Award-winning Chinese-to-English translator Nicky Harman discusses the process of translating language as well as violence in literature with her latest translation of Jia Pingwa's Broken Wings.
I've been translating novels from Chinese for twenty years. I love the creative process—recreating a story in English, giving a new life to what the author has written and how they've written it, and (I fondly hope) reaching readers who are new to translated Chinese literature. Plus, while I take ultimate responsibility for the finished translation, I have also had some interesting experiences working with my authors. Even if they read no English, I can ask them in Chinese a question that no one but they will know the answer to. For instance, in the novels of the renowned author Jia Pingwa, I asked him "Where are West Street and East Street in his fictional Shaanxi village?"
I had assumed they were a single road, running west to east, with each half named accordingly, as in the town where I live in the UK. No, they turned out to be two parallel streets running north-south, off the main highway which runs east-west. There might be a lesson to be drawn from that misunderstanding!
There are of course a range of ways in which authors can interact with their translators. Some authors famously have very definite ideas about how their works should be translated. Richard Dixon describes fascinating discussions with Umberto Eco when he was translating Eco's last novel. Personally, I'm most likely to be asking my authors the "What does it look like?" sort of question, and much less likely to be discussing the style of my translation for various reasons: Most of my authors don't have a sufficient grasp of English to comment; or that particular novel might have been written years ago and they're now four books down the line, and they're not really interested.
However, there are exceptions: Yan Ge and Zhang Ling both speak very good English. With The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, I had extensive talks with Yan Ge about livening up the obscenities with which her characters pepper their speech; her particular Pixian (Chengdu) dialect is extremely colorful when it comes to swearing, my standard English is much less so. With Zhang Ling's Gold Mountain Blues, I emailed her in advance because I'd noticed that her writing is packed with similes. Similes in Chinese can be introduced in half a dozen different ways; English only has 'like' or 'as', which can make repeated similes sound quite clunky. So I told her I'd be turning some of her similes into metaphors. She was gracious enough not to object. In fact, she was extremely supportive throughout; she read my translation chapter by chapter and told me that the key love scene, in its English reincarnation, made the tears come to her eyes. I must have done something right.
But I want to come on to a rather more complicated area where the translator and author might want to talk, and it's to do with content. Broken Wings (in Chinese 《极花》) published by ACA, May 2019, is a novel by Jia Pingwa about a trafficked woman. Butterfly is kidnapped from the city and sold as a wife to a man in a remote village where the women have all voted with their feet and left for an easier life elsewhere. He imprisons and rapes her and she has a baby. The description of the rape is horrific, there's widespread casual brutality (at least one of the kidnapped wives gets her leg broken when she tries to run away), and the atmosphere in this village of home-prisons is suffocating.
Some scenes were particularly challenging for me to translate. I couldn't help wondering, as I worked my way through this novel, about my author's position as a middle-aged man writing about a young trafficked woman. Let me be clear: Jia does not condone kidnapping or minimize Butterfly's suffering. And yet, and yet … Jia is writing with a degree of sympathy about a marginalized community (the village) as well as about a victim of it (Butterfly). He understands why the men behave the way they do. In the novel's Afterword. Jia writes:
"In remote backward areas, the men who lack the ability, the skills or the funds to leave, are left behind in the villages to scratch a living on the land. They have no possibility of marrying. I have been to villages made up almost entirely of wifeless men. One man I met, crippled since he fell down a cliff and broke his leg installing electricity in the village, told me: 'My family will die out because of me, and our village will vanish in our lifetime.' I could think of nothing to say.'"
When this novel came out in Chinese, Jia came in for a drubbing online by women who thought he was too sympathetic to the kidnappers. As a woman reader myself, that is something I could have tackled him on. I didn't; I'm not sure why. But I think I made my peace with his approach for a few different reasons: First, I didn't find it morally equivocal; second, the violence is not gratuitous; and third, as I worked my way through the afterword, I came across this passage:
"There are many ways of writing a novel but nowadays it seems to be the fashion to write violent, extreme narratives. Maybe that is what today's readers want, but it does not suit me. I have always thought that my writing was somehow akin to ink-wash paintings, painting literature in words, you might say.'"
And a key principal of ink-wash painting is to leave white space (留白. liu bai ), for the viewer (or reader) to fill in with their own imagination. In Broken Wings, the ending in particular can be read two different ways.
I did ask Jia a different question. I thought of Lu Xun's famous 1923 talk titled 'What Happens after Nora Walks Out?' in which he imagines the fate of Nora in Henry Ibsen's 'A Doll's House' after she escapes her husband and family and slams out of her house. Lu Xun was pessimistic. What about Jia, would he ever write a similar essay on 'What Happens to Butterfly and Rabbit (her baby)?' I asked. He smiled and pointed me to his Afterword, where he writes:
" … every time we drove along the ridge-top roads we would come across some woman coming back from digging potatoes, her face weathered and sun-burnt, bent double under the weight of a great basket, hobbling along bandy-legged. and I thought of my neighbor's daughter … A man was hunkered down eating his dinner, and there was a woman too, wiping her baby's nose and shouting imprecations at the people next door. She slapped her own behind and swore energetically at them. I thought of my neighbor's daughter then too."
Jia's neighbor's daughter was kidnapped, then rescued, and had to leave her baby behind before finally going back to the village to be with him. No doubt there is no happy ending for Jia Pingwa's Butterfly either.
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