Translators and readers crowd around the table to talk Chinese fiction
By Nicky Harman, published May 25, 2012, 6:23a.m.
Michael Rank asked me to post this piece about a get-together held in London last week. He writes: Translated fiction is notoriously hard to sell in the English-speaking world, but Chinese fiction seems to be a bit of an exception just at the moment. That was the message from a meeting of about 20 translators and readers arranged by Chinese-English translator, Nicky Harman, and Michael Sheringham of Arthur Probsthain, the venerable oriental bookshop on Great Russell Street near the British Museum.
It was an impressive turnout for such a recherché topic, but Chinese fiction is all the rage these days, with China the focus of the recent London Book Fair and both mainstream publishers and small startup companies eager to bring Chinese writing to a western audience–in contrast to just a few years ago when hardly any Chinese fiction was published in the west.
Among those attending the meeting was Anna Holmwood, translator of Under the Hawthorn Tree by the reclusive, American-based Ai Mi, a book which has been made into a film by Zhang Yimou. Anna told how she had to explain Cultural Revolution terms and slogans to make them comprehensible to a western audience, and how it also felt necessary sometimes to adapt, omit or move around sections of the novel to make it flow better in English. It was generally agreed that translating from Chinese also involves skillful editing - far more than character-by-character or even phrase-by-phrase translation -, and that it was essential to explain Chinese terms and modes of thinking without being excessively didactic or holding up the plot.
Also taking part was Harvey Thomlinson, a translator who has started up his own publishing company in Hong Kong specialising in contemporary Chinese fiction. He has translated the decidedly edgy novella I Love My Mum by Chen Xiwo, a political tale of incest which has been published in Taiwan but not on the mainland, as well as fiction by the better-known Murong Xuecun, author of Leave Me Alone–A Novel of Chengdu, which deals with corruption, greed and emotionless sex. Harvey said although Chen found it hard to get his work published in China, he was nevertheless generally free to write, reflecting how complex relations between writers and the state are these days. Xu and many other authors self-publish on the internet, which often gets them a wide audience, even if it doesn't earn them any money. Helen Wang, who recently translated a children's novel Jackal and Wolf, by Shen Shixi, one of China’s best-loved children’s authors, said that although she had made no structural changes in the translation, she had slightly toned down some areas she thought would be seen as sexist or excessively graphic in English, although they not necessarily intended in this way in the Chinese. Several participants mentioned problems with sexism and racism in Chinese novels and there was general agreement that western sensibilities had to be taken into account when translating, or not translating, passages that foreign readers might find offensive. But, as one participant observed, this involves to some extent distorting the original text and fitting Chinese writing into a western template. Nicky Harman noted that publishers seem mainly interested in "one-offs" rather than translating several works by a single author, although she noted that Yan Geling is an exception, and that four of her novels have been translated into English, including The Flowers of War, which Nicky herself has translated and has also been filmed by Zhang Yimou.
Translating Chinese novels into English isn't easy of course, and there was much discussion of what to do if a translator is baffled at the meaning of a word or phrase. One can always ask Chinese friends, but constant questions can be a bit wearing, and fortunately the internet can be an enormous help. Chinese people too can be puzzled over the meaning of an obscure literary or dialect expression, and they often ask each other online, which can be tremendously useful for the struggling translator.
Michael Rank is a London-based freelance Chinese-English translator and journalist.