Tuesday, 13 July 2021

Down the rabbit hole – Nicky Harman takes a look at Bristol Translates Online Summer School

I have taught many summer schools in translation, and I have run translation workshops online. But I have never, until last week, taught an entire summer school online. It was of course, Covid which dictated it. Last year’s school was cancelled but this year, it happened, all credit to some brilliant and determined organizers.

The students certainly had faith that it was going to work. There were groups for eleven languages, and several had so many applicants that they divided into two, or even three, groups. There were twenty-four people translating from Chinese into English, so we had two groups.

I am a firm believer that literary translation is a skill you learn by working on it. And did we work! There was a buzz of collective creativity from beginning to end. We discussed the minutiae of language in painstaking detail, from the meaning of the individual words we were translating, to the overall style and how to recreate it, to the ethics of translation and the translator’s responsibility both to the author and to the reader.

We missed the socializing, the face-to-face meetings, during and after workshop sessions. But there was an upside to running the course online: our participants translating from Chinese came from all over the world and several different time zones, from the Americas, to the UK and various European countries, and China and Hong Kong. It is likely that not all of them would have been able to attend had the summer school been run in the traditional way, in Bristol.

One of the joys of translation workshops is that the tutor learns too. We worked, amongst other pieces, on an excerpt from Happy Dreams, where a migrant worker hangs onto his green builder’s safety helmet despite the ribald jokes about his wife cuckolding him (戴绿帽子, putting the green hat on him) in his absence, and one student pointed to the man’s grinding poverty – he had no other possessions to hang onto, something I had not thought of. And there were many other illuminating insights. As one would expect from a diverse and highly-motivated group, some of whom, with great determination, not to say heroism, were getting up at the crack of dawn or staying up until the small hours, to attend it.

Anyway, after three days of intensive hard work, the last session of the last day is traditionally a time to do something a little light-hearted. So I picked a short piece in Chinese translated from a classic English novel, made a very feeble attempt to disguise what the original book was, and asked them to translate it back into English. It was Alice in Wonderland,

and in case you have not read it recently (and there’s an exhibition on at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London which should encourage anyone to go back to the book), it is full of the most wonderfully liberating and mind-bending language. Not an easy task to translate into any language, especially the nonsense rhymes.

The Chinese version I asked them to back-translate from is itself a classic. It is the work of Zhao Yuanren (also known as Yuen Ren Chao, 1892-1982) a Chinese-American linguist, scholar, poet and composer.

As Minjie Chen writes in her Earliest Chinese Editions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at Princeton, “In the preface he wrote for the first Chinese edition of Alice, Chao acknowledged the challenge of translating the book. As he rightly observed, Alice was neither new nor obscure by the time he decided to give it a try–the book had been out for more than fifty years and entertained multiple generations of children in English-speaking countries. The reason why no Chinese version existed, he figured, was the formidable challenge posed by word play and nonsense in Carroll’s writing (Chao 10). In fact, the only “Chinese version” that Chao was aware of was done, albeit verbally, by Sir Reginald Fleming Johnston (1874-1938), tutor to Puyi (溥仪), the last Emperor of China. The Scot had told the story of Alice in Chinese to the lonely teenage boy in the Forbidden City. Chao decided that his translation project with Alice, carried out in the midst of Chinese language reform movement, would be an opportune experimentation with written vernacular Chinese ….. In Chao’s trailblazing Chinese translation, we witness how Alice encompasses both general challenges and unique Carrollian tests for a foreign language and how the translator meets them head-on through a creative and imaginative employment of the Chinese language.”

So… not a task for the faint-hearted then. But back to my students. They worked on a  nonsense rhyme from the jury scene in chapter 12 of Alice in Wonderland. We played around with updating the White Rabbit, giving him a mobile phone instead of a pocket watch, but I present here, with their permission, a snippet from the end of this beguiling poem. The White Rabbit is reading….








In pinyin, that reads,

Tā hái méiyǒu fāfēng qián,/nǐmen zǒng shì tǎo rén xián,/àizhe tā tóng tā tóng tā,/nòng dé wǒmen mònàihé./Tā tóng tāmen dǐng yàohǎo,/bié gěi tāmen zhīdàoliao./Nǐ wǒ běn shì zhījǐ rén,/shǒu zhè mìmì bù ràng pǎo.

I did not indicate any kind of rhyming scheme to the students. I gave them no guidance at all. They just had to do their best with the Chinese verses in front of them. This is how they translated it back into English,

Back before she went insane
You were always such a pain
To him, to her, to everyone
Pray tell, what could we have done?

She and the guys get on so well,
As for the ladies, hush, don't tell!
Good friends we'll be for all our days,
If this secret between us stays.

After they had finished, I showed them the English. Carroll wrote,

My notion was that you had been
(Before she had this fit)
An obstacle that came between
Him, ourselves, and it.
Don't let him know she liked them best,
For this must ever be
A secret, kept from all the rest,
Between yourself and me.'

 Lewis Carroll and Zhao Yuanren would have been proud of the Bristol Translates students. I was.