Showing posts with label literary translation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label literary translation. 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, 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.