Wednesday, 17 October 2018

On translation, by Nicky Harman

Nicky Harman, Yan Ge, Natascha Bruce

Let’s talk literary translation, or how to keep audiences riveted by swearing at them

Last week, I was at Cheltenham Literary Festival, appearing on a panel with Yan Ge and Natascha Bruce. We had carte blanche to talk about Translating China, but decided to focus on Yan Ge’s new novel, The Chilli BeanPaste Clan (Chinese: 我们家) because (let’s be honest) it helps sales, and because the three of us all had plenty to say about the book.

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is set in a fictional town in West China and is the story of the Duan-Xue family, owners of the town’s lucrative chilli bean paste factory, their formidable matriarch, and her badly-behaved, middle-aged son. As the old lady’s eightieth birthday approaches, her children get together to make preparations. Tensions that have simmered for many years come to the surface, family secrets are revealed and long-time sibling rivalries flare up with renewed vigour. 

It’s impossible to know in advance how much knowledge of Chinese contemporary novels your audience will have. (On the other hand, the very fact that they’re sitting expectantly in their seats is a positive, especially at a literary festival with literally hundreds of competing panels and events.) Yan Ge was new to almost everyone in the audience, I would guess; the novel’s storyline is unusual to say the least; and then there are the cultural differences that are a constant challenge when you’re translating from Chinese to English…

Helen Wang says: ‘If an English person reads that Amelie ate a croissant in Avignon, the chances are that they will have come across the girl's name Amelie before, that they have eaten a croissant, and that they have at least heard of Avignon. There will be some resonance. Whereas if they read that Li Jingrui ate a guokui in Zigong …., can the translator assume the reader will know that Li Jingrui is a contemporary female writer, that a guokui is a savoury snack, and that Zigong is a city in Sichuan famous for dinosaurs…?’  

Bad language turns out to be very ‘cultural’. As James Harbeck writes in ‘How to Swear round the World’: ‘You might think that the definition of ‘bad’ words would be similar around the world. You wouldn’t be entirely right. Strong language – swearing, profanity, whatever you want to call it – is special….If everyday language is like the earth’s crust …strong language is like volcanoes and geysers erupting through it from the mantle below. Our social traditions determine which parts of the crust are the thin points.’

This throws up particular difficulties for the translator. The badly-behaved son in The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, is a hard-drinking, hard-living businessman with an extremely colourful vocabulary of Sichuan expletives that it is hard to find equivalents for in English.

Luckily, audiences in my experience love it when the air around them is turned blue. We told them how, when Yan Ge checked my final translation, she complained that there were too many ‘fucks’. Not true – the ‘fuck’ count exactly matched the number of 狗日with the addition of two instances where it was a verb –  but her complaint did prompt me to up my game and take a second look at words like婆娘, 龟儿, and 卖屁儿, for instance.

婆娘 is a key epithet in the novel because it’s a derogatory word for a woman and our businessman, being a classic misogynist, constantly uses it to refer to the females of his acquaintance, from his wife and his girlfriend to the town prostitutes. And yet, and yet…'wench' is archaic, and ‘bitch’ and ‘slag’ are far too strong. As Yan Ge explained, in Sichuan, the word can be simultaneously rude and affectionate. English is just not subtle enough. Suggestions on a postcard please.

卖屁儿 and龟儿 come up in one sentence where Dad remembers an incident from his childhood when his devious elder brother stole a piece of duck and pinned the blame on him, and he rages inwardly: ‘You卖屁儿 [man who sells his arsehole], Duan Zhiming! You’ve always been a龟儿!’ Son-of-a-bitch does nicely for the second, but the first is not a particularly common insult in English. I settled for ‘douchebag’, which seemed appropriate even though it didn’t imply a financial transaction.

As part of our Cheltenham panel, we thought we’d vary the tempo a bit by presenting a tiny excerpt from The Chilli Bean Paste Clan in Chinese, and two contesting translations by Natascha Bruce and myself. We made Yan Ge our adjudicator.

First we set the scene: Dad’s double life is getting complicated. His affair with young Jasmine was recently discovered when he installed her in a flat two floors above his mother’s, then had a heart attack in her bed. Now recovered, he is supposed to have sent her packing, but she calls him. She has something to tell him. The scene then moves forward to later that same evening, when Dad has joined his friends at dinner. He prepares to drop a bombshell.



Translation 1
He reached out for the cup and drank down the wine in it, to give himself some liquid courage.
'OK, here's the thing,’ he announced. 'I've given the girl a belly bump.’

Translation 2
He drained his glass, sucking that drink down until he could feel the Dutch courage in his dick.
'Little announcement for you,' he said. 'Your old man here's only gone and knocked that slag up.'

Ponder the differences carefully: ‘cup’ versus ’glass’; ‘wine’ versus ‘drink’; ‘liquid courage’ versus ‘Dutch courage’; dick’ versus [omission of dick]; ‘the girl’ versus ‘that slag’; ‘give [a girl] a belly bump’ versus ‘knock [her] up’.

If you have never done any translation between two languages as different as Chinese and English, it may surprise you to know that both versions are equally correct.

Talking about translation can be a fascinating and entertaining exploration of the highways and byways of culture and language. Our audience at Cheltenham Literary Festival were most appreciative. (You can always tell, when you hear the laughter, or even the snickers.) Actually doing the translation is equally inspiring. Translation is an art form. I didn’t invent that. Jin Di, the eminent translator of James Joyce’s Ulysses into Chinese, wrote:
What motivates this endless pursuit of an ideal…? Answer: dedication to the art and love of the work…the dedicated artist wants to be sure that his statue is as fine as he can make it…[he will chisel] every part exactly as it should be, including the back of the statue which no human eyes can see…The devoted translator takes delight in endeavouring …to make ... the necessary adjustments that may bring him or her just a little bit closer to the mathematical limit of perfect translation.’   

I prefer to put it more prosaically: Translation is waking up in the middle of the night as your brain finally hits on the mot juste for a word that’s been niggling at you for weeks.