Wednesday 27 May 2020

How Paper Republic ended up leading what is possibly the world’s biggest collaborative translation

Nicky Harman writes about translating Chinese authors' reflections on Covid19, post-lockdown.

At the risk of blowing my (or at least, our Paper Republic's) trumpet a little, I’m going to start with the back-story: Brigitte Duzan, of pointed out to me that a very well-known Chinese writer, Yan Geling, had written a piece blasting the authorities for mishandling the Covid19 crisis, which Duzan herself had translated into French. Why didn’t I do the same and post it on Paper-Republic? I did both, and a single post grew into the Read Paper Republic: Epidemic mini-series of essays and poems, exploring how some impressive Chinese writers (Yan Geling, Han Dong, A Yi, Lin Bai, and Wu Ang) have been personally affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Then the Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing, with whom Paper Republic has partnered on many projects, had a new idea. I quote, ‘What better way to spend lockdown than having a shot at literary translation? You know you always wanted to try it, so why not have a go now?’ The deal was that anyone, anywhere in the world, could have a go at translating a blog post by Deng Anqing (庆) on how he got shut in with his parents as the surrounding cities locked down, and how it affected his relationship with them. We were offering this opportunity to first-time or emerging translators, so after they had all submitted their work, there would be online feedback sessions by members of the Paper Republic team, including myself and Eric Abrahamsen. The final revised and agreed-on translation was to be published as the grand finale to the Read Paper Republic: Epidemic series. We called the project Give-it-a-Go Translation. We put out the call, and we waited.

To our amazement, in the space of ten days, one hundred and twenty-four translators and would-be translators from twenty countries and five continents sent in their work. Hence our claim that this could be the biggest workshop-based co-translation effort ever!

To cope with the time zones, the Paper Republic team, including Eric Abrahamsen, Nicky Harman, Emily Jones, Yvette Zhu and Jack Hargreaves, ran four separate online workshops over one weekend. We produced a video about the process, which you can view here.

And finally, our collaborative translation of the piece, entitled in English, ‘Forty Days: Growing Closer to My Parents during Quarantine’ was published. It is a fitting finale to the Read Paper Republic: Epidemic series. But best of all, its simple aim – to get a lot of people interested in trying Chinese-to-English translation and to offer them free mentoring and feedback – was a resounding success.

A gratifyingly large number of the participants filled in our survey afterwards, and there were some great comments. One said, ‘It was lovely! I never had an opportunity to glimpse into the world of translators before. When I was a student learning Chinese I did a fair amount of translating, but with a different mentality (mostly shaking my dictionary and hoping the right words fell out). I really liked reading everyone else's take on the same passage too. It was interesting to see the different choices people made and how translating is such a creative activity.’ There was general appreciation of the trouble we Paper Republic folk had taken to give everyone feedback, but also a widely-expressed sentiment that it was a pity that the groups were quite large and the time too short, with the result that some groups did not manage to complete the revision of their allocated section. After at least one group had spent a considerable amount of time discussing whether Deng’s parent should be called in translation, ‘Father’ or Dad’ (with the corresponding shift in [in]formality), one participant commented wryly, ‘It's like herding cats, isn't it? So many people, so many words, so little time. Because you have so little time and so much to cover, perhaps pick your battles wisely.’

Point taken. But the overall feeling expressed was so positive that we plan to do similar events again. And perhaps next time, we really can make it a world record.
Some more of Deng’s Covid blogs are online at LitHub here, translated by Na Zhong, and if you are looking for inspiration and more on the author himself, there is some in Chinese, here.