Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Translating together, part 2.

 Nicky Harman continues the story of a co-translation project: Jia Pingwa's new novel, The Sojourn Teashop


In my September blog, I wrote about co-translating a novel by a contemporary author, Jia Pingwa, in tandem with Jun Liu, a New Zealand-based translator who knows Jia’s work well. Since my last blog, we have been revising our translation and debating some knotty stylistic problems – and talking about the process at the Gwyl Haf Borderless Book Club, held to celebrate International Translation Day this year.


Jia Pingwa (1952- ) stands with Mo Yan and Yu Hua as one of the biggest names in contemporary Chinese literature. A prolific producer of novels, short stories and essays, he has a huge readership on the Chinese mainland, as well as in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Jia Pingwa's fiction focuses on the lives of common people, particularly in his home province of Shaanxi, and has hitherto been largely based in the countryside (Shaanxi Opera, forthcoming, and Broken Wings, 2019) or in the lives of workers from the countryside who have moved to the big city (Happy Dreams, 2017).

Jia’s most recent novel, The Sojourn Teashop (Sinoist, 2022) is very different: it focusses on a dozen women in Xijing (Jia’s fictionalised version of Xi’an, his home city) and their struggles to run their businesses, battle with bureaucracy and corruption, and find personal happiness.

In our collaboration, Jun did the first draft, I did the second draft, she commented, I commented on her comments, and we are now at the stage of going over the whole translation separately, and picking up any further problems, infelicities, or (perish the thought) mistakes.

We each brought a very different perspective to this novel. Jun saw the background as giving the reader insights into contemporary China, on matters such as how to do business, Chinese culture (tea, calligraphy, Buddhism), how to address your friends and other people, what gifts to give, and what a leading Chinese writer’s studio looks like.

For that reason, Jun felt it very important to get the details right. I completely agreed with her but I was keenly aware that we were translating a novel, not a work of cultural anthropology or reportage. I like to think of the cultural information that the translator absorbs in the process of translation as an iceberg, and the actual words that the author uses to convey that information (and which we therefore have to reflect) as the tip of the iceberg. I now know more than I ever imagined about scholar fans and Buddhist apsara images, but that knowledge largely informs my translation, rather than being incorporated directly into it.

So between my partner and me, there was a push-pull factor. Imagine a conversation in which one of the women is picking up some fans and her friend asks her about them. The first makes a throwaway comment about the fans, and they go on to talk about something else. Certain factors limit the amount of extra information the translator can add, that is not in the original. The dialogue has to sound natural, as if someone actually spoke it. The sentence should not be unbalanced by adding too much (even though the reader may end up not being much the wiser about the intricacies of fan design).

Push-pull. Discussion-disagreement-agreement. I think we both found this a very interesting and fruitful process. I often found myself trying just that bit harder to convey the relationship between two characters where at first I had dismissed a word, or exclamation, in the original Chinese, as not meaning much.

There were other issues on which Jun and I certainly agreed but where we still had to work out solutions to knotty translation issues. Here two heads were definitely better than one.

There is one key character in the novel whom we both found hard to interpret, and that is the women’s friend, the writer and calligrapher, Yi Guang. My immediate reaction was to dismiss him as an unrepentant male chauvinist. When he tells Eva (the young Russian friend of Hai Ruo, the teashop owner) that ‘her face is her fortune’ and she doesn’t need to learn any more about Chinese calligraphy and art, of course I cringed. I am sure that thousands of miles away in New Zealand, Jun did the same. I admit I threw up my hands and said, this is a guy that the author wants us to take seriously, but I can’t take him seriously. And Jun came back with: But that is what the author wrote. We have to translate it. This led to an interesting conversation between us about the complexities of Yi Guang. On the one hand, the group of women friends and their one male friend remind us of The Story of the Stone, with Yi Guang as a much older version of Jia Baoyu. There is also an implied comparison with Jia Pingwa himself (the descriptions of the calligraphy, the writing, and the passion for collecting antiques with which his studio is crammed, all these tally). Yi Guang hints that, as a local literary figurehead in Xijing, he finds himself trammeled in political shenanigans. So he is not altogether unsympathetic. (Local politics is a brutal business. Are we to understand that the author finds himself in the same queasy situation?)

On the other hand, I still found Yi Guang’s view of women hard to handle. He genuinely admires them and has many close female friends/lovers (we are never quite sure which). At one point, Eva compares him to a Russian poet (he remains unnamed but she is probably referring to Pushkin, with his numerous lovers). Anyway, having gritted my teeth and translated the comment to Eva, I let my antipathy slip through when Yi Guang compares a woman to a flower; I added the phrase ‘to be picked’. Jun pointed out to me that Yi Guang nowhere states that he wants to pick the flower. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t but I had removed the ambiguity. I put it back and deleted ‘to be picked’.

The novel’s main characters -- a group of a dozen women friends, their male friend Yi Guang, and the assistants at the teashop which is owned by the senior woman, Hai Ruo -- produce a veritable cobweb of relationships. In the story, the ways they interact with each other are reinforced by the way they refer to each other. To explain: in British English we use Mr and Mrs to indicate respect. We can refer to someone (usually male) by surname only. We commonly use given names between friends and work colleagues. And that’s usually it. Not so in Chinese. In The Sojourn Teashop, the women friends range in age from those in their twenties to Hai Ruo who has a grown-up son and is probably in her late forties. The younger women call her jie , older sister, as do her shop assistants. This is a respectful and friendly term which has no equivalent in English. We rejected Sister… it made her sound like a nun or a nurse. We tried omitting it altogether…but then thought we had lost too much. We included it in pinyin Romanisation, italicised, as Jie, but then thought the text looked too ‘spotty’. Finally, in consultation with the publisher’s editor, we have decided on –jie, giving us Hai Ruo (her full name) or Hai-jie (when her ‘juniors’ are talking to or about her). Similarly with Yi Guang, who is regularly referred to as Yi-laoshi or Yi Guang-laoshi. Laoshi, as many of the readers of this blog will know, is a term of respect meaning teacher. But he isn’t (a teacher) and heaven forefend that we should call him Teacher Yi, because that sounds too much like Chinglish.

Pinyin romanisation has its limitations. What is one to do with two women surnamed Xu and another surnamed Xi, where the Chinese characters are different but in pinyin, they look the same, or at least look as though they are related to each other (they are not)? Ultimately, we agreed that our overarching aim was to clarify for the reader who was who and how they regarded each other, as far as we could, even though sometimes subtleties in their interactions would be lost. So we decided that retaining zong and laoban老板, terms of respect for the richest entrepreneurs and general business owners, was just too much for the reader to take on board, and we substituted Mr or Mrs, even though that meant losing some distinctions in perceived social rank.

The Sojourn Teashop is untypical for Jia Pingwa, in that there is very little Sha’anxi dialect. On the other hand, there are some classical or classical-style poems and inscriptions which had us scratching our heads. And there was one particularly strange four-character phrase, 俯仰无节,进退哪能有宽路. This means that a mid-ranking official has to tread a fine line between showing enough respect to superiors while also keeping their juniors in order… and maintaining their integrity/a sense of decency, at the same time. Jun initially drafted this as ‘Looking up and peering down without a bottom line, no smooth path shall one ever find.’ I wanted something that had a more up-to-date feel to it. And we switched the metaphor from eyes to nose, and chose, ‘He was a real “brown-nose, look down your nose”. That’s all very well as a strategy, but you have to have the courage of your convictions too.’ Luckily, we then got a chance to explain it, because another speaker immediately asks what it means.

There are many arguments for co-translating a work of fiction – the work goes quicker, two heads are arguably better than one when tackling knotty translation problems – and The Sojourn Teashop certainly benefitted, as did we two. The push-pull factor can be very creative. I suppose it could, in theory, lead to all-out war between the co-translating partners. Happily, it did not, far from it. I hope Jun and I can work together again.

For those of you would like to watch our event at the Gwyl Haf Borderless Book Club, entitled Sinoist Books Present: Translation as Collaboration, here is the video link:

All illustrations above are taken from the Powerpoint Jun Liu and Nicky Harman presented at the Gwyl Haf Borderless Book Club.


Sunday, 17 October 2021

Somewhere I belong: guest post from Sarayu Srivatsa

Sarayu Srivasta trained as an architect and city planner in Madras and Tokyo. Her first novel, The Last Pretence, was short-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize. It was released in the UK under the title If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here. Around the time the winner of the Booker Prize is announced, the Guardian newspaper in the UK runs an annual poll of readers, Not the Booker Prize.  If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here was included on the longlist.

Sarayu’s new novel, That Was, has just been published. That Was is a coming-of-age story set in the 1990s and early 2000s amidst the ever-changing landscapes of India and Japan. One of its protagonists, Kavya, undertakes a journey of self-discovery to uncover the traumatic truth of her troubled past. That Was draws on Sarayu’s experiences of studying architecture in Japan, and of appreciating Zen philosophy, which focuses on finding joy and beauty in simplicity. It explores the idea of connections between people, places, and nature, and how Indian and Japanese cultures are intertwined.

Kavya can never truly call one place home. Here Sarayu talks about the notion of belonging, and discusses how the knowledge that both Japan and India suffer under looming memories of war and terror has influenced her writing.

So, over to Sarayu… 

Friday, 15 October 2021

Indie Spotlight: Historical Fiction - When you say ‘authentic’ . . .

Indie Spotlight is a column by WWII historical fiction author Alexa Kang. The column regularly features hot new releases and noteworthy indie-published books, and popular authors who have found success in the new creative world of independent publishing. 

As a historical fiction author, I know that readers has a high expectation of historical accuracy in our books. When we write our characters, we strive to make them as authentic as possible to the era when our stories take place. But the more I read and research history, the more I find that people in the past often behave quite differently from what we expect based on our understanding of social norms and customs of their time. Today, I invited author Melissa Addey to join us and discuss what authenticity means when we talk about historical fiction. Melissa is the author of Forbidden City, a Chinese historical fiction series about the experiences of four girls who were drafted to become concubines of the Emperor in 18th century China. 

Now, over to Melissa . . .  

Monday, 11 October 2021

The Missing Buddhas, guest post by Tony Miller

Tony Miller has just published The Missing Buddhas through Earnshaw Books (Hong Kong). Tony arrived in Hong Kong in 1972, with a degree in Modern Arabic, intending to stay three years and learn Chinese, he quickly changed his mind about leaving and spent the next 35 years serving in local government. Along the way, he developed a keen interest in Chinese painting, porcelain, jade and the conversations across borders that have influenced art and style through the ages. He is a former President of Hong Kong’s Oriental Ceramic Society and a member of the Min Chiu Society. He has published a variety of papers on previously unresearched aspects of Chinese antiquities. Since 1979, he and his wife Nga-Ching have wandered all over China, happily exploring its historic sites and natural wonders.

In the early 1900s, as chaos reigned in China, a group of life-size terracotta Buddhist monks suddenly surfaced on the antiques market and caused a sensation in the West. Sculpted vividly from life, these luohans (defenders of the Buddhist law) were completely unlike anything previously seen in Chinese art. Museums and collectors around the world competed for them, but who made them and when? And where had they been hidden before they suddenly emerged into the light?

The Missing Buddhas tells the story of these statues and unravels the question of their origins. For the past century, scholars, curators and connoisseurs have all seemed mesmerized by the German dealer, Friedrich Perzynski’s account of his search for them in inaccessible caves southwest of Beijing, where monks had allegedly hidden them from barbarian invaders. Perzynski documented his search in Jagd auf Gotter (Hunt for the Gods ). Tony takes a scalpel to Perzynski's ideas about the statues' provenance, explores a window on a fascinating period in Chinese history, and introduces an extraordinary cast of characters as he leads the reader clue by clue to the real origins of these beautiful enigmas.

So, over to Tony...

Saturday, 9 October 2021

Making Sense of Memory: In conversation with Parwana Fayyaz

Editor’s note: Parwana Fayyaz’s highly-anticipated debut was released earlier this year, titled ‘Forty Names’ after a gorgeous poem (first published in PN Review) that won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem in 2019. In this conversation with the Asian Books Blog, she unravels the many strands of tradition and translation woven into the fabric of this collection. This short interview took place over email, and has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Congratulations, once again, on the publication of Forty NamesI read all the poems in one sitting yesterday, and the most distinctive thing about these poems, to me, is the striking narrative voice that threads through them. At times, this voice seems to belong both to the child in the poems, listening to some of these stories for the first time, and to you today, re-telling them many years on. How did these poems take shape, and how long did that process take? 

Saturday, 2 October 2021

5 Horror Manga Recommendations That Aren't Junji Ito

It's spooky season again, so that means horror, specifically, horror manga. Japanese comics have a long history of horror stories, but the mangaka Junji Ito has become synonymous with the genre. He's an indisputable master at the craft, no doubt, I even spotlighted 10 recommendations of his work, but there are many other horror manga to choose from. Here's a list of 5 to choose from, that aren't from Junji Ito.

Thursday, 30 September 2021

Singapore At Home: Life Across Lines — A Review by Elaine Chiew

Singapore At Home: Life Across Lines (Kitaab, 2021), edited by Pallavi Narayan and Iman Fahim Hameed (cover artwork by Pallavi Narayan), blends fiction and biographical accounts in an anthology that explores the idea of home from a variety of perspectives: from home-grown Singaporeans to more uniquely, the current diasporic Indian community in Singapore (arguably, a different metaphysical state from Indian migrant labour a century ago). An exemplar of current Indian diasporic consciousness in this anthology is Aparna Das Sadhukhan’s wonderfully touching story, ‘The Gardeners of Lim Tai See’, in which a new bride from India draws unexpected comfort from her elderly Chinese neighbour with the green thumb, more so than from her Singaporean-Indian husband.  

Any anthology set in Singapore does need to pay heed to issues of diversity in voices, and there is a healthy cross-section here in terms of geographic area (from shophouses in Geylang – Ken Lye’s ‘Her Father’s Business’ – to condo units in Tanjong Rhu – Payal Morankar’s ‘Aaji’s Vicissitudes’) as well as social lines in terms of race, age, class and culture (though not enough on sexual orientation).