Wednesday, 18 November 2020

A translated novel: a team effort

 Nicky Harman reads Zhang Ling’s latest historical novel, A Single Swallow (Amazon Crossing, 2020.)

One of the best-written novels I’ve ever translated is Zhang Ling’s Gold Mountain Blues, about a family from Guangdong, China, torn apart when the men emigrate to work in Canada and their women wait long, long years to join them. So I was all agog to read Ling’s latest novel, A Single Swallow, translated by Shelly Bryant. I found it gripping. Better still, I got to interview all the main players, author, translator and editor.

The story: Three men – two American and one Chinese – reminisce about life in the rural village they were all stationed in during WW2. …and about Ah Yan, (‘Swallow’ in Chinese) who means different things to each of the men, although they each have strong and complicated feelings for her. This novel is set during a horrific time in China, but the human spirit triumphs.


Nicky Harman (NH)

Thank you for talking to me, Ling. You chose quite an experimental framing devicethe three men are dead, and speak to us from the time when they have reunited as ghosts. Could you tell us why you chose to frame the story that way?

Zhang Ling, author (ZL)

The story spans over 70 years and the characters live in two continents. By employing a soft touch of magic realism bringing in ghost narrators, I enjoy a greater degree of freedom to travel across time, space, and deep layers of human emotions.


Would you like to say anything about how important the spiritual strands of the story were to you, as author?


A good portion of the book is devoted to post war years as the characters struggle with the lingering memories of hurts. I hope we’d all reflect on the long-lasting effect of war - what war snatches away, peace does not always give back.


Ah Yan, and the way the men treat her. They all feel guilty to some degree. And yet, she is a very strong character... mistreated but strong. Anything you’d like to say about the balance of power between the four of them?


All three men have tried to mold Ah Yan, each in a different way, but ultimately she’s the one who sustains and survives them, with her quiet resilience and unparalleled ability to love and forgive.

NH to Shelly Bryant, translator

I’m sure you’ve guessed my question: the main challenges for you as translator. The translation reads so fluently that readers will think it was easy...but I’m sure it wasn’t!

Shelly Bryant (SB)

I think one of the key reasons the translation reads well in English is that there was an outstanding editorial process in place. We went back and forth on a number of parts – lines, words, paragraphs – and we went through the entire manuscript at least 3-4 times once Liza had it in hand. That process included me, Liza, and her team, along with input from Zhang Ling on multiple points. Also, even before it got to that stage, it had already been through one additional reader within my team (I always get an in-house edit from one of my colleagues before I send work to the publisher), and Zhang Ling had read through the entire novel and made some comments about the translation. Most of the comments were in reference to things specific to the area in which the story is set – perhaps a turn of phrase unique to the region, but also things like the rituals involved in the tea processing or notes about the layout of the land in and around the village. These insights provided some important visual cues that helped me develop a fuller picture of what Zhang Ling had in mind. In my own translation process, I tend to feel that the picture the text conjures up is what we are trying to reproduce, rather than the exact words that are used to draw that picture in the original language. Too often, the same words will draw up a different image in a different cultural context, so the wording has to be tweaked slightly to ensure that the picture is the same. Fortunately, Zhang Ling was completely on board with this tweaking process and was very open to the process involved in creating a translation that is hopefully as beautiful in English as it is in Chinese, or at least close to it.

One of the first things Zhang Ling and I talked about the first time we ever met in person (which was shortly after I started working on this translation) was the fact that the language in the original was so beautiful, and that to capture that, it would have to take on some features that are characteristically beautiful in English, rather than trying to cram what is beautiful in Chinese phrasing into what becomes awkward in English, if it is put too literally. It’s important to note that it was Zhang Ling, not me, who brought that point up at our first meeting.

One specific example that provides some insight into the process and Zhang Ling’s commitment to it, even when she wasn’t entirely comfortable with some aspect of the English text, is in how the names are treated in the translation. At one point, she raised the question of whether the names should be translated rather than using the pinyin names. I have a rather firm idea on that issue generally, which is that names should be treated in the text the same way that we treat them in real life, which is to use the pinyin. I mean, no one speaks of ‘Little Peace Deng’ (and there’s a reason for that!), but we all know who Deng Xiaoping is. In a realist novel, I generally believe that names should be presented in the same way they would be in the ‘real’ world, which is to go with pinyin names. As we discussed the point, Zhang Ling raised the question of whether ‘Swallow’ and ‘Tiger’ should be used for Ah Yan and Liu Zhaohu. This approach was not the one preferred by me or the editorial team, so Zhang Ling went along with our preference, conceding that she might not be in the best position to decide on how that should be presented in English. This is hugely to her credit, because I don’t think it was something she was entirely comfortable with, but she chose to go along with the team’s insights, rather than pushing her own agenda. I believe it makes the novel stronger, even though I am aware that Zhang Ling might feel somewhat differently about that. But what is more important is that she trusted the process, and she trusted those of us who were working on it. She was involved and gave us her opinions, but she didn’t try to railroad them through. It made for a very collaborative feeling to the entire process, and I think we all ended up being very pleased with the result.

NH to Liza Darnton, editor

In my view, editors are shining stars...the translator's first and closest reader, so I would really love to know more about the main issues that you, as editor, wanted to raise. 

Liza Darnton, (LD)

Ling made it clear to me right from the start that she was fully on board with editing the book in whatever way necessary to make it as smooth and lyrical a reading experience as possible—this was of the utmost importance to her, since the beauty of the language is a core aspect of the original. She also emphasized that she was happy to consider content adjustments—cutting sections here or there that might seem redundant or distracting to English language readers. Though we ultimately didn’t make drastic content changes, it was liberating to have this kind of carte blanche with the author’s blessing. Sometimes, when a work has already been edited and published in its original language, an author might not be open to this kind of intervention in the translation. The thinking might be that the best translation is the one that is most faithful to the original text. I’m of the opinion that—while of course the translation must remain faithful to the text overall—there are many ways to do that, and you never need to settle for text that does not read as if it were written originally in that language.

Every book at Crossing undergoes a thorough editing process—there’s a developmental edit, a line edit, a proofread, and a cold read; and typically the editor will work with the translator, who represents the author. In this case, because Ling is able to read English fluently, we were able to work together as a team. We had to make peace with the fact that there were some things that have specific significance in Chinese culture that we simply would not be able to carry through to the English. As an example, we struggled for some time with whether or not to change the title. In Chinese, a swallow carries all kinds of symbolism that is absent in the English, and a single swallow has a different nuance than a pair of swallows. The three of us went back and forth with all kinds of ideas to try to find a title that would hint at fidelity and grace and loyalty in the same way. There were other similar instances throughout. We weren’t willing to interrupt the lyricism with footnotes so we finally just had to accept that if English language readers lose some of the extra layers of meaning, that’s OK. In that sense, both the original and the translation work on different levels for people depending on their knowledge of Chinese culture.