Mr. Breeches

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Tags: chinese, translation


This is my translation of 《马裤先生》, by Lao She. 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.) Portions are marked if I’m still wrestling with them. I worked from the story as published in 《老舍小说集》 (“Collected Fiction of Lao She,” ed. Fang Wei, China Society Press, 2004).


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 writing 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 – as if it were not all3 – 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.


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 be brought once the train begins 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.


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 he picked his nose, and 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 newspaper. “Porter!” The porter didn’t come. I gave him my paper.

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.


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.


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

“I don’t want tea. I want hot water!”



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!”


“Here I am! Hot water!”

“Bring me a napkin!”

“The toilet has some.”

“Porter! Where’s the toilet?”

“They’re all over.”



“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 took a big gulp of water5. 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. In the face of such pointed6 snoring, one could only spend the night wide-eyed. I pitied those in other compartments, who had not prepared to stay up all night.

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, but I still heard it: “Porter!”

More than a week later, the porter’s eyebrows were still on my mind.

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Criticism of a Translation by Tony Blishen

Once I’d finished my translation of “Mr. Breeches,” 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. The first draft of this review was published on 2019-10-16. The second draft, edited in fits and starts, was mostly finished by 2020-05-21, though on 2020-06-27 I moved a couple sections around.

I feel the need to dispute the accuracy of certain sections of Tony Blishen’s translation of 《马裤先生》. This article compares said sections with their equivalents in my own translation, making references to the Chinese text as needed.

Certain issues – missing commas, comma splices, absent words – strongly suggest that Blishen’s rendering was an unpolished draft. I won’t concern myself with such matters here; I only wish to comment on the translation itself. I’ll criticize Blishen’s translation only where I perceive a clear misinterpretation of the text’s original meaning, and will not comment on scenarios where multiple options seem equally valid (e.g. 绒 róng may be translated as either “velvet” or “woolen.”)

Let me stress that I bear no ill will toward Mr. Blishen: given his long career as a Sinologist and a translator, I have no doubt that his complete works are praiseworthy. The issues I’ve raised form only a small portion of Blishen’s translation, and do not mar it overmuch, or suggest a lack of skill on Blishen’s part. Ultimately, however, the work has Blishen’s name on it, and I can only criticize the piece as it was published.

I’ll work through the piece from top to bottom, beginning with Mr. Breeches’7 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 translated this line as if it employed the similar construct “不是X,而是Y” (“not X, but rather Y”), as can be seen in the rendering of this section: “Deafened, rather than pretending not to hear, […]” Unless I am mistaken, this is simply an error.

Further on comes a translated verb which is clearly incorrect. Mr. Breeches, surprised to hear that the narrator has no luggage, responds that if he’d known that beforehand, 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.

At this point, Blishen completely misses the mark. He gives that 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, because “轮着我了” (or “轮到我了”) is a well-known phrase meaning roughly “it’s my turn” or “it came around to me.” (I’m afraid I must also reject with Blishen’s decision to translate Mr. Breeches’ interjection as “uh” and the narrator’s as “huh.” Aside from ruining the parallelism of the repetition, that choice also overlooks said parallelism’s reinforcement of how “it’s my turn” should be translated.)

Moving linearly, the next problem to address ought to be Blishen’s translation of the phrase “上面的雷声响亮,” but as the translation error there particularly vexes me, I’ll leave it for the end of this essay. Instead, the next section of interest is an exchange between Mr. Breeches and the porter which focuses on tea. Here 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 can forgive its omission, but it does mean losing the setup for the next line – which Blishen also omits. For that omission, I have no explanation, and the cutting of this line is particularly strange when recalling Blishen’s own introduction: “I gained the impression that the author had carefully weighed every single word for effect.”

With regard to the section where Mr. Breeches looks at the porters, I do not understand why Blishen translates “号衣” as “numbered jackets,” when 号衣 hàoyī more closely means “livery” or “uniform”. While a porter’s uniform could plausibly include a numbered jacket, plausibility is not the problem. The problem is that Blishen seems to have translated 号衣 character-by-character, using the sense of 号 as “number.” Though I haven’t been able to discover whether or not traditional porters’ uniforms bore numbers, that does not change the suitability of “uniform” or “livery,” for the two-character word appeared with the explicit meaning of “livery” no later than 1907 (Chapter 6, 《老残游记》, Liu E8), and was used as early as 1616 to metonymously refer to soldiers (Chapter 48, 《英烈传》, Anonymous9.) In other words, “livery” or “uniform” is definitely correct, while “numbered jackets” is only possibly correct. Thus I feel that Blishen’s translation overreaches.

I can now return to the line which I previously skipped. In an exchange between Mr. Breeches and the porter, Blishen translates “’拿茶!’上面的雷声响亮10。” 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 is to misrepresent the author’s careful diction in the source text. Even if I charitably assume that “like brass” would not have survived further editing, it would be egregious, both because it is unnecessary (“pealed the thunder from above” would be a perfectly accurate translation of “上面的雷声响亮”) and because it contradicts – most inexplicably – Blishen’s introductory claim that Lao She’s “economy of means reinforces the wry, dry humor.”

Finally, to give credit where it’s due, note that reading Mr. Blishen’s translation gave me two improvements for 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.” As well, my initial translation of “茶房像旋风似的转过身来” was “The porter turned around like a whirlwind.” Not only is this sentence awkward, it fails to make use of the common and idiomatic expression “whirl (a)round;” I am grateful to Blishen’s translation for reminding me of that expression.

I hope my criticism does not seem uncompromising. Let me stress that I bear no ill will toward Mr. Blishen. Given his long career as a Sinologist and a translator, I have no doubt that his complete works are praiseworthy. Furthermore, the issues I’ve raised form only a small portion of Blishen’s translation, and do not mar it overmuch, or suggest a lack of skill on Blishen’s part. Ultimately, however, even if the scattered errors stem from editorial oversight, the work has Blishen’s name on it, and I can only criticize the piece as it was published.

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  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. I’ve tried several translations here, including the loose translation “suppose it were not all?” The original text is 假如不是全身. It can be given strictly as “as if it were not all his might,” but that’s awkward to my ear (especially if the phrase’s position is unchanged.) 全身 literally means “(one’s) whole body,” but translating this phrase with “body” isn’t a good idea either. For one thing, when one talks of energetic action in English, “with all one’s might” is the idiomatic way to describe it; for another, Chinese expressions often use body parts where they needn’t be present to express the same meaning in English.

  4. Thanks to Tony Blishen’s translation for reminding me of this phrase.

  5. The original text is “对着壶喝了一气水.” At first, I thought the phrase 一气 was used here to mean “all at once; in one go.” In my third draft, I realized 一气 might instead mean something like “one draft [big gulp],” or else fulfilling a function similar to a temporal measure word like 一阵. I’ve marked this section 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” is better.

  7. I’ll use my phrasing, “Mr. Breeches”, throughout, although Blishen chose the equally-accurate “Mr. Jodhpurs.”

  8. “又有幾個人穿著號衣,上寫著「城武縣民壯」字樣”. Accessed 2019-11-01.

  9. “[…]把號衣剝將下來[…]”. Accessed 2019-11-01.

  10. 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 especially annoying because it handles the exact same scenario (double quote followed by single quote) perfectly fine in the quotation before “The key word here is…” Eventually I will solve this.