Wednesday 19 September 2018

On translation by Nicky Harman

Spot the authors: Jia Pingwa, Mo Yan and Tie Ning are in the front row. Also in the picture are Alai, Yu Hua, Lu Min and many many others.

Nicky Harman reports on a meeting of minds.

The International Sinologists Conference on Translating Chinese Literature (汉学家文学翻译国际研讨会FISCTCL) brings authors from all over China and translators from all over the world, to a different venue in China every two years. This year, we were in Guiyang, China, for the fifth biennial conference. Despite the unwieldy title and even more unwieldy acronym, it is an extremely enjoyable event, one of a kind, giving translators a chance to meet and bend the ear of their authors (or people whom they would like to translate) and giving authors the chance to learn more about the process of translation and the promotion of their works overseas. FISCTCL is run by the China Writers Association (CWA), who have done a brilliant job over the last decade adapting the initially rather formal conference format, to the quirky demands of a bunch of maverick, enthusiastic and creative translators! The upshot is that for the last two FISCTCLs, we have spent most of the two days in discussion groups of about twenty. Depending on the mood and composition of the group, individuals can either give a presentation they have prepared in advance or have a free discussion.

Take my group as an example: We had Jia Pingwa, the Xi’an-based contemporary of Mo Yan, in the group, as well as some of his translators. Liljana Arsovska from Mexico and I have both been translating Jia’s Jihua (《极花》) , respectively into La Flor Suprema, Siglo XXI Editores, 2018, and The Nonesuch Flower, ACA Publishing, due out 2019. This novel, about Butterfly, a city girl kidnapped and sold as a wife to a remote mountain village, aroused some controversy when it was first published in China. Jia’s Afterword to the novel explains how desperate the men become in these hardscrabble villages where the women have left to work in factories and don’t want to come back to get married. Some Chinese readers felt that Jia had shown himself too indulgent of the kidnappers. Our group discussion focussed not on Jia’s own attitude to trafficking (he condemns it, obviously) but on how the novel is likely to be received in translation. Liljana and I had a major disagreement here: she said that Mexican readers were likely to see the story of Butterfly, the kidnapped woman, as commonplace, but she doubted UK readers would understand it. I maintain that trafficking is, if not accepted as commonplace in the UK, is well known to exist. Jia listened with interest. The other Chinese authors looked on, possibly bemused at the excitement generated over the existence, or not, of trafficking in the UK. Liljana then made the interesting point that the novel will be received in different ways in different languages: there will be as many Butterflies as there are translations. That’s a point worth remembering.

The authors’ contingent didn’t only consist of the great and the good; the organizers had taken on board our suggestions that more emerging writers and translators be included, so they ranged from Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan, Jia Pingwa, and Tie Ning (Chair of the CWA), through the likes of Yu Hua, A Lai, and Lu Min, to local, Guiyang-based writers and essayists.

Among the emerging writers, a couple of women in our group, Wei Wei (魏微) and Sun Huifen (孙惠芬) had a lively exchange about whether they wrote for women and about women, or whether they wrote for readers in general. The rest of us pinned our ears back and listened, hard. Jia Pingwa put in the comment that it was anomalous that women writers were always referred to with a 女, ie ‘female’, in brackets after their names, while the same never happened to male authors; the implication being that masculine is the default setting in the literary world.

(By the way, hats off to our group’s very skilful moderators, translator Zuzana Li (李素) and writer Ning Ken (宁肯), who encouraged the more bashful among us to speak out and managed to make notes of the sometimes noisy discussions, for the benefit of the closing session of the conference.)

The translators were an amazingly mixed bunch too: there were translators from Chinese into Turkish, Finnish, Mongolian, Japanese, Korean and Farsi, European, Eastern European languages and Russian, as well as a large Arabic-speaking contingent. Different languages, very similar translation challenges, ranging from the language-to-language transformation of a novel, to the part the translator can play in getting the book out to its readers, and most basically, how we all manage to do what we love, literary translation, and earn enough to live on.

I hope I have managed to convey what a privilege it was (jetlag and late flights notwithstanding) to spend the week talking about writing and translation with so many interesting people. As well as catching up with old friends, most of them last seen at the same conference two years ago, I made new ones. For instance, Sun Huifen, the woman writer mentioned above, with whom I’m currently exchanging emails about the ethics or otherwise of ethnic-themed villages in South China …but that’s another story.