Showing posts with label Jia Pingwa. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jia Pingwa. Show all posts

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.’

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….

她还没有发疯前,

你们总是讨人嫌,

碍着他同她同它,

弄得我们没奈何。
  
 
她同他们顶要好,

别给她们知道了。

你我本是知己人,

守这秘密不让跑。

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.



 

 

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

The Mountain Whisperer – Another novel to add to the Jia Pingwa canon, reviewed by Nicky Harman


Jia Pingwa, ‘China’s master story-teller’ as the launch event for Mountain Whisperer dubbed him, remains relatively unknown to the English-language reader although a number of his novels have been translated. For anyone wanting to make his acquaintance, there is Turbulence, translated by Howard Goldblatt (1991); Happy Dreams, (Nicky Harman, 2014); Ruined Capital (Howard Goldblatt, 2016); Backflow River, (Nicky Harman2016, a free-to-read novella); The Lantern Bearer, (Carlos Rojas, 2017); Broken Wings (Nicky Harman, 2019); Shaanxi Opera, forthcoming; and now, Mountain Whisperer translated by Christopher Payne, and published, in a beautiful edition, by Sinoist Books, 2021. 

Even judging by the small collection which has been translated (a tiny part of his oeuvre), what is striking is the range of Jia’s writing: panoramic epics, rural and urban, with a cast of hundreds or the ‘small stories’ (Jia’s words) with a mere half-a-dozen; from ebullient characters we can imagine meeting anywhere, to the fey and the frankly oddball ones we are only likely to meet in the pages of his novels. 

 

Mountain Whisperer is one of Jia’s epics, hefty, though conveniently divided into four books set in different historical periods. Its unifying thread is the funeral singer, the eponymous mountain whisperer, one of Jia’s fey characters. As he lies dying in a cave high in the mountains of Shaanxi, he tells the stories of a soldier, a peasant, a revolutionary and a politician, and the parts they played in the struggles that forged the People’s Republic of China from its turbulent birth to its absurd reversal.  

And yet, the real protagonist of Mountain Whisperer could be said to be the land itself. Jia describes how it has shaped the lives and culture of local communities and embellishes his own writing with excerpts from an ancient compilation of mythic geography and fabulous beastsPathways Through the Mountains and Seas.


 

There is insufficient space here to give a proper synopsis of the whole novel. I will just say that, of the four stories, my personal favourite is the fourth, about a man called Xi Sheng of very short stature. This section brings us bang up to date. So much so, in fact, that we have a scarily prescient description of a pandemic – scary because this novel was written in 2013, Jia tells us. Of course, another coronavirus hit China and other countries in 2003, ten years before this novel was written. But the description of how the epidemic struck the villages is eerily familiar, today. ‘From the national capital it extended its tendrils throughout the country, leaving no place untouched. The first symptoms were akin to catching a cold: a headache, blocked nose, fever, joint pain and incessant coughing. Once the infection made its way into the lungs, death would follow shortly. The people in Qinling took to cursing the southerners, then Beijingers, all asking the same question: how the hell had it spread to Qinling?’ 

 

It would be remiss of me to finish this review without devoting some space to Jia Pingwa’s Afterword. Every novel he writes has one, and they are remarkable: extended essays which describe how he dreamed up the novel, what challenges he faced as he wrote it, the real-life elements that he has fictionalized, and what this particular novel means to him personally. For this last reason alone, I thoroughly recommend reading it, perhaps even before you begin the book. A 500-page novel about a place where you have never been and are never likely to go to, can seem daunting. But the Afterword of Mountain Whisperer takes us, the readers, by the hand, sits us down with Jia Pingwa, and allows us to listen as he talks from the heart. Here is a small excerpt: 

 

Three years ago, I returned to Dihua [Jia’s birthplace], on the eve of the lunar New Year. I visited my ancestors’ graves and lit a lantern to remember them. This is an important custom in the countryside, and if lanterns aren’t lit for some graves, it means there is no one left in the family to light them. I remember kneeling down in front of them, lighting a candle, and then the darkness that hung around me grew even denser. It seemed as though the only light in the entire world was the one emanating from the small candle I held. But... my grandfather’s visage, my grandmother’s too, as well as the forms of my father and mother, they were all so clear! ….

From Dihua, I returned to Xi’an and for a long time I remained silent, uncommunicative, often shut up in my study doing very little, except for smoking. And there, in those clouds of tobacco that blanketed my study and swirled about my head, I recalled the past decades, time seemed to flutter by, unstable, fleeting, surging in great waves of reminiscences... the changes wrought on society over the past hundred years, the wars, the chaos, the droughts and famines, revolution, political movements upon movements, then the reforms and to a time of relative plenty, of safety, of people living as people. Then my thoughts drifted to my grandfather and what he had done with his life. I wondered how he had lived, and how his son had come into this world, my father and his life, and the lives of the many townspeople from the place we called home. 

……

In [the Qinling mountains] I saw so many ancient trees, the cassias with large, yellowish leaves that draped down their trunks like finely woven baskets, as well as gingko trees with trunks so wide it would take four men to wrap their arms around them. I also saw the people who lived in the mountains, often busily rebuilding homes, and there within their compounds planting many saplings. There are times when life can surprise and amaze you, and there are other times when it is cruel and vile. The mountain whisperer is like a spectre wafting across Qinling, decades upon decades, winding his way through the affairs of this world without obvious reason, without clear intent or form, solitarily observing the lives as lived but never delving in too deeply, never becoming too involved. Then, finally, death visits him. Everyone dies, and so too does every age. We see the world rise to great heights and then we see it fall. The mountain whisperer sang songs of mourning, and those same songs welcomed him into the netherworld.