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

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

NEA in conversation with the translator of Yu Hua's To Live, Michael Berry


This is a big difference between, say, translating from Chinese into English as opposed to other Western languages that have similar kind of Greek and Roman, Latin roots. And so because of that if you’re translating, say, into French, or Italian, into German, there are a lot of words that come from the same roots and so it’s kind of a no brainer what your word choice is going to be because there is a very clear equivalent in—not all, but in many cases. In Chinese, it’s not nearly as clean-cut like that. So if you take—I’ll just throw out a term in Chinese like “bēishāng”, which usually is translated something like “sadness” but it could also be translated as “melancholy” or “depression” or any number of other similar terms. And so it’s all about really getting the context right and the register of the language and finding in this context what English term is really best going to express what “bēishāng” was representing in that original Chinese work. And so that means for the translator that we have a lot more leeway to be a little more creative, to have a little more kind of an interpretative intervention into the nuance of the original. It also means there’s more room for mistakes. That if you don’t have a great grasp of the original language you could go the wrong direction and miss that nuance. And so I think it is somewhat different in that sense then when you’re translating from other Western languages.


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