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

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

Two Contrasts

By Eric Abrahamsen, published

The pre-dinner hour at Moganshan was often given over to talks and presentations by various course participants; the group leaders one evening, the writers the next. These presentations could be eye-opening in terms of the widely-varying approaches people take to this business – Bonnie McDougall and Howard Goldblatt, for instance. There was almost a kind of glee in the way Bonnie described her translations: leisurely, considered, I think she even described herself as spoiled in being able to pick and choose, freed by her position at the Chinese University in Hong Kong. Howard, on the other hand, was very much the harried professional man, and talked of funding and negotiations, work he'd taken to make the rent. Bonnie goes patiently from beginning to end; Howard generally starts somewhere in the middle and jumps around. Howard hates the second draft more than anything; Bonnie goes and reads a book until the aha! moment comes.

The talk with the writers was the next day. Tie Ning had left early on official business, so we had Bernadine Evaristo, Hari Kunzru and Li Er. Someone asked a bog-standard question about the writing process, and both Bernadine and Hari described how they develop stories, how they go from a voice or a moment into a piece of writing. When it was Li Er's turn, he launched into a discourse on the history of Chinese intellectuals over the past 100 years. This happens, sometimes. My attention drifted for a bit, and then he was talking about the suffering of the Chinese people through recent history. There was, he said, such a thing as the Greater Suffering (大痛苦, dàtòngkǔ) in the earlier part of the century, and the comensurate Lesser Suffering (小痛苦, xiǎotòngkǔ) of more recent years. By Greater Suffering he meant floods, famine, violent death and oppression. Lesser Suffering accompanied the transition into modernity: anxiety, loneliness, vacuity, exhaustion and depression. He said that as a Chinese intellectual and writer, it was his responsibility to represent these two kinds of suffering, to mediate between them, to give people a way to understand how their world is shifting, and how they need to shift with it.

He got a little smile on his face while he spoke. I only spent a week around him, not enough to know if the smile was just a habitual thing, or whether it was the tiny smile of exhilaration you get when you feel you're articulating something essential. Whichever it was, the room was quiet by the time he was done talking.

Comments

# 1.   

I'm curious if either of the translators you mentioned ever work on anything without actually sitting down and reading through the whole thing first? (to get a feel of the work as a whole, and to decide if they want to take on the project, I guess) Or is it blasphemous that I even suggest such a thing?

I'm also curious about how one gets from the first draft to the second draft. I assume you mean rereading the first draft and revising it as you go along? I have heard of other translators using a different method that would be better described as making two independednt first drafts, then creating a second draft from those two. (I believe James Crump used a method similar to this when translating Chinese poetry, as did the translator team who just published the new translation of War and Peace.) I suppose that this method would be impractical for a single person translating a long work of fiction, however.

Jeff, April 24, 2008, 1:11a.m.

# 2.   

I think Howard mentioned once having done a first-draft translation as he was in the process of reading the book, because he felt that it was important for him to experience the book not just as a translator, but as a reader...encountering passages for the first time as the reader does, without preconceptions or advance knowledge of what will happen later in the plot.

Although some might call it heresy, I think it's an intriguing idea that could lend a bit more punch to a first draft. I've done this with film scripts and subtitles (usually because of mad deadline pressure, when I have 15000 characters that need to be translated within a week or so) and occasionally with labor-of-love fiction excerpts. Now and then, you fall so in love with the first few chapters of a book that you just can't control yourself - you want to jump right in and start translating even before you have a clear idea of the voice; you feel the need to send excerpts to your friends and colleagues, to post them on your blog, and to talk everyone you know into reading this amazing, amazing book...

To me, that seems the highest sort of compliment a reader/translator could ever give an author.

Having said that...as a journeyman translator, I would never be bold enough to take that approach with a novel-in-translation.

 Cindy Carter, April 24, 2008, 9:12a.m.

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