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

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman


By Lucas Klein, published

In the comments following the recent and ongoing discussion on book reviewing, Paper-Republic contributors have raised the issue of footnotes. Cindy Carter first wrote,

I've often wondered if it might not be a good idea to return to endnotes in fiction translation. Readers who want to crack right through can do so and not get hung up on the fine print at the bottom of the page, but those who crave more cultural or historical background can flip to the back and read what could well be some fascinating tidbits.

Bruce Humes responded in the affirmative, but also asked,

But how are the footnotes presented? Where they are placed -- on the page itself, at the end of a chapter, or at the back of the book -- what sort of information do they contain, and how they are written are all very important.

Bruce's questions are certainly essential to deciding whether we want to allow footnotes into our translations. Likewise is his admonition against those who would "argue that it is the translator's job to remain 'invisible.'"

The issue seems to be centered around "academic" versus "popular" translations, or publications of translations, and how footnotes have been conceived as a hallmark of academic writing. But while that's certainly true, I wonder if a look at publishing history in Chinese can't help us figure something out about how to use the footnote when we translate.

I'd like to echo Bruce's question about what sort of information might be contained within these footnotes. I could handle a footnote that offered some sort of cultural information, such as an explanation of a reference or allusion, but I couldn't tolerate a footnote that explained the translation, or apologized for not coming up with a good translation. I remember reading a translation of a Shěn Cóngwén 沈從文 story and the translator translated the expression tāmāde 他媽的 as "his mother's," and then added a footnote explaining that this was an explicative in Chinese. Why didn't the translator just translate the word as "damn it," or some other English curse?

But while examples like that seem obvious, and do what they can to slippery up the slope for all footnotes to slide towards, I have the impression that the real issue is that footnotes interrupt the text, and therefore interrupt the sanctity of the aesthetic experience. How could I enjoy the piece of writing if I'm constantly reminded, by losing my place in flipping to the back of the book or shifting my glance to the bottom of the page, that I'm dealing with a piece of writing, and moreover with a piece of writing I don't understand? Footnotes scream "academic" because we feel like academics don't worry about their enjoyment of a text, don't mind the interruption of aesthetic sanctity.

Whether this is true of academics doesn't need to bother us now, I think. What does interest me is that, while in English today we're very impatient with interruptions to our reading, historically, in Chinese, writing has been cluttered with all sorts of interruptions. I have the impression that our attachment to the uninterrupted aesthetic moment of writing didn't take hold in the west until Romanticism; certainly after Romanticism took hold in China, along with a great deal of other Westernisms, annotation in Chinese writing also receded to the margins, but before that it was right there in the middle of the page, in the middle of the line.

Hou Han Shu

That's an image of what pages often looked like in printings before the twentieth century. The smaller characters are explanations or annotations or just editorial commentary to the larger texts. Both poetry and prose would be published this way, so that the rhythm of the line could be broken up by an editorial "exquisite" 妙也 or further exegesis. In many cases, for canonical works, the commentator might even get top billing over the work in question, the way that actors get top billing over the title of the film: Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet! The Zhīyàn Zhāi 脂硯齋 Commentary on Dream of the Red Chamber 紅樓夢! Maybe one day translators will enjoy the same prestige in offering their versions of pre-eminent texts.

While the usefulness is limited, I think, when dealing with modern Chinese literature, perhaps this opens up a way for us to involve annotations in pre-modern poetry and prose (which to me seem to request more explication anyway). We like our texts noise-free, sure, but when translating from works that would not have been encountered in pristine aesthetic isolation, into a world where writing has to compete against all kinds of hypertextual interference, what if we incorporated the note into the line, drawing attention to the translatedness, the materiality, and the interference of the text?

Maybe we'd find that the only way to translate would be to make something that looks like this:

EP's notes on Legge's Shijing

This is a page of Ezra Pound's copy of James Legge's translation of the Book of Odes 詩經, or what he had titled the The Shih King. And while it was a step towards Pound's own Shih-ching: The Classic Anthology Defined by Confucius, nevertheless as we look at it today, with its layers of Chinese, Victorian English, and Modernist (probably incarcerated) pencil-scribbles, we can see something of how the annotations might add, rather than subtract, poetic meaning to the text, and how through translation writing might gain, rather than always be said to lose, a bit of poetry.


# 1.   

I've read everything from The Brothers Karamazov to Madam Bovary in translation (penguin and wordsworth editions) and have very rarely come across footnotes/endnotes. To me, the job of the translator is to create the same feeling in the foreign reader that the author hoped to evoke in the reader of the original. If you start sticking notes all over the place, the reader in translation will begin to feel like they are engaging in some sort of academic undertaking, rather than trying to entertain themselves, which is essentially what reading fiction is.

Think about it this way, when you subtitle a foreign language movie, do you also provide notes on the translation?

Tom Saunders, March 17, 2009, 8:08a.m.

# 2.   

What a neat addition to this discussion in specifically, and to Paper Republic in general.

Enjoyed this, Lucas!

Bruce, March 17, 2009, 8:50a.m.

# 3.   

What a neat addition to this discussion specifically, and to Paper Republic in general.

Enjoyed this, Lucas!

Bruce, March 17, 2009, 8:50a.m.

# 4.   

Thanks for the praise, Bruce! As for your comments, Tom--I think you're absolutely right in pointing out the hazards of footnotes in translation. The necessary corollary to my discussion of footnotes in translation is that I do not use footnotes in my own translations, exactly because I also want "to create the same feeling in the foreign reader that the author hoped to evoke in the reader of the original." But as soon as I think that, two other thoughts pop up: 1, that cannot ever be truly possible (in part because the feelings of the "reader of the original" cannot be limited), and 2, in some cases--such as what I highlight in posting a page from a 14th century Chinese printing--the "reader of the original" would have wanted those feelings of interruption that footnotes imply.

I'm sure we can historicize this more: paper used to be a lot more expensive than it is today. Even poems in English weren't printed with linebreaks until rather late in the history of printing, and Chinese editors must have felt like they had to use every inch of space on the page to be cost effective. But think about how much that has remained as central to the Chinese aesthetic today: compare the design of Paper-Republic--how spare and sparse it is, how much negative space--with for instance the cluttered overload of any popular Chinese site (take wenxue city for example. Chinese readers seem to be able to accept, even expect, a lot more information on the screen. In some cases, if we want our translations to produce the same feeling as the original readers would have had, we might have to stick notes all over the place.

Another thought I have when coming into discussions like this involves what we think of as "academic." Tom writes about readers feeling like "they are engaging in some sort of academic undertaking, rather than trying to entertain themselves." Are these necessarily irreconcilable opposites, entertainment and academics? Sure, no one likes homework, but as an academic, that doesn't make me feel very good. Something else I've noticed is what we mean when we say "academic": think about how often you've heard someone say, "that's just an academic debate," to mean, "who cares? nothing is at stake." Again, as an academic, I don't love comments like that. Yes, academics have done a lot to cloister ourselves from larger public discussion over the last few (hundred) years, but with more people going to college now than ever, and more academics trying to engage in relevant discussions, can't society in general start to appreciate that "academic" is not--or doesn't have to be--a synonym for "effete," or "irrelevant," or "arcane," or even "dull." That's not to say that footnotes are a good thing necessarily--again, I think it comes to how they're incorporated, or not, into the translation--but just that it may be possible to see annotation as part of the entertainment, and not just as part of the assignment.

Lucas Klein, March 17, 2009, 10:05a.m.

# 5.   

The problem with combining academia and enjoyment is that and academic will approach a text with the view of analysing it. Thats not to say that they wont enjoy the analysis, but an ordinary reader reads to enjoy story, character, plot etc, not for a detailed analysis/explanation of the intertextual references that Jia pingwa is making to James Joyce (or whatever).

Also, I think that getting an eduacation (college/University) doesn't make you an academic, an academic is someone who has chosen to undertake research into a very specific area of knowledge. Whereas an author (usually) writes a novel with the hope that it will have the broadest possible readership. So if you take a popular novel in China, something by Wang Shuo for instance, then explain what the author meant/felt/had for lunch when you translate it, you are changing the intended audience of the work, thus being unfaithful to it.

Tom Saunders, March 17, 2009, 10:32a.m.

# 6.   

Hi, Tom--

I think if we're talking about some of the pitfalls of academic translation, or of footnoting, certainly you're right, and no translator would do well to disregard what you're saying. But that doesn't mean that all academic translations are the same, or that all footnotes are the same. Is a footnote explaining an allusion to James Joyce, say, in Jiǎ Píngwā 賈平凹 the same as a footnote explaining Shaanxi 陝西 slang, or Shaanxi agricultural practice? Some of these may be more necessary than others--depending, of course, on how we define necessary. What's interesting about this is how the discussion began by talking about whether footnotes could help explain Chinese cultural references, while you assume that footnotes would explain international literary references. I see a significant switch between those assumptions.

Likewise, I see a significant switch between talking about Jiǎ Píngwā and talking about Wáng Shuò 王朔. Footnotes might "get in the way" more with one author than with another. Then again, who's reading Wáng Shuò in English? While the publishers made a big deal in marketing Howard Goldblatt's translation of Playing for Thrills 玩儿的就是心跳, blurbing it with comments from Stephen King and calling him "China's Kerouac," did the book become a huge hit in the US, or did most of its readership come from undergrads in Modern Chinese Literature classes? I don't know the answer to that, but I also think that we might want to distinguish between students in a Chinese literature class because they're interested in China, and students in a Chinese literature class because they want the distribution requirements. My point is, I think we need to have as broad a view of this issue as possible.

On the other hand, Tom, you seem devoted to a rather narrow view. Am I right in saying that? For all the differences between Jiǎ Píngwā and Wáng Shuò, they're both contemporary novelists who write about a certain level of society in China today. You also seem to limit the scope when you say that "an author (usually) writes a novel"; I know that your "usually" refers to "broadest possible readership," but I've got to say that I don't think authors usually do write novels. Authors also write short stories, and poems, and plays, and movie scripts, and emails and letters and shopping lists and legal contracts. For any number of reasons, all these kinds of writing might ask to be translated. Do we really want to have the same attitude about footnotes to govern all kinds of translation, for all genres of writing?

Lucas Klein, March 17, 2009, 11:38a.m.

# 7.   

Here's an example of footnoting that I think works pretty well: the Timothy Billings and Christopher Bush translation of Stèles / 古今碑錄 by Victor Segalen. Because Segalen wrote in French with Chinese inscriptions, and because Billings and Bush made the first translation of this book (three English versions preceded it) to take into account the Chinese, they decided they needed extensive annotation. The result is a volume one, in print, where the first half is the translation with the French facsimile printed en face, and the second half a gathering of endnotes and explanations, and a volume two, online only, with even more notes and explanations. If all you care about is the poetry, without the distraction of the annotation, you can read the poetry alone. If, on the other hand, you decide not to see the academic explanation as separate from, but rather integral to, the poetic translation, you can read that, too. It's very different from the kind of annotation I've been talking about, where the paratextual commentary (how's that for an academic phrase!) would intrude upon the text, but it's also what the translators decided would work best for their publication.

Lucas Klein, March 17, 2009, 11:39a.m.

# 8.   

I think at the very least, the unwillingness of publishers to simply try putting in short footnotes (or endnotes) in an unobtrusive way reflects a lack of imagination on their part. What would be so hard about just trying this on a select basis? Would the existence of a few footnotes scare away people who would have otherwise bought the book in a store? To get a better sense of how readers feel about this sort of thing, they might even be better off including an extra page in an non-agressively footnoted translation encouraging readers to take an online survey of their reactions. The data would probably be worth more than the random speculations and expectations of people before the fact.

Matt, March 18, 2009, 10:41a.m.

# 9.   

While this might take us away from the question of footnotes, Matt, I think that "lack of imagination" on the part of publishers can explain a lot about how translations are--or are not--published. But now that I think of it, I don't think the problem is lack of imagination as it is lack of courage, in particular, the courage to try new things. Why don't we have footnotes? Publishers are afraid to alienate readers and afraid, as you say, to do the work to see if footnotes alienate the readers. Why don't translators get their names on the cover? Publishers are afraid to admit that the books they're selling are translations, and likewise afraid to do the work to see if translations can sell on the basis of being translations. Why don't we have more translations published each year? Publishers are afraid to do the work required to get people interested in translations. So, as I see it, not so much a failure of the imagination as a failure of boldness and work ethic.

Lucas Klein, March 18, 2009, 3:16p.m.

# 10.   

The reason we don't get more translations published is that publishers have got enough work on their hands promoting unknown native language writers to the public, nevermind unknown foreign writers.

Tom Saunders, March 18, 2009, 5:20p.m.

# 11.   

Interesting point, Tom. I know that my friends in publishing--particularly in promotions & publicity--are certainly over-worked. Assuming that we have a finite limit to the amount of literary titles published every year, would you be willing to see a reduction in English titles for the sake of an increase in translations?

Lucas Klein, March 18, 2009, 7:19p.m.

# 12.   

Sorry to catch up with this discussion so late in the day. Tom and Bruce made good cautionary points about not using footnotes or endnotes as a translator's crutch: annotations don't bolster a wishy-washy translation, nor do they excuse indecision on the part of the translator. But to the extent that footnotes or endnotes can serve to heighten the educational or entertainment value of a translation, they're certainly worth revisiting, right?

Lucas wrote:

'Another thought I have when coming into discussions like this involves what we think of as "academic." Tom writes about readers feeling like "they are engaging in some sort of academic undertaking, rather than trying to entertain themselves." Are these necessarily irreconcilable opposites, entertainment and academics? [...] it may be possible to see annotation as part of the entertainment, and not just as part of the assignment.'

Yes!! Plenty of Chinese and western writers have employed footnotes in their fiction, and to great effect. David Foster Wallace, for one, made endnotes fun. His madcap annotations about invented books and films were, for me, the most enjoyable part of Infinite Jest. In Yan Lianke's novel Shouhuo, the author manages to spin whole stories in his footnotes (which he dubs 絮言, loquacious or long-winded notes): witness the chapter-long "Dialogue with The Revolution", in which The Revolution demands a certain percentage of villagers be marked as landlords, while an elderly female villager protests that her village is so poor that all the inhabitants are either lower- or middle-level peasants and can't conceivably be considered landlords. The author made a point of putting this dialogue in footnotes ("historical footnotes"?), so it makes sense that the translator at least consider maintaining this formatting in the English version.

I'm really glad we're talking about this.

Cindy Carter, March 21, 2009, 11:29a.m.

# 13.   

Lucas made the fascinating point that the quest to provide the reader of the translation with an analogous experience to that of the reader of the original runs up against a wall when readers in different cultures feel differently about the same "experience". Lucas' example was website design, but we discussed the same thing in the recent translation training course, with regards to the general acceptability of melodrama in Chinese fiction. What a Chinese reader will likely find juicy and satisfying, a Western reader will likely find overripe and distasteful. So do you "fix" the experience for the Western reader? We decided not to: the reader is being exposed not only to unfamiliar characters and settings, but also to unfamiliar narrative styles, and the "bump" is part of the value of cross-cultural communication. You've got to stop translating somewhere.

As for footnotes/endnotes/prefaces in particular, I will happily plow through twenty pages of translator's preface so long as it's interesting and well-written. But once the text proper begins, there's nothing more depressing than the appearance of that little superscript digit, and the obligation to decide whether I can be arsed to flip to the back of the book, or even break the sentence and move my eyes to the bottom of the page. Even if I choose to ignore it, something is still ruined – it attacks the suspension of disbelief, and the immersive experience, that are essential to enjoying fiction (for me). Obviously, this doesn't apply to cases where footnotes are an integral part of the original text…

 Eric Abrahamsen, March 22, 2009, 3:45a.m.

# 14.   

They must have been thinking of (sticklers like) Eric when they published 源氏物语 translated by 姚继中.

Knowing that you refuse to flip to the back of the book and don't even want to move your lazy eyeballs to the bottom of the page, they put the "footnote" smack in the middle of the text in mice type. Easy to glide past or take in, as you like.

Bruce Humes
Chinese Books, English Reviews

 Bruce, March 22, 2009, 5:25a.m.

# 15.   

You laugh, but I really can't stand them. I feel about footnotes the same way I would feel if I were reading on a park bench and the translator came over and sat with me, read over my shoulder for a bit, then interrupted to say "oh, you've gotten to that part. You know, that term there, what that actually means is…"

I am guardedly optimistic about mice type.

 Eric Abrahamsen, March 23, 2009, 12:33a.m.

# 16.   

Like Cindy says, footnotes have become another tool available for the author to use. Using footnotes in the translation of a novel without footnotes turns it into a "novel with footnotes," in the same way that adding chapter headings to the Chinese translation of a foreign novel turns it into the type of novel that has chapter headings.

It's easier when the text has footnotes already. Then the reader is primed for whatever the translator wants to stuff in there. For example, here's what the "reader's guide" (translators' preface) to the Chinese translation of Snow Crash (溃雪, 李卓翰 陈夏民译,EPOCH TEXT 2008), says about notes (in translation):

Anything in parentheses has one of three meanings:

1) In Chinese, unstarred: Author's original - i.e. the text of the novel.

2) In English, unstarred: The original text added for reference by the editors. These are the names of places, objects, or individuals that are not metaphorical or associative. They are explained in context. Including the original is for the convenience of the reader, who may consult other references for a deeper understanding of the background information apart from the text.

3) In Chinese or English, annotated and starred; following nouns or after entire paragraphs: These involve metaphors and associations that the author, assuming the reader will understand, does not explain in the text yet which affect readability. Therefore, we have inserted appropriate notes. As above, the original is included so the reader can consult more comprehensive background material.

These are in-text notes, not footnotes, and they're not particularly obtrusive. However, I'd argue that Chinese readers of SF are better primed to accept this style of annotation than your ordinary reader of English-language literature. A fair proportion of the stories in the average issue of SFW have explanatory footnotes (for scientific organizations, unfamiliar concepts, or tropes that may be familiar to a UK-US (or JP or RU) audience but not necessarily so to a Chinese one), and many recent original/translated novels do as well.

As an aside, the opening of Snow Crash provides a great example of the constraints that often limit translators. Stephenson starts off his novel with dictionary definitions of "snow" and "crash", which the translators flipped around to match the title 溃雪 and then rendered in Chinese. is OK, but gets defined as 事业或经济上突然的挫败 (i.e. "crash"), which is a little odd. The mainland translation, which will appear shortly, went with 雪崩 "avalanche" for the title, an ordinary word that lacks the novelty of the Taiwan title. It'll be interesting to see what they do with the definitions -- the Spanish edition, for example, simply lists the English words beside a Spanish definition.

There's a discussion of other issues here.

jdmartinsen, April 22, 2009, 9:15p.m.

# 17.   

I'm trying to read Juvenal's Satires in the Penguin Classics translation at the moment. If it weren't for the endnotes, I would lose half of what he says through sheer lack of familiarity with ancient Rome. I'd say I'm predisposed to enjoy footnotes for the light that they throw on the background, although I recognise I'm not typical in that regard.

Tom appears to dislike footnotes not because they are bad, but because ordinary readers are afraid of them. Essentially he's wary of making translations any more unpalatable for the man in the street than they already are. Well, I can see that changing our own culture (no matter how defective it may be) is an uphill battle, and one that is likely to be lost. On the other hand, this anti-intellectual bent amounts to something of a 'tyranny of the ignorant'. Is there no way of smuggling footnotes in without spoiling the smooth reading experience that most readers supposedly crave?

Greg, November 7, 2014, 1:47a.m.


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