Iron Bull and Sick Duck

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Tags: chinese, translation


Work very much in progress.

This is a translation of 《铁牛和病鸭》, by Lao She. Portions are marked if I’m still wrestling with how to translate them. As with my translation of “Mr. Breeches”, I am 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).

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Wang Mingyuan’s childhood name was “Iron Pillar.” At school, he was “Iron Bull.” It seemed he could never get away from iron. The guy really did have a bit of iron in him: he probably didn’t like eating stones, but if he took a few bites, they would certainly have digested normally.

Every inch of him, everywhere you looked, resembled a prize horse. He was perhaps even tougher than a prize horse: he wasn’t finicky, and he didn’t have a temper. He smiled all the year round, and his two rows of teeth were straight and white, like those of a child. But when he talked, his mouth moved so forcefully that one had to admit those two rows of teeth, so white and clean, really could crush stones.

Those who knew him, knew the phrase “Iron Bull has to smile.” Iron Bull didn’t seem to know the meaning of “getting tired out.” if he was smiling about a task, other people needn’t think about performing it. Thus the phrase described something that was particularly tiring.

Iron Bull wouldn’t read Dream of the Red Chamber – “I can’t stand that girly stuff!”

He never lost his temper. “Look at this,” he’d say, rolling his sleeves to the elbow and smacking his meaty, muscular arms. “With guns like these, I’d be ashamed if I got mad too easily!” He’d take the opportunity to pound his chest – thump, thump.

He aspired to peacefully do great things. He meant to do things that benefited others, which would naturally lead to success – without making a big fuss or getting violent.

From his diction and his movements, nobody could tell that he had studied abroad and read foreign books. When he spoke, he never crammed in foreign words. When he saw foreign food, he would scratch his head (although he would eat more than anyone else if it was offered.) He didn’t wear foreign clothes, he couldn’t dance, he didn’t hold his nose if the streets were filthy, he didn’t have a need to eat American oranges. In short, he was neither nationalistic nor foreign-leaning. At the movies, for example, to him The Burning of Red Lotus Temple wasn’t much different from The Three Musketeers. Everything was either “girly” or “not bad.”

He studied agriculture. This choice1 was deeply related to “peacefully doing great things.” His general viewpoint was this: no matter what political revolutions took place, people would always need to eat, so the improvement of agriculture was a great thing. He didn’t talk to people using technical terms from agricultural science; what he studied was farming, so farmers were dear to him2. For him, laboratory experiments and the life of a farmer were one and the same. He didn’t consider himself a scholar. When he met someone well-versed in literature, he had a kind-hearted joke: “Can you discuss ‘Wu Song Beats Tigers3?’

Ever since Iron Bull returned from studying abroad, he had worked at a government farm, doing research and experiments on seed selection. The farm owed its establishment to a rare flash of inspiration by some open-minded officials, who had been concerned about sickness among the citizens. As such, it never had a reliable source of funding. Every seven or eight months, the head farmer would be replaced with another, as if head farmers came and went with the changing of the weather4. These come-and-go head farmers had different personalities but the same style, like the eight-legged essays5 of a county-level scholar6: they all went around grinning, all the time. If not for the words “head farmer” in their official backgrounds, they might have been weeping. And, when the head farmers are only qualified on paper7, those willing to work under them will naturally be even less qualified.

The farm had been established for many years, yet agricultural experiments had never been carried out. If they were going to happen, the work would fall to Iron Bull. For him, the farm’s management exemplified how unnecessary the world of officials was. It had gone on like this for five or six years: a head farmer would arrive, and as usual, they wouldn’t dismiss him.

Iron Bull didn’t often remember the names of the head farmers, but he knew how to plead with them. To his mind, head farmers, no matter their names, must be pleaded with. “My experiments take a long time. I love my job. If you can avoid dismissing me, I would be endlessly grateful! Please come and see my work, come and see!”

The head farmer, of course, would not go and see. When he brought up funding difficulties, Iron Bull would ask him to be at ease. “I’ll happily take a reduction in salary. I love my job!” How would they find a place for the other people under the head farmer? Iron Bull had an idea: “As long as I can work here, I won’t stick just to my assigned job.” Though his salary really would get cut, he worked as normal, and quite happily.

On one of these occasions, he nearly came to tears. The head farmer was determined to dismiss him. The first day, Iron Bull was relieved of his duties. The next day, he set about his experiments as normal, and moreover he dragged the head farmer to see his work: “Sir, this is my life! With a few more days, I’ll be able to achieve good results; this isn’t something that can completed in a day or two. Please allow me to come here and finish my experiments. I don’t want anything. If I go somewhere else, I’ll have to start over, and give up all my work until now. I have an affection for this place, the same as I have affection for my hands and feet: I could never get angry with them, and they’ll always love me. These specimens, these instruments: they’re my friends!” He was smiling, with tears at the corners of his eyes.

“The Calling of Matthew8” must be a true story. Otherwise, how could the head farmer have softened his heart, and retained Iron Bull? From that time onward, Iron Bull’s position was more stable. Even when his salary was cut, he wouldn’t leave. To his close friends he would say, “You can take away all the money, but you can’t take away Iron Bull!”

He didn’t remember the head farmers’ names, but they all remembered his. Once in a while, they would think of him. Many of the head farmers, having attained promotions, discovered that they had consciences and wanted to do something about it.9 They would ask Iron Bull for support, but to such “honors” he would always reply, “Thanks for your kindness, but I love my job. It’s my life!” He was unable to leave the farm, just as a child is unable to leave its mother.

To support the farm’s existence, it was necessary to give people something to gawk at, so every year they would put on a farming exhibition. The other workers would be especially kind to Iron Bull when the exhibition was approaching. “You’re working so hard, Mr. Wang! I’ll treat you to a meal after the exhibition!”

Iron Bull didn’t care whether he was treated to meals. The exhibition was an opportunity for farmers to come into contact with the rest of society, so he became terribly busy. Collecting supplies, drawing up plans, laying out display items, giving speeches, entertaining visitors: he did it all10. Some of the workers, embarassed to see him laboring, would offer criticism from the sidelines to show that, though they weren’t taking action, they were paying attention11. Iron Bull would wipe his brow, and say: “Thank you for telling me! Thank you for telling me!”

[… skipping over a couple paragraphs which I’ll come back to when I have my book on hand]

One of Iron Bull’s fellow agriculture students was named Li Wen. Li had short legs, a long mouth, a thin face, and a host of anxieties.

His classmates nicknamed him “Sick Duck.”

  1. I added this word for clarity.

  2. 所以心中想的是农民

  3. The name of an episode from Water Margin. Will add more details when I’ve looked into it.

  4. The actual word here is 气候, which means “climate” or “environs”, but “changing with the weather” is good English and more readily understandable, so I’ve used “weather” here.

  5. The “eight-legged essay” was the format used in parts of the Ming and Qing imperial examination. Essays written in this style were famously stilted and stereotypical, for word count, rhyme scheme, and sentence patterns were all strictly regulated.

  6. “County-level scholar” is my translation for 秀才, a rank in the imperial examination system which was achieved by passing a county-wide exam.

  7. The concept I’ve translated with “qualified on paper” is 熬资格. It carries the idea of possessing a qualification, but being unfit for real work: thus my choice of English idiom.

  8. Gospel of Matthew 9:9-13. (The original text gave a footnoted Bible citation, and I felt I should replicate that, especially on the Web.)

  9. I’ve merged multiple sentences here.

  10. “征集,编制,陈列,讲演,招待”. I took some liberties here and will revisit it in when the first draft is finished.

  11. Given the deferential treatment which the workers show IB in the previous paragraph You’re working so hard…, the concern shown here should be taken as genuine, rather than sarcasm/irony.