Wednesday 20 October 2021

Translating together, part 2.

 Nicky Harman continues the story of a co-translation project: Jia Pingwa's new novel, The Sojourn Teashop


In my September blog, I wrote about co-translating a novel by a contemporary author, Jia Pingwa, in tandem with Jun Liu, a New Zealand-based translator who knows Jia’s work well. Since my last blog, we have been revising our translation and debating some knotty stylistic problems – and talking about the process at the Gwyl Haf Borderless Book Club, held to celebrate International Translation Day this year.


Jia Pingwa (1952- ) stands with Mo Yan and Yu Hua as one of the biggest names in contemporary Chinese literature. A prolific producer of novels, short stories and essays, he has a huge readership on the Chinese mainland, as well as in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Jia Pingwa's fiction focuses on the lives of common people, particularly in his home province of Shaanxi, and has hitherto been largely based in the countryside (Shaanxi Opera, forthcoming, and Broken Wings, 2019) or in the lives of workers from the countryside who have moved to the big city (Happy Dreams, 2017).

Jia’s most recent novel, The Sojourn Teashop (Sinoist, 2022) is very different: it is about a dozen women in Xijing (Jia’s fictionalised version of Xi’an, his home city) and their struggles to run their businesses, battle with bureaucracy and corruption, and find personal happiness.

In our collaboration, Jun did the first draft, I did the second draft, she commented, I commented on her comments, and we are now at the stage of going over the whole translation separately, and picking up any further problems, infelicities, or (perish the thought) mistakes.

We each brought a very different perspective to this novel. Jun saw the background as giving the reader insights into contemporary China, on matters such as how to do business, Chinese culture (tea, calligraphy, Buddhism), how to address your friends and other people, what gifts to give, and what a leading Chinese writer’s studio looks like.

For that reason, Jun felt it very important to get the details right. I completely agreed with her but I was keenly aware that we were translating a novel, not a work of cultural anthropology or reportage. I like to think of the cultural information that the translator absorbs in the process of translation as an iceberg, and the actual words that the author uses to convey that information (and which we therefore have to reflect) as the tip of the iceberg. I now know more than I ever imagined about scholar fans and Buddhist apsara images, but that knowledge largely informs my translation, rather than being incorporated directly into it.

So between my partner and me, there was a push-pull factor. Imagine a conversation in which one of the women is picking up some fans and her friend asks her about them. The first makes a throwaway comment about the fans, and they go on to talk about something else. Certain factors limit the amount of extra information the translator can add, that is not in the original. The dialogue has to sound natural, as if someone actually spoke it. The sentence should not be unbalanced by adding too much (even though the reader may end up not being much the wiser about the intricacies of fan design).

Push-pull. Discussion-disagreement-agreement. I think we both found this a very interesting and fruitful process. I often found myself trying just that bit harder to convey the relationship between two characters where at first I had dismissed a word, or exclamation, in the original Chinese, as not meaning much.

There were other issues on which Jun and I certainly agreed but where we still had to work out solutions to knotty translation issues. Here two heads were definitely better than one.

There is one key character in the novel whom we both found hard to interpret, and that is the women’s friend, the writer and calligrapher, Yi Guang. My immediate reaction was to dismiss him as an unrepentant male chauvinist. When he tells Eva (the young Russian friend of Hai Ruo, the teashop owner) that ‘her face is her fortune’ and she doesn’t need to learn any more about Chinese calligraphy and art, of course I cringed. I am sure that thousands of miles away in New Zealand, Jun did the same. I admit I threw up my hands and said, this is a guy that the author wants us to take seriously, but I can’t take him seriously. And Jun came back with: But that is what the author wrote. We have to translate it. This led to an interesting conversation between us about the complexities of Yi Guang. On the one hand, the group of women friends and their one male friend remind us of The Story of the Stone, with Yi Guang as a much older version of Jia Baoyu. There is also an implied comparison with Jia Pingwa himself (the descriptions of the calligraphy, the writing, and the passion for collecting antiques with which his studio is crammed, all these tally). Yi Guang hints that, as a local literary figurehead in Xijing, he finds himself trammeled in political shenanigans. So he is not altogether unsympathetic. (Local politics is a brutal business. Are we to understand that the author finds himself in the same queasy situation?)

On the other hand, I still found Yi Guang’s view of women hard to handle. He genuinely admires them and has many close female friends/lovers (we are never quite sure which). At one point, Eva compares him to a Russian poet (he remains unnamed but she is probably referring to Pushkin, with his numerous lovers). Anyway, having gritted my teeth and translated the comment to Eva, I let my antipathy slip through when Yi Guang compares a woman to a flower; I added the phrase ‘to be picked’. Jun pointed out to me that Yi Guang nowhere states that he wants to pick the flower. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t but I had removed the ambiguity. I put it back and deleted ‘to be picked’.

The novel’s main characters -- a group of a dozen women friends, their male friend Yi Guang, and the assistants at the teashop which is owned by the senior woman, Hai Ruo -- produce a veritable cobweb of relationships. In the story, the ways they interact with each other are reinforced by the way they refer to each other. To explain: in British English we use Mr and Mrs to indicate respect. We can refer to someone (usually male) by surname only. We commonly use given names between friends and work colleagues. And that’s usually it. Not so in Chinese. In The Sojourn Teashop, the women friends range in age from those in their twenties to Hai Ruo who has a grown-up son and is probably in her late forties. The younger women call her jie , older sister, as do her shop assistants. This is a respectful and friendly term which has no equivalent in English. We rejected Sister… it made her sound like a nun or a nurse. We tried omitting it altogether…but then thought we had lost too much. We included it in pinyin Romanisation, italicised, as Jie, but then thought the text looked too ‘spotty’. Finally, in consultation with the publisher’s editor, we have decided on –jie, giving us Hai Ruo (her full name) or Hai-jie (when her ‘juniors’ are talking to or about her). Similarly with Yi Guang, who is regularly referred to as Yi-laoshi or Yi Guang-laoshi. Laoshi, as many of the readers of this blog will know, is a term of respect meaning teacher. But he isn’t (a teacher) and heaven forefend that we should call him Teacher Yi, because that sounds too much like Chinglish.

Pinyin romanisation has its limitations. What is one to do with two women surnamed Xu and another surnamed Xi, where the Chinese characters are different but in pinyin, they look the same, or at least look as though they are related to each other (they are not)? Ultimately, we agreed that our overarching aim was to clarify for the reader who was who and how they regarded each other, as far as we could, even though sometimes subtleties in their interactions would be lost. So we decided that retaining zong and laoban老板, terms of respect for the richest entrepreneurs and general business owners, was just too much for the reader to take on board, and we substituted Mr or Mrs, even though that meant losing some distinctions in perceived social rank.

The Sojourn Teashop is untypical for Jia Pingwa, in that there is very little Sha’anxi dialect. On the other hand, there are some classical or classical-style poems and inscriptions which had us scratching our heads. And there was one particularly strange four-character phrase, 俯仰无节,进退哪能有宽路. This means that a mid-ranking official has to tread a fine line between showing enough respect to superiors while also keeping their juniors in order… and maintaining their integrity/a sense of decency, at the same time. Jun initially drafted this as ‘Looking up and peering down without a bottom line, no smooth path shall one ever find.’ I wanted something that had a more up-to-date feel to it. And we switched the metaphor from eyes to nose, and chose, ‘He was a real “brown-nose, look down your nose”. That’s all very well as a strategy, but you have to have the courage of your convictions too.’ Luckily, we then got a chance to explain it, because another speaker immediately asks what it means.

There are many arguments for co-translating a work of fiction – the work goes quicker, two heads are arguably better than one when tackling translation problems – and The Sojourn Teashop certainly benefitted, as did we two. The push-pull factor can be very creative. I suppose it could, in theory, lead to all-out war between the co-translating partners. Happily, it did not, far from it. I hope Jun and I can work together again.

For those of you would like to watch our event at the Gwyl Haf Borderless Book Club, entitled Sinoist Books Present: Translation as Collaboration, here is the video link:

All illustrations above are taken from the Powerpoint Jun Liu and Nicky Harman presented at the Gwyl Haf Borderless Book Club.