一周一句 Sunday Sentence #6

By Jack Hargreaves, published

Part of: Sunday Sentence

cover image

This week's Sunday Sentence can be found on the first page of 《北妹》 by Sheng Keyi 盛可以 (2004), translated by Shelly Bryant as Northern Girls (2012).

Please input your translation in the comments box at the bottom of the page.

The sentence to translate is:

Remember, you can post your translation anytime between now and next Sunday, so you have plenty of time to ponder and refine it.

It is Qian Xiaohong's massive breasts that set her apart from other young women in her hometown, and eventually she is driven out, pushed to become one of the titular "northern girls"—the name given to the girls and women that showed up to work in the booming Pearl River Delta in the 1990s and 2000s—following her friend Li Sijiang to Shenzhen. The breasts become a metaphor for female sexuality and gendered oppression, allowing Xiaohong an easier ride than the chaste Li Sijiang, but eventually coming to weigh like an anchor around her neck.

Why this sentence:
This is not quite the first sentence of Northern Girls, but sits right below it. Sheng Keyi's first novel was a book that translators loved! Before Shelly Bryant's translation, I saw several attempts at translating samples. Sex and dirty words are among the hardest things to figure out in translation. In Chinese novels, euphemisms often stand in for more sensual description—but that can come off as unusual for Western readers. Does the translator err on the side of politeness, too? Should distinctly Chinese descriptions be left or should the translator try to find an English parallel?

Author Bio:
Sheng Keyi 盛可以 like the protagonist of her first novel moved to Shenzhen from her hometown in Hunan in the 1990s. Northern Girls, her first novel, made waves upon its publication in 2004. The novel is still beloved by readers, perhaps especially in the West (Shelly Bryant's 2012 translation was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize), but it only hinted at the darker, more complicated work that Sheng Keyi produced over the following fifteen years. From her later work, the standout is Death Fugue 《死亡赋格》 (2013, with a translation by Shelly Bryant put out by Giromondo in 2014), a novel that begins with the inexplicable appearance of a tower of feces in the center of the capital and ends on a utopian commune.

Thanks to Dylan King for the suggestion and background.

Looking forward to your translations!


# 1.   


With a height of 1.55 meters, short, curly hair and a slightly rounded face, she was a typical girl from a respectable, law abiding family. Destined to be wed to a man, she knew her place in the world. She bore the burden of having large breasts. Although it wasn’t her own decision, there was no alternative but for Qian Xiaohong to be cast away from the familiarity of those closest to her, similar to the fate met by widows in that time.

Morning all! So for this one, as there is theme of gender oppression, I wanted to try and stress lack of choice, e.g. instead of she will marry a man, I opted for she will be destined to wed a man as I felt this showed perhaps she didn’t have a choice or this was expected of her. Also, with the use of bore the burden of having large breasts, I thought the use of bore the burden indicated the negative stigma that could come from society at that time, the very straightforward use of large breasts was to emphasise the fact that having breasts (whatever size they may be) is very normal! What I mean by this, is that some writers in other books may have a very roundabout way of saying this (heavy chested, large around the chest area) but I think this can make something very scientific and anatomical almost seem like a bad word. So it was important to express a contrast between the societal view and something that’s very natural. Again, the term cast away was used to show the lack of choice on the part of Xiaohong.

On a side note, it’s really good to see some Chinese literature talking these kinds of issues, this came at a really good time as I’ve been looking for some recently!

Lucy Elwood, July 5, 2020, 10:32a.m.

# 2.   

This isn't necessarily how I would actually translate it, but taking some license here...

Five foot and a bit, with curls framing her round face, Xiaohong could've passed for what you might call a good girl, one of those young women just waiting for the right man to come along, just waiting for the chance to fulfill her reproductive duties — but once your gaze invariably slipped below her collarbone, you would know right away that it was never to be. Xiaohong bore a terrible burden, balanced precariously on her chest: a pair of magnificent, pendulous breasts. It was her tits that barred her forever from the world of respectable people. It was her tits onto which everyone projected their most wicked thoughts.

Dylan Levi King, July 5, 2020, 10:43a.m.

# 3.   

She wass 1m55 tall with a cute round face and short, slightly curly hair. She was basically an honest ordinary girl, content with a life path of marriage and children.

Unfortunately, Qianxiaohong's bosom was distinctly over sized, which meant that despite her best intentions, she was always cut off from respectable social circles and, as if she was the village widow, always became a big target of gossip.

---Not very poetically written but just hope I go the meaning right.

James, July 5, 2020, 12:12p.m.

# 4.   

Okay, here's my version from the sample translation I did exactly a decade ago, when I was first trying to get Penguin to translate this book. Be kind, this is very old! For the sake of posterity, I haven't done any touching up. I liked the section right after this one, so I've added that in too, for good measure.

Five foot plus, short wavy hair, roundish face – she’s the very image of respectability, the type who’ll marry a man and bear his children and never put a foot out of line.

Unfortunately for Hong, however, her bosom is too big. She didn’t do it on purpose, but all the same it has banished her from respectability with no room for appeal, drawing the kind of gossip usually reserved for merry widows.

It must be said, though, Hong’s bosom is a beauty! Even through her clothing its qualities are evident; it promises to respond terrifically to the touch; it’s a real sight for straying eyes. But we all live within the crowd and must conform to the crowd’s view; if you insist on doing things your own way, that’s you being headstrong. And so Hong’s bosom became something of a local eyesore.

Eric Abrahamsen, July 5, 2020, 5:02p.m.

# 5.   


She was just over five feet tall, with short, curly hair and a slightly round face. She was pretty much the model of a good girl from a nice, respectable family, who'd one day marry a man and have a kid and take the place of a normal, ordinary housewife.

The only problem was Qian Xiaohong's breasts: they were too big. Though she hadn't meant any ill intention to anyone by having such big tits, it didn't matter. Like an old widow she was ostracized, cast aside and left out of respectable social circles.

George Dudley, July 6, 2020, 3:51a.m.

# 6.   

一米五五的样子,短发、带卷、蛋脸偏圆,基本上是良家民女的模样,嫁个男人安分守己生儿育女的胚子。遗憾的是,钱小红的胸部太大,即便不是钱小红的本意,也被毫无余地地划出良民圈子,与寡妇的门前一样多了事。 Five foot and a smidgen, with short, curly hair, she was the picture of a good girl, and were a man to ask, she would have dropped everything to settle down, start a family and, frankly, do whatever was expected of her. Except, Qian Xiaohong’s breasts were too big. Their size was such that, despite her best intentions, she was quite unceremoniously, and with zero chance of reprieve, banished, by all who laid their eyes upon them, from the realm of respectability to that of spinsters and widows——a chest like hers was irresistible fodder for gossip mongers.

My original last sentence was this: "...spinsters and widows——a chest like hers was a God-given encumbrance that served for little but fodder for gossip mongers." But then I saw Eric's extra paragraph and realised that's not at all true, so changed it to the above.

I hummed and hawed between banished and relegated, and decided the latter was too formal (?)

That was a lot of fun to work on. I've not read the book before, so I'll have to now.

Jack Hargreaves, July 6, 2020, 6:35p.m.

# 7.   

*all whose eyes fell upon them... Doh

Jack Hargreaves, July 6, 2020, 6:47p.m.

# 8.   

Qian Xiaohong, a girl 1.55 meters tall with an oval face and curled short hair, bore the look of a good woman, who was destined to lead a simple life with her husband and children. Contrary to her expectation, her oversized breasts made her denied by the circle of those “good women” and aroused her harassment.

Huiting Teng, July 8, 2020, 5a.m.

# 9.   

With her petite size of slightly over 1.5 metres, a crop of curls and roundish face, Qian Xiaohong is a picture of virtue - a decent-looking girl who has it in her blood to marry a man, start a family and never cross a line. The regretful thing is, her heavy, heaving bust does not sit so well with those who carry themselves with utmost propriety. Even if she never intended it to be so, being overly well-endowed only casts her in the same unfavourable light as widows, drawing merciless gossip wherever she goes.

Notes: I could not decide between boobs, breasts and bust. I think me also being the gender of concern here makes me want to subconsciously tone it down. Also, I think me translating 良民圈子 as "those who carry themselves with utmost propriety" feels a bit snarky and perhaps over the top, but I feel that the word 圈子 also sounds like a clique that they consider themselves privileged to be in.

Christina Ng, July 9, 2020, 10:25a.m.

# 10.   


She was all of 155 centimetres tall, with short curly hair and a plain round face. She looked like a woman from a typical, ordinary family, content to settle down, marry a man and raise their children. Unfortunately, Qian Xiaohong’s breasts were too great for her ambitions. Though it was not her intention, her exceptional bosom cleaved a path away from respectability, and put her unceremoniously in the class of widowed women people gossiped about.

Phyllis Ang, July 9, 2020, 1:23p.m.

# 11.   

A shade over five feet, with short, curly hair and an oval face, Qian Xiaohong was the model of a good family girl who would dutifully marry and bear children. The thing was, her breasts were too large, and through no fault of their own invariably crossed a line in proper society, which reacted to her bosom with gossip not unlike that reserved for widows.

The biggest challenge for me was to approach this with a tone more like Austen or more like Fielding, or even to go after a mutt. I wanted to resist taking too much license or exaggerating too much—since I don’t think I could harness the impulse and pull that off convincingly. I also didn’t want to be too unsympathetic to the character and wished instead to cast shade onto the “proper society” that ostracizes her for such a superficial reason. I did take some license late in the translation process, maybe too riskily: I made her “bosom” (and not Qian Xiaohong herself) more the object of their derision.

Martin Witte, July 9, 2020, 9:08p.m.

# 12.   


Five-foot something, with short, curly hair and an oval face, she was the very image of the typical good girl, the kind who’d be content with getting married to a man and raising his children. But despite Qian Xiaohong’s best intentions, her huge breasts arouse more dirty gossip than respectability.

I got the feeling I oversimplified the last part. Reading the other translations, I get what it implies with the "same gossip reserved for widows", but I felt it was less important here, as the main focus is on how her breasts make her an unrespectable person.

Leonardo Magnelli, July 11, 2020, 3:58p.m.


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