“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

Chinese Literature in Translation: To Gloss or Not?

By Bruce Humes, published

Glossing Africa is a fascinating piece on “glossing” — different ways to do it, and what it signifies when it is (or is not) employed. In this piece, glossing refers to practices for clarifying an indigenous term by providing a glossary, footnotes, inserting a brief definition, etc.

Of course, we translators also frequently have to decide whether to gloss or not. In Chi Zijian’s Last Quarter of the Moon, for instance, I counted about 125 Evenki terms, including for proper names, place names and unique aspects of Evenki culture. More recently, Liu Jun and I co-translated Confessions of a Jade Lord by Alat Asem, in which there are many Uyghur and Arabic terms.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the popular Nigerian author now splitting her time between the US and Nigeria (and one of the rare contemporary African authors to have several novels available in Chinese), is definitely not a fan of glossing:

There’s a part of me that just deeply resents the fact that there’re many parts of the world where the fiction that comes from there is read as anthropology rather than as literature. And increasingly that kind of anthropological reading then means that… you’re explaining your world rather than inhabiting your world.

Comments

# 1.   

this book just came in 'An anthology of Swahili Love Poetry' by Jan Knappert ... in a plain and small size bounded, total 202 page. with parallel text in it. what a find of the day!

susan, August 27, 2017, 8:04a.m.

# 2.   

I always wondered, if a novelist chose to translate his own novel, does that count as explaining rather than letting others inhabit his 'novel' world? and why would any translator would abridge the worlds at his own expenses?

Map making is always deemed criminal by 'originalist' nowadays?

susan, August 27, 2017, 8:13a.m.

# 3.   

"What about playing with the book? Readers have come to anticipate glossaries and italicized words in African fiction, even demand them. What better way to thwart expectations than to fake or fiddle with these conventions?"

interesting... web publishing can do away with all that ! playing with the book, like lit.cat - a very NOVEL reading and submission interface

susan, August 27, 2017, 8:23a.m.

# 4.   

There was a glossary of Evenki words at the end of the Swedish edition of 《驯鹿角上的彩带》, but then that glossary was there at the end of the Chinese edition as well. I think there are occasions where you should make it easier for the reader to understand a text by adding a glossary or maybe a comment to a text. On the other hand, I find it strange that people can read science fiction or fantasy novels with imaginary countries and peoples and languages and learn about those countries and peoples and languages as they go along,without glossaries or footnotes, but find it impossible to read literature from foreign countries that actually exist. A typical example from Sweden would be parents who think that children's books from Asia or Africa will be too alien for their children, but never question the completely alien setting in the Harry Potter novels.

Anna Gustafsson Chen, August 27, 2017, 2:23p.m.

# 5.   

I can understand where Adichie is coming from with her annoyance at "glossing" in the African context. After all, she is speaking as an English-language writer who grew up in a former British colony, and she is keen to position her novels as contemporary literature, not post-colonial exotica.

But she is not speaking as a translator or a reader.

For my part, I believe there is a "middle way." One in which indigenous terms help provide context and add local color, without seeming bizarre or "anthropological." I enjoyed The Kite Runner, for instance, where more than 100 Pushtu, Dari and Arabic phrases occurred. Author Khaled Hosseini artfully introduced the terms in a way that made their meaning fairly clear, and then chose to repeat a handful throughout the novel, ensuring the reader never forgets this is a tale of Afghanistan.

Another point to consider is the status of the culture and language in question. Regarding the Swedish and Chinese editions of 《驯鹿角上的彩带》, the Evenki number just 30,000 within China, and their Tungusic language, closely related to Manchu, is highly endangered. The use of glossing in such an instance seems -- to me -- a way of showing respect for this people whose homeland (the Greater Khingan Mountains) has effectively been colonized, and will hopefully arouse interest in what remains of their traditional way of life, as well as their strategies for dealing with the inevitable transition from nomadic to sedentary way of life.

Bruce Humes, August 28, 2017, 8:34p.m.

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