Showing posts with label children's fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label children's fiction. Show all posts

Friday 14 October 2022

Curiouser and curiouser – Nicky Harman tells the marvellous story of 'Alice in Wonderland' and its Chinese translator


What do cherry-tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffee, and hot buttered toast have in common? They’re all comfort foods that Alice thinks of when she’s in Wonderland. I was very curious to find out how the first, and possibly greatest, translator of Alice into Chinese rendered them.

You may have noticed a common theme running through my blogs. I have mentioned Alice before, in connection with a student exercise inback-translation, and in my September 2022 blog, I wrote about the translation of Chinese food into English. What inspired me to write this particular post, apart from my fascination with the Alice books and their language games, was reading, How Jane Austen’s early Chinese translators were stumped by the oddities of 19th-century British cuisine’, a fascinating essay by Saihong Li and William Hope. Early-twentieth century Chinese translators had to deal with mince pies, brawn and Stilton cheese, and Li and Hope observe that, ‘The world was not as globalised as it is now and information not so accessible.’ I would add that the dictionaries the translators had access to were (as they still are), only as good as the people who compiled them, and some were quite bad. The translators of Jane Austen were definitely at sea when it came to mince pies. ‘Although early mince pies contained meat, they became sweeter and more fruit-based in the 18th century as sugar imports increased,’ Li and Hope note. However, Chinese translators (mis)-translated mince pies in different ways, including as steak, steamed buns, and meat pies. Oh dear me.

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….








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 19 May 2021

Pot-sticker dumplings and scarlet gloop: Nicky Harman reviews Maisie Chan’s Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths, 2021, and looks back at Timothy Mo’s Sour Sweet, 1982


Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths is a delightful story featuring the eponymous Danny, son of parents who run a Chinese takeaway, his friend Ravi, his doting granny (Nai Nai) and assorted oddball friends and neighbours. Danny loves drawing, hates maths, and is appalled when Nai Nai moves to Birmingham from China and he has to share his bedroom with her. He can't speak her dialect, she snores like a train, farts for England (or rather China) and worst of all, she turns up at his school to bring him Chinese lunch. Oh, and he has to look after her because his mum and dad are busy running their takeaway. When the local bowls club are less than welcoming, he leaves her at the bingo and goes off to play in the park. Then Danny discovers that Nai Nai, unlike her grandson, has maths skills in abundance. She not only becomes the local bingo champion, she takes her grandson in hand and helps him create a great school project based on Fibonacci
fractals in Romanesco cauliflowers. 

A novel about an immigrant family inevitably has a certain amount of cultural information to impart. Dragons, in their Chinese version, feature a lot. As Danny says, ‘I was really pleased with my newest creation that I called a DRUCKON. It was a mutant duck with a dragon’s head. It’s very Chinese, if you ask me. Dragons are the most beloved and lucky creatures in Chinese mythology, and ducks are yummy and succulent. The tricky part was the head. Chinese dragons don’t look like other dragons and they have no wings. Ravi is basically an expert on all things medieval and knights. He says that Chinese dragons are anomalies, which is a nice way of saying they’re ‘weird’. And they don’t go around trying to eat princesses or battle knights. I think that’s nice. A druckon is a Chinese win-win.’  

There is also an odious tiger mother, who drags her daughter Amelia to an unending series of after-school improving activities, as a result of which she is fluent in both Cantonese and Mandarin.  And there is The Chinese Way – Danny’s dad drills its tenets into his son – hard work, respect for his elders, and of course the importance of maths, the bane of Danny’s life. We even learn a bit of the language, when Danny and Nai Nai exchange a few words in Chinese. However, Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths wears its culture lightly. The heart of the novel is the friendship and respect that grows between the boy and his granny, and the adventures they share. 

Chinese immigrant families in the UK are almost invisible in literature, but as I read Danny Chung, Timothy Mo’s Sour Sweet immediately sprang to mind. (It happens to be one of my favourite novels.) In Sour Sweet, Chen, his wife Lily and her sister Mui arrive in London from Hong Kong in the 1960s and go into business. There are two main stories in the novel: we read how Lily and Mui come to terms with their new life – Lily remains resolutely traditional, while Mui embraces British life enthusiastically – while the other thread follows the in-fighting in a Triad gang, the Hung family, who eventually get Chen into their clutches.

Fifty years separate the stories and that makes for interesting comparisons. Of course, the novels are aimed at different readers: an adult readership and pre-teen young readers. But there are similarities. Both families run restaurants, both firmly believe in The Chinese Way, both have a newly-arrived and eccentric grandparent. (Grandpa in Sour Sweet prefers to sleep under the counter instead of the bedroom, and invites fellow-patients from the local clinic to tea, even though they cannot understand each other.) Both families are the odd-ones-out in their communities. Lily and Mui have no friends apart from their customers and a benevolent widow, Mrs Law, and remain culturally and socially isolated in their London suburb. They are further ‘othered’ in one rather odd way: Mo chooses to have his characters speak a sort of Canto-English. ‘Bad talk!’ Lily reprimands Chen. And ‘Husband, door is stuck!’ And she asks her son about his aunt’s new baby, ‘Did you like baby, Son?’ to which Man-Kee replies, ‘Didn’t like it.’ I do not think that this would be considered either acceptable or necessary today, although at least when the family have something important to say to each other, they revert to received English.

Multi-culturalism and racism are not explicitly addressed in either novel but, by way of a contrast to fifty years ago, Danny lives in a Britain that feels more accepting of its separate communities: his best friend is Ravi, an Indian boy, and we are given snapshots of Ravi’s family and his crowded home.

British appreciation of Chinese food has improved over half a century too. In Sour Sweet, ‘The food they sold… bore no resemblance at all to Chinese cuisine. Sweet and sour pork was their staple, naturally: batter musket balls encasing a tiny core of meat, laced with a scarlet sauce that had an interesting effect on the urine of the customer the next day.’ In 2021, Danny soon finds that his bothersome Nai Nai is a wonderful cook, ‘
Nai Nai went into the kitchen to make herself a pot of tea and came out ten minutes later with a plate full of guotie, or, as some people call them, potstickers. I loved them, but Ba never had time to make them for me any more. He was always too busy. I grabbed some chopsticks and started munching them down after dipping them in soy sauce with a bit of cut ginger in it. Nai Nai’s potstickers were SO good, just like Ba had always said.’

Here’s a personal anecdote to illustrate the progress in British taste buds: in 1973, my parents celebrated their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. I organized a dinner for them, with family, (white British, one and all) in a Chinese restaurant in Earls Court, possibly the first in London to serve Peking Duck. My parents (farmers in Wiltshire) arrived in some trepidation, probably worried that dinner would be musket balls and scarlet gloop and that they would lose face with their brothers and sisters. They left delighted and well-fed. I was eternally grateful to my landlady, who had introduced me to the restaurant. She was Dymia Hsiung, widow of playwright Hsiung Shih-I and a writer herself, as well as an enthusiastic mah-jong player and a fabulous cook. Now there’s a cultural connection to conjure with.








Danny Chung Does Not Do Maths, by Maisie Chan, delightfully illustrated by Anh Cao, age-graded 9-11 years, Piccadilly Press,10th June 2021.

 Sour Sweet, by Timothy Mo, new edition, Paddleless Press, 1999.