Wednesday 12 December 2018

A Carnival of Translation – Translators and their writers

For this blog, Nicky Harman interviews Natascha Bruce, who has been on a residency with Dorothy Tse, the noted Hong Kong author of surreal stories. The annual residency, called Art OmiTranslation Lab, offers the chance for author and translator pairs tofocus in detail on a text, while also emphasizing translation as a means towards cultural exchange.

NH: What were your expectations for the residency? 

NB: Things we knew to expect: twelve days to use however we liked, spent with three other translator-writer pairs. My Google image searches also suggested that the Hudson Valley might be pretty in late autumn. And all this turned out to be true! The other translators and writers were Elisabeth Lauffer translating Anna Weidenholzer from German; Hope Campbell Gustafson translating Ubah Cristina Ali Farah from Italian; Samuel Rutter translating Cristina Sanchez-Andrade from Spanish. Reality even exceeded my Google image search expectations: for a few days, deer frolicked outside our Hudson Valley windows, then winter arrived and turned everything to very beautiful snow.

NH: Did you and Dorothy cook up a plan in advance?

NB: We didn’t have a detailed advance timetable for the days, but we did arrive with as much of our other work done (or, let’s say, pushed aside) as possible, with the intention of concentrating on the opening chapters of Dorothy’s first novel, Owlfish and the Music Box Ballerina. At least, that’s the working title – right from that first, weird word, it’s a novel full of word play, which was something we wanted to focus on while we were together. Our plan was to talk a lot, basically. I also hoped to get her to read aloud some passages in Cantonese, because this is the language she ‘hears’ the text in, whereas I hear it in Mandarin (the written form is the same). In several places, she’s transliterated French words into Chinese characters that are much easier to trace backwards when sounded out in Cantonese, and which, in transliteration, take on additional layers of meaning. So, for example, the novel is set in 陌根地, a city name that sounds like ‘Burgundy’ but also means, very roughly, ‘unfamiliar root place’. And I had the strong suspicion that for every such instance I managed to detect, I was overlooking at least five more. Or, conversely, imagining them where she hadn’t intended, because once you start being suspicious of Chinese characters, there’s almost no limit to the backstories you can come up with. 

NH: What else did you do over the two weeks, and how did the discussions between you go?

NB: We worked mainly on the novel, but Dorothy also showed me a couple of new, shorter pieces that she finished during the residency. It was a novelty to read them so immediately, and to have time to work on them when I felt like a change of pace. 

During our discussions, I asked Dorothy a lot of questions about her word play priorities. If we couldn’t capture everything in the English, what was the most important part? Was it important that 陌根地be called Burgundy, specifically, or that the translated name sound French rather than any other European language? These are the kinds of calls translators make all the time, of course, but usually alone or by crowdsourcing with other translators; it was quite freeing to press the author for definitive answers (not that these answers usually resulted in definitive solutionsbut they certainly helped rein in the possibilities).

It was also interesting to hear about discussions between the other pairs. For instance, Sam and Cristina had a longstanding debate over how much to localise Galician baked goods, with Cristina drawing a hard line at Sam’s proposed ‘muffin’. Translation extended into the evenings, too. In almost a parody of an activity one might do at a translation lab, we played a DIY version of a game sold in the UK as Balderdash, where one person writes down a word from their language, everyone else writes down plausible-sounding definitions, and there is a vote on the correct one. This was a healthy reminder that every language contains wonderful, very-hard-to-translate words, not just Chinese. Among other things, I learned that in Somali – which Ubah speaks, in addition to Italian –  there are different terms for leaving, depending on the time of day and the urgency with which it is done, including the word ‘caraab’, which means ‘to leave without warning in the afternoon’. 

NH: You and I have translated Dorothy before. We could (and did) contact her with questions, and her answers were very helpful. But what was it like to be working with her? What extra insights did you get -- for instance, the kind of images that were in her mind when she was writing, which you had to envisage and recreate when you were translating?

NB: Yes, Dorothy has always been very generous about answering questions! I remember when you and I were co-translating Fish Tank Creaturesa short story about businessmen who are stripped naked and stored in glass tanks, and we puzzled over whether one of her phrasings implied that these men were vulnerable, or innocent, or somehow especially stark in their nakedness. She told us the intended effect was to convey that they were ‘cute animal-pets’ and thereby led us to one of my favourite translation solutions, which was to change something wordy like ‘the vulnerable men in the tanks’ to, simply, ‘the man-pets’.   

At Omi, insights came about both during discussions and outside them. Over dinner one evening, Anna mentioned ‘the flour game’, as if it were an activity we would all immediately recognise. We did not. Apparently, it’s a popular children’s party game in Austria: you pour flour onto a tray, shape it into a mountain, and stick a toothpick in the top; players take it in turns to cut away flour from the base of the mountain with a knife, until the whole thing collapses. The player responsible for the collapse has pick up the toothpick from the flour with their teeth. This sounded too bizarre not to try, so we did, and then Dorothy wrote a poem about it. The title of this poem is ‘The Flour Game’ (麵粉游戲and it includes lines such as ‘like childish drug dealers/ we take turns/ with the knife’. If I had been sent this poem without any knowledge of that evening, I cannot imagine how many hours I would have spent digging around Youtube, worrying that this was a quintessential part of Cantonese culture I’d completely overlooked. Maybe I would have ended up with the same poem in English, eventually, but it was certainly reassuring to start with that shared experience in mind.

Another (arguably more representative) insight came from discussing the novel’s title. Owlfish and the Music Box Ballerinais about a love affair between a university lecturer, Professor Q, and a music box ballerina. A literal translation of Owlfish from Chinese would be ‘Eagle Head Cat’(鷹頭), a rearrangement of the characters that make up the Chinese word for owl, which is ‘cat head eagle’. I’ll be honest: before talking to Dorothy, I had no idea what to do with this. To a Chinese reader, the wordplay is immediately apparent, and the overall effect that of a weird but almost-plausible name with a strong link to the animal kingdom. Dorothy told me the owl imagery was important, for the way it hints at bookishness and academia and therefore the professor, who (minor spoiler alert) is not immediately identified as the eponymous character. We discussed possibilities ranging from making up an anagram, to dropping the owl and rearranging other animal-centric English expressions for studious people (turning ‘bookworm’ into Worm Book, for example), to ignoring the bookishness in favour of other aspects of the professor’s personality, which could be expressed through more convincingly name-like animal references, such as Tom Cat. Owlfish is a reversal of ‘fish owl’, a relatively common species of Asian owl, which we like for its similarity to the adjective ‘owlish’. But if anyone reading this interview comes up with other solutions, I’d be thrilled to hear them.

It was great to dig into these discussions in person. It saved a lot of back and forth with comment boxes, and no one had to find a polite way to write an email saying, ‘I hate that idea’. Or, indeed, to read a polite email and agonise over what it might really mean. 

NH: Translating the surreal is a weird experience! I mean that, as translator, you have to unpick and understand but then recreate the ambiguities and the weirdness. Do you feel differently about the process now that you have worked with Dorothy intensively?

NB: I do feel a little differently, although of course it’s still weird. When the narrative logic is skewed, and designed to disorientate readers, it disorientates translators, too! And yet we have to be orientated enough not to spin things in ways the author doesn’t intend, and to notice the clues she’s laid for piecing things together. Dorothy’s images can also get quite dark – characters gnawing their own faces off; embryos in the backs of trucks, grasping for toys that stain their tiny webbed hands green; dismemberments. I don’t know how you felt translating Snow and Shadowbut I’ve found that these images seep into the rest of my life more than those from other stories I’ve worked on, so that I’ll be in the supermarket and have the sudden thought, What if this cashier’s head is really a balloon? Or, What if I drop this carton of milk and there’s actually blood inside? 

That said, I notice that my disorientation has lessened a bit. This must be at least in part because the longer format of a novel means there’s more space for explanations. Characters grow and develop, and there’s time to get to know the places they inhabit and the things they do (even if what they happen to be doing is, say, strolling through an antique market lusting after a sauce bottle shaped like Marilyn Monroe).

But also, Dorothy’s writing feels more familiar. Turning it into English has become (slightly) more of an instinctive process. I know she cares a lot about the rhythm of her sentences, and that she never writes a ‘but’ she doesn’t mean. We talked a while ago about what I considered the creepiness of some scenes, and she was surprised to hear them called that; she said she viewed them as fun, ‘like a carnival!’ I think of this a lot: it’s a reminder to think of the playfulness behind the weirdness, and also a way of keeping the surreal grounded – Dorothy’s fictional world isn’t another universe, it’s this one, but like a carnival!