There and Back Again: Tracking Down Transliterations in Stories of the Sahara

By Nicky Harman, published

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It's an honour to post this fascinating essay by Mike Fu, on the backstory behind his translation of Sanmao's Stories of the Sahara.

One of the first things that struck me about Sanmao’s writing was its casual cross-cultural sensibilities. As the narrator and protagonist of Stories of the Sahara, Sanmao settles into life in colonial Africa and spends her days bantering with her husband José, pushing the buttons of the local bureaucrats, and befriending neighbors, store clerks, and hitchhikers. From chapter to chapter, she might reminisce about the “good old days” in Madrid, pine for her native Taiwan, or talk about popular English-language films of the ‘60s and ‘70s. José’s nickname for her is “stranger,” after the novel by Camus. Meanwhile, Sanmao articulates a mythic Chinese cultural lineage – of five thousand years, naturally – to all those around her, slipping in references to Sun Wukong, Zhuangzi, Xin Qiji, and other figures in her narratives.

Spanish and Arabic feature prominently in proper names across the stories. When I translated this book into English, I found that many of these transliterated names could be identified based on existing precedent or phonetic proximity: 荷西 hexi as José, 法蒂瑪 fadima as Fatima, 馬諾林 manuolin as Manolín, 穆罕默德 muhanmode as Muhammad, and so on. Place names were somewhat trickier. I spent some time peering at both Google and colonial-era maps to figure out where exactly Sanmao and José may have journeyed from their home in El Aaiún (阿雍 ayong). Luckily, her Chinese transliterations and in-text descriptions of geography were sufficient clues to make determinations on locations like 馬卡貝斯 makabeisi as Al Mahbes, near Algeria, and 維亞西納略 weiya xinalüe as Villa Cisneros, now called Dakhla.

As I was preparing my first draft of the manuscript, I greatly enjoyed communicating with my fellow translators of Stories of the Sahara into Dutch, Spanish, and Catalan: Annelous Stiggelbout, Irene Tor Carroggio, and Sara Rovira. Together we concluded that the 臉狺 lianyin referenced in one of the last stories were, in fact, the djinn of Arabian folklore (despite the indecipherable pinyin). Meanwhile, the names of Spanish characters in this chapter were surprisingly tough to crack; we settled on some approximations nonetheless.

Much later, I found myself approaching the end of the editing process with Bloomsbury. At this juncture, there were still quite a few names, primarily Arabic, that left me stumped. Sanmao’s neighbors, for example, are important recurring characters, especially the ten-year-old “Guka” 姑卡 whose predicament and perspectives lend emotional heft to certain sections of the book. As far as I could tell, there was no Arabic girl’s name that seemed anywhere close to “Guka,” “Googa,” or however I tried to deconstruct its orthography. So I did what anybody might do in the internet age: I searched for academic experts on the Sahrawi and sent some emails.

I made initial contact with Alice Ella Finden, a PhD student at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, and Carmen Gómez Martín of the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales Sede Ecuador (FLACSO). They connected me with native Sahrawi colleagues – Brahim B. Ali, Bahia Awah, and Limam Boisha – whose support became indispensable to me at the eleventh hour. Mr. Boisha, in fact, wrote to me in Spanish, which I do not speak, and I to him in English; thanks to machine translation, we were able to have an efficient collaboration nonetheless!

I cannot emphasize how generous they were with their time in reviewing my bizarre lists organized as follows: “phonetic English transcription of pinyin name/phrase – provisional translation – character/context note.” Through Professor Awah, I was able to determine that the religious figure referred to by Sanmao as 山棟 shandong was not an Arabic term, but actually a loanword from Spanish: santón. My correspondence with all three of them also educated me on the linguistic hybridity of Hassaniya, the native language of the Sahrawi characters. There is no standard romanization scheme for Hassaniya, as far as I was able to determine. In the end, we were able to settle the naming of 姑卡, along with many other important characters in the book. Almost a half-century after Sanmao began writing about her young neighbor, I am pleased to return (what seems to be) a suitable name to her: Gueiga.

I imagine Sanmao’s earliest readers, back in the 1970s, could appreciate the flavor of Arabic words she deploys like 夏依麻 xiayima for khaima (“tent”), or other transliterated terms she peppers in her stories. Strangely, apart from the santón mentioned above, I can’t recall her dropping any Spanish phrases in the text at all. This is even more remarkable considering that she lived in a Hispanophone territory and thus all the dialogue she renders in Chinese – with her husband, her neighbors, and even those pesky bureaucrats – would have been carried out in Spanish originally.

For the English translation of Stories of the Sahara, I took the creative liberty of infusing a bit of Spanish back into the work to honor the lived experience of the polyglot chameleon we know as Sanmao. Señor and señora appear in lieu of 先生 and 女士, when appropriate; a taunt of 膽小鬼 becomes cobarde and gallina; José orders 海鮮湯 in one story, which just seems that much more appetizing to me as sopa de mariscos, rather than seafood stew. And on and on. I hope all of these little moments in the text can help peel back the curtain – even just a touch – on the land Sanmao lived in back then. It was the Sahara, after all, that inspired her to write.


# 1.   

Proper names are a real headache: this is the bane of my life when I'm working with Yang Lian's poetry. Well done, Mike.

Brian Holton, December 17, 2020, 6:06p.m.

# 2.   

Thanks for drawing attention to your translation of this book, Mike! It sounds just fascinating. I've just been reading an interview with the author Vamba Sharif in which he suggests there's a need for more stories about the Asian-African connection.

David McKay, December 18, 2020, 10:52a.m.

# 3.   

Thanks, Brian and David! It was certainly a labor to demystify some of these proper names, but also kind of fun – if you're into that kind of thing. ;)

Mike Fu, December 19, 2020, 12:40a.m.

# 4.   

My training in linguistics is what (briefly) sent me into translation as a career. This is the coolest article I've seen in 2021! Well done indeed, Mike.

Worth notifying the blog Language Log out of U Penn, if that's your bag, or if PR wills it. They'd eat it up.

Maxwell Joslyn, January 10, 2021, 6:06p.m.


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