The Translation Process
We asked Eric Abrahamsen, Nicky Harman, Dave Haysom and Natascha Bruce of the Paper Republic collective – perhaps the most significant player in the translation of contemporary Chinese literature, and a core partner of the Writing Chinese project from the start – to introduce the organisation and to reflect on the process of translating Chinese literature.
How did Paper Republic come about?
EA: Paper Republic began in 2007 as a group blog for translators of Chinese fiction – basically an online social club. We soon realised that other people were using the site as a way to learn about Chinese literature, and gradually made that its explicit focus. Over the past five years or so, we’ve done more specific work to promote the translation and publication of Chinese literature: running author events, publishing short translations online, producing a literary journal of translations, consulting for publishing houses in China and abroad, and running a publishing fellowship in Beijing. Starting in 2017, we’ll be publishing books in translation directly. So, a bit of everything! But I think that the focus will be shifting towards content and publishing in the future.
In your experience, what motivates people to become literary translators?
EA: So far as I can tell, a love of literature plus a facility with a second language is sufficient to start people down the path. It probably takes a certain personality type, as well: I think some people find it very fulfilling to play the role of bridge, interlocutor, or midwife. I know that, for me, one of the pleasures of translation is knowing that I’m helping readers discover something that would have forever remained hidden to them otherwise.
Is it worth reading new Chinese writing in English translation?
NH: Yes, absolutely. There’s some lovely writing out there, and a huge variety. That said, some Chinese fiction can be a bit of a culture shock. There are some magnificent long novels about life in the countryside where life and people are very different from anything most of us are used to. If you like what you could broadly call genre fiction, then there’s stuff to suit almost all tastes. I’d especially recommend surreal writing, fantasy and sci fi, and gritty urban realism. Don’t expect many tender love stories or China noir/thrillers, although there are a few very good ones in translation.
DH: That depends on how you determine value. I don’t think we should regard the act of reading a translation as something that’s inherently good for you. If your primary objective is to learn about a different culture, then there are probably more effective ways of going about it – because a novel or poem is a crystallisation of culture squeezed through the consciousness of one individual, and to treat it as a kind of travel guide is to diminish the status of the author. But I do firmly believe that all the pleasures that you can derive from a work of literature originally written in English can also be found in translations of contemporary Chinese writing. If you look in the right places.
NB: There’s such a growing range of styles and themes and genres of Chinese writing available in English, it would seem a waste for someone who likes reading, of more or less any kind, to rule it out. Whether you like Young Adult fiction, or romance, or police detective novels, or crushingly depressing accounts of the trials of modern city life, I think you could find titles to expand your reading list. Conversely, if you like to experiment, I’d say it’s also worth it for the feeling of branching out from the kinds of writing you know. I haven’t come across an English-language writer who uses surrealism quite like Dorothy Tse, or Hon Lai-chu, for example. Personally, new Chinese writing in English translation is directly responsible for the fact I now – finally – read sci-fi. Before reading Liu Cixin, I’d made a few attempts and never felt much more than lukewarm about it. And, even as someone who reads Chinese, the existence of Ken Liu's Three-Body translations was a key factor to my trying again; I’d have given up on the Chinese versions once they started delving into the laws of physics, I feel sure of it. As a result, I feel like I have a whole new appreciation for a genre I thought I'd ruled out years ago.
What are the main challenges for Chinese-English literary translation?
NH: To get publishers and readers excited about what’s on offer. And to get them used to the idea that style and subject matter, and length and form, may be very different from what they're used to, but still very readable.
DH: It takes a lot of luck for any work of literature in translation to be a success: it needs a translator who is a good match for the author, a suitable publishing house who believe in its quality, and the kind of reviews or endorsements that can start to create a buzz. No matter how great the original, its success as a translation is never guaranteed. The lack of a strong editing culture within China only lengthens those odds, because it results in books that lack the degree of polish that readers here expect. International publishers don’t usually want to invest in fixer-uppers that are going to require a significant amount of editorial handiwork before they’re ready for the shelves.
NB: Once, I showed my grandma a story by Dorothy Tse, and she said something along the lines of: ‘They do write strange things over there, don't they?’ And I think her reaction highlights a couple of the things that challenge English-Chinese translation, in terms of it reaching and connecting with an English reading audience. First of all, there’s the idea that every translated Chinese book is somehow representative of every other – so one experience with a work that isn't aligned to someone’s taste (i.e. my grandma, and stories about married couples cutting off each other’s limbs) might mean someone actively avoids reading anything by a Chinese author ever again. Connected to this, I think it’s sometimes hard for people to get over the Chinese name on the front cover of their book, and to think of it as a book with its own, independent merits, rather than a book written by someone very different to them. I don’t think it makes for the easiest starting point, if readers are predisposed to feel alienated.
Then there’s the problem of mistrusting translation, in general; I’ve had people review English-Chinese book translations to me simply by saying, ‘Well, it didn’t sound like translation-ese,’ as though this were the main point, and the thing they’d been braced for all along. Which is not to demean all readers! Or my grandma, of course. Or to be pessimistic overall. Many people take a more nuanced and balanced approach, and I think, in general, readers are growing less suspicious. But I guess there’s still an element of challenge in convincing lots of people to read Chinese-English translations.
What are the main challenges for Chinese-English literary translators?
NH: The very different language structure means that as a translator you have to remodel your sentences almost from scratch, so that they sound natural in English. This applies especially to dialogue. Oddly enough, I would not say that understanding the text is a key problem. The challenge is how to convey in translation what the author is trying to say in her/his work and the effect they are trying to produce. Of course, there are sometimes cultural references that have to be ‘explained’ in translation, but you have to do that with a very light touch – and certainly not with copious footnotes!
DH: Deadlines. (And inadequate pay, which leads to translators taking on more work, which means even less time to hit deadlines…) That aside, I think for most translators, regardless of language, the greatest challenge is finding the right voice for an author. You know when you’ve found it, and you know when you haven’t (and if you get to the end of a translation without ever finding it then no amount of editing is likely to fix it). One of the challenges specific to translation from Chinese is names: transliterating the sound into pinyin produces an empty sonic husk that is hard for readers to remember, but translating the meaning results in wince-inducing clunkers (like ‘Defend-Borders Zhang’) that are far more jarring than they would be in the original.
NB: It varies depending on the piece. Or, maybe, there are common challenges, and they vary in intensity depending on the piece. Getting across the right tone, or else hearing a clear tone behind the text but struggling to make it fit the words that are actually written down; tenses; different thresholds for sentimentality; names that are a play on words; jokes that are a play on words, usually words that sound exactly the same in Chinese. I’ve just been working on a passage where a character confuses a word for ‘aubergine’ with ‘laundry pole’, and a whole sequence involving a laundry pole soaking in a bowl of water and an enraged mother-in-law ensues. It doesn’t seem quite as believable in English; it’s a lot more slapstick. I worry all the time, also, about missing double-meanings or allusions. Or, if I catch them, about how – or whether – to try to get them across in the English.
With Dorothy Tse’s writing, the surrealism can be challenging, because there aren’t the usual hooks of things like context, and everyday logic, to guide the process. Is it that the grandmother in The Man Who Ate Everything (see pp. 20-25) literally never wakes up, for example, or that she never wakes up in the sense of being lucid, because she’s senile? You almost have to weigh each phrase independently of the ones that come before it, so your judgement isn’t clouded by preconceptions of what it should mean. I want an English reader to feel as uneasy and disorientated as I do when I read through the Chinese, but I don’t want to let my disorientation – or, perhaps worse, my attempt to make sense of the disorientation – influence the translation too much. I want to preserve an English reader’s chances of drawing their own conclusions as to how it all fits together.
What challenges face authors in China today?
EA: Where to start... One of the challenges is an ‘embarrassment of riches’ in terms of source material. The past century of Chinese history has been so dramatic, so bizarre, often so unbelievable, that Chinese writers often feel at a loss to handle it in fiction. Simply writing down a true story can produce something so strange it's hard to credit. Authors are sometimes stumped as to how to handle this wealth of material in an artistic way. Also, society is changing so fast that authors often don’t have the time to really digest those changes.
Censorship is an issue, but I believe that a bigger problem is the highly socialised nature of China’s literary establishment. It’s a huge echo chamber, and rife with patronage, horse-trading and subtle authoritarianism. It’s very hard to maintain independence from this power structure, and those who join it often find themselves spending much more time cultivating their place within it than they spend writing. Of course, there’s real, politically-motivated censorship as well, but it’s actually not that onerous. I usually feel that a writer who makes the decision to be brave can get away with most of what he/she wants to say.
There’s also a lack of artistic rigor in Chinese letters – there’s very little culture of writing as craft, and no support structure of creative writing classes, or rigorous editing processes in publishing houses. A writer needs to maintain technical standards through self-discipline, and that proves difficult for many writers over the course of a career. There’s a lot of sloppy writing coming out of China. And in China, as in most countries, the explosion of entertainment options has left literature looking a little dowdy and struggling to compete.
How does new writing from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore compare with that of the Mainland?
EA: It’s very different! I suppose Taiwan and the Mainland are most similar, since their histories are more closely connected, and the majority of Taiwanese society originally came from the Mainland. But Taiwan avoided the cultural damage done by China’s Communist revolution and retained a literary tradition that was broken on the Mainland. Taiwanese writers can now seem more ‘literary’ or ‘refined’ than their Mainland counterparts, and while Taiwan has had its own rocky half-century, it was nothing like the Mainland’s historical roller-coaster, and Taiwanese subject matter can feel a bit less histrionic.
Hong Kong and Singapore are much more different. Hong Kong’s literary language and tradition is much farther from the Mainland’s and both cities (Singapore in particular) are multicultural and multilingual, which results in very different writing from Mainland China’s relatively monolithic literary culture.
I want to find out more about new writing from China. What can I do?
DH: Start off by keeping an eye on Paper Republic (as well as our various social media accounts, including Pathlight and China Fiction Book Club UK), where you can find the latest news about goings-on within the world of Chinese literature and links to other useful sites, as well as stories to read and magazines to download. Shorter works – short stories, essays, poetry selections – are a great way to sample writers and figure out what areas of Chinese literature particularly interest you. And – if you’re studying Chinese – don’t be intimidated by original texts. With tools like Pleco, it’s easier than ever to just dive straight in and start reading. You can follow and enjoy a text at a line-by-line level without necessarily needing to understand the contribution of every individual word.
NB: The Read Paper Republic site is an excellent place to start! They published one translated short story every week for a year, so there’s an incredible range. It’s free to read and it’s right there, on the internet. Most of the featured writers have also written other things that have been translated, sometimes many things, so there are trails to follow.
Writing Chinese: Few would argue that the translation process between Chinese and English is a straightforward one! Our second translation competition was a piece of reportage by Li Jingrui and attracted nearly 100 entries. The contest was judged by a panel of Paper Republic stalwarts (Nicky Harman, Helen Wang and David Haysom) and we are delighted to include the winning entry, by Luisetta Mudie, in the following pages.