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incorporating 'A Thousand Miles of Moonlight'

What is a 'sheep station'?

16 June 2013

I’ve always found it more than a little annoying that most of the world thinks the standard English-language word for a large property that runs sheep or cattle is a ‘ranch’. Of course, I know better. Such a property is known as a ‘station’!

The success of the Millennium novels is finally setting the balance right. At Chapter 26 of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Larsson has the following passage (from the English translation; I haven’t got the Swedish):

The man introduced himself as Jeff and said that he was the “studs manager” at the station. Blomkvist asked him to explain what he meant. Jeff gave him a sidelong look and concluded that Blomkvist was not from these parts. He explained that a studs manager was rather the equivalent of a financial manager in a bank, although he administered sheep, and that a “station” was the Australian word for ranch.

(From “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, published 2009 by Vintage Books, NY)

Now, the whole thing about Cochran Farms running 9,000 sheep north of Alice Springs has been rubbished elsewhere, but linguistically it’s a start.

For my part, I was curious how this passage might be translated into other languages.

1. Japanese translation
2. Chinese translation
3. Mongolian translation
4. Blomkvist

Japanese translation

The Japanese version, translated direct from the Swedish by Miho Hellen-Halme and Masatoshi Iwasawa (ヘレンハルメ美穂 and 岩澤雅利), faithfully renders the passage as follows. (The word ‘station’ is highlighted in red, ‘stud manager’ in bold.)


(From ドラゴン・タトゥーの女, published 2011 by 早川書房, Tokyo)

Otoko wa Jefu to nanori, sutēshon no sutazzu manējā o site iru to katatta. Mikaeru wa dō yū imi ka to tazuneta. Jefu wa kare o chirari to miyari, Ōsutoraria-jin de nai koto o rikai shita. Soko de, hitsuji to shihei no chigai wa aru ga, “sutazzu manējā” wa ginkō no genkin suitō-gakari mitai na mono de, “sutēshon” wa kono kuni de wa “hōbokujō” o imi suru no da to setsumei shita.

‘The man introduced himself as Jeff and said he was the sutazzu manager of the station. Mikael asked him what it meant. Jeff glanced at him and realised he wasn’t Australian. He explained that, while there was a difference of sheep and banknotes [i.e., one involved sheep, the other involved banknotes], a “sutazzu manager” was something like the cashier in a bank, and in this country “station” means “ranch”.

Japanese has it easy. Not only does it have katakana to render foreign words and mark them out from the surrounding text, the word ステーション sutēshon is a familiar one to the Japanese. Looking up a largish dictionary, I find that sutēshon has the following meanings: (1) railway station, (2) a facility for carrying out operations or tasks (service station, space station), and (3) TV station. This certainly doesn’t present a complete picture. Not only does it fail to list familiar words like バスステーション basu sutēshon (bus station), it was also compiled before ‘Play Station’ (プレーステーション purē sutēshon) hit the market. For the average Japanese, stretching the range of familiar meanings to cover a large pastoral operation would not require too great an effort of understanding.

The final explanation in the paragraph is that a sutēshon is a 放牧場 hōboku-jō (‘livestock herding place’).

Chinese translation

Chinese doesn’t have it so easy. The Mainland Chinese translator, Yán Xiāngrú (颜湘如), working from the English, translates the passage as follows (the word for ‘station’ again highlighted in red, ‘stud manager’ in bold):


(From 龙文身的女孩, published 2010 by 人民文学出版社, Beijing)

Niánqīng-rén zìwǒ-jièshào jiào Jiéfū, shì “chēzhàn” de “nóngchǎng jīnglǐ“. Bùlóngwéisītè wèn tā zhè shì shénme yìsī. Jiéfū xiéyǎn kàn-kàn tā, duàndìng láizhě bú shì dāngdì-rén, biàn jiěshì shuō “nóngchǎng jīnglǐ” chàbúduō xiāngdāng yú yínháng de cáiwù jīnglǐ, zhǐ búguò tā guǎn de shì yángqún, ér “chēzhàn” zài Àodàlìyà-huà-lǐ zhǐ de shì nóngchǎng.

The young man introduced himself as Jeff, the “farm manager” of the “bus/train station”. Bromkvist asked him what this meant. Jeff looked at him sideways and concluded that the visitor wasn’t a local person, and explained that a “farm manager” roughly corresponded to the financial manager of a bank, except that he was in charge of flocks of sheep. “Bus/train station” in Australian speech referred to a farm.

Since Chinese has (a) not borrowed a large amount of vocabulary direct from English (the only examples in the above passage are the proper nouns 杰夫 Jiéfū布隆维斯特 Bùlóngwéisītè, and 澳大利亚 Àodàlìyà), (b) does not have a separate alphabet or syllabary for transliterating foreign words — Taiwan does, but that system has fallen out of use on the Mainland — and (c) has a syllabic structure that does not lend itself to the easy transliteration of foreign words (see Blomkvist above), the Chinese translator is not in a position to reproduce the effect of the Japanese. Unfortunately, this handicap is not mitigated by her rendition of specific words from the English.

“Station” has been translated as 车站 chēzhàn, literally ‘vehicle station’, referring to a railway station or bus station. This makes the Australian usage sound outlandish in a way that it isn’t in English. Had the translator simply used  zhàn ‘station’ the result would have been less mystifying. The morpheme 站 zhàn is found in Chinese in words like 加油站 jiāyóu-zhàn ‘filling station’, 服务站 fúwù-zhàn ‘service station’, 急救站 jíjiù-zhàn ‘first-aid station’, 试验站 shìyǎn-zhàn ‘experimental station’, 文化站 wénhuà-zhàn ‘cultural centre’, 保健站 bǎojiàn-zhàn ‘health clinic’, and 粮站 liáng-zhàn ‘grain supply centre’. All of these stand some chance of being notionally related to a ‘station’ for herding sheep rather than a bus or railway station. The failure to realise that ‘station’ does not necessarily mean ‘bus station’ or ‘train station’ suggests that the translator has a pretty rough-and-ready grasp of the nuances of English words.

The felony is compounded by the translation of ‘stud manager’ as 农场管理 nóngchǎng guǎnlǐ ‘farm manager’ and ‘ranch’ as 农场 nóngchǎng ‘farm’. 农场 nóngchǎng literally means ‘agricultural place’; the normal Chinese translation of the word ‘ranch’ is 大牧场 dàmùchǎng, literally ‘large livestock place’. ‘Stud’ in English has the meaning of ‘a group of animals kept primarily for breeding’, and it could have been translated that way. Translating both of these terms as ‘farm’ is pretty slipshod, especially given that Cochran Farm is described as a 放牧场 fàngmù-chǎng ‘livestock herding place’ earlier in the chapter. These kinds of mistake suggest that the translator doesn’t have much notion at all of the difference between an agricultural and pastoral establishment.

The upshot is that the final sentence in the Chinese means: “In Australian speech, a ‘bus/train station’ refers to a farm”. The only redeeming feature is that it truly is so mystifying that Blomkvist’s question seems totally justified.

(Even Google Translate almost does a better job: “站”是澳大利亚牧场字。Zhàn” shì Aòdàlìyà mùchǎng zì, literally, ‘Station is Australian ranch word’.)

Mongolian translation

Our final version is the Mongolian (yes, I’ve got that one, too!), translated from the English by B. Batchimeg (Б. Батчимэг). My English rendition is only approximate:

Тэр залуу өөрийгөө Жэфф гэж танилцуулав, энэ фермийн адууны аж ахуйг хариуцдаг гэнэ. Адууны аж ахуйн менежер юу хийдэг юм бэ гэж асуухад Жефф түүн рүү хэдэн хором гайхан харснаа түүнийг энэ талын ажлыг гадарладаггүй хүн гэдгийг нь ойлгосон бололтой “Адууны аж ахуйн менежер гэдэг банкаар зүйрлэбэл санхүүгийн менежер гэсэн үг” гэв.

(From Луун шивээст охин, published 2012 by Монсудар, Ulaanbaatar)

Ter zaluu ööriigöö Jeff gej taniltsuulav, ene fermiin aduuni aj akhuig hariutsdag gene. Aduuni aj akhui menejer yu khiideg yum be gej asuukhad Jeff tüün rüü kheden khorom gaikhan kharsnaa tüüniig en malin ajlig gadarladaggüi hün gedgiig n’ oilogson bololtoi “Aduuni aj akhuin menejer gedeg bankaar züirlebel sankhüügiin menejer gesen üg” gev.

The young man introduced himself as Jeff, said he was in charge of livestock farming on the farm. When he asked what a livestock farming manager did, Jeff gaped at him for several moments and, appearing to realise that he was not a person familiar with this livestock work, said “Livestock farming manager is a word that if likened to a bank is a financial manager”.

Don’t look for the word ‘station’ in the passage; it isn’t there. Where Jeff says that he is the ‘studs manager’ at the station, the Mongolian says he is ‘in charge of livestock farming at the farm’ (фермийн адууны аж ахуйг хариуцдаг). ‘Station’ is translated as ферм ferm ‘farm’ (borrowed from the Russian), possibly because of the name Кохран ферм Kokhran ferm (Cochran Farm) earlier on. Then again, no two dictionaries give the same Mongolian translation for the word ‘ranch’. The following are the main ones (and please forgive some of the tortured glosses): хувийн эдлэн газар khuviin edlen gazar ‘private large-farm place’, ферм ferm ‘farm’; том ферм tom ferm ‘big farm’; ранчо rancho ‘ranch’, малчны суурь malchni suur’ ‘livestock base’, мал аж ахуйн ферм mal aj akhuin ferm ‘livestock farming farm’, фермерийн аж ахуй fermin aj akhui ‘farm farming’.

‘Studs manager’ is translated so clearly that the reader might wonder why Blomkvist had to ask what an Адууны аж ахуйн менежер aduuni aj akhuin menejer does, and why Jeff feels a need to compare it to a financial manager in a bank.

Since the translator uses ферм ferm and not ‘station’, the final explanation that ‘station’ means ‘ranch’ in Australia is omitted.


One interesting difference among the translations is the rendition of ‘Blomkvist was not from these parts’. The Japanese, possibly reflecting the original Swedish, literally says: “[He] realised that [he] was not Australian”. Given the pains that the author goes to elsewhere to emphasise Salander’s virtuosity in speaking flawless Oxford English and Norwegian-accented German at will, it is curious that Jeff had not picked up that Blomkvist, a newly arrived Swede, was not Australian!

The Chinese says that Jeff ‘concluded that the visitor wasn’t a local’, which makes more sense since ‘local’ doesn’t necessarily mean 'Australian'.

The Mongolian, possibly trying to cover up for the silliness of Blomkvist’s question, says that Jeff realised that Blomkvist was a person ‘who wasn’t familiar with livestock work’.

It’s understandable that translators struggle with words that are differentiated in English but not in their own language. The Japanese translators were lucky that it was so easy to accommodate this in Japanese. The Mongolian translator was wise in ignoring the largely irrelevant issue of English names. But the Chinese translator was simply sloppy (possibly through ignorance) for distorting the meaning of the original. Translation is not just a matter of having a mellifluous, natural style; it’s a matter of getting it right.

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