Names have power – they’re often the first thing you learn about a person, and from personal experience I can tell you I get a subtly different response depending on whether I introduce myself as ‘Jeremy’ or ‘Cheng Yi’ (which, to be fair, I only ever do when speaking Chinese). Names convey context, and tell you something about the culture they rise out of – for instance, the film Pretty Woman was released in China as 漂亮女人 (‘Pretty Woman’), in Hong Kong as 风月俏佳人 (‘Elegant Lady Romance’) and in Taiwan as 麻雀变凤凰 (‘The Sparrow Becomes a Phoenix’). I leave it for the reader to decode what the different titles say about each of these territories.
I recently adapted for the stage the classic eighteenth century Chinese novel, Hong Lou Meng – normally translated as Dream of the Red Chamber or Dream of the Red Mansion. I chose to call my play A Dream of Red Pavilions, because the word lou occupies a range of meanings (witness the gulf between ‘mansion’ and ‘chamber’), and ‘pavilions’ conveyed exactly the sense I wanted: of gilded youth living in eternal summer pavilions. Of course, it didn’t hurt that having a unique title made it much easier to Google my play.
The play was performed in New York in early 2016. Many things confused the American audiences, such as the role of the imperial concubine (‘So she's basically the Emperor’s hooker?’) and the fact that America wasn’t mentioned in it (not even joking – a Rutgers history professor wrote a review complaining that by the eighteenth century, America was trading with China, and why wasn’t this talked about in the play?). There was also one other recurring complaint: many people sought me out afterwards to tell me they found the names ‘confusing’. I could only say to them: I can’t help you; what do you want me to do?
Of course, this was disingenuous of me, because I knew exactly what they wanted me to do. I knew because there’s been a long-standing tradition of rendering the names from this text with a particular flavour of orientalism, started by early translators such as Franz Kuhn and the English consul to China, H. Bancroft Joly, in whose hands Xifeng was rendered as Madame Phoenix, Yuanyang as Mandarin Duck and Xichun as Grief of Spring, leading to sentences such as ‘One day, Precious Clasp met Wreath of Clouds by chance, on her way to visit Black Jade.’
This is problematic because it goes past foreignisation all the way to exoticisation – into orientalist fantasy, with women named Lotus Blossom and men named Jade Dragon – what I like to think of as Chinese restaurant names. It prevents the characters from being taken seriously as human beings – much harder for the reader to conceive of the humanity of individuals named ‘Nephrite Buckle’ or ‘Chess Maid’ when stumbling repeatedly over their bizarre names.
This practice has been continued by others such as Pearl S. Buck and Eileen Chang, right up to more recent translators such as Howard Goldblatt, whose version of Su Tong’s Rice contains such names as Five Dragons, Rice Boy, Little Bowl, Cloud Silk, and Redolence.
Fortunately, the dominant tendency now is to use romanisation – to render the sounds of the names, not their meanings. This is by far my preferred approach. After all, the name ‘Meifang’ might mean ‘pretty and fragrant’, but I certainly don’t think ‘pretty and fragrant’ every time I say my friend Meifang's name, any more than the meanings of English names such as ‘Joy’ or ‘Charity’. The name is a signifier, and the signified is the individual referred to, rather than the original meaning of the sound units.
Even so, romanisation carries its own pitfalls.
In my own work, I experienced some criticism for Yeng Pway Ngon's Unrest, for using the pinyin versions of the characters’ names – certain readers felt I ought to have used the ‘language conventions’ of the time (the 1950s, when the novel is set). What they meant was that in 1950s Singapore, government policy was to record ‘dialect names’ on identity cards. But the characters were Chinese leftists, a group defined by their rejection of Chinese ‘dialects’ in favour of Mandarin. They would absolutely have called each other by their Mandarin names, which are best represented by pinyin, rather than ‘dialect’ – Daming rather than Tat Meng, Guohua rather than Kok Wah. So this became a matter of political choice, referring to the characters by the names they would have chosen for themselves, rather than those conferred on them by the official narrative and dominant language group.
(If authorial intent matters, I checked with Mr Yeng, and he said I was absolutely right.)
Interestingly, no one contested my other decision, to bring place names in line with common English usage – Chinese speakers of the period had an entirely different naming convention for streets, ignoring the ‘official’ (English, colonial) road names, and rather referring to them by number and whether they’re to the west (‘big slope’) or east (‘little slope’) of the Singapore River. And so I domesticated these names, referring to ‘New Bridge Road’ rather than ‘Da Po Er Ma Lu’ (Big Slope Number Two Road), or ‘Victoria Street’ rather than ‘Xiao Po Er Ma Lu’ (Little Slope Number Two Road).
I did this because I felt geographical specificity mattered more in this instance. The story of the 1950s Chinese student movement in Singapore is one that isn’t told nearly often enough, and by bringing home to readers that these events took place on streets they’re familiar with, rather than roads with other names they may not immediately connect with, I hoped to make the story more immediate.
I bring this up now to show I’m not an ideologue, but believe in a case-by-case approach, the rendering of names one of many tools at the translator’s disposal to create a particular effect – and definitely one to be used thoughtfully.
In 2017, I will translate Mr Yeng’s most recent novel, Opera Costume (to be published by Balestier Press), which has a different dynamic – the main character doesn’t speak Cantonese well, but subsequently comes to know the language better through her love of Cantonese opera. We’ve discussed various ways of showing this transition, one of which is the romanisation of her name, which could be rendered in pinyin to start with, as many Chinese names are in Singapore today, then moving into ‘dialect’ as she grows more comfortable with Cantonese.
The need to make a choice arises only in English – Chinese characters are capable of ambiguity, as Chinese is a non-phonetic language, whereas with English, pronunciation must be pinned down. When I read a Hong Kong novel, I hear the names in Mandarin, but when I come to translate it, I have to remind myself that the character I’ve been calling Mr Shen is actually Mr Sum.
This is a feature of other language pairs too. When translating Uncle Vanya, one has to decide if the professor’s wife is the Russian-sounding Yelena, or the more familiar Elena. Or should it be anglicised all the way to Helen? Because the Chinese pronounce Japanese kanji as if they were Mandarin characters, Haruki Murakami is known in China as Chunshang Chunshu. I’m not sure how I’d ever convey this if the need arose – that every other country pronounces the famous author’s name as he would himself, while his largest neighbour adopts a completely different style.
I’d resigned myself to the confusion of romanisation when I came across a new novel by the Taiwanese-American writer Esme Weijun Wang, The Border of Paradise, which incorporates untranslated Chinese characters into the text – not even pinyin, which can at least be looked up by the English reader, but actual Chinese writing. Ms Wang explained, ‘I was making a commitment to including some readers and excluding most others; I was also making a commitment to the possibility of being unintelligible.’
This raised an intriguing possibility, though I’m not sure any editor would let me simply leave Chinese names untranslated (even though English names frequently pop up in Chinese texts in their original form – an interesting asymmetry, that the average Chinese reader is presumed capable of reading a few English words, but definitely not vice versa) – and I suspect I would be shunned by the translation community were I to actually advocate for unintelligibility.
Yet this is a powerful reminder that we don’t necessarily have an obligation to lay an entire culture bare for the English-language reader, and some degree of unknowability can be a good thing. Names are powerful, and the act of translation is often an act of renaming. As translators, I suggest that we treat names thoughtfully, and perhaps use naming as a means of fulfilling what I see as a key aim of translation: challenging the dominant narrative and hegemony, and in our small way, shaking things up.