Day three of the Singapore Writers Festival included an English-language panel discussion: China - a new super (literary) powerhouse? Moderator Phil Tatham, publisher at Monsoon Books, didn’t mention the strange use of brackets, but he did point out that the question mark was not necessary; there is no doubt China is a literary powerhouse. That established, the panellists, who both write in Chinese, were free to explore the ways in which, through translation, Chinese literature can act as a bridge between cultures, and can engage and interact with readerships globally.
The panellists were Dorothy Tse, who is Hong Kong Chinese, and Zhang Ling, who was born in Zhejiang Province, but who now lives in Canada – she was the first overseas Chinese to be awarded China’s People’s Literature Award. Oddly, there was no Mainland Chinese writer on the panel.
Tse’s third book, a collection of surreal stories set in a fantastical version of her hometown, is available in English through Hong Kong University Press. Tse read an extract from the story Blessed Bodies, set in Y-land, a place famous for its sex industry, where men who otherwise couldn’t afford the prostitutes can barter their own limbs for sex – the amputated limbs are sold on. Tse then discussed differences between Hong Kong writers, and Mainland writers. She said she thought Mainland writers knew they had a large home market, and so they worried about meeting the demands of that market, whereas Hong Kong is so small, that its writers do not think of it as a market at all, and thus they take risks and experiment, free of commercial pressures.
Zhang read from her novel Gold Mountain Blues, which is available in English through Penguin Canada. It is an historical novel chronicling the lives of five generations of a Chinese family originally from Guangdong Province, but soon transplanted to Gold Mountain, the Chinese name for Canada’s West Coast. Zhang explained that she cannot pin down her own identity: in China they call her Canadian-Chinese; in Canada they call her Chinese-Canadian; she speaks English in her daily life outside the home, but Mandarin within the home; she dreams in Mandarin, but tells her Canadian friends her dreams in English.
Co-incidentally, both authors share a translator, Nicky Harman, who also contributed an introduction to Snow and Shadow. They discussed the pleasures and perils of working with a translator, with Zhang telling how her French translator insisted on disambiguating the ambiguities of Chinese – ambiguities both she and Tse said they relished.
Tse said she was relaxed about mistranslations. She made the point that readers often misread texts in their own language – misreadings, she said, are part of reading, and can have interesting, fruitful results, and she felt the same about mistranslation. That’s a positive attitude that could surely serve writers well, throughout Asia?