Blueprint a better blue: On translating Robert Parker’s wine tasting notes into Chinese

All that separates Parker and Peking? (someelseskitchen.com)

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By Jim Boyce

I happily joined a dinner in Beijing a week ago with a group that included Marcus Ford, Stuart Christie and Jim Yang of retail shop Pudao Wines, Dominique Bonnel of importer and distributor Summergate, and Lisa Perrotti-Brown, who was visiting from Singapore and writes for the magazine and website published by highly influential American critic Robert Parker. We opened some very nice bottles over dinner, most of them lost on me given that I overindulged earlier that day, during a tasting of wines chosen by Ford and presented by Perrotti-Brown. Those bottles nevertheless did their part in transforming me into Captain Adamant.

What inspired the adamancy, besides all that wine? This topic: The Chinese translation of Robert Parker’s tasting notes, specifically, when that will happen.

Parker visited Beijing just over four years ago and hinted about translating his notes into Chinese. That hasn’t happened yet and it seems a key issue is the idea that Parker needs a translator from the wine industry, but there is a shortage of talent and/or vocabulary in that field. I’m not sure I agree that such translation needs to be done “in house” or “in industry”. (That is a downgrade from the night in question when I adamantly disagreed.)

Let’s say I need 20 wine tasting notes translated from English into Chinese for a meeting tomorrow with local media or investors or other bigwigs. And let’s say I have the choice of two translators. Translator One is highly regarded in general and has done work in a wide variety of fields but not much in wine. Translator Two is considered among the best in the field of wine. Which would I take? I’d probably take Translator Two. Time is of the essence and it helps to have someone who knows about wine.

But let’s say I need to translate tens of thousands of tasting notes over a period of years. In that case, I think there is a strong argument for Translator One. First, you could find a highly talented person from a big and developed pool (all translators) rather than someone from a small and undeveloped pool (wine translators). Second, a skilled person who has translated in multiple fields is likely able to learn quickly, grasp nuances and be adaptable. Third, a person with limited experience in wine would arguably be a kind of “blank slate” and arguably a better conduit for the personality and style of the original writer.

True, it might be a struggle to translate those first 20 or 50 or 100 or more tasting notes, and there might be problems in deciding on vocabulary. But those issues exist anyway. Ultimately, a good part of the notes will be repetitive — let’s say ample use of  “blackcurrant”, “intense” and “unctuous” in Parker’s case — thus once the translator gets the language and style, he or she would be effective.

I’m not saying this is the only solution. I do understand different perspectives on the issue and I know translation is a tough job. But for years I have heard about The Case of the Gooseberry, namely, that a description such as “notes of gooseberry” is indecipherable to most Chinese because they do not know that fruit. I’ve used that example at times, too. But I’ve also met people from countries where gooseberries grow and who don’t grasp the description, either.

My point is that perfection is fleeting — kind of like a 100-point score. It would be a pity to get bogged down by gooseberry-ish exceptions, by an attempt at getting everything just so, rather than giving consumers access to the vast majority of content that has no such issues.

Parker is in a unique spot, and I don’t simply mean he is the world’s most famous taster. I mean he takes flack on a regular basis simply for being Parker and thus is an ideal person to be the lightning rod on this translation issue, to jump-start the debate that will inevitably occur on blogs, Weibo, and so on, and to even benefit from the feedback. But if the past four years of waiting is any indication, that debate might be a while off yet.

Finally, writing this post reminded me a passage in The Last Tycoon, the sadly unfinished novel of F. Scott Fitzgerald, about a movie producer called Monroe Stahr. Whenever flying from Los Angeles to New York, he liked to sit in the cockpit and talk to the pilots. The novel’s narrator recounts one incident:

Years later I traveled with one of those same pilots and he told me one thing Stahr had said.

He [Stahr] was looking down at the mountains.

“Suppose you were a railroad man,” he said. “You have to send a train through there somewhere. Well, you get your surveyors’ reports, and you find there’s three or four or half a dozen gaps, and not one is better than the other. You’ve got to decide — on what basis? You can’t test the best way — except by doing it. So you just do it.”

The pilot thought he had missed something.

“How do you mean?”

“You choose some one way for no reason at all –- because that mountain’s pink or the blueprint is a better blue. You see?”

Thus maybe it is a matter of finding someone who is a superb translator, though not in the wine field. Or finding someone highly skilled from the general pool of translators who can rise to the challenge. Or maybe taking another tact — I have an idea re this that I will soon post about it. Ultimately, though, it may be a matter of simply choosing “some one way“.

Note: This, of course, is assuming Parker doesn’t already have a translation plan. I expect he must have something in mind, though no one at the table indicated that. Also, I feel obligated to reveal my translation credentials here: I am a frequent user of Google Translate and Perapera.

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