The Legend of the Condor Heroes title translation

The most widely accepted English translation of the Jin Yong novel is The Legend of the Condor Heroes. It is used so often that fans use the abbreviation LOCH to refer to it.

This translation fails to capture certain nuances of the original Chinese title. The Legend of the Eagle-shooting Heroes would be a more accurate translation of the title.

A literal character-by-character translation would be:

  • 射 (shè) – to shoot
  • 雕 (diāo) – eagle
  • 英雄 (yīngxióng) – hero
  • 传 (zhuàn) – biography or tale

Zhuan is often used to convey the epic nature of the story, and heroes used in plural to refer to the multitude of heroes who appear in the novel.

Eagle would be a more accurate translation of diao, especially since condors are not native to China. Moreover, there’s a deeper meaning to eagle-shooting.

Not condors

The use of the term condor is imprecise and misleading since neither species of the condor, the Andean condor and Californian condor, is native to China. The term most likely was used due to a mistranslation of the word diao.

Diao most likely refers to one of several large birds of prey native to China and Central Asia. Based on historical and ornithological context, the diao could be referring to:

  • Golden Eagle (金雕, jīn diāo): This is the most likely candidate. Golden eagles are native to Eurasia and North America, including China, especially in the northern regions and Mongolia. They are large, powerful birds of prey that have been historically used in falconry.
  • Steppe Eagle (草原雕, cǎoyuán diāo): Another large eagle species found in the steppes and grasslands of Central Asia and parts of China.
  • Imperial Eagle (白肩雕, bái jiān diāo): Also known as the Eastern Imperial Eagle, this bird is found in parts of Asia, including some regions of China.
  • Black Kite (黑鸢, hēi yuān): While not typically called a 雕, this bird is common in China and could potentially be the reference, given some historical descriptions.
  • Osprey (鹗, è): As mentioned in one of the historical commentaries in the next section, the term might sometimes refer to this fish-eating bird of prey.

Since the diaos in the novels were found in Mongolia, it is most likely refers to a golden eagle. Thus, it would be more accurate to refer to them as eagles instead of condors. However, the use of condor has become so widely recognised that changing it now could lead to further confusion, especially given fans’ attachment to the term.

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It is worth noting that 射雕 (shè diāo) is also a term with deep roots in Chinese history and literature. Besides its literal meaning, it is also used to refer to marksmen when used as an adjective. This layered meaning is difficult to convey in a concise English title.

Historical references

One of the earliest and most significant references comes from the Records of the Grand Historian (史记, Shǐjì) by Sima Qian, specifically in the biography of General Li Guang. He wrote: “A noble led several dozen horsemen and encountered three Xiongnu. They fought, and the three Xiongnu shot back, wounding the noble and killing almost all of his horsemen. The noble fled to Guang, who said, ‘These must be diao-shooters.’”

This passage establishes eagle-shooters as exceptionally skilled archers, capable of defeating much larger forces. The term thus becomes associated with remarkable martial prowess.

Further historical commentaries provide more context. Pei Yin (裴駰 Péiyīn), a scholar from the Liu Song Dynasty who wrote commentaries on the Records of the Grand Historian, wrote in his work Collected Commentaries (集解, Jíjǐe): “The diao is a bird, and is a target specifically for skilled archers to shoot at.”

This emphasises the difficulty of shooting the diao, implying that only skilled archers would attempt it, and connects the act of shooting the diao with demonstrating archery skill.

Sima Zhen, in his commentary Investigating the Obscure (索隐 Súoyǐn), notes that the scholar Fu Qian equated the diao with the osprey. He also cites the Explaining and Analyzing Characters (说文解字, Shūowén Jǐezì), an early 2nd-century Chinese dictionary, which describes the diao as similar to a vulture, black in colour, and known for having many offspring.

Wei Zhao (韦昭 Wéi Zhāo), a scholar from the Eastern Wu kingdom during the Three Kingdoms period wrote in his commentaries, “The osprey is also called diao.”

Gao Qi of the Ming Dynasty wrote in his poem “Presented to General Ma”: “Wishing to cross the Wolf River, to directly capture the diao-shooting general.”

This expresses his desire to confront and defeat a powerful enemy general, another reference of a long-standing literary tradition of using this term to evoke ideas of heroism and exceptional ability.

Use in idiom

The Chinese version of the idiom “to kill two birds with one stone” is 一箭双雕 (~yī jiàn shuāng diāo), literally to shoot two diaos with one arrow.

The idiom is said to originates from a story about Chang Sunsheng (长孙晟), a skilled archer from the late Northern Zhou period (557-581 CE).

In the year before the establishment of the Sui Dynasty (581 CE), Chang Sun Sheng was sent as an envoy to the Turkic Khaganate. Due to his impressive qualities, the Turkic leader Ishbara Qaghan requested that Chang Sunsheng remain with them. For a full year, Chang Sunsheng accompanied Ishbara Qaghan on hunting expeditions.

One day, as Ishbara Qaghan was walking in front of his tent, he noticed two large eagles circling in the sky, fighting over a piece of meat. Intrigued, Ishbara Qaghan called for two arrows to be brought and handed them to Chang Sunsheng, challenging him to shoot down both eagles.

Chang Sunsheng took the arrows, mounted his horse, and rode towards the eagles. 

As he approached, he raised his bow, nocked an arrow, and tracked the eagles’ movement with his hands. Then, with incredible strength and precision, he released a single arrow. The arrow pierced through the chests of both eagles simultaneously, causing them to fall from the sky together.

This remarkable feat of archery, where Chang Sunsheng achieved two objectives with a single action, became the basis for the idiom 

Over time, it evolved into a widely used expression in Chinese language to describe accomplishing two goals with one effort, similar to the English phrase “killing two birds with one stone.”

More accurate title translation

As mentioned at the start of the article, the more accurate translation of the title would be The Legend of the Eagle-shooting Heroes. This translation captures the original meaning more faithfully, and some adaptations have indeed used this or similar versions that emphasise the significance of eagle-shooting.

It’s worth noting that the latest TV adaptation chose to use Legend of the Heroes, dropping both condor and eagle-shooting in the title. While this may simplify the title, it’s likely done to accommodate the addition of story arcs in the series titles, rather than for accuracy.

While The Legend of the Condor Heroes may not be the most accurate translation, its widespread acceptance has made it an integral part of the novel’s identity in the English-speaking world. This case serves as an interesting example of how translations can take on a life of their own, sometimes diverging from literal accuracy but gaining cultural significance in their own right.