ZH > EN: Mandarin Let It Go

The two Mandarin translations of Let It Go are going to be a little bit different. They're going to be the first non-Indo-European translations here, and Mandarin syntax doesn't correspond to Indo-European syntax at all. It's a completely different beast. What I'm going to do, then, is give a translation and a gloss, so you can see what it reads like as a whole but also word for word. Because there's a gloss, the translation will be a bit more natural than it normally is. The mission of exposing a language's nuts and bolts will be spread across both the translation and the gloss.

Next problem: how grammatically detailed should the gloss be? I was tempted to make it very detailed, but ultimately this is not a blog for linguists, this is a blog for people with an amateur interest in languages. So, as much as my inner nerd wants to gloss something as "NEG EXIST foot print ATTR place", there's no point. The only thing I expect from you here is that you speak English.

Where it makes sense to gloss a specific English verbal construction, I've done that; I've also conjugated the verbs and declined the relevant pronouns because it is silly for you to sit there and read "let I see" because I insist that if Mandarin doesn't inflect then the gloss shouldn't either. I've generally left the nouns uninflected for number, though, unless I need to know the number to conjugate the verb properly, then I've chosen the number that makes most sense to me.

If you are a nerdy grammar purist and are offended that I opted to gloss a progressive aspect marker as "is [verb]ing", well, don't write to me. Write your own gloss instead.

Also, as much as I want to gloss compound nouns into their constituent parts, like "female-king", I won't if there is a word that obviously makes more sense (e.g. "queen"). I will do it, however, if the English word is inelegant and the constituent parts of the compound noun are evocative enough to justify it.

There are two complications. The first has to do with 的, which is a possessive marker if it follows a noun. However, if it follows an adjective and precedes a noun, then it attributes the adjective to the noun. (See this page for more details.) I've glossed the possessive marker as 's and the attributive as ATTR, because English has no equivalent attributive marker.

If any of that was confusing: just ignore ATTR wherever you see it below and you will be just fine.

The second complication has to do with 吧, which I've rendered here as SUGG, for "suggestion particle". 吧 is used, among other things, for marking a statement as a suggestion.

First up is the version recorded for China:

Mandarin version

English translation

English version

白雪发亮今夜铺满山上 White snow glowing bright carpets the mountain tonight The snow glows white on the mountain tonight
báixuě fāliàng jīnyè pùmǎn shānshàng (white-snow shines tonight covers mountains)
没有脚印的地方 Not a spot with footprints Not a footprint to be seen
méiyǒu jiǎoyìn de dìfāng (don't-have footprint ATTR place)
孤立的王国很荒凉 A lonely kingdom is very bleak A kingdom of isolation
gūlì de wángguó hěn huāngliáng (lonely ATTR kingdom very bleak)
我是这里的女皇 I am the queen of this place And it looks like I'm the queen
wǒ shì zhèlǐ de nǚhuáng (I am here's queen)
风在呼啸 像心里的风暴一样 The wind is screaming just like the windstorm in my heart The wind is howling like the swirling storm inside
fēng zài hūxiào xiàng xīn lǐ de fēngbào yīyàng (wind is screaming like heart inside's windstorm same)
只有天知道 我受过的伤 Only heaven knows the pain I've suffered Couldn't keep it in, heaven knows I tried
zhǐyǒu tiān zhīdào wǒ shòuguò de shāng (only heaven know I suffered ATTR pain)

The Mandarin translation sticks pretty close to the English here, making sure to hit all the key words: white, glow, footprints, lonely kingdom, howling wind, heaven. It matches the information density of the English version pretty well. Something that's striking here is that while a language like Spanish is overwhelmingly verb-driven, this version is very imagery-driven.

I have to be careful here not to let my Singlish brain spill over. In Singlish, "don't have" is an existential expression meaning "there isn't/aren't any", akin to Spanish "no lo hay". In fact the Singlish expression is probably calqued directly from Mandarin or Hokkien. So "don't-have footprint" = "there are no footprints", or if you are a linguistics nerd, NEG EXIST footprint. Keep that in mind everywhere you see "don't-have" in the gloss.

Mandarin uses postpositions instead of prepositions, so those come after the noun they modify, not before. You see this in a gloss like "heart inside", meaning "in my heart".

A fun party trick: ask a Singaporean speaker of Mandarin to name a Mandarin preposition. I will take bets on the response being "but Mandarin has no grammar!"

Mandarin version

English translation

English version

别让他们 Don't let them Don't let them in
bié ràng tāmen (don't let them)
进来看见 Come in to see Don't let them see
jìnlái kànjiàn (come in see)
做好女孩 Be a good girl Be the good girl
zuò hǎo nǚhái (be good girl)
就像你的从前 Just like you were before You always had to be
jiù xiàng nǐ de cóngqián (just like your past)
躲藏, 不让他们看见 Hide, don't let them see Conceal, don't feel, don't let them know
duǒcáng, bù ràng tāmen kànjiàn (hide, don't let them see)
已被发现 I've been discovered Well, now they know
yǐ beì fāxiàn (already been discovered)

Again, sticking very close to the English source.

We're coming to the good, meaty stuff.

Mandarin version

English translation

English version

随它吧, 随它吧 Let it be, let it be Let it go, let it go
suí tā ba, suí tā ba (let it SUGG, let it SUGG)
回头已没有办法 There is no way back now Can't hold it back any more
huítóu yǐ méiyǒu bànfǎ (turn-back already don't-have way)
随它吧, 随它吧 Let it be, let it be Let it go, let go
suí tā ba, suí tā ba (let it SUGG, let it SUGG)
一转身不再牵挂 Once I turn around, I won't worry any more Turn away and slam the door
yī zhuànshēn bù zài qiānguà (once turn-around (lit. turn-body) no again worry)
我不管他们想说的话 I don't care what they want to say I don't care what they're going to say
wǒ bù guǎn tāmen xiǎng shuō de huà (I don't care they want say ATTR speech)
任风吹雨打 Let the wind blow and the rain beat down Let the storm rage on
rèn fēngchuīyǔdǎ (let wind blow rain beat)
反正冰天雪地我也不怕 I am not afraid of ice-sky and snow-earth anyway The cold never bothered me anyway
fǎnzhèng bīngtiān xuědì wǒ yě bù pà (Anyway ice-sky snow-earth I also not scared)

I was mildly tempted to translate 随 as "follow". That'd be a pretty fun rendering -- follow it wherever it goes! I do think "let" is a better choice, though, because 随 carries an implication of not caring. "Follow" is quite a bit more active than "let".

I originally had the fourth line as "once you turn around, don't you ever worry again", but ditched it in favour of what you see above because of the mysteriously switching subject. (What, you don't talk to yourself sometimes?) Of course, there's no personal subject in any of the first four lines, but a completely impersonal rendering would have been an atrocity: "upon turning around, no more worries". No thanks.

The 一 + verb construction is pretty interesting -- mentally, in my head, I think of it as being like the Spanish al + verb construction, al girar, upon turning.

And now, my favourite pair of lines: "let wind blow rain beat". Okay, I took some licence here. If you look in the dictionary you will find this:

"Ice-sky" and "snow-earth" might raise a few eyebrows. As far as sticklebrick compound words go, they're pretty self-explanatory, and they're really the only way I can think of to express the expansive imagery of the Mandarin translation here.

The gloss "anyway... I also not scared" makes me laugh. It's classic Singlish.

Mandarin version

English translation

English version

这一点点的距离 Just this little bit of distance It's funny how some distance
zhè yīdiǎndiǎn de jùlí (this little little bit of distance *)
让一切变精致 Makes everything seem delicate Makes everything seem small
ràng yīqiè biàn jīngzhì (let everything become delicate)
曾经困扰我的恐惧 The fears that once perplexed me And the fears that fears once controlled me
céngjīng kùnrǎo wǒ de kǒngjù (once perplexed me ATTR fear)
会远离我回忆 Will distance themselves from my memory Can't get to me at all
huì yuǎnlí wǒ huíyì (will far-leave my memory)
现在开始让我看见 Now let me start to see It's time to see what I can do
xiànzài kāishǐ ràng wǒ kànjiàn (now start let me see)
是我的突破和极限 It's my breakthroughs and my limits To test the limits and break through
shì wǒ de túpò hé jíxiàn (is my breakthrough and limit)
不分对错, 没有极限 No right, no wrong, there are no limits No right, no wrong, no rules for me
bù fēn duìcuò, méiyǒu jíxiàn (no split right-wrong, don't-have limit)
向前 Onward! I'm free
xiàngqián (onward)

Okay -- it's arguable whether 一点点 should be glossed as "a little little bit". I mean, word for word it's more like "a bit bit", but I opted for "a little little bit" because at least that form of pseudo-reduplication has some meaning in English.

I'll mention this here because I think this is the place where it's clearest:

曾经困扰我的恐惧

céngjīng kùnrǎo wǒ de kǒngjù

(once perplexed me ATTR fear)

The fears that once perplexed me

的, as I mentioned above, sometimes serves as an attributive marker particle. The noun that comes after the particle is attributed with the adjectival quality mentioned before the particle.

The only reasonable way to render "once perplexed me" in English as an adjective is as a relative clause, and so the gloss leads pretty clearly to the translation: "fear [that] once perplexed me". From there, it's a short leap to "the fears that once perplexed me".

I can't think of a better translation for 远离 than "to distance oneself", unfortunately. As you can see in the gloss, the compound word is actually made up of "far" and "leave".

Mandarin version

English translation

English version

随它吧,随它吧 Let it be, let it be Let it go, let it go
suí tā ba, suí tā ba (let it SUGG, let it SUGG)
跟风和天空对话 Talk with the wind and sky I'm one with the wind and sky
gēn fēng hé tiānkōng duìhuà (with wind and sky converse)
随它吧,随它吧 Let it be, let it be Let it go, let go
suí tā ba, suí tā ba (let it SUGG, let it SUGG)
眼泪不再掉下 Tears will never fall again You'll never see me cry
yǎnlèi bù zài diào xià (tears no again fall down)
这个家让我留下 Let me stay in this home Here I stand and here I'm staying
zhège jiā ràng wǒ liúxià (this home let me stay)
任风吹雨打 Let the wind blow and the rain beat down Let the storm rage on
rèn fēng chuī yǔ dǎ (let wind blow rain beat)

Topic prominence rears its head! Is 这个家让我留下 "let me stay in this home" or "this home is letting me stay"? You'd think that as a native speaker of a topic-prominent language it would be obvious to me, but it isn't. If someone can pick apart the Mandarin grammar here I'd be grateful for an answer to this question.

An aside: I think the word 让 has been overworked throughout this song.

Mandarin version

English translation

English version

我力量从空气中扩散到地上 My power spreads from the air down upon the ground My power flurries through the air into the ground
wǒ lìliàng cóng kōngqì zhòng kuòsàn dào dìshàng (my power from air within spreads until ground)
我灵魂盘旋在冰块各种不同形状 My soul spirals in ice of every shape and size My soul is spiralling in frozen fractals all around
wǒ línghún pánxuán zài bīngkuài gèzhǒng bùtóng xíngzhuàng (my soul spirals in ice-block all-sorts different shapes)
我思想结晶变成锋利的闪光 My thoughts crystallise and become sharp flashes of light And one thought crystallises like an icy blast
wǒ sīxiǎng jiéjīng biànchéng fēnglì de shǎnguāng (my thoughts form-crystal become sharp ATTR flash-light)
我永不回头看 I'm never looking back I'm never going back
wǒ yǒngbù huítóu kàn (I never turn-back look)
以往会被埋藏 The past will be buried The past is in the past
yǐwǎng huì bèi máicáng (past will be buried)

Another postposition worth mentioning: 中 "within", as in "air within", as in "from within the air". In the next stanza I translate 中 differently, and I comment on it below.

I stared at this line for a very long time:

我灵魂盘旋在冰块各种不同形状

wǒ línghún pánxuán zài bīngkuài gèzhǒng bùtóng xíngzhuàng

(my soul spirals in ice-block all-sorts different shapes)

My soul spirals in ice of every shape and size

The first part was unambiguous: 我灵魂 is "my soul". 盘旋 is the verb "to spiral".

And then my brain went to pieces. Is the soul spiralling in a block of ice? Is the soul spiralling in a block of ice and producing ice of different shapes? Are we talking about ice in literal, physical space? How does a soul spiral in a literal, physical space, or even a metaphorical, figurative one?

... what does it even mean, "my soul is spiralling in frozen fractals all around"???

In the end I just picked something that made a bit of sense and left it.

I couldn't help myself with "flash-light". It was a bad, bad, unfunny pun begging to be made. 闪光 means "flash of light", of course.

Mandarin version

English translation

English version

随它吧,随它吧 Let it be, let it be Let it go, let it go
suí tā ba, suí tā ba (let it SUGG, let it SUGG)
让我在曙光中升华 Let me transcend myself at daybreak And I'll rise like the break of dawn
ràng wǒ zài shǔguāng zhōng shēnghuá (let me in dawn-light middle sublimate *)
随它吧,随它吧 Let it be, let it be Let it go, let go
suí tā ba, suí tā ba (let it SUGG, let it SUGG)
让完美被蒸发 Let perfection evaporate That perfect girl is gone
ràng wánměi bèi zhēngfā (let perfection be evaporated)
这个家在阳光之下 This home, under the sunlight Here I stand in the light of day
zhège jiā zài yángguāng zhīxià (this home is sunlight under)
任风吹雨打 Let the wind blow and the rain beat down Let the storm rage on
rèn fēng chuī yǔ dǎ (let wind blow rain beat)
反正冰天雪地我也不怕 I am not afraid of ice-sky and snow-earth anyway The cold never bothered me anyway
fǎnzhèng bīngtiān xuědì wǒ yě bù pà (anyway ice-sky snow-earth I also not scared)

I glossed 中 as "middle" instead of "within" here, just because "within daybreak" makes much less sense to me than "in the middle of the dawn".

No other translation I've seen does this, and it's kind of great: 升华 means to refine or to sublimate, and it's a fantastic play on words. I couldn't quite hammer "sublimate" into the translation and settled for "transcend", which I can live with. Two lines later, to take the chemistry lesson even further, the Mandarin version then attempts to evaporate an abstract noun. Well, I guess if money can evaporate, perfection can, too.

This was far more difficult than I expected. I don't have the vocabulary or deep grammatical knowledge of Mandarin to comment intelligently about the language, so I was making a lot of this up as I went along, and learning the nitty-gritty of Mandarin grammar that, as a heritage speaker, I never quite learnt to articulate. I have a lot more to learn.


This post is part of the Parallel Translation series, where I translate things that have been translated from English into other languages back into English. It's my idea of fun. Yes, I'm a riot at parties.