Using 是-sentences to express the content of memories
16 April 2016
At an earlier post I noted the following sentence:
His most recent "appearance" is believed to be [ on the morning of the 14th (he) crossed the border from France back to Belgium ]
The 是-sentence equates
- 'his most recent "appearance"' (他最后一次“现身”)
- 'on 14th (he) crossed the border from France back to Belgium' (14日晨穿过边境从法国回到比利时)
While this is fine in Chinese, it does not sit well from the point of view of English, which requires the addition of 'when', that is:
His most recent "appearance"
- when he crossed the border from France back to Belgium on the morning of 14th ].
'When' in this case is equivalent to 'the time when'. That is, English logically prefers to equate the noun 'most recent appearance' to another noun, 'the time when'. By contrast, Chinese is happy to equate 最后一次“现身” ('his most recent "appearance"') to a full clause.
Recently I came across several more examples of 是-sentences in Mo Yan's lecture at the time of receiving the Nobel Prize. Each sentence heads up a paragraph, and takes a form similar to the following:
The most xxx incident in my memory was...
As in the example above, the copula 是 shì is followed by a clause or sentence that simply narrates the event in question. That is, an incident (一件事 yī-jiàn shì) is equated straightforwardly to a narrative. (Grammatically, the memory is equated to the first sentence or sentences of the narrative, which then simply continues on as any other narrative would.)
The four sentences are as follows. For convenience, the narrative sentence is highlighted or placed in square brackets:
The earliest incident in my memory was [ I carried our family's only thermos to go to the public canteen to fetch boiling water ]
The most painful incident in my memory was [ I went with my mother to collective land to pick up wheat ],
The incident that I remember most deeply was [ one noon in the mid-autumn festival, our family had managed to make a meal of jiaozi (dumplings), each person just had one bowl ]
The incident that I most regret was [ I went with mother to sell Chinese cabbage; intentionally or not I calculated an extra ten cents for the Chinese cabbage of one old man ]
Mo Yan's speech has been translated into English by Howard Goldblatt. His translation of the four sentences is as follows:
'My earliest memory was of taking our only vacuum bottle to the public canteen for drinking water'
'My most painful memory involved going out in the collective’s field with Mother to glean ears of wheat'
'My clearest memory is of a Moon Festival day, at noontime, one of those rare occasions when we ate jiaozi at home, one bowl apiece'
'My most remorseful memory involves helping Mother sell cabbages at market, and me overcharging an old villager one jiao – intentionally or not, I can’t recall'
Goldblatt translates 我记忆中最xxx的一件事 wǒ jìyì-zhōng zuì xxx de yì-jiàn shì 'the most xxx incident in my memory' as 'My xxx-est memory'. This is followed by one of three structures.
1. The first structure uses 'of', which is short for 'the memory of'. That is, the translation means:
'My xxx-est memory is [the memory] of ....ing'.
What comes after 'of' is the '-ing' form of the verb ('taking'), which is usually identified as a gerundive, that is, a form of the verb that is functionally equivalent to a noun.
2. In the third sentence, Goldblatt refers to the memory of:
'a Moon Festival day, at noontime,...'.
This also uses 'of', but the object is not the gerund ('making'), it is the day itself. In the original Chinese, the content of the memory is not 'a Moon Festival Day' but the making of dumplings or jiaozi on that day. While this has no impact on the sense of the sentence, Goldblatt's translation does represent a departure from the original structure.
3. The third structure uses the vague but extremely useful word 'involve'. This verb is frequently used in English as a versatile way of indicating the 'content' or 'implications' of another word or phrase. It also uses the gerundive ('involves helping', 'involved going'). Note that Goldblatt uses 'involves' in one sentence, 'involved' at another. This is caused by the dual nature of memories: they concern past events ('involved') but exist in the present ('involve').
Goldblatt's translation is in a relatively terse literary style. In ordinary spoken English 'when' or 'how' might be more likely. For example, the first sentence above could be translated into fairly colloquial English as:
'My earliest memory was (of) when I took our only vacuum bottle to the public canteen for drinking water'
'My earliest memory was (of) how I took our only vacuum bottle to the public canteen for drinking water'
In written English this would generally be regarded as too 'loose' or 'diffuse', and Goldblatt's rewriting is typical of the written language. Interestingly, however, the German translation of this sentence uses the pronoun wie 'how':
Meine früheste Kindheitserinnerung ist die, wie ich als kleiner Junge mit unserer einzigen Thermoskanne bei der öffentlichen Kantine abgekochtes Wasser holen gegangen bin.
(For more on 是-sentences, see post on Indicating the content of news and missions.)