarded at Hankou or Suiyuan. If that were the case, then Chinese trains must already be trackless, able to go anywhere. Such freedom!

He didn’t answer. He looked at his bunk, then used all his might – suppose it were not all?3 – to yell, “Porter!”

The porter was just then helping passengers move their belongings and find their berths, but even one busy with affairs of utmost seriousness would put down their task upon hearing that urgent cry. The porter ran over.

“Bring me a blanket,” yelled Mr. Breeches.

“Sir, please wait a moment,” the porter said genially. “Once the train departs, I’ll bring you a blanket straight away.”

Mr. Breeches picked his nose with his index finger. He made no other movement.

The porter had taken two steps away, when–

“Porter!” This time even the train seemed to shake.

The porter whirled around4.

“Bring me a pillow.” Mr. Breeches had perhaps already decided that a blanket could wait, but the pillow really ought to come first.

“Sir, please wait a while until I’ve finished with my current business. I’ll bring the blanket and the pillow together.” The porter spoke quickly, but still genially.

The porter saw that Mr. Breeches showed no sign of affirmation. Just as he turned to go, there was a sound like the train was collapsing.

“Porter!”

The porter was scared nearly to the point of stumbling. He hastily turned back around.

“Bring me tea!”

“Sir, please wait just a moment. Tea will come as soon as the train is moving.”

Mr. Breeches gave no acknowledgment. The porter deliberately gave an apologetic smile. Muttering excuses, he turned around slowly, to avoid stumbling a second time. He had just prepared to leave when behind his back there was a tremendous thunderclap.

“Porter!”

Either the porter pretended not to hear, or he had already been deafened. He quickly walked away, not even going so far as to turn his head.

“Porter! Porter! Porter!” Mr. Breeches yelled one time after another, each louder than the last. Those on the platform who were seeing others off all came running over in a group, thinking that the train had caught fire, or that someone had died. From start to finish, the porter didn’t turn his head.

Mr. Breeches picked his nose again, and sat down on my bunk. As soon as he sat down: “Porter!” The porter still didn’t come.

As he looked down at his knees, Mr. Breeches’ head drooped as low as it could go. Then, as soon as he picked his nose, his head shot up again.

“You’re in second class?” This was directed at me. I was alarmed. I was indeed in second class – could it be I’d gotten on the wrong car?

“Are you?” I asked.

“I’m in second class. This is second class. Second class has sleeper bunks. Will the train start soon? Porter!”

I picked up a newspaper.

Mr. Breeches stood up and counted his luggage. Eight bags in all, piled on another bunk – he’d occupied two of the upper ones. He counted twice, and said, “What about your luggage?”

I didn’t say anything – mistakenly, for he was being kind, and continued on to say, “That hateful porter! Why didn’t he move your bags for you?”

I had no choice but to say, “I don’t have any luggage.”

“Oh?!” He was truly startled, as if it went against all reason to ride a train without bringing luggage. “If I’d known earlier, I could have avoided buying a luggage ticket for my four suitcases!”

It was my turn to say, “Oh?!” I thought to myself: if he had four more suitcases in tow, there’d be nowhere to sleep!

The bunk opposite mine was now occupied by another passenger. Save for the pocketbook in his hand, he also had no luggage.

“Oh!” ejaculated Mr. Breeches. “If I’d known earlier that neither of you would have bags, I wouldn’t have had to buy a separate ticket for the coffin.”

I made up my mind: next time I traveled, I would definitely bring luggage. Who would be willing to spend the night with a coffin for company?

The porter walked past the door.

“Porter! Bring me a hot towel.”

“Wait a moment,” the porter said, seemingly determined to resist him.

Mr. Breeches took off his tie, removed his shirt-collar, and hung them on separate hooks. Now he was taking up all the hooks, for his hat and coat were already hung up.

The train started. He instantly wanted to buy a paper. “Porter!” The porter didn’t come. I gave him my paper: my ears suggested the idea.

He climbed up to the upper bunk. Above my head, he took off his boots, and clapped the dirt off them. Using a suitcase as a pillow, and my newspaper to cover his face, before we reached Yongding Gate he had fallen asleep.

I calmed down considerably.

At Fengtai, before the train came to a halt, from above came a sound: “Porter!” Without waiting for the porter to respond, he fell asleep again. Most likely he was talking in his sleep.

After passing through Fengtai, the porter brought two pots of hot tea. I and the passenger opposite me – an ordinary person in his forties, his face still visibly fleshy – drank tea while talking idly. It was sometime before reaching Langfang when another thunderclap came from above.

“Porter!”

The porter came. His brow was so furrowed that it seemed the only thing which would make him happy was to eat whoever was shouting.

“What do you want, sir?!”

“Bring me tea!” The thunder was loud and clear.

“Aren’t there two pots?” the porter said, pointing at the little table.

“Upper bunk wants another pot!”

“Fine!” The porter retreated out.

“Porter!”

The porter’s brow furrowed so hard that hairs fell downward.

“I don’t want tea. I want hot water!”

“Okay!”

“Porter!”

I feared the porter’s eyebrows would come clean off.

“Bring me a blanket, bring me a pillow, bring me a hot towel, bring–” It seemed he hadn’t thought up what else he wanted.

“Sir, wait a little. There are still passengers to take on at Tianjin. After leaving Tianjin, we will do a general clean-up, and won’t be able to disturb your sleep!

The porter said all this in one breath. He turned his head and left promptly, as if he wanted never to return again.

After a while, the hot water came. Mr. Breeches was again lost in dreams, the sound of his snoring only slightly quieter than “Porter!” But it was regular, continuous, and sometimes got a bit quieter. It was supplemented by the grinding of teeth.

“Hot water, sir!”

“Porter!”

“Here I am! Hot water!”

“Bring me a napkin!”

“The toilet has some.”

“Porter! Where’s the toilet?”

“They’re all over.”

“Porter!”

“Goodbye.”

“Porter! Porter! Porter!” There was no reply.

Snore – snore. Snore – snore. Asleep again.

How curious!

We arrived at Tianjin. A few more passengers boarded. Mr. Breeches awoke, and drained the pot of water at a gulp5. Again he clapped his boots above my head. He put on the boots, slid down, picked his nose, and looked outside. “Porter!”

As it happened, the porter was passing by.

“Bring me a blanket!”

“Be right there.”

Mr. Breeches went out and stood dumbly in the middle of the aisle, blocking the passengers and porters who were coming and going. Suddenly, with a forceful pick of the nose, he walked off – disembarked!

He looked at the pears but didn’t buy one; looked at the newspapers but didn’t buy one; looked at the porters’ uniforms – still no result. He got back on and greeted me: “Tianjin, eh?”

I said nothing. He said to himself, “I’ll ask the porter,” and thunder followed. “Porter!”

I regretted it, and said hurriedly, “Right, this is Tianjin.”

“One must always ask the porter. Porter!”

I smiled. There was no way I could tolerate this.

The train laboriously started out again from Tianjin. As soon as it set off, the porter brought Mr. Breeches a blanket, pillow, and towel all at once.

Mr. Breeches used the hot towel to skillfully dig into his nose- and ear-holes. After rubbing with the cloth for at least 15 minutes, he finally used it to wipe the dirt from his suitcase.

I counted: from the station we had just departed to the terminal one, he called for the porter forty or fifty times. The porter only came once. Mr. Breeches’ question was: which direction was the train going? The porter replied that he didn’t know; this drew Mr. Breeches’ suggestion that there always ought to be someone on board who knew, and that the porter should shoulder the responsibility of inquiring.

The porter said that even the conductor didn’t know. At this, Mr. Breeches seemed to change color. Was it possible that the train had gone off course? The porter didn’t reply, but a few more hairs fell from his brow.

Mr. Breeches slept again, this time with his socks thrown over his head. His mouthful of spit did not drip downward, but rather faced the ceiling of the train. I couldn’t sleep, of course. Early on, I saw clearly that without a pair of “snore-blocking earmuffs,” I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep. I pitied those in other compartments, who had not prepared to stay up all night, but in the face of such pointed6 snoring one could only spend the night wide-eyed.

My destination was Dezhou, which we reached at first light. Thank heaven and earth!

The train stopped for half an hour. I hired a car and entered the city. I could still hear clearly, “Porter!”

More than a week later, I’m still thinking of the porter’s eyebrows.

Back to translation index

Criticism of a Translation by Tony Blishen

Once I’d finished my translation, I was curious to see how others had rendered the prose into English. In my search for other versions, I found one by Tony Blishen.

Being a linguist and a programmer, I value accuracy highly. As such, I feel the need to dispute certain sections of Blishen’s translation. This article compares those sections with their equivalents in my own translation, making references to the original text as needed. Certain issues, such as missing commas, comma splices, and missing words, strongly suggest that Blishen’s rendering was an unpolished draft. I won’t give time to any of those problems of polish, but will only seek to improve the quality of the translation itself. Furthermore, I’ll focus on criticizing Blishen’s translation only where I perceive a clear misinterpretation of the text’s original meaning, and will not comment on scenarios where two options seem equally valid (e.g. 绒 róng may be translated as either “velvet” or “woolen.”) My translation can be found above, while Blishen’s version is at https://paper-republic.org/pubs/read/mr-jodhpurs/. Lastly, please note that I’m working from the version of the story published in 《老舍小说集》 (“Collected Fiction of Lao She,” ed. Fang Wei, China Society Press, 2004).

I’ll work through the translation in a linear fashion, beginning with Mr. Breeches’ first request: “拿毯子!” While 毯子 tǎnzi can mean either “blanket” or “rug,” given that the story takes place on an overnight train, in a cabin with sleeper berths, I think it is much more likely for a passenger to desire the former than the latter. Despite this narrative context, Blishen renders the word as “rug.”

Later, after several demands from Mr. Breeches, the porter walks away: “茶房不是假装没听见,便是耳朵已经震聋,竟自没回头,一直地快步走开。” The section of interest here is that which contains the first two phrases (up to “震聋”.) Given that 便 biàn is the formal written equivalent of 就 jiù, the grammar pattern ought to be analyzed as the “不是X,就是Y” construct, which means “either X or Y,” or “if it’s not X, it’s Y”. This is reflected in my translation: “Either the porter pretended not to hear, or he had already been deafened.” The Blishen translation seems to have mistaken this for the similar construct “不是X,而是Y,” which means “not X, but rather Y,” as we see in the rendering of this section: “Deafened, rather than pretending not to hear, […]”

Further on in the translation is a verb which is clearly incorrect. Mr. Breeches reacts with surprise when the narrator says he has no luggage, and says that if he’d known, he wouldn’t have bought a ticket for his four suitcases. The narrator himself is surprised that Mr. Breeches would have tried to bring four more suitcases into the compartment, on top of the eight he has already. Here is the original text: “‘呕?! […] 我那四只皮箱也可以不打行李票了!’ 这回该轮着我了,‘呕?!’”

The key word here is 轮 lún. When acting as a verb, 轮 means something like “revolve; come around; take turns.” The phrase “这回该轮着我了,‘呕?!’” may be translated as “It was my turn to say, ‘Oh?!’” This interpretation is reinforced by Lao She’s reuse of the interjection 呕 òu/ǒu for both Mr. Breeches and the narrator.

Unfortunately, at this point in his translation, Blishen completely misses the mark. He gives the same phrase, “这回该轮着我了,‘呕?!’”, as “I lost this time. ‘Huh?’” While 轮 does appear in terms related to turns or rounds of a game, I know of no sense in which 轮 itself can be used to describe loss. Even if there were such a specialized verbal use of that word, it would certainly be a less likely interpretation than the obvious one: “轮着我了” or the equivalent “轮到我了” are well-known phrases roughly meaning “it’s my turn.” Blishen’s bizarre treatment of this transition phrase is compounded by his translation of Mr. Breeches’ interjection as “uh” and the narrator’s as “huh,” which ruins the parallelism of the repeated interjection.

Moving linearly through the translation, the next problem to address ought to be Blishen’s translation of the phrase “上面的雷声响亮.” However, the error here seems to me the worst misstep of all, beyond even “I lost this time,” so I will return to this after addressing two other, smaller issues.

The first of those issues is that, in an exchange between Mr. Breeches and the porter which focuses on tea, Blishen not only omits one instance of “茶房!”, but also omits the entire next line: “茶房的眉毛直往下落毛。” Given how frequently the titular character yells “茶房!”, I could forgive its omission here were it not for the fact that this occurrence of the term sets up the next line. As for omitting that line itself (which I’ve rendered as “The porter’s brow furrowed so hard that hairs fell downward”), I can offer no explanation. The cutting of this line is particularly strange when we recall Blishen’s own introduction: “I gained the impression that the author had carefully weighed every single word for effect.”

The second small issue is Blishen’s translation of “号衣” as “numbered jackets.” 号衣 hàoyī means “livery” or “uniform” (which can be straightforwardly understood from one sense of 号 hào, “symbol,” and the primary sense of 衣 yī, “clothing.”) It’s certainly plausible for porters to wear numbered jackets as part of their professional dress, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that Blishen has re-analyzed 号衣 using the sense of 号 as “number.” This is totally incorrect: the preexisting two-character word appears with the meaning of “livery” no later than 1907 (Liu E, 《老残游记》, Chapter 6), and is used metonymously to mean “soldier” as early as 1616 (Anonymous, 《英烈传》, Chapter 48.) Thus, the right translation for 号衣 must certainly be “livery”, “uniform,” or something similar.

I can now return to what I called the worst misstep of all. In an exchange between Mr. Breeches and the porter, Blishen translates “’拿茶!’上面的雷声响亮7。” as “‘Fetch some tea!’ pealed like brass the thunder from above.” I take serious issue with Blishen’s insertion of “like brass,” for this simile is nowhere in the original. A translator may, where necessary, remove or rearrange words, and the insertion of function words like “of” and “the” is unavoidable. However, to insert content words, or descriptive language, is to misrepresent the source text and the author’s careful choice of diction. This insertion is especially egregious because it is unnecessary: “pealed the thunder from above” would be a perfectly accurate translation of “上面的雷声响亮。” Furthermore, even if I charitably assume that “like brass” would not have survived further editing, its insertion is doubly egregious in light of Blishen’s introductory claim that Lao She’s “economy of means reinforces the wry, dry humor.” Said “economy of means” is necessarily weakened by the insertion of content words, no matter how few.

Finally, to give credit where it’s due, I’ll note that reading Mr. Blishen’s translation allowed me to improve two areas of my own. In my earliest draft, I tentatively rendered 茶房 cháfáng as “attendant.” Blishen’s translation of this term as “steward” convinced me that I was off the mark, and in my next draft I swapped in “porter” for “attendant.” Second, my original translation of “茶房像旋风似的转过身来” was “The porter turned around like a whirlwind.” Although this sentence is good English, it fails to make use of the common and idiomatic expression “whirl (a)round.” Reading Blishen’s translation reminded me of this phrase, for which I am grateful.

To conclude, let me stress that I bear no ill feelings toward Mr. Blishen, even though my critique may seem uncompromising. In my understanding, he has had a long career as a Sinologist and a translator, and I have no doubt that his more complete works are praiseworthy. The problems which I’ve touched on are only a small portion of Blishen’s piece, and both the translation errors and the errors of polish seem to stem from a lack of editing, not from a lack of skill. That said, since Paper Republic saw fit to publish the work as-is, I must criticize it as-is; there can be no other standard.


  1. In the original text, this is 北平 Beiping, the name used for Beijing while Nanjing was the country’s capital, 1928-1949.

  2. This color can be translated in several ways.

  3. My translation of 假如不是全身 as this parenthetical phrase is a bit free. It could more strictly be given as “as if it were not all his might,” but to my ear this sounds awkward (especially if the phrase’s position is unchanged.) 全身 means “(one’s) whole body,” but I don’t think translating this phrase with “body” sounds good either. When one talks of energetic action, “with all one’s might” is a more idiomatic modifier.

  4. Thanks to Tony Blishen’s translation for reminding me of a more idiomatic way to translate this.

  5. At first, I was sure that in the original (对着壶喝了一气水), the phrase 一气 was used here to mean “all at once; in one go.” In my third draft, I realized that 一气 might instead mean something like “one gulp,” i.e. 一气 is being used as a measure word. That would be an unusual measure word, but unusual measure words show up all the time in people’s idiolects, and the syntax supports this interpretation better than the one in which Mr. Breeches drinks the whole pot. I’ve marked the passage, and added this footnote to show my work.

  6. The phrase here is 带钩, literally “bringing/bearing hooks”. I originally gave this as “barbed,” but “pointed” has the satisfying property of being both literally and figuratively correct.

  7. Try as I might, I can’t get Pandoc (this site’s HTML generator) to insert the correct single apostrophe at the beginning of this quotation. This is annoying – especially because it handles the exact same scenario (double quote followed by single quote) perfectly fine in the quotation before “The key word here is…”