By Eric Abrahamsen, published October 7, 2010, 6:23a.m.
I got back to Beijing from Sydney yesterday, where I was lucky enough to have been invited by the Writing and Society Research Group of the University of Western Sydney (actually a front for the guerilla publishing and literary activities of one Ivor Indyk, the man behind Giramondo Publishing and HEAT magazine), to run on at the mouth about Chinese literary translation at a symposium entitled the Sydney Symposium on Literary Translation
Before you raise an eyebrow, I'll admit I was junior member at what was largely a gathering of really pretty intimidating literary and academic figures—I was approximately fifteen years and two university degrees behind the median. But that made for a wonderful experience: a relatively small group of people presenting fascinating papers and talks on topics ranging from poetry to "the classic" to "nonsense", drawing from languages including French, Italian, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese and Aboriginal Australian.
General impressions can be had from writeups Joel Scott did for the Three Percent site (parts one and two) and a blog post from Giuseppe Manuel Brescia, and of course if you're curious about the details you can look over the program (PDF). Some highlights from my point of view… Meredith McKinney talking about translating The Pillow Book, a thousand-year-old work of Japanese fiction written in language that was relatively vernacular at the time, but became "classic" in the centuries to follow: what register to choose in English? Stuart Cooke discussing the translation of Aboriginal Australian poetry that was meant to be performed as a part of a larger social event, and that loses much of its significance when pinned down on the page in English. Marcelo Cohen on the battle for the ownership of the Spanish language waged between writers in Spain and South America. Esther Allen taking two terse necrologies written by Gustave Flaubert and expanding on them until she seemed (to my ignorant self, at least) to have encompassed his entire life and literary career.
Then there were the other Chinese-language folks: two or three Chinese-speakers in the audience, including Bonnie McDougal, whom I was very pleased to see again, and two other Chinese-language presenters, Simon Patton and John Minford. Both names that had been in my ears for years, and I will admit to a good deal of trepidation at the meeting. Both of them, of course, turned out to be lovely. Master Patton had the faintly otherworldly air of someone who spends a lot of time thinking about translating poetry, and is about to retreat to the countryside to think some more. Master Minford, who spoke on his translations of the Yijing (易经), reminded me quite a bit of David Hawkes in terms of deep erudition borne lightly ("nobody really knows what anything in this book means!"), and the ease and self-deprecating humor of someone who won't be fussed about anything except the things he loves.
I talked about new developments in style in contemporary Chinese literature. Giuseppe and I, the two younger professional translators, were I think the only ones who discussed the act of translation in detail—he on translating batshit clown-talk from Will Elliot's novel The Pilo Family Circus. I put up four short samples from things I'd read or translated recently, starting with "bad" and ending in "good". I tried to focus on the good, which included Xu Zechen and Lu Yang (yes, I have been yammering endlessly about Xu Zechen, I will actually post a sample in the next week or so), but even so it was probably the only talk that descended from stately academic neutrality into base value judgment, a fact that apparently enraged Joel Scott, who otherwise held his fire for the Three Percent writeups. What can I say, my job largely consists of yea or nay…
One thing that might have helped is if, after the presentation, I'd answered Mridula Nath Chakraborty's question a little more intelligently. She inquired, rather more politely than she might have been justified in doing, whether some of my positive and negative judgments were possibly a product of my Westernized aesthetic standpoint, rather than some inherent issue of quality in the Chinese writers themselves. Ie, were any of my "bad" examples (I swear I meant to focus on the good), simply "bad" by virtue of being "different" to me.
At the time I gave an obtuse reply, but if I had had my wits about me I would have said this: Yes, that is entirely possible. I see two areas where Chinese writing might be considered "bad" by Western readers when in fact it's simply a matter of different aesthetic principles. One is melodrama. Chinese culture in general loves it some melodrama. Readers don't mind being tugged about by the heartstrings; in many cases they expect—nay demand—to be so tugged. Much writing that I would otherwise consider pretty damned good (which standards of goodness I shall conveniently leave unelucidated for now) is largely killed for a western readership by the presense of full-speed-ahead damn-the-torpedoes emotionalism. Shi Tiesheng is someone who strikes me as ill-served by this aesthetic gap. He is a brilliant, concentrated writer, but his best pieces will often end up on a note like "I love my mother" or something equally unfashionable. He will eventually be translated, and recognized, but in the meantime he seems a wee bit soppy.
The other area is scat, and the human body. I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but Chen Sihe once wrote an excellent article about the aesthetics of Yu Hua's Brothers. This book attracted a lot of negative attention within China for its prurience and unashamed depictions of the human body, and Chen's argument was that this, far from constituting a middle finger to the Confucian puritan ethic, was instead a return to traditional Chinese folk sensibilities, where everyone grew up seeing animals doing it in the yard, and lusty young gals were allowed to grab hold of fellas they liked and drag them off into the bushes. Where this intersects Western aesthetics is: we don't really have much neutral language for body-parts and -functions. What's a neutral translation for 屎? "Shit"? That's a swear word. "Poop"? That's for kids. "Turd"? That word makes me laugh, I don't know why. "Feces"… that's science. We simply can't talk with a straight face about the practicalities of the human body.
My point is, in this second case the issue is not so much our narrative aesthetic expectations, but the aesthetics built in to the very language itself. The first example of "bad" writing I gave was entirely scatological, which was an error: my complaint was with the inexactitude and sloppiness of metaphor, not the scatology.
Okay! I had my chance days ago, I'll shut up. I had a great time in Sydney: whatever makes you think or feel harder is good.