This special issue of Stand
celebrates the work of new writers writing from, to and about the Chinese-speaking world. It features the work of many of the participants to date in the Writing Chinese
network, as well as contributions from other writers with Chinese interests, heritage, or connections.
Writing Chinese: Authors, Authority and Authorship
is a research project on new Chinese writing and writers, hosted at the University of Leeds, UK. We set it up in 2014 and it has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, via the White Rose East Asia Centre. One of our aims was to bring together people involved in conveying new Chinese writing to Western readerships – whether authors, translators, editors, publishers, academics or reviewers.
The theme of journeys, broadly interpreted, has been at the core of our project from the start: the journey from story to book, and more specifically from a story in Chinese to a book in English, provided the structure for our first symposium in Leeds in July 2015. We held a series of consecutive roundtable discussions among authors, translators, publishers, editors, academics and reviewers, focussing on the various stages of this process, from creation, to editing, to translation, to publication, to reading and reviewing and finally, in some cases, to teaching.
Core to this journey is the translator. Chinese and English are very different languages. Chinese has no verb tenses, conjugations or declensions, relative clauses (at least not in the sense English-speakers understand them) definite/indefinite articles, capital letters or, in most cases, singulars and plurals. (In case I am giving the impression of a complete grammatical free-for-all though, please note it does possess the notorious particle 了 (le)
, the linguistic equivalent of football’s off-side rule – very commonly used and mostly understood by those who use it regularly but quite hard to explain to those who don’t). The linguistic gulf naturally leads to different ways of seeing the world – one ‘real-life’ significance of the lack of tenses was demonstrated to me recently when a Chinese friend’s father died and she bemoaned the fact that in English, at the very second of his passing she needed to remember to switch to a past tense (‘He was a good man’) whereas in Chinese she felt a stronger connection as the way she described him - living or dead - was unchanged.
Translating literature across a divide such as this on the one hand requires considerable creativity on the part of the translator and in this issue, we have included interviews with key translators to help shed light on this process. As well as the linguistic challenges, though, running this project has also really brought home to us the amount of legwork translators do, with rarely any recognition, let alone remuneration, to bring new Chinese writing to the attention of publishers in the West. The translator will often go to considerable effort to source a new writer or work, champion it and act as go-between in approaching publishers without Chinese language skills, and then post-publication will continue to market the work at book fairs and tours, often acting as interpreter at author readings and promotion events. Appeals such as the campaign on Twitter to #namethetranslator are helping to raise the profile of translators but there is still a long way to go.
Our project has run various events over the last couple of years to highlight the importance of this role and to encourage people to take it up. We’ve held two translation workshops, and on the back of the popularity of these we launched our first translation competition, translating a very short story by renowned Hong Kong author and editor Dorothy Tse. The winning entries were published in Structo
magazine (issue 14). (A second piece by Dorothy, ‘The Man Who Ate Everything’ is included in this volume, translated by one of the competition winners, Natascha Bruce.) The success of this contest led to the launch of two further competitions, on reportage and poetry respectively, and the winning entries of these are all included in this special issue of Stand.
Our translation workshops and competitions have been supported and facilitated by core members of the Paper Republic
initiative – a collective of translators and authors who do outstanding work in bringing the best of new Chinese writing to an English-reading audience. The core members of this collective, prolific and award-winning translators including Nicky Harman, Helen Wang, Dave Haysom, and Eric Abrahamsen, have supported the Writing Chinese
Alongside the changing role of the translator, there is also of course the tricky question of the possible effect of being translated (or hoping to be translated) on the author. In 1990, in a controversial and highly influential essay, ‘The anxiety of global influence: what is world poetry?’, the well-known sinologist and translator Stephen Owen discussed what for him was the negative effect of globalisation on contemporary Chinese poetry, where the translatability of language became a goal. His focus is on poetry, but many of the statements he made could be equally applicable to other forms of literature.
To write in the dominant language of the age is to have the luxury of writing with unshaken faith in the permanence of a culture’s hegemony. But poets in many other countries and languages must, as their imaginary audiences swell, dream of being translated. And thus they must write envisaging audiences who will read their work in translation.”1
Comments like this on author motivations are certainly intriguing, but also cry out for responses from the “author-objects” of the inquiry.
The benefits of closer collaboration between those of us who work in academia and practitioners was first brought home to me when I was putting together an article about a translated piece of fiction and musing profoundly on possible reasons for, and the nuanced implications of, a certain translator’s specific choices in rendering its title into English. I happened to meet the translator one day and put some of my hypotheses to her, at which point she laughed and told me it was the publisher’s decision which she’d been unable to sway! In a similar vein, at one of the translation workshops we held as part of our project, jointly run by a leading translator and the author she was translating at that time, the translator discussed at some length the need for professionalism and attention to detail in conducting research before beginning to translate literary texts across such different cultures. She gave as an example a complex process for fermenting soy beans which she had needed to research extensively to thoroughly understand what the author had meant by a reference in the source text, and explained how this had influenced her choice of English rendition. At that point the author herself intervened, commenting on how fascinating this all was, ‘But I had no idea about any of this when I wrote the novel – I just made it up – I didn’t care if it was actually true!’ Again, one of the roundtables at our symposium hosted a spirited exchange between academics and practitioners on whether or not contemporary authors in China engaged in self-censorship, consciously or otherwise – the discussions ended in (a very amicable) stalemate.
These three moments all for me illustrate the significance of our network. None of these exchanges, of course, can in themselves be divorced from the well-worn debates around authority and authorship – who can speak about a work, for whom, and whose voices matter more – but they do I believe underline the value of continuing dialogue and collaborative partnership amongst all participants in the process, as we explore the issues together.
Thanks to all our contributors – authors, translators, publishers and artists – who have kindly provided their work for this issue free of charge. Dr Sarah Dodd began to work on this project as a Research Assistant and is now my colleague and co-organiser – I am well aware that nothing would happen without her! All the calligraphy has been provided by Dr Wang Youxuan from the University of Portsmouth. We are also hugely grateful to Dr Humphrey Ko of the University of Hong Kong, whose generous support has enabled us to make this issue available free-to-view online. Finally, our thanks to the editorial team at Stand
– firstly for inviting us to guest edit this special issue, and then for shepherding us through the whole process and dealing so patiently with our (very) many technical issues, missed deadlines, and non-standard fonts.
Stephen Owen, ‘The anxiety of global influence: What is World Poetry?’ (Published in The New Republic
, pp. 28-32, 1990)