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There isn't time -- so brief is life -- for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. there is only time for loving -- & but an instant, so to speak, for that.

A friend was quoting a translated version of this on social network. I got curious and did some Googling, found that the general translation of this quote is different between Simplified Chinese version and Transitional Chinese version.

The confusion part is about the last bit. While the first translation, stating that the time for love is very short, so it's such a pity. The other translation, looks more blur, as it's something like: we only have time to love, and everything is fleeting.

While reading the original English version, me myself is more keen to lean toward to the first translation, which highlights that time for loving is instant, and the but shows how pity that is. I tried some more Googling but unfortunately it looks this type of sentence is not a problem to native speaker hence no one bother to explain it further. But to me Mark Twain's sentence is giving me most confusion among all those English sentence I've seen. So am I understanding it correctly?

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    It is an example of hyperbole. An instant should be taken to mean a short period of time. A day, a month, a year, even a lifetime: they are all the same. – Mick Jan 14 '18 at 20:11
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While the first translation, stating that the time for love is very short, so it's such a pity. The other translation, looks more blur, as it's something like: we only have time to love, and everything is fleeting.

The passage quoted in your question was:

There isn't time -- so brief is life -- for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account. there is only time for loving -- & but an instant, so to speak, for that.

Deconstructing that passage:

There isn't time -- so brief is life -- for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account.

The narrator states that life is brief, and because life is brief there isn't enough time "for bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account."

The phrase would have made more literal sense if it read isn't enough time but it's a common idiom to drop enough. There is time, there just isn't enough time because life is brief and therefore what little time there is, is precious.

Too precious to waste on "bickerings, apologies, heartburnings, callings to account", things that do not enrich one's life.

There is only time for loving --

So what is there time for? There is time for loving, implicit in this is the idea that the narrator finds love to be one of the most worthiest of human pursuits (because he has already stated that life is all too brief, which implies time is very precious).

& but an instant, so to speak, for that.

This is a magnification of the idea that time is brief (repeated here for poetic effect and emphasis) - even though there is time for love, that time is still but an instant. This serves to stress just how short a human life is, and also stress how worthy a pursuit the narrator finds loving to be.

There is an implicit admonishment here for the reader to seize the moment when loving, because in the blink of an eye there will not even be enough time for that.

The second translation you mention:

We only have time to love, and everything is fleeting.

Is less poetic and carries less power, but the essential idea is the same.

We only have time to love

Implies we should do nothing but love, which carries the same idea that love is the noblest of human pursuits that we gleaned from the first translation. We would never read this phrase to literally mean there is not enough time to do anything else but love, but instead we read it to mean the time we have is too valuable to spend doing anything else but love.

Everything is fleeting

Means everything passes quickly, this phrase being so close to the phrase life is brief encourages us to think about the shortness of a human life, but also we are reminded about the poignant fact that even once the prize of love is attained it will only last a short while.

But compare with this first passage:

time [is] but an instant

This is a more powerful rendering of the idea, time is not only fleeting, but is a mere instant. We should seize it and (in relation to the rest of the passage) spend what little time we have in the pursuit of love.

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    Thanks @Gary, the other version, the main difference is just the last part, which I mentioned in my question as follow: The other translation, looks more blur, as it's something like: we only have time to love, and everything is fleeting. – Simon Wang Jan 14 '18 at 20:29
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    Having read your answer again, with you good explanation I think now I get the idea of it. Thanks so much! I guess this is why they saying that things would be lost in translation. Before this I found that more often it's some meaning in Chinese lost in it's translation to English, now I got a solid case the other way around. Maybe it pays to learn more languages! – Simon Wang Jan 14 '18 at 20:35
  • Hi @SimonWang I've updated my answer to address the second quote you mentioned. The two carry very similar meanings but the first translation is much better in my opinion, as it is more poetic and the meaning therefore more powerfully expressed. – Gary Jan 14 '18 at 20:48
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But to me Mark Twain's sentence is giving me most confusion among all those English sentence I've seen.

Great question, in my humble opinion. The Mark Twain quote cited in your question is eloquently complex. He articulated a beautifully profound idea, in quite simple terms, as if he wanted to communicate it to the whole world. And he did so while employing the "show, don't tell" technique of narration.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Show,_don%27t_tell

but an instant

(Means only an instant.) The author showed the world a simple fact of life, and left it to individual readers to respond with their own feelings about the truth revealed.

I would take both of the Chinese translations together, as each is informative in its own way:

While the first translation, stating that the time for love is very short, so it's such a pity.

The first translation picked up on the implied feeling, and attempted to put that into words. Nothing seriously wrong with that, for a translation, in my opinion. It proves the translator understood the language at the deepest (human emotional) levels.

The other translation, looks more blur, as it's something like: we only have time to love, and everything is fleeting.

The other translation understands that the feeling was implied, and attempted therefore to preserve the author's original intent, which is equally commendable. But I think it is probably the implied, rather than iterated, conveyance of emotion, which may cause it to seem a bit blurry.

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    Thanks @Bread, good to know the "Show, don't tell" technique, it's very interesting that I might saw this technique thousands of times but never thought about it why it felt different – Simon Wang Jan 14 '18 at 20:52

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