Style Transfer: in a Way of Semi-Ancient English-Chinese Translation

Style Transfer: in a Way of Semi-Ancient English-Chinese Translation

You may have heard of style transfer, a technique that can transform the feature of one thing to another. People might firstly think of it as related to machine learning, but sometime the classic way is still a fun to play with.


Ever found yourself neck-deep in ancient texts, trying to decipher what exactly our Roman friends were up to? Well, I’ve been there, wading through the murky waters of Latin verbs and Roman debauchery. Recently, I stumbled upon Edward Gibbon’s magnum opus, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Yep, that’s the heavyweight champion of history books, written way back in 1776 — when America was just deciding it had had enough of British tea.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Gibbon, with his flair for the dramatic and the archaic, wrote this monumental work in what can only be described as ‘English Plus’ — that special version of the language where every sentence is a marathon. This makes it a tough nut to crack, particularly if English isn’t your first language. And if you think translating it into Chinese is any easier, think again. It’s like fitting a square peg in a round hole… but the peg is made of butter and the hole is a time-travelling portal.

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1827) Vol 1 Page 117

Enter Huang’s 1996 translation, based on the D.M. Low’s abridged 1986 version in London. Huang took some creative liberties—sometimes the sentences get lost in translation, sometimes they just get weird. But let’s give credit where it’s due; it’s still a fun house mirror reflecting Rome’s own chaotic decline.

The Style Transfer

My mission to stylistically morph Gibbon into Chinese started after I perused a Wikipedia page about the Five Good Emperors. It’s fascinating how they managed to keep the Roman ship steady—no easy feat, considering everyone was backstabbing everyone else with a gladius back then.

If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus. The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority commanded involuntary respect. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws. Such princes deserved the honour of restoring the republic had the Romans of their days been capable of enjoying a rational freedom.

And here’s the magical Chinese rendition that seems to have popped out of some scholar’s dream after binge-reading both Gibbon and ancient Chinese annals, quoting from Wikipedia:




This mystery translation has become a hot favorite, quoted by a lot of websites, for example, Baidu Encyclopedia, which is a Chinese version of Wikipedia:

五贤帝时期的文治武功,在罗马帝国其他时期也是难得一见的。因此,18世纪的英国历史学家爱德华·吉本(Edward Gibbon,1737—1794)在他的著作《罗马帝国衰亡史》(The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire)中,把这个年代称赞为“人类最幸福的年代”。他对五贤君的种种贤德的称赞如下:



Baidu marks the translation as “old-style” and “new-style”, which is quite interesting. The “old-style” translation is quite similar to the one quoted by Wikipedia, and remains the style of both ancient Chinese and Gibbon’s writing. The “new-style” translation, however, is quoted directly from Huang’s translation.

The Work

So, inspired by this mashup of East meets West, I decided to dive deeper. I grabbed some more Gibbon and translated additional passages into this ‘old-style’ Chinese that makes you feel like you’re both at a Roman senate meeting and a Chinese tea ceremony.

Here is the result.

[Volumn I] Chapter III: Its precarious nature


The labours of these monarchs were overpaid by the immense reward that inseparably waited on their success; by the honest pride of virtue, and by the exquisite delight of beholding the general happiness of which they were the authors. A just, but melancholy reflection embittered, however, the noblest of human enjoyments. They must often have recollected the instability of a happiness which depended on the character of a single man. The fatal moment was perhaps approaching, when some licentious youth, or some jealous tyrant, would abuse, to the destruction, that absolute power which they had exerted for the benefit of their people. The ideal restraints of the senate and the laws might serve to display the virtues, but could never correct the vices, of the emperor. The military force was a blind and irresistible instrument of oppression; and the corruption of Roman manners would always supply flatterers eager to applaud, and ministers prepared to serve the fear or the avarice, the lust or the cruelty, of their masters.



[Volumn I] Chapter III: Insensibility of the orientals


When Persia was governed by the descendants of Sefi, a race of princes whose wanton cruelty often stained their divan, their table, and their bed, with the blood of their favourites, there is a saying recorded of a young nobleman, that he never departed from the sultan’s presence without satisfying himself whether his head was still on his shoulders. The experience of every day might almost justify the scepticism of Rustan. Yet the fatal sword, suspended above him by a single thread, seems not to have disturbed the slumbers, or interrupted the tranquillity, of the Persian. The monarch’s frown, he well knew, could level him with the dust; but the stroke of lightning or apoplexy might be equally fatal; and it was the part of a wise man to forget the inevitable calamities of human life in the enjoyment of the fleeting hour. He was dignified with the appellation of the king’s slave; had, perhaps, been purchased from obscure parents in a country which he had never known; and was trained up from his infancy in the severe discipline of the seraglio. His name, his wealth, his honours, were the gift of a master, who might, without injustice, resume what he had bestowed. Rustan’s knowledge, if he possessed any, could only serve to confirm his habits by prejudices. His language afforded not words for any form of government, except absolute monarchy. The history of the East informed him, that such had ever been the condition of mankind. The Koran, and the interpreters of that divine book, inculcated to him, that the sultan was the descendant of the prophet, and the vice-regent of heaven; that patience was the first virtue of a Mussulman, and unlimited obedience the great duty of a subject.



The Conclusion

What started as a quirky side project turned out to be quite the undertaking. The translation is shaping up to be a bridge across cultures, centuries, and languages. And while I may only pop out a blog post every few years, remember, Rome wasn’t built (or translated) in a day!

By the way, I’m still chipping away at Latin—salve! Funny how it means both hello and goodbye, much like my relationship with Gibbon’s work: I can’t decide if I’m coming or going.

Stay tuned for more adventures in translation or other fields, and here’s to hoping my next update comes before we colonize Mars!

Beam me up, Scotty! 🚀

Style Transfer: in a Way of Semi-Ancient English-Chinese Translation


Zhang Youjie

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