Notes on discussion of Chinese fiction translated into English. Michael Sheringham

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Notes on discussion of Chinese fiction translated into English. Michael Sheringham

My own reflections on ‘Under the Hawthorn Tree’:
Touching, romantic story – a good, detailed description of life and times of ‘educated youth’ in early 1970s. Describes all the details of village and family life, relationships within family and community, neighbourly help and working in school, factory and work-sites. Some fraught and even vindictive personal relations. But general tone is not vicious, sarcastic or cynical about ‘politicised’ times of CR., with some light-hearted takes on current political slogans, including quotes from Mao and his poetry.
I was conscious of the political slogans translated into English, and wondered whether a general reader, less familiar with the political background and jargon the time, would be able to understand or appreciate it. Some jarred on me, like “I’m only seeking truth from the facts” (a Mao quote), which was used in a personal context and I felt was not quite appropriate. The uninitiated reader would find such phrases ridiculous or incomprehensible. Perhaps some notes with explanation would be necessary in some cases.
In the discussion, I was asked if I was moved (to tears!) by the story, and I replied not. However, I was ‘carried away’ by the story and even against my own inclinations found the romantic and finally tragic (of course) love story very moving, especially as described against the puritanical, austere background and naïve (simple) mentality and life of the ordinary people and especially the young protagonists.
I did feel that the story (mainly the love theme) was too long drawn-out. Jingqiu’s endless searching for ‘Old Third’ (her lover) and his persistent pursuing of her, with all her fantasies and conjectures, did irritate me sometimes, but I was still intrigued by the story itself.

Reflections on ‘Flowers of War’:

I found the atmosphere portrayed rather claustrophobic, with few descriptions of life or events outside the church precincts. This, of course, reflected the situation of this isolated church and its priest protecting the orphan children, prostitutes and finally Chinese soldiers under Japanese invasion in Nanjing. The only outside scene related in length is the horrific massacre of the Chinese soldiers by the Japanese outside the city. This, I felt, was described in unnecessary, gory detail.
The scene itself was well set and the characters – the Italian priest and his Chinese convert follower, and one of the prostitutes – well portrayed. Still, their inner life and thoughts were barely sketched, and therefore rather shallow. The story was naturally suspenseful and dramatic (lending itself to film-making), but action-driven description left me less involved with the individuals than with the tragedy and perfidy of the historical situation – the Japanese invasion and massacre. As usual, I found the Japanese soldiers described in caricatures, except with some touches of unreality, when they hesitated for a while to carry out their brutality.
Comments on translation:

In general, both books were very well translated. There are many colloquial and special terms, such as sexual descriptions (rendered with delicate skill), clothing, food and its preparation, domestic work – sewing, knitting, facial and body expressions (language). In Nicky’s translation, this must have involved considerable research of details about church architecture, priestly duties and clothing. In Anna’s translation, the descriptions of everyday village life in the 1970s must also have demanded research into the historical, political life of the times, with its special terminology and collective work system, educational reform, involving recommendation by Party officials for applicants to higher education, favouritism, etc. How to translate ‘educated youth’, ‘sent down youth’, etc.?

Discussion meeting
We held this discussion meeting in the tea room below the bookshop Arthur Probsthain.
I asked the translators to summarise their translated novels, tell us how they chose to translate them and what particular challenges they faced in translating them.
Nicky Harman knew the author, Yan Geling, then read the book. She mentioned her previous translation of Hong Ying (K – The Art of Love) Han Dong (Banished), etc. and her experiences of teaching translation courses at Imperial College, London. She writes many blogs for the website on translating contemporary Chinese literature, PaperRepublic, which also held a workshop in Moganshan, near Hangzhou a couple of years ago, and she is teaching a summer course on translating again this year.
Helen Wang had translated Zhang Xinxin, Yu Hua and other authors, some for Wellsweep Publishers. Egmont Publishers were looking for a translator for the children’s book ‘The Jackal and the Wolf’, and she was introduced to them. Translators can rarely take the initiative to translate a certain book, it’s up to the publishers what they want to publish or think is publishable. Helen got to practise her translation of this story by reading to her children in instalments. It was a ‘harsh’ story of animal survival in many ways, anthropomorphic and too cruel in parts to read to her children. (comparisons with ‘Tarka the Otter’ and ‘White Fang’ by Jack London).

Anna Holmwood had worked in a literary agency and knew the ropes of publishing. She had a rush to keep up with translating this novel (Ai Mi’s ‘Under the Hawthorn Tree’) as the film version was being produced by Zhang Yimou. The first 3 chapters of the book were severely edited by the publishers as she translated them, even rearranging the sequence of the original Chinese version, to suit a Western readership. She saw the film and got approval from the author to make changes to the original. Ai Mi herself (pen-name) has kept a low profile and only recently met her editor in Canada. Only recently too has she admitted that the story is basically an autobiography (surprise, surprise!). She has written further books in Chinese.

Michael Sheringham mentioned that he had long ago translated the novel Open Fields by Ye Junjian (pen-name Chan Chun Yeh), a veteran writer, who had written the first part of his trilogy in English during the war years when he was living in England. He was looking for a translator for the second part, which he had written in Chinese, and by chance his son, Nianlun, then living in London, contacted Michael. The novel was a historical saga, set in the rural and mountainous region of Hubei during the 1930s guerrilla warfare against the Nationalist forces and the Communist struggle against landlords. It is obviously steeped in the political context of those times, but had a personal story as mainly seen through the eyes of a boy (scout), with observations of everyday rural life (dough-sticks and all) at the grassroots. Although published by Faber in London, I had always wondered how the general readers (if any!) could comprehend the story in such an unfamiliar setting and with an obvious political sympathy for the Communist underground fighters. The publishers would not accept an introduction I had written to serve as background setting of the scene. (Nor did they pay me for the translation!)

Michael also introduced the autobiography of Bamboo Hirst (also present), Blue China. He described it as semi-fictional in style, since it recounts her grand-parents’, parents’ as well as her own stories in such a vivid way that imagined conversations of the older generations embellish the tale. Her own reminiscences of her early life in China up to the age of 14 are also based on research and reading of the historical context – just before and through the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. Bamboo added that her childhood life, looked after by an amah (or a-yi) helped her understand Chinese people and empathise with their lives, especially those of the ordinary people like the rickshaw men, servants and domestics. Her own life was traumatised by the sudden departure of her Italian father for Italy, and his abandonment of her and his Chinese wife. When Bamboo came to find him in Italy, she settled there and subsequently never saw her mother in China again. Bamboo said that she learnt to adjust the hard way and switched to Italian and Italian culture (and the fashion world). When writing in Italian, she soon realised that her understanding of Chinese mentality and culture helped her, for instance in cutting out repetition, which is a characteristic of Chinese writing.

Harvey Thomlinson introduced his background interest in China since travelling to China, and how he came to establish his small publishing firm Makedo Publishing, with three short novels translated into English. His first published novel, which he also translated himself, was Yu Li - Confessions of an Elevator Operator by Jimmy Qi. He spoke about the latest novel ‘I Love Mum’ by Chen Xiwo, who was a ‘good’ Cultural Revolutionary at the time but has become a democratic reformer. This novel shows his talent and was a ‘labour of love’, as it tells the painful story of a disabled man who faces taunting and torture. It also deals with incest, as the protagonist sleeps with his mother. Chen tried but failed to sue the Chinese customs authorities for preventing the English book from being imported. He recently attended the PEN session of literary discussion in London without any problems.

A lively discussion ensued, following on with the theme and characters in Chen Xiwo’s ‘I Love Mum’, and the somewhat deviant behaviour of the protagonist. As such stories are not published in China, Xue Yisha (sister of the writer Yiwei, published in Huacheng literary magazine), expressed frustration at prevailing official (and perhaps popular) prejudices against such sexual mores as homosexuality and explicit references to these in literature.
In translating these stories, the translators have to be sensitive to the taste of the potential readership. In her translation, Helen even had to cut down on graphic scenes of animal brutality in the children’s book, and also sexist attitudes reflected through the animal world. James Green mentioned the stories by the brothers Grimm as often depicting pretty horrible, frightening scenes for children.
Anna pointed out that the translator of the well-known Chinese recent novel ‘Wolf Totem’ by Jiang Rong, Howard Goldblatt, left out politically problematic passages. Other novels depicting sexist sentiments or ‘filthy’ scenes, including child rape, were usually considered beyond the pale by translators and left out.

Michael raised the final question of the role of contemporary Chinese literature in world literature and how to promote it in translation. Anna felt that when ‘Chinese’ literature is simply accepted and popularised as part of world literature, then it would have ‘come of age’. Helen suggested that writing reviews of novels and stories (and poetry?), including on Amazon, is a good way to publicise Chinese literature. I still feel that it is important and more interesting for Chinese literature to retain its ‘Chinese-ness’, in that it reflects life and society and individual experiences and thoughts of contemporary Chinese (of course, it could be in historical settings. e.g. Wang Anyi’s ‘Song of Everlasting Sorrow’). It was suggested that to establish international fame, a writer has to follow up on a break-through work, so that their readers would be eagerly waiting for their next novel or writing. This is what the publishers also hope for and try to publicise, such “a new novel by Yan Geling, author of ‘Flowers of War’ (bestseller and much acclaimed film adaptation by China’s top director Zhang Yimo”.
This was a lively discussion and we hope to follow up with similar discussions of new writing, as we have many more books to cover!
Michael Sheringham

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