Paper Republic: Chinese Literature Matters

Should Ethnicity Limit What a Fiction Writer Can Write?

Novelist Susan Barker ("British, mixed-race English and Chinese, but linguistically and culturally British") responds to Chinese man in audience who comments that her book (which he hasn't read) "is an interesting perspective on China […] but just a Western perspective. You can never understand the Chinese.”


# 1.   

Really interesting article!

 Eric Abrahamsen, July 31, 2015, 3:59a.m.

# 2.   

The key is of course ample experiences and research. This is a topic debated frequently in children's lit world and I just am wary because there are plenty of sloppy and inauthentic writings published and promoted under the guise of diversity. Since I don't live in China, am not familiar with the modern Chinese, and want to see more work by ethnic Chinese introduced to the western readers, I need others to guide me as per the authenticity of books such as The Dog.

Roxanne Feldman, August 1, 2015, 7:23a.m.

# 3.   

Or, to rejig this question in ways that are directly relevant to Paper Republicans:

Should ethnicity limit what a literary translator can translate out of Chinese?

Or even:

Should gender limit what a literary translator can translate out of Chinese?

Bruce Humes, August 2, 2015, 10:08p.m.

# 4.   

@Bruce: I'm currently working on an article on that very subject!

Dave Haysom, August 5, 2015, 8:30a.m.

# 5.   

Novelist Barker was apparently posed awkward questions by Chinese who imply that her writing is merely another Eurocentric take on the unfathomable Middle Kingdom.

But what if the qualifications of Han Chinese to write about the "Other" in their midst are questioned?


Mongolian Author Raises the Bar with Call for Bilingual Skills

Bruce Humes, August 5, 2015, 7:02p.m.

# 6.   

My quick take on Bruce's two questions:

  1. I think that, when the Chinese literary establishment finally gave up on the idea of "Chinese literature must be translated by Chinese people" (a gradual realization that seems to have gelled two or three years ago) this question was pretty clearly answered in the negative. Your stuff gets translated by people who aren't like you, that's just how it goes.

  2. The gender question is interesting, though. I know I've thought it was a good idea, in the past, to find a female translator for a female writer, though if you really think about it it's sort of hard to know why, exactly. This question can be blurred with the first question if you tweak it into a slightly different hypothetical: should a Muslim translator be hired to translate a novel by a Hui writer? I'm not sure I have an opinion.

Dave, I'm looking forward to the article!

 Eric Abrahamsen, August 6, 2015, 12:41a.m.

# 7.   

@ Eric's question, "Should a Muslim translator be hired to translate a novel by a Hui writer?", see this interview with the Han Chinese (not Muslim) who translated The Kite Runner and its frequent references to Islamic culture:

An Afghan Childhood Re-packaged for the Middle Kingdom

Bruce Humes, August 6, 2015, 1:04a.m.

# 8.   

Since the majority of translated Chinese writers seem to be men, the idea that you can only translate your own gender would efficiently put most female translators out of business...

Anna Gustafsson Chen, August 7, 2015, 1:09a.m.

# 9.   

I've only ever encountered this in the other direction -- finding female translators for female authors.

 Eric Abrahamsen, August 7, 2015, 2:23a.m.

# 10.   

From Asymptote's interview with German-to-English translator Susan Bernofsky:

Q: What’s your pet peeve about the translation/literary industry?

A: At the moment I’m disheartened to see how skewed the industry is toward literary production by men. I’m sure you’ve seen Catherine Nichols’s recent article in Jezebel in which she talks about how she received 850 % more positive responses to her novel and cover letter when she submitted them under a male pseudonym. The same holds true in the translation world, with books by male authors far more likely (it’s shocking how much more likely) to be translated and then to be reviewed once published. I sat on a panel this spring that the PEN Translation Committee organized around this topic at the PEN World Voices Festival, inspired by the VIDA Count. There’s a pretty good gender balance among the translators themselves, though male translators are more likely to get picked for the top prizes.

Bruce Humes, August 14, 2015, 7:28p.m.

# 11.   

motivation and authenticity about any motivated intent that might trigger unpredictable take-in or shut-out responses, like the Chinese saying, 好事多磨 ... identity politics is everywhere, there is no escape, I'm afraid.

To use one of my translation of 茅境诗

你永远无法预测 * The Future is not ours to see

You may never know for sure/ After this gust of wind,/ There isn't going to be more .../ Of course, the wind blows.

What I meant to say is:/ What has a gust of wind done to your hair ?/ Has it knocked you down on the ground?/ Or has it uprooted you in the mid air,/ crushed your bones and/ your liver, stomach, testine and lung/ stormed down like bullets/ hard hitting the ground?

Ang Lee is his preface to a book ""The Story, the screenplay, and the making of the film - story by Eileen Change, screenplay by Wang Hui Ling and James Schamus' wrote:

To me, no writer has ever used the Chinese language as cruelly as Zhang Ailing, and no stroy of hers is as b eautiful or as cruel as "Lust, Caution," She revised t he story for years and years - for decades - returning to it as a criminal might return to the scene fo a crime, or as a victim might reenact a trauma, reaching for pleasure only by varying and reimagining the pain. Making our film, we didn't really "adapt" Zhang's work, we simply kept returning to her theater of cruelty and love until we had enough to make a movie of it.

Zhang is very specific in the traps her words set. For example, in Chinese we have the figure of tiger who kills a person. Thereafter, the person's ghost willingly works for the tiger, helping to lure more prey into the jungle. The Chinese phrase for this is wei hu zuo chang. It's a common phrase and was often used to refer to the Chinese who collaborated with the Japanese occupiers during the war. In the story Zhang has Yee allude to this phrase to describe the relationship between men and women. Alive, Chia-chih was his woman; dead, she is his ghost, his chung. But perhaps she already was one when they first met, and now, from beyond her grave, she is luring him closer to the tiger...

Interestingly, the word for tiger's ghost sounds exactly like the word for prostitute. So in the movie, in the Japanese tavern scene, Yee refers to himself with this owrd. It could refer to his relationship to the Japanese - he is both their whore and their chung. But it also means he knows he is already a dead man.

.... She understood playacting and mimicry as something by nature cruel and brutal: animals, like her characters, use camouflage to evade their enemies and lure their prey. But mimicry and performance are also ways we open ourselves as human beings to greater experience, indefinable connections to others, higher meanings, art, and the truth.

--- endquote

susan, June 15, 2016, 10:09a.m.


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