The coffin fell apart.
There was the sound of decayed wood crumbling, and a cloud of smoke surged out, like water vapour from a hot steamer.

Yan Lianke / Carlos Rojas

Reflecting Teenagers on a Sichuanese Mirror: Yan Ge and her stories from Pingle Township

By Helen Wang, published

Yan Ge 颜歌 will be at the China Changing event at the Southbank Centre, London, on 16 December.

Here, Martina Codeluppi introduces a Young Adult story by Yan Ge, writes about her experience of translating Yan Ge's work into Italian, and interviews Yan Ge and translator Nicky Harman, who has translated Yan Ge's work into English.

Martina writes:

Yan Ge was born in Sichuan in 1984 and is one of the most interesting young authors populating the contemporary Chinese literary scene. Her career took off when she won the New Concept Writing Competition in 2002, when she was only seventeen years old, and developed quickly, marked by a number of literary prizes.

Her most recent book is the collection of five short stories, Sad Stories from Pingle Township 《平乐镇伤心故事集》 (2015). The five short stories are:

《白马》 White Horse
《江西的唐宝珍》
《奥数班1995
《照妖镜》 Demon-Reflecting Mirror
《三一茶会》.

The first of these, White Horse 《白马》, was translated into English by Nicky Harman (HopeRoad, 2014).

I had the pleasure of translating the fourth story Demon-Reflecting Mirror 《照妖镜》 into Italian (Lo specchio dei demoni) for Caratteri: letteratura cinese contemporanea) (2016) (the Italian equivalent of Pathlight).

In the first part of this guest post, I will briefly present Yan Ge’s way of depicting teenage life, and I will share some reflections about my personal experience as her Italian translator. An interview with Yan Ge and her English translator Nicky Harman will follow, in which they answer a few questions about Yan Ge’s fiction and the challenges of translating it.

Demon-Reflecting Mirror tells the story of five young girls, Zhang Qian, Chen Lu, Zhou Ziyao, Xiao Lingling and Sun Xiaojuan, who are bound by a strong friendship. The story is set Pingle township, an imaginary place located in Sichuan and created by the author to be her literary world. Here, the five girls attend the school for the children of the local paper mill workers. The rhythm of their everyday life is dictated by recesses, schoolmates’ pranks and the usual hurry to grow up.

Chen Lu is the smallest of the group and has to follow the lead of her older friends when trying to find her way through the troublesome years of adolescence. Her curiosity is constantly trying to compromise with an underlying fear, all topped with a coat of naivety that makes it easy for the others to take advantage of her.

Sun Xiaojuan is her opposite - she is the wildest, the last to have joined the group, having moved from the nearby village when her father was hired as a security guard in the paper mill. She exploits her alleged knowledge of the adults’ world to gain the others’ trust and admiration, building herself a hard shield to cover her inner weaknesses.

And it is Sun Xiaojuan who, on lecturing her friends about the mysteries of their developing sexual awareness, pushes them to understand their lower bodies better by seeing them with their own eyes, and with the help of the demon-reflecting mirror. These mirrors were commonly hung on doors in order to keep out ghosts and evil spirits. An object originally permeated with mysticism becomes then a metaphor for a new perspective on life, providing a brand new point of view that, willingly or not, enables the girls to take their first step into adulthood.

Subsequently, the story develops along with the intertwining of love relationships, jealousy, soft crime and vengeance. The five girls find themselves trapped in an uncomfortable situation, where love, sisterhood and loyalty are at stake, spicing up an apparently ordinary routine and turning it into a fascinating plot.

This short story touches some of the key points that mark the hard road of entering adulthood. Firstly, the rapidly and constantly changing world of teenagers is ruled by the laws of feelings, which inevitably distract the girls from the more pragmatic academic ambitions that their parents wish for them. Secondly, the premature awareness of pain affects the personal development of the individual, triggering the physiological need to gain strength by lying to others and even to one’s self. And finally, interpersonal relations are crucial as they become an actual source of strength. Although they are sometimes seen as double-edged weapons, the possibility to count on friends allows the protagonists to share their burdens and to make the ride towards adulthood a little more fun.

On starting to translate Yan Ge’s story, what first struck me was the liveliness of the characters’ dialogues. Oral language has an undeniable power in her narrative, brightening the realism with which the author describes the protagonists’ vicissitudes with vivid notes of contemporaneity. The author’s sharp language enriches her descriptions as well, which are able to report sensorial perceptions in a unique and attractive way.

A distinguishing feature of Yan Ge’s language is her frequent use of expressions that are typical of the Sichuan dialect. While for a Chinese audience the link between such characteristics and the author’s desire to reproduce and promote her origins is evident, this is a trait that is very difficult – if not impossible – to convey into the translated text. I personally chose to recreate the effect envisioned by the author by employing oral expressions that I remembered being popular among teenagers approximately at the same time the story is set, namely the Nineties, and that remain in use in the same way today. Since it was not always possible to find a perfect correspondence between Chinese and Italian, I did my best to balance the general tone of the text by compensating when I had the chance.

Another feature that makes Demon-Reflecting Mirror a well-structured piece of narrative is the plurality of voices. Although the author uses the third-person narrator, the point of view is constantly shifting, making the reading experience intriguing and dynamic. Indeed, this works rather well in the context of young girls keeping secrets. The change of perspective allows the author to manage the effect of these untold stories, taking advantage of every scene in order to reveal them piece by piece. Finally, a third and most evident distinctive trait of Yan Ge’s short story is the alternation of humour and tragedy. Hilarious passages are followed by tragic moments, in a curious and unexpected way, which again works well in the context of teenage girls - we could almost say it adds a taste of the moodiness that is so typical of teenagers.

Demon-Reflecting Mirror and the other four stories in the collection Sad Stories from Pingle Township provide a detailed, mesmerising, and revealing portrait of Sichuanese teenagers’ life. They offer young readers the chance to peek into Pingle township and find inspirational characters and fascinating stories, while making their reading experience truly entertaining.

Interview with Yan Ge:

MC: Let’s start with a general question: why writing about teenagers? Is it just some kind of fictional recreation of personal memories, or is it for an educational aim that you want to speak to younger generations?

YG: In fact, I wrote these five stories in Sad stories from Pingle Township to depict women who live in small towns in China. There is an old woman in her late seventies, a thirty-something divorcee, a mother with twin daughters and also teenage girls from White Horse and Demon-reflecting Mirror. If anything, I write about teenagers in the 90s out of a sense of nostalgia. They are not teenagers per se. They are the adolescent memories/phantoms of grown-ups. In general, from my experience, people around my own age read my stories; people who grew up in small towns in the 90s and now live far away from home; people from the countryside now deprived of access to their pasts due to the rapid urbanization of China. These people are the ideal readers I think of when I write.

MC: What role does the Sichuan dialect have in your fiction? Is it intended to promote the linguistic features of this region or is it a way to address Sichuanese readers in unique and typical way?

YG: The Sichuan dialect contributes to the overall texture of my writing. It might be the most distinctive one for the time being. But I wouldn’t say it’s the most significant one. I am from Sichuan. I write about Sichuan lives. Naturally, people in my stories are Sichuanese, so they have to speak the Sichuan dialect. I came to this revelation in 2008 and I’ve been writing in the Sichuan dialect ever since. Or, if I could be more specific, the language I use in my writing is in fact Chinese (Mandarin) with Sichuan characteristics. It’s not a hundred per cent Sichuan dialect. When I write, I carefully choose and sometimes polish a bit so the words and expressions are both Sichuanese and Chinese (Mandarin). I want to appeal to Chinese readers in general rather than only Sichuanese. I want, ultimately, the Sichuan characteristics in my language to enrich the Chinese language, especially literary Chinese where we look for words that are more vernacular, vigorous and scintillating.

MC: How did you choose the name Pingle for your imaginary town? What does Pingle mean to you?

YG: The names of people and places in my stories are mostly chosen at random. They don't carry significant connotations or implications. Pingle is just a common name for a small town. There are actually a few places called Pingle in China.

MC: I know that you are not concerned with sales and the literary market. Have you ever imagined what role would your stories play on the international scene? For example, do you think that Western teenagers could easily relate to your characters?

YG: As I said in the last question, the Sichuan dialect is not the most important thing to me; I consider representing humanity the most important aspect of my writing. I’m intrigued by the ambiguity and absurdity in our lives and I hope my stories could, to a certain extent, illustrate these matters. I can never predict what kind of readers will read my stories, in China or abroad. But I’m always heartened by the idea that someone will read my stories and somehow be touched by their nuances.

MC: Did you take part, in some way, in the process of translation into English?

YG: I’m happy to answer questions from translators. Nicky asked me questions when she was working on The Chilli Bean Paste Clan. And other translators from other languages ask me questions as well. However, I wouldn’t say I take part in the process of translation; my part is done when my story is done. At the same time, I really appreciate all the translators’ work and do enjoy reading the English translations as a reader.

MC: Have you ever thought of writing in English?

YG: I write things in English from time to time, but not too much in term of fiction writing. I haven't found my voice as a storyteller yet. If I do, I will then certainly give it a try. It could be interesting to be two writers (Chinese and English) at the same time. Thank you so much for translating Demon-Reflecting Mirror into Italian and for this interview.

Interview with Nicky Harman:

MC: In your opinion, what are the strongest points of Yan Ge’s White Horse vis-à-vis the Western readership?

NH: Yan Ge presents a young person who is forced to face the complications of the lives of the grown-ups around her, while learning about growing up herself. This is very powerful stuff, and quite disturbing.

MC: As an experienced translator and reader, do you think Western young readership could actually learn something from fiction about their Chinese peers, or are they more likely to see it only as an “exotic” experience?

NH: I think one of the strengths of Yan Ge’s writing is her ability to inhabit the character and his or her humanity. That means that almost all of the time, we see each character primarily as a human being, rather than a Chinese, “exotic” human being… and we share their feelings.

MC: What strategy did you choose to convey into the translated text the meaning originally expressed in non-standard Chinese?

NH: I’ve tried to make it as colloquial and natural-sounding as I can, so that the characters are convincing. I did not try to use regional English variations in place of the Sichuan dialect!

MC: When aiming at young readers, I believe that catchiness is a most important quality to preserve in a piece of literature. How did you cope with humour and wordplay, if any, on translating White Horse?

NH: I absolutely agree that the humour is vital. If the author is trying to be funny, then the translator has to make it funny too. I can’t think of any wordplay in White Horse (though I often come across wordplay in other things I translate, and have to try and recreate something similar in the English). But in general, you can convey humour in English with the rhythm of the language, so that’s what I focus on.

Martina Codeluppi is a Ph.D. student in contemporary Chinese literature at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, in co-supervision with Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3. Her research deals with a compared analysis of the polyglossia characterising Chinese fiction at a global level, as it is shaped by migrant writers through translation and self-translation. She translated short stories by Hao Jingfang and Yan Ge into Italian for the magazine Caratteri: letteratura cinese contemporanea, published by People’s Literature, and she is currently working at the translation of the novel Ximi, by Cao Wenxuan, for Giunti Editore.

This piece was first published on Chinese Books for Young Readers (with images) on 19 November 2016.

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