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In the Chinese classic 红楼梦 ("Dream of Red Mansions"), there is a famous couplet:

假作真时真亦假,无为有处有还无。

Pinyin:

jiǎ zuò zhēn shí zhēn yì jiǎ, wú wéi yǒu chù yǒu huán wú.

This has been translated into English as:

Truth becomes fiction when the fiction's true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal's real.

Another common translation:

When false is taken for true, true becomes false;
If non-being turns into being, being becomes non-being.

I find these translations at best stilted, and at worst nonsensical, and feel they lack the impact of the original. I'd like to propose an alternative translation, but as a non-native speaker I'm not sure how much of the original meaning I've lost.

My attempt:

When pretense receives credence, even honesty is faked;
Where vanity is given significance, significance becomes meaningless.

Is this a fair translation? Is there some shade of meaning in the original that this fails to convey which either of the two previous translations are able to capture? I would especially love to hear an answer from someone who considers themselves an expert on the novel (红学家).

Edit: I tweaked my translation of the first half and changed my translation of the last half:

When pretense receives credence, even honesty is mistrusted;
Where we pretend to have, what we have is lost.

Not sure if it's any better though.

  • The second translation is actually pretty accurate (When false is taken for true, true becomes false; If non-being turns into being, being becomes non-being.). For it to make sense, you need to have some understanding of the concept of Mu (negative). – droooze Dec 13 '18 at 4:47
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    The original text is more like a witticism that is open to interpretation. You could interpret it in your way or in any way, but here you're taking your interpretation as the translation. Feels like a bit over-fetch to me. – Wang Dingwei Dec 13 '18 at 8:36
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One of the quotes you give is from David Hawkes, published, translation. It goes as follows:

Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real.

You can also consider H. Bencraft Joly's, older, published, translation of the sentence looks like this:

When falsehood stands for truth, truth likewise becomes false,
Where naught be made to aught, aught changes into naught.

Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi's translation:

When false is taken for true, true becomes false;
If non-being turn into being, being becomes non-being.

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My English skill is such a hindrance to my expressing my ideas ಥ_ಥ, so I put my answer in Chinese (I think OP can read it since he s able to read 红楼梦ԅ(¯ㅂ¯ԅ)) 确实是开放的问题。

甄士隐梦游至太虚幻境,见此楹联左右悬于门闾,固为所居神祗以自谓而醒人也。幻境于俗人为虚幻,乃不知其所实之人世于神仙亦为虚幻;举世无觅之处既在眼前,则此处亦无本有之人世。

这是我理解的第一层意思。其次才是道德上的劝诫也好,隐喻也罢,甚至是小说内容的暗示。

这样看来就有很多可能的意义了。

首先可以肯定的是,这两句话包含一种观念上的对立关系:在相互矛盾的二元观念分类下,必然,事物在人的心目中非此即彼。然而,明显地,两句话从表述方式来看,对真和有具确凿的倾向,即认为真和有不是人人自有的应然而是客观存在的实然;而太多人先以为的真和有事实上是假和无,由于此对立关系,确实的真和有便排除在他们意识之外了。

其次进一步认为,真与有的实然当视为一,其本质是人所实而逐之物的应然。说人话,就是“人应该将什么看作是好的追求什么”。曹公身出世宦,逮其世亲历破败倾颓,人生幻灭如梦之感,字字落实到了书中。我倒认为他的观念就是结果否定过程:具体说来,凭恃外物所获,终有为外物所夺之虞,所以这是他眼中假而无的东西,自然,真和有就是自发而自得的东西,便永无失去之患。从这点来看,就另隐了一层“将假的当作真的去追求,这真的最后也会转为虚假;将无的看成有的去占据,最后也会化作虚无”之意,就是说,追求上述假而无之物,最后要么失去追求的意义,要么得而复失。

另外有人也指出,出现两次的此联在更广阔意义上与书的人物、情节的对立与矛盾相关,这就是另一个话题了。

最后提一下,在今天人们用这句话的时候,他眼中的真与有,常常与前及而异;将什么当真与有,其对面就是假和无了。

  • This is excellent. I see that there are many possible levels of interpretation which I had missed. I'll try to spend some time (loosely) translating your exposition if you make your post community editable. – Chris Dec 17 '18 at 14:21
  • @Chris Sorry but isn't my post editable already? I remember the other day droooze kindly translated my another post and suggested edit to paste it just below the original answer. – Toosky Hierot Dec 18 '18 at 1:15
  • @Chris you can suggest edits and put it in to this answer, it will appear if TooskyHierot accepts those edits. If you get a high enough reputation you can edit posts without permission. – droooze Dec 19 '18 at 9:08
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It is the translation I think is most accurate:

假作真时 - when falsehood is treated as fact

真(亦)假 - fact would (also) be treated as falsehood

无为有处 - where thing doesn't exist is treated as it does

有(还)无 - thing that does exist would (also) be treated as it doesn't

~

When pretense receives credence, even honesty is faked

Where vanity is given significance, significance becomes meaningless.

Is this a fair translation?

"When pretense receives credence, even honesty (would be mistook as lie)" would be better

"Where vanity is given significance, significance becomes meaningless." is a bit off the mark

Edit:

Where we pretend to have, what we have is lost.

You are talking about 'pretend you own something' vs. 'lose something you own'

It is not the same as 'pretend something exists' vs. 'something that exists is denied'

  • Thank you for the clarification. Your use of "treated as" is especially helpful. The second half of the couplet still seems too abstract. Any ideas as to what Cao Xueqin was referring when he wrote it? – Chris Dec 12 '18 at 22:02
  • @Chris I edited my answer. Hope that make it is easier to comprehend -- "where thing doesn't exist is treated as it does , thing that does exist would (also) be treated as it doesn't – Tang Ho Dec 12 '18 at 23:09
  • @Chris I guess Cao Xueqin wanted to point out falsehood and lies always create chaos because the truth and facts would be buried. Most likely, he was pointing out what kind of world his novel is depicting – Tang Ho Dec 12 '18 at 23:16

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