Summary: The United States Declaration of Independence is the most important American official document. In the 18th Century, as a reaction to the exploitative British colonial rule, the thirteen American colonies valorously revolted. On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia adopted the US Declaration of Independence, mainly drafted by Thomas Jefferson, thereby announcing the birth of America. Incidentally, this year is Jefferson’s 275th birthday as well as the 175th anniversary of U.S. and Hong Kong diplomatic relations. This article will examine three major Chinese translations of the Declaration of Independence. The Nationalist News version (1901) is written in elegant and fluent Classical Chinese. Yet it takes too many liberties, especially with respect to religious terms. The World History Series version (1962) and the Bishop version (1985) are both guilty of inappropriate linguistic Westernization, deficiency in literary merits or in readability, and even distortion or factual errors.
I, therefore, undertake to re-translate the Declaration of Independence. The objective is to help Hong Kong and China readers to grasp the valorous spirit of the founding fathers of America, to learn from their ideals of freedom and democracy, and to appreciate the literary beauty of the text (in the form of dynamic equivalents). The translation strategy is naturalization/localization aimed at arousing resonance on the part of the target audience by way of idiomatic phraseology and syntaxes, without gross distortion of the source text. Below, this strategy will be discussed in detail, to be followed by a juxtaposition of the original text and Chapman Chen’s new Hong Kong translation.
The 3 major published translations of the US Declaration of Independence include:
“美國獨立之檄文 [The Official Declaration of American Independence] “, The Nationalist News 1 (10 May 1901) (“The Nationalist News version”) ; “美國《獨立宣言》[America’s Declaration of Independence]”, The World History Information Series I, Beijing: Commercial Press, 1962 (” The World History version”); “第二次大陸會議獨立宣言》[The Declaration of Independence Adopted by the Second Continental Congress ]”, Donald M. Bishop, ed., 《美國歷史文獻選集》[Selected Documents of American History], trans. China Translation Publication Co., emended by USIA (HK), Beijing: Public Affairs Section, Embassy of the United States in Beijing, 1985 (“The Bishop version”).
Reasons for Re-translation
The Nationalist News version is written in elegant and fluent Classical Chinese, which had inspired the anti-Ching revolutionary martyr, Chow Yung 鄒容 (1885-1905), to write The Revolutionary Army. Yet it takes too many liberties, especially with respect to religious terms. The World History Information Series version and the Bishop version are both guilty of inappropriate linguistic Westernization (e.g., abuse of weak verbs, use of too long an attribute before the noun being described, abuse of pronouns, abuse of articles, abuse of the plural indicator [們]), deficiency in literary merits or in readability, and even distortion or factual errors. Below please find some typical examples.
Distortion of Religious Terms in the Nationalist News Version
Example 1. The phrase, “a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence”, towards the end of the Declaration is translated in The Nationalist News as 天地鬼神，實昭鑒之, meaning, “May ghosts and gods of Heaven and Earth witness and monitor this oath,” in direct contradiction to the Christian faith of the founding fathers of America, who definitely would not call upon ghosts to monitor their pledge. I, therefore, translate the phrase as吾人為守此約，堅定信靠皇天庇佑 (lit. in order to abide by this pledge, we firmly rely on the blessing of the Divine Heavens)
Example 2. “all men are created equal” is translated in The Nationalist Newspaper as一凡為國人，一律平等 (lit. All citizens are equal), by The World History version and the Bishop as人人生而平等 (lit. Everyone is born equal). The Nationalist Newspaper leaves out the part played by the Creator. As regards the two other versions, in reality, people are not born equal in terms of physical features, bodily strength, family circumstances, intelligence, etc. and etc. (cf. Li Daoyu 2001), though we are equal in God’s eyes in the sense that we are endowed with unalienable rights by the Creator. I, therefore, translate “all men are created equal” as soeng5-dai3 cong3-sai3 ，jan4-jan4 ping4-dang2上帝創世，人人平等, which means “As created by God, everybody is equal”.
Over-long Attributes in World History & Bishop Versions
E.g., “He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records” is translated in The Bishop version (to which The World History Information Series version is similar) as 他把各州立法團體召集到異乎尋常的、極為不便的、遠離它們檔案庫的地方去開會, which literally means “He has called together legislative bodies from various states to unusual, very inconvenient, and far-away-from-their-archives places to have their meetings.” Altogether 18 Chinese characters are amassed as an attribute before the object “places” to describe it, which renders the line far from being readable to Chinese readers.
Example 1. The word “unalienable” in “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” is wrongly translated by The World History version as 不可轉讓 (lit. untransferable).
Example 2. “States“, as in “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America”, is omitted in The Nationalist News version; and is translated in the World History and Bishop versions as zau1州 (regional constituency rather than sovereign state). However, in the Declaration, “State” means a sovereign political entity. The Declaration precisely declares “these colonies” to be free, independent sovereign States. Considering the fact that the Congress approved the Articles of Confederation in 1777, “States” here is translated by Chapman Chen as bong1邦 (sovereign State) (cf. Li Daoyu 2001).
Wrong Register in Bishop Version
For example, “giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation” is translated in the Bishop version as 他還批准那些人炮製的各種偽法案來達到以下目的, which literally means, “He also permit the various kinds of fake bills cooked up by those people to achieve the following aims”. paau3-zai3炮製(cook up) is originally a term for preparation or processing in Chinese herbal medicine, and often used colloquially and metaphorically to mean concoct or cook up. It is definitely not an appropriate term to use in formal official texts.
Abuse of weak verbs
“should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.” is translated in The Bishop version as bit1-seoi1 baa2 taa1-mun4 bat1-dak1-bat1 duk6-lap6 dik1 jyun4-jan1 jyu5-ji5 syun1-bou3 必須把他們不得不獨立的原因予以宣佈 [have to have the reason why they are impelled to go independent subjected to declaration] 。Both baa2把and jyu5-ji5予以 are sort of redundant weak verbs. baa2把is used to indicate to “have” something done or to arrange for something to be done; jyu5-ji5予以 means “subject to”; syun1-bou3宣佈means declare or declaration. The weak verb 予以, without good reason, turns the strong verb 宣佈into a noun. I translate the line simply as 必須公佈不得不獨立之因由 [have to make public the reason that makes independence imperative].
Abuse of Chinese Pronouns
Original: That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
In fluent, elegant, and succinct and readable Chinese, pronouns are often omitted as they can readily be deduced from the context. The World History version and the Bishop version literally translate the two “they”s and one “them” in the original text above, while the Nationalist News version waive them in its fluent Classical style, however, omitting, too, “that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved”. My translation is concise and fluent enough to do without the pronouns concerned:
我合眾殖民地，理所當然成為獨立自由國家；解除對英國王室一切效忠義務；與大不列顛王國，斷絕一切政治羈絆；身為獨立自由國家，擁有全權宣戰媾和，結盟通商；其他一切行動事務，舉凡獨立國家可為者，俱有權參與。[We, united colonies, rightly become independent, free states; dissolve all allegiance to the British Crown; cut off all political connection with Great Britain; as independent and free states, have full power to declare war, conclude peace, form alliances, and establish commerce; and have the right to engage in all other acts and affairs which independent states may conduct.]
Strategy of New Translation
I, therefore, have decided to retranslate the United States Declaration of Independence. The translation strategy is naturalization, employing phrases which would trigger off resonance on the part of Hongkongers and ethnic Chinese, i.e., being idiomatic without gross distortion of the original spirit of the source text, for example, religious terms are translated in such a way as to be acceptable to ethnic Chinese, while retaining the original Christian concepts. The language used is concise, refined, as well as easily comprehensible. It usually consists of four-word or six-word short sentences or clauses, which successively and progressively advance and present meanings. Adverse linguistic Westernization and redundant wording are avoided, e.g., an overlong attribute before the noun described, abuse of pronouns, weak verbs, etc.
Use of 4-word and 6-word idiomatic short Chinese phrases
” A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” is translated by Chapman Chen as:
英王一言一行[lit. This king’s every word and deed]，俱暴君所為[lit. all pertains to a tyrant]，有何資格[lit. How is he qualified]，統領自由民族[lit. to lead a people of freedom] ？
Localization of Phrases
Example 1. “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” is translated by Chapman Chen as:
彼此發誓，甘願押上身家性命財產，與共神聖名聲。[mutually swear and put on the line our person cum family, life, assets, as well as sacred reputation].
san1-gaa1身家, in elegant Chinese as well as in HK Cantonese, means person and family, and/or fortunes. 身家性命財產 [person, family, life, and assets] is a common HK Cantonese expression and readable Chinese expression, though not so common in contemporary Communist China.
Example 2. “When in the course of human events” is translated by Chapman Chen as:
世界潮流，浩浩蕩蕩 [Global trends and waves are mighty and vast] .
This is a famous quote from Dr. Sun Yat-sen (1916), and the ensuing part is順之則昌，逆之則亡 [whoever follows them will prosper; whoever goes against them will perish]. This may resonate with a lot of ethnic Chinese.
Example 3. Nature’s God is translated by Chapman Chen as wong4-tin1皇天[the Divine Heavens], for in traditional Chinese culture, Heavens is an equivalent of God and it also implies nature.
Example 4. “The people“, as in “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it,” is translated in the World History and Bishop versions as jan4-man4人民 [the people]. But Chairman Mao said, “The people, and the people alone, are the motive force in the making of world history.” As a result, there are “The People’s Liberation Army”, “The People’s Commune”, “The People’s currency (Renminbi)”, “The People’s musician,” etc. According to the renowned Hong Kong columnist, Chip Tsao (2012), “Having been abused by the Chinese Communist Party for seventy years, the term, the image of ‘the people’ is now associated with sordidness, greed, despicableness, as well as extreme selfishness and ugliness.” I, therefore, translate the term as gung1-man4公民 [citizen]. The term comes from ancient Greece. A citizen is a free person who possesses political power via public election. He or she is also a tax payer. The relationship between the government and the citizens is based on law; in other words, it is a contractual relationship. Without political rights, humans will become animals or enslaved tools.
This year is Thomas Jefferson’s (1743-1826) 275th birthday.
He was the principal author of the US Declaration of Independence. He served as the third President of the United States from 1801 through 1809, and as the Vice President of USA from 1797 through 1801. An advocate of democracy, republicanism, and individual human rights, he motivated Americans to separate from Britain and form a new nation.
Jefferson was greatly influenced by the English philosopher, John Locke (1632-1704) and the American philosopher, Thomas Paine (1737-1809). Locke thinks that human rights are endowed by God and inalienable. Paine also thinks that when the government fails to defend its nationals’ inborn rights, they may rise and overthrow it.
The US Declaration of Independence has inspired revolutions
In the last 242 years, The US Declaration of Independence has inspired numerous independence and self-determination movements and revolutions in the world. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen is to a good extent based on the US Declaration of Independence. García de Sena (1748-1807) translated into Spanish excerpts from Thomas Paine’s important works and the US Declaration of Independence, and added to his translation annotations linking the works to Latin America’s situation, in order to liberate the colonies there. In 1903, towards the end of the Manchurian Ching Dynasty, the young revolutionary martyr, Chow Yung 鄒容 (1885-1905), stirred by the Nationalist Newspaper’s 1901 translation of the US Declaration of Independence, wrote his book, The Revolutionary Army, in order to incite the Han people to overthrow the colonial rule of the Manchurians in China.
Chapman Chen’s New HK Translation of the US Declaration of Independence [The headings of Parts I, II, III, are added by the translator]
IN CONGRESS JULY 4 1776
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America
第一部份：人權原則 [Part I: Principles of Human Rights]
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
— That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
第二部份：列舉殖民地主暴政 [Part II: Tyrannical Rule of the Colonizer]
— Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.
He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.
He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:
For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:
For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:
For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:
For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:
For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:
For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies
For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:
For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.
第三部份：宣誓獨立 [Part III: Pledging for Independence]
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
（註一）《獨立宣言》中State，皆國家之意，而無州意，事關州乃係地方性行政區劃，並非國家。《獨立宣言》宣佈這些殖民地從此成為自由、獨立國家。因此，these States應譯為各國或各邦；考慮到《獨立宣言》發表次年（一七七七年十一月）大陸會議通過《邦聯條款》，these States則以譯成各邦為合。（參李道揆，二零零一）
（註四）原文all men are created equal，歷來譯文多作「人人生而平等」。然而，人人出生時，長相美醜，身體強弱，天資慧愚，家庭貧富均有別，並非生來就平等。所謂平等乃指在創造世界的上帝眼中，人人平等，生命包含不可剝奪的自由、價值和尊嚴，概由天賦（參范學德，二零零六）。
（註九）漢典：身家(一) 自身、家庭合稱 (二) 家庭出身 (三) 家產。國語辭典：身家：(一) 出身門第。醒世恆言：「瑞虹舉目看那人面貌魁梧，服飾齊整，見眾人稱他老爹，料必是個有身家的。」(二) 自身及家庭。明·湯顯祖－〈達奚司空立南海王廟門外〉：身家隔胡漢，孤生長此畢。《儒林外史》你們伏侍太老爺，凡事不可壞了太老爺清名，也要各人保著自己的身家性命。《老殘遊記》：「但是一件要緊的事；只是我捨不得這十幾萬百姓現在的身家！」「身家性命財產」強調代價重大，當今普通話少用，香港粵語保留古文雅言。
Photo credit: Writing the Declaration of Independence, 1776 by jean Leon Gerome Ferris, 1863-1930, artist. 1932.