Bathrobe's Le Petit Prince
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Un oiseau qui meurt as translated in 'The Little Prince',
Chinese versions

 

The expression un oiseau qui meurt ('a dying bird'), despite its simplicity in French, is translated in many different ways in Chinese.

Meurt is the present tense (3rd person) of the verb mourir 'to die'. Literally translated, the phrase becomes in English 'a bird which dies'. But the French present tense covers somewhat different ground from the English. Un oiseau qui meurt indicates an action that is in the process of taking place. The meaning is thus 'a bird which is in the process of dying', for which English would normally use the present progressive, namely, 'a bird which is dying'.

None of the five English-language translators actually use 'a bird which is dying'. Four use 'a dying bird'. One uses 'an injured bird dying of (gunshot wounds)'. As a matter of style, 'a dying bird' is more succinct and elegant in English than 'a bird which is dying'. (Could French also use the equivalent expression un oiseau mourant? Well, maybe, but un oiseau qui meurt is more common and probably more elegant, and there are subtleties of meaning and usage that I am not qualified to touch upon).

The real problem comes in translating un oiseau qui meurt ('a dying bird') into Chinese.

Grammars of Mandarin Chinese, at least those written for the layman, will tell you that the 'present progressive' (English 'is dying'), can be expressed in a couple of ways:

(正)在死 (zhèng) zài sǐ
死着 / 死著 sǐ-zhe

Theoretically, the two can be used together (正在死着 zhèng zài sǐ-zhe) and the whole thing can be further emphasised by adding ne: 正在死着呢 zhèng zài sǐ-zhe ne. I will leave the acceptability of these forms to native speakers to judge. The fact is, however, that only one translator actually uses anything like these forms (the form used is 正在死去 zhèng zài sǐ qù) in translating un oiseau qui meurt.

There are several reasons, both grammatical and stylistic, for avoiding a direct translation of the French or English originals:

1. Grammatical nature of the verb 'to die:

Chinese tends to treat the verb 'to die' as a change of state that takes place at a point in time, not a process that occurs over a period of time. Therefore, a person who is 'dying' is conceptually seen not a person who is in the process of dying, but a person who is 'about to die', or who is on 'on the brink of death'. In purely colloquial speech, 'He is dying' might be expressed as 他快要死了 tā kuài yào sǐ le 'he is about to die'.

2. The nature of qui meurt as an attributive clause:

In French, qui meurt 'which dies' is a relative clause with an attributive function, modifying the word un oiseau 'a bird'. As we saw above, English uses an attributive participle ('a dying bird'). But in Chinese this kind of structure is stylistically and grammatically more ungainly than in French or English.

  Predicative Attributive
French le oiseau meurt
'the bird dies'
un oiseau qui meurt
'a bird which dies'
English 'the bird is dying' 'a dying bird'
Chinese 鸟快要死了 niǎo kuài yào sǐ le
'the bird will soon die'
快要死的 kuài yào sǐ de niǎo
'a soon will die + particle + bird'

It is not hard to see why Chinese translators would want to avoid this kind of expression.

3. Stylistics

Finally, 快要死了 kuài yào sǐ le 'is soon to die' is a bald, everyday expression not really suited to the medium of fine writing. Indeed, the verb is almost unpleasant in its bluntness. It is in the nature of Chinese style to find more literary or elegant expressions as a substitute for mundane or everyday language.

Chinese translators come up with a rich variety of expressions to translate this expression. (The source of translation, French or English, is shown in the tables below).

Chinese Pronunciation Meaning
F
E
?
Total
1. Using chuí
6
10
1
17
垂死的 chuísǐ de 'dying, moribund'
4
7
1
12
垂危的 chuíwēi de 'at last gasp'
0
1
0
1
生命垂危的 shēngmìng chuíwēi de 'at last gasp of life'
2
2
0
4
Sixteen translators use the words 垂死 chuísǐ and 垂危 chuíwēi, which incorporate the literary expression chuí 'approach, near, be close to'. They are much more elegant than saying 快要死 kuài yào sǐ.
 
2. Using / (bīn / lín)
11
2
0
13
瀕臨死亡的 bīnlín sǐwáng de 'be close to death, verge on death'
3
1
0
4
濒于死亡的 bīn yú sǐwáng de 'be on the brink of death'
2
1
0
3
濒临于死亡的 bīnlín yú sǐwáng de 'be close to death, verge on death'
1
0
0
1
瀕死的 bīnsǐ de 'moribund, dying'
3
0
0
3
濒危的 bīnwēi de 'moribund, dying'
1
0
0
1
临死的 línsǐ de 'facing death'
1
0
0
1

Another, only slightly less literary way of saying 'facing death' is to use 瀕臨 / 濒临 bīnlín 'facing, verging on'. Eleven translators use this form. Chinese generally prefers to use words in pairs: 瀕臨 + 死亡. Even where just is used, it is given a superficial 2+2 structure: + 死亡. (One translator uses 濒临于死亡, which can be analysed as 濒临 + + 死亡, 2 + 1 + 2.)

A few translators choose a single 2-character compound (瀕死 / 临死). This is even more succinct than the above.

For some reason, these expressions are more popular in translations from the original French.

 
3. Using 奄奄 yǎnyǎn
3
5
0
8
奄奄一息的 yǎnyǎn yīxī de 'at one's last gasp, on one's last legs'
2
5
0
7
奄奄待斃 yǎnyǎn dàibì 'on one's last legs'
1
0
0
1
奄奄一息 is a fixed four-character expression meaning 'close to death'. Used by six translators. 奄奄待斃 is similar.
 
4. Using 氣若遊絲 qì ruó yóusī
0
2
0
2
氣若遊絲的 qì ruó yóusī de 'spirit like gossamer'
0
2
0
2
Two Taiwanese translators use this expression, a literary phrase describing the tenuousness of the bird's dying spirit. Both are translating from the English.
 
5. Multiple forms (notably using 邊緣 biānyuán)
1
1
0
2
現正垂死邊緣奄奄待斃著 xiàn zhèng chuísǐ biānyuán yǎnyǎn dàibì-zhe 'now on the verge of dying on the point of dying'
1
0
0
1
瀕臨垂死邊緣的 bīnlín chuísǐ biānyuán de 'verging on the brink of dying'
0
1
0
1
These two translators manage to stuff three or more expressions into attributive position. The first, in particular, is amazing for using + + 垂死 + 邊緣 + 奄奄待斃 + , which contains six different expressions ('now' + progressive + 'verge of death' + 'verge' + 'on one's last legs' + progressive).
 
6. Future or progressive tense of , 死亡, 死去
4
3
0
7
将死之 jiāng sǐ zhī 'going to die'
1
0
0
1
即将死亡的 jí jiāng sǐwáng de 'going to die'
1
0
0
1
即将死去的 jí jiāng sǐ qù de 'going to die'
0
1
0
1
行将死去的 xíng jiāng sǐ qù de 'shortly to die'
0
1
0
1
正在死去的 zhèng zài sǐ qù de 'dying'
1
0
0
1
就要死去的 jiù yào sǐ qù de 'going to die'
1
0
0
1
就快要死了的 jiù kuài yào sǐ le de 'soon to die'
0
1
0
1
These seven translators don't try to find more elegant expressions meaning 'on the verge of death'; they all use straightforward expressions meaning 'about to die', 'going to die', or 'dying'. The translations are arranged from the most literary at the top to most colloquial at the bottom. Use of , 即将, and 行将 for future tense is characteristic of the written language. 正在 (a pure progressive) 就要 and 就快要 are colloquial in style.
 
7. Using 断气 duàn qì instead of
0
1
0
1
快要断气的 kuài yào duàn qì de 'soon to breathe one's last'
0
1
0
1
Although using the normal construction for 'soon to die', this translation uses 断气 dùan qì 'spirit snaps' instead of the pedestrian verb 'to die'.
 
8. Not expressed
1
0
0
1
-- --  
1
0
0
1
One translator (working from the French) makes no mention of 'dying'. Instead, the little prince is simply likened to a 'bird that has been shot'.
   
Total
23
22
1
46
 
F
E
?
Total

The amazing variety of Chinese translations of qui meurt almost looks like a competition to see who can find the floweriest translation.

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