Wednesday 15 September 2021

More than one cook improves the broth. Nicky Harman gives a shout-out for literary team translation.

There are famous historical precedents for translators working as a team. This is especially true in religious texts. One of the greatest projects of all time, the translations of the Buddhist sutras from Sanskrit into Chinese, was carried by teams of translators working in a government department. The British Library not only has a collection of sutras in Chinese, their website also has an interesting article about the translators and the translations.

In more recent times, the Bible (notably the St James’ version) and bible commentaries have been translated by committees. So what are the challenges? I found this useful comment from one of the translators of Hermeneutics in Romans: Paul's Approach to Reading the Bible by Timo Laato. ‘Translating as a team is a difficult process. I find it to be a deeply personal endeavor and every translator I know attacks projects and translation problems differently. [On] taking over [my predecessors’] work…[t]he first thing I had to do was read the original and their translation in tandem, to see what their word and style choices had been for translation. A translation is going to suffer more than continuity if a second translator decides to use a slightly different word than the one originally used. Often a translator can choose from up to five or six words all with different shades of meaning to use for almost every word on a page.’

For the translation of Chinese-to-English fiction, there is at least one famous husband-and-wife duo, Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin, whose collaborative work includes novels by the Nobel prize-winner Mo Yan, Bi Feiyu and Alai. As with novels, so with poetry. Poetry has often been co-translated, a famous example being Ezra Pound’s collection, Cathay. However, Pound knew no Chinese at all. As Xujun Eberlein describes it in her meticulous examination of the resulting poems, ‘In his volume Cathay (1915), Pound translates a total of 19 pieces of ancient Chinese poetry spanning a period from the 11th Century B.C. to 4th Century A.D.  But of course he couldn’t have done it without help from someone who had knowledge of the Chinese language, in this case Ernest Fenollosa, an American orientalist. The unusual situation, however, was that Pound was approached by Fenollosa’s wife after the man’s death.’  (Unfortunately, Ernest Fenellosa appears to have received little of the credit. The book is usually listed as by Ezra Pound, not by Pound and Fenellosa.)

Co-translators are often coy about how they work together (or perhaps too busy actually doing the work, instead of writing about it). But we can already see from the quotes above, the importance of making the terminology  and the ‘voice’ consistent, and ensuring that co-translators are each given due credit.

I’m going to devote the rest of this blog (September) and my next one (October), to writing about a co-translation project I have personally been involved in…. because it has proved such an interesting experience.

I should say at this point that I have co-translated several novels in the past. But in each case, my partner and I were linguistically on a level playing field: we were both native English speakers. The process was useful because we each gave the other feedback as we translated alternate chapters and then swapped for a final check. And, of course, with two people involved, the work went much more quickly.

My current project is different because my translator-partner, Jun Liu has Chinese as her first language. The novel is Jia Pingwa’s newly-published 《暂坐》, working title, The Sojourn Teashop. In it, Jia Pingwa has steered clear of his usual settings (the countryside) and protagonists (the underclass).  The Sojourn Teashop is set entirely in the city (in Xijing, Western Capital, Jia’s fictionalised version of Xi’an which, when known as Chang’an, was indeed the national capital), and has a cast of sophisticated, educated businesswomen friends who find themselves enmeshed in political corruption even as they struggle to find personal fulfilment.

Jun Liu is based in Auckland, New Zealand and has worked with several native English speakers on translation projects over the years, including Uyghur author Alat Asem’s Confessions of a Jade Lord with Bruce Humes. I have worked with her before, when she helped me with the dialect in Jia Pingwa’s novel Happy Dreams (Amazon Crossing 2016). In the case of our current project, the language is fairly standard Chinese but there are numerous references to Buddhism and to high culture, past and present, with which Liu Jun is more familiar and I am less so. Many of Jia’s works are influenced by classical Chinese novels, such as The Dream of the Red Chamber and The Golden Lotus.

This is our modus operandi: first draft, Jun; first revisions, me; then Jun comments on my revisions; and I produce a second revised version. We will check the whole text of the translation against the original one more time to ensure we have caught the author’s intention as exactly as possible, and then switch to an all-English copy to do some final smoothing-out. We are currently at the point of reviewing the whole text, and this is where the fun begins. Much of this book relies on conversation between any of a dozen or so characters to push forward its plot. My partner has flagged up numerous cultural references, or subtle changes in the protagonists’ relationships expressed in changes in the way they speak to each other…and my task is to figure how to get that information over to the reader of the English translation. Too little conveyed, and a lot of the meaning will be lost. Too much, and their conversation will sound clunky. The over-riding concern with translating conversation is to make it sound convincing, like language that someone would actually speak. We also need to establish a distinctive voice for each person that matches the original. A couple of the women are recently arrived from the countryside and, just occasionally, their speech betrays that.

By the time my next blog is due, I will have some intriguing examples to share with you. Should the names for Xi’an’s famous snacks should be translated or left in pinyin (ie romanized Chinese)? Do we even try to translate abstruse tea-making equipment? (Spoiler-alert: it might involve QR codes.) And those are just the simple questions.

Watch out for my October’s blog.