Wednesday 5 July 2023

Singaporean writer Soon Ai Ling's stories are translated, transcreated and adapted by Yeo Wei Wei. An interview with Nicky Harman


Diasporic and Clan are two volumes of short stories by the sinophone Singaporean writer Soon Ai Ling, translated, transcreated and adapted by Yeo Wei Wei. Yeo has done a translation of Soon stories in Diasporic, and then transcreated and adapted them in Clan. As a translator myself, I was intrigued by this adventure in story-telling, so I asked Yeo Wei Wei to tell me more.

NH: could you tell me how you came across Soon's stories and what attracted you to them? 

WW: I received an email from Ailing one day out of the blue whilst I was in Norwich doing my MA in Creative Writing. She had asked Eva Tang about my translation of the subtitles and song lyrics for Eva’s documentary The Songs We Sang. She liked my translation very much and wished to approach me to ask if I would translate her fiction. After I finished my MA, I returned to Singapore and I looked for Ailing’s book of short stories in the National Library. I read them and I also watched Eva’s short film that was based on Ailing’s story “Chef Tham”. Ailing’s stories are set in China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Singapore. The Chinese diasporic contexts in these different countries are the basis of the rich story worlds found in her fiction. She is unique for this reason, amongst Singaporean Chinese authors. I was also attracted to the predicaments of her protagonists. Very often, her stories deal with the private struggles of men and women in traditional Asian family settings. They are individuals torn between personal desires and family history, hierarchy, family values and expectations.  

NH: As a translator I was intrigued by your calling Clantranscreation and adaptation. Could you tell me how each process differs from the other and, most importantly, from the process of translation? 

WW: Years ago I signed up for Japanese lessons because I wished to read Haruki Murakami in Japanese. I was curious about the sound of his voice in Japanese. I had read him only in translation — in English and in Mandarin. He sounded different in the Taiwanese and mainland Chinese translations. This was what piqued my interest in transcreation. The translator is a living and thinking person, so no matter how hard they try to not be present in a translated text, they cannot help but be present. Clan seeks to draw attention to this aspect of the translation process. It isn’t often talked about openly for obvious reasons. I don’t have any Russian and when I read Gogol or Chekhov orTolstoy, I don’t want to think that I am not reading them. I want to believe that I am reading Gogol, Chekhov, Tolstoy, even though as a translator myself, I often experience the untranslatability of literary texts.  

The adaptations were a very big experiment for me. I wrote them because I wanted to hear more from the main characters, all female except for Ninth Uncle, and in that latter case, the chorus of women who act as narrators are, for me, the real heroines of that tale. 

Here’s an example of my translation and adaptation of Ailing’s story 《白香祖与孔雀图, Bai Xiangzu and Her Embroidered Peacocks. Ailing wrote a story about a teacher and her apprentice’s reunion. It contains many details about the world of traditional Chinese embroidery in Guangzhou. Both the teacher and apprentice married well (the teacher married the owner of the embroidery studio; the apprentice married a school principal). What got me thinking that there could be another way to tell this story? It was that the apprentice (Madam Bai) had accomplished something no other girl in the workshop did — she made an extraordinary piece that won a big prize and was exhibited around the world. But after her achievement, she was married off by her father. The match was deemed to be a very good one for her. But what if there’s another way to look at this situation? I went into the mind of the teacher, and I came up with the adaptation by changing the given circumstances. In this sense, my adaptation is a new story, completely independent of Ailing’s story except the former also germinated in the world of traditional Chinese embroidery in Guangzhou.  My adaptation departs from the source-language text by imagining a situation of unrequited passion between the women. The teacher is in love with her pupil, and in fact, she worships her. She believes that her apprentice is the reincarnation of the founder of their school of embroidery, a deity. The teacher in my adaptation is also different from the character in Ailing’s story in that she believes in the right of women to be more than just accessories to men. The story becomes a feminist tale through adaptation. Here’s one paragraph.


傅不安地往老那里站,窗口的光线射在那版上,那孔雀儿在白香祖精心刺下,不但做到平、光、、均、和、、密的工夫,而且虚淡相宜。托出廓,使那孔雀形象更明。白香祖与孔雀, p. 174)


 ‘Master Teacher stood beside Old Zhao, feeling uneasy. The light came in through the window just then and fell upon the work on the embroidery frame. The art that Bai Xiangzu’s gifted hands had produced became apparent: there was evenness, brilliance, neatness, balance, harmony, smoothness, fineness, and tightness in all her stiches. There was absolutely nothing to fault. Most wondrously, she had managed to give depth and volume to the peacocks, which made their image even more vivid.’ (“Bai Xiangzu and Her Embroidered Peacocks”, p. 88)


‘When there was only one fanned tail left to sew, Xiangzu got up and went to the window. She seemed to be resting her eyes, but I could see the blood on her fingers. Master Yong and Old Chao seized the opportunity to examine her work.

“Even though her stitching is unconventional, I have to say, this girl is a genius! She’s managed to make their feathers look so real, so glossy! And look, if you look at it from where I’m standing, you’ll see how wondrously she’s mixed the tones. I simply adore her choice of colours! Especially the blend she’s chosen for the breast. I don’t know how but somehow she’s created the effect of the creature’s little heart going beat-bippity-beat,” Old Chao gushed.

None of us had ever heard such a great volume of praise from him before, not unless it was about himself. Many remembered that day for this reason. Not me. I tended to her poor fingers later on and she let me kiss them.’ (“Dreaming of Madam Bai and Her Noble Peacocks”, p. 49)

 NH: Was there a particular reason why you didn't write a Translator's Foreword or Afterword, explaining these points to the reader?

 WW: I had discussed the possibility of writing a Foreword for Diasporic and Clan with Roh (my publisher at Balestier Press). We decided against it in the end because we felt that it was best to let the reader approach the stories without any pre-conceptions. We also agreed that an essay where I reflect on the process of moving from translation to transcreation and adaptation would be best suited for a literary journal. I do want to write this essay. That was the plan we had made back in 2022 but there have been unforeseen circumstances this year which have made the plan quite difficult to execute.  

NH: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and creative processes with us, Yeo Wei Wei! Both volumes of short stories are available from Balestier Press.