Showing posts with label Yang Shuangzi. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Yang Shuangzi. Show all posts

Wednesday, 16 June 2021

Making the effortful seem effortless: Nicky Harman interviews this year’s winner of the Bai Meigui Translation Prize 2021, Francesca Jordan

It has always struck me that the sign of a good translation is that it should read as if doing it was easy. Of course, I know that is an illusion. All the same, I was impressed not only by Francesca's beautiful prose but also by her description of the sheer hard graft and hard thinking that went into it.

A bit of background: the Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing, an inspirational resource for working and would-be translators alike, has run the Bai Meigui Translation Prize annually since 2015, offering texts which range from fiction for adults and young readers, picture books, and poetry and non-fiction. This year’s winner was Francesca Jordan, and the piece, by Yang Shuangzi, is from a novella, The Season When Flowers Bloom, about a girl growing up in Japanese Taiwan.

NH: Can you tell me a bit about how you got into translation from Chinese?

FJ: I studied Chinese at SOAS and moved to Beijing about a year after graduation. While at uni I had developed an interest in Chinese contemporary art, which was just starting to really catch the world’s attention at that time. Once in Beijing it wasn't long before I found a job at Chinese-art.com, a website that aimed to be a window into the Chinese art world for English speakers. So I honed my translation skills on a lot of art criticism, curators’ essays, and artists writing about their own work. Plenty of art-specific vocab to get familiar with of course, but the socially engaged nature of contemporary art meant that these texts were a great way to delve into all kinds of topics – the changing city, the loss of history and tradition to modernity, the new possibilities brought by technology, the disorienting shift in visual culture from political propaganda to consumer advertising, cultural trends and taboos and so on. Contemporary artists don’t shy away from exploring the difficulties of changing roles and relationships, whether we’re talking about painting and photography, state and individual, or rural and urban China.

For a translator then, it’s a pretty interesting field to specialise in, the main challenges being writers who are overly dry and academic, and those who write ‘art bollocks’. The latter put you in the same quandary as those poor interpreters and translators who had to tackle Donald Trump’s speeches, that quandary being: do I, or do I not, translate twaddle as twaddle? Will the audience realise the original is gibberish, or will they assume it’s a poor translation? Fortunately there were relatively few purveyors of art bollocks (back then at least) in the Chinese art scene, compared to their western counterparts.

NH: Before you translated the competition piece, did you know anything about Japanese Taiwan? Did anything surprise you?

FJ: I had only a basic knowledge of Taiwan’s period under Japanese rule before starting this translation so it was a great opportunity to learn some more of that history – I possibly spent as much time reading the interesting articles that turned up during research as I did translating. I was aware of the cultural and linguistic Japanization of Taiwan imposed under colonial rule, and the Japanese names in the extract were the first clue that the story was set during that period; then of course later in the extract dates are given and Hatsuko’s parents’ emigration from Japan to ‘this island’ (as Taiwan is generally referred to in the novella, while Japan is ‘the mainland’) is explained. The novella is peppered with Japanese loanwords, some quite specific to this cultural and historical context, effectively conveying the effect of Japanization on Taiwan’s language. With standard Chinese-English dictionaries drawing a blank on these unfamiliar terms, I often turned to a Japanese dictionary instead. So I felt it was important for the translation to reflect as much as possible the Japanese language environment the characters inhabited, in the personal names and styles of address and especially place names (Tanabe Bookstore, Nishiki-chō etc.) as these are all real places that existed in 1930s Taichung.

I guess the novella is basically a coming-of-age story, full of hope and loss and disillusionment as those often are. Hatsuko longs for a life less ordinary, regarding university, work, independence and travel as vastly more attractive than marriage. Her sense of social inferiority (though she is attending an elite high school, her family are not well off) prevents her from believing that such things are achievable for herself, so she displaces that longing onto her wealthier and more glamorous classmates, pinning her hopes on them escaping the traditional restrictions placed on women’s lives by family and society. Discovering that the two classmates she admires most (one of whom, Yang Hsueh-ni, is ambitious and confident with strong feminist ideas) have an intimate but secret friendship, Hatsuko begins to obsessively snoop on their meetings in the library – and self-disgust at her furtive behaviour compounding her feelings of inferiority. Too shy to ever talk to her classmates in person, Hatsuko feels a deep sense of loss after graduation, one that makes her physically ill, knowing she may never see the two ‘brilliant friends’ again or know how their lives turn out. When she suddenly discovers that even Yang Hsueh-ni, the most ambitious girl in their school, is prevented from following her aspirations by family circumstances, Hatsuko’s sense of loss turns to painful despair.

Introverted Hatsuko has no special friend to confide in – the extract describes her longing for the unaffordable magazine ‘Girl’s Companion’, but we can infer, from the way she buries herself in the novels of Yoshiya Nobuko, that what Hatsuko really longs for is the kind of intimate, affectionate friendship she witnesses her classmates sharing. Yoshiya Nobuko was one of the earliest writers of yuri (baihe in Mandarin) – ‘lily’ or ‘girls’ love’ – fiction, the genre that Yang Shuang-zi also considers herself to be working in. This novella though, is more of a tribute to Yang Ch’ien-ho, made clear by the author borrowing the title (and premise) of Yang’s 1942 novel The Season When Flowers Bloom. Yang Ch’ien-ho, like the character Yang Hsueh-Ni, was a native Taiwanese born under Japanese rule, and a fascinating figure who broke through social barriers of both sex and (colonial) class, becoming Taiwan’s first female journalist at the age of 19, and even demanding to be paid the same as her Japanese colleagues

NH: Your translation reads effortlessly. Was it effortless? What were the challenges in translating it?

FJ: The translation of character’s names provided some of the trickiest challenges. First there were some simpler decisions to be made such as whether to write Japanese names family name first, or in the Anglicised format with family name last. Reading on in the text, the character Sakiko mentions that because her full name is Matsugasaki Sakiko she was nicknamed ‘Saki-Saki’, the sense of which would be lost if her name was given family name last. So, preserving the Japanese/Chinese order was the obvious choice and luckily would have been my preference anyway. Further on in the text again, the author herself indicates (by including romanized Japanese in the text) that the Chinese form of address tóngxué (classmate or fellow student) is being used as a stand-in for the Japanese honorific suffix –san, so that’s another decision effectively made for the translator. As for the Chinese personal names and other proper nouns, these I gave in Wade-Giles rather than pinyin romanization because pinyin, not developed until the 1950s, would have felt anachronistic, not to mention geographically inappropriate as pinyin still isn’t used much in Taiwan.  

The trickier parts had to do with the meanings of names. In two instances the most accurate translations would read awkwardly or seem nonsensical to English reader. Firstly the sentence “Her given name, Hsueh-Ni, meaning ‘snowy earth’, was an allusion to a classical Chinese poem – a very elegant and poetic name.” The more literal translation of Hsueh-Ni is ‘slush’ or ‘snowy mud’, neither of which sounds remotely elegant or poetic, particularly with the connotations of that English idiom about somebody’s ‘name being mud’. The poem referred to, one that describes the ephemerality and arbitrariness of both human lives and the traces they leave, is Su Dongpo aka Su Shi’s He Ziyou mianchi huaijiu so for inspiration I turned to this excellent article that compiles a host of English translations.  . Eventually I settled on ‘snowy earth’ as being close enough to the text but conjuring a more pristine image, one of new-fallen snow lying lightly on the dark earth (before they combine into muddy slush). 

Secondly there was a sentence that could have been translated as ‘their only son was named Ryuichi after his father’, but as we know the father’s name is Takao this sounds wrong in English, as we expect people ‘named after’ someone to have basically the same name. The problem here is that Japanese kanji can have different pronunciations in different combinations. In the Japanese/Chinese text it is clear that the names Takao 隆夫 and Ryuichi 隆一 share a particular kanji, so I ended up translating in a way that just described that: ‘The name of their only son, Ryuichi, shared a kanji meaning ‘prosperity’ with his father’s.’ For that paragraph it felt necessary to give the four children’s names in romanized Japanese (as would be conventional in English) and also translate the name meanings, which would be opaque to English readers otherwise. Knowing the meanings of the names gives the reader important information about the Yamaguchi family’s culture and values; in this case that they tend to choose the most obvious and unimaginative names for their offspring (certainly in Hatsuko’s view!). This was probably the paragraph I fiddled around with longest as it was quite challenging to slot in the extra info (I slipped a little ‘1920’ in there too, so that readers didn’t have to take a break to google which year ‘ninth year of the Taishō Emperor’ corresponds to) without weighing down the text too much or making it read choppily.

Of course the translation wasn’t effortless – if only! – but it’s gratifying to be told that all the struggling and polishing and ‘hmm, maybe if I do it this way…? Nah, it was better the way it was’ is invisible in the finished product. Every literary piece poses unique challenges: as well as aiming for accuracy, there are voices that the translator must do her best to recreate and sustain – the voice of the author, and the voices the author creates for her characters. There was only a tiny bit of dialogue (or interior monologue) in the extract, still I made a point of reminding myself that teenagers in 1930s Taiwan wouldn’t talk like 2020s British teenagers, or 1980s American teenagers etc. Overall, I tried to be as historically accurate as I felt the author would want me to be – and I know from reading around that Yang Shuang-zi and her sister spent a lot of time researching 1930s Taichung in preparation for writing this novella – and to capture the youthful melancholy of the piece, the fight between romance and realism that pervades it.