What’s Going Wrong with Chinese Literature in Translation?

Toward the end of every year, when China’s magazines, newspapers, and online portals publish their lists of the best books of the year, we are reminded of the vast gulf between the books that are being read in China and the books being translated from Chinese for readers around the world.

A look at 2019’s list of the best Chinese fiction on Douban (a Chinese social media site with a large number of young users) shows that — with the exception of Mai Jia, the author of widely publicized Chinese spy novel Decoded — it comprises writers almost completely unknown to non-Chinese readers, such as internet novel writers Chang Er and Wu Zhe and teenage fiction writer Yuan Zhesheng. 

The roll-call of Chinese-to-English translations for the same year by Paper Republic (a UK-based organization focused on bringing Chinese writing to the world) looks vastly different. While nobody would expect the same books to be on both lists, it suggests that international readers are looking for a different kind of book.

The Douban list focuses on mostly young, mostly urban authors, while English language readers are getting the work of aging titans such as Feng Jicai, Jia Pingwa, and the late Shi Tiesheng. It’s a strange list of authors, that ranges from exiled dissidents to the dustiest eulogizers of state capitalism.

What makes it into English translation is often shaped by the idea that Chinese fiction’s main function is to explain China, and by two sides wrangling over what story Chinese literature should tell. 

Read more: RADII

The Highbrow Struggles of Translating Modern Children’s Books Into Latin

According to conventional wisdom, Latin is a dead language. But a simple Amazon search shows that it still has a surprisingly active life—not just in medical and law terminology, but also in children’s books.

After serving as the chief language of ancient Rome, and then as the language of scholars and holy men, Latin mostly faded out of modern usage. Even its study is becoming increasingly rare, but there are still some publishers and scholars who are taking modern works, mainly kids’ books, and translating them from modern English into what can best be described as a kind of modern Latin.

From picture books such as Walter the Farting Dog, to longer works such as Winnie the Pooh, and the first two books in the “Harry Potter” series, a wide variety of titles have made the jump to Latin over the years. Children’s books make good candidates for such translation work due to their simplified language and short length, and in turn can give the study of Latin a more contemporary feel. But this doesn’t mean that turning these books into Latin in the first place is any small feat.

Green Eggs and Ham was very difficult,” says Terence Tunberg, who has been teaching Latin for over 30 years. Along with his wife, Jennifer, he has translated a number of children’s books into Latin.

In addition to Green Eggs and Ham (Latin title: Virent Ova! Viret Perna!!), the Tunbergs have also translated Dr. Seuss classics How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Quomodo Invidiosulus nomine Grinchus Christi natalem Abrogaverit) and The Cat in the Hat (Cattus Petasatus), as well as Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (Arbor Alma).

“[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][They’re] a good teaching tool, there’s no doubt about that. We did not try to write simple Latin,” says Tunberg. “We tried to translate it the best we could given the resources of the Latin language without dumbing it down.”

Read more: Atlas Obscura[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

Women writers’ work is getting lost in translation

Britain now has a record number of female MPs, more women are on company boards, and work is being done to encourage more women to take up science.

Yet women still aren’t equal to men. And if we think in terms of intersectional feminism – the connections between different multi-layered facets of oppression such as gender, race, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity, ability or age – the invisibility of some groups of women is even more striking.

Some may well say that this inequality is to be more expected in traditional male domains, and that in areas like arts and culture, women are actually far more visible than men. For example, they might argue that a glance at what is available in libraries or bookshops shows that more women writers are being published today, both in the UK and worldwide.

Indeed, in 2015, the BBC surveyed international critics to find the greatest British novels. Their results showed women authors accounted for half of the top 20 titles chosen. However, the same piece also emphasised how these results “stand in stark contrast to most such polls over the past decade”.

Look further into the number of reviews of women writers’ work published in literary magazines, and into the amount of writing prizes awarded to women, however, and a dramatic gender imbalance emerges.

Read more: The Conversation

Lost in Translation: Proust and Scott Moncrieff

Although Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff’s translation of À la recherche du temps perdu is considered by many journalists and writers to be the best translation of any foreign work into the English language, his choice of Remembrance of Things Past as the general title alarmed the seriously ill Proust and misled generations of readers as to the novelist’s true intent. It wasn’t until 1992 that the title was finally changed to In Search of Lost Time. “Remembrance of Things Past” is a beautiful line from William Shakespeare’s sonnet 30, but it conveys an idea that is really the opposite of Proust’s own. When Scott Moncrieff chose this title, he did not know, of course, where Proust was going with the story and did not correctly interpret the title, which might indeed be taken to indicate a rather passive attempt by an elderly person to recollect days gone by.

Proust’s theory of memory rejects the notion that we can simply sit and quietly resurrect the past in its true vividness through what he called voluntary memory. When we attempt to do this, we find that it doesn’t work very well. We remember very little and often only in a haphazard and rather bland way. On the other hand, Proust’s title should be taken to suggest a different approach: the Narrator’s search (recherche means both search and research in French) is an active, arduous quest in which the past must be rediscovered—largely through what Proust called involuntary memory, as demonstrated in the famous madeleine scene—then analyzed and understood, and finally, if your ambition is to preserve it in writing, transposed and recreated in a book. As we will see, Proust lived long enough to see the title Remembrance of Things Past and, while he objected to it, did not take measures to change it.

Read more: The Public Domain Review

The Rise of the Global Novelist

When Cities of Salt, an Arabic novel by Abdelrahman Munif, was published in translation in 1988, John Updike reviewed it for The New Yorker. “It is unfortunate,” Updike remarked, “given the epic potential of his topic, that Mr. Munif, a Saudi born in Jordan, appears to be—though he lives in France and received a Ph.D. in oil economics from the University of Belgrade—insufficiently Westernized to produce a narrative that feels much like what we call a novel. His voice is that of a campfire explainer.”

Updike was writing near the end of the Cold War, confident in his pronouncements about the novel, the West, and about border-challenging writers like Munif, whose father was Saudi, mother Iraqi, and who at different points of his life held Algerian, Yemeni, and Iraqi passports. Stripped of his Saudi nationality and having fallen afoul of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, Munif wrote Cities of Salt in France. Of the fact that the novel, with its critique of American oil corporations and Arab oligarchies, was banned in Saudi Arabia, Updike had only this to say: “The thought of novels being banned in Saudi Arabia has a charming strangeness, like the thought of hookahs being banned in Minneapolis.”

It is hard to recall a foreign novel being greeted with such hostility in an American mainstream publication in the decades that followed the end of the Cold War. Foreign writers might still be considered strange or different, and they might not be covered at all. But even the notoriously elitist, insular establishment of book reviewers in New York did not see their novels as completely out of place in a world rapidly being shaped by globalization. In an era of cheap air travel, digital communications, consumerism, worldwide urbanization, and the dominance of English—all overseen by the United States as the world’s single remaining imperial power—readers, editors, and critics found it easy to welcome works by Haruki Murakami or Orhan Pamuk and the snapshots of foreign life they reveal.

Read more: New Republic

Amazon expands its literary horizons, making big imprint in translation niche

The literary translation community in the U.S. has a tradition of being highbrow, a carefully tended yet narrow reflection of the stirrings of global culture beyond the Anglosphere.

Then Amazon.com jumped in, like a whale into a koi pond.

Armed with financial might and an intimate, machine-learned knowledge of reader behavior, the e-commerce giant made a big splash.

That annoyed some literary types, wary of the leviathan that has shaken up almost every aspect of the media world.

But AmazonCrossing, the publishing unit devoted to scouring the world for good tales, has in a short time become the most prominent interpreter of foreign fiction into English, accounting for 10 percent of all translations in 2016, more than any other publishing house in a field populated by small imprints.

It helps that Amazon is rather numbers-driven about its tastes, which tend toward blockbuster genre fiction — crime thrillers and romance novels — although it also picks well-regarded literary jewels its editors feel would do well with an English-speaking audience.

Read more: Seattle Times

The subtle art of translating foreign fiction

Last year, I decided to treat myself to a new copy of Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan, a novel I have loved ever since I first read it as a teenager, and whose dreamy opening line in its original translation from the French by Irene Ash – “A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness” – I know by heart. But which one to get? In the end, I decided to go for something entirely new and ritzy, which is how I came to buy the Penguin Modern Classics edition, translated by Heather Lloyd.

Some days later, in bed, I began reading it. The shock was tremendous, disorienting. “This strange new feeling of mine, obsessing me by its sweet languor, is such that I am reluctant to dignify it with the fine, solemn name of ‘sadness’,” went the first sentence, which sounded to my ears a little as though a robot had written it. For a while I pressed on, telling myself it was stupid to cling to only one version, as if it were a sacred thing, and that perhaps I would soon fall in love with this no doubt very clever and more accurate new translation. Pretty soon, though, I gave up. However syntactically correct it might be, the prose had for me lost all of its magic. It was as if I’d gone out to buy a silk party dress and come home with a set of nylon overalls.

Read more: The Guardian

Homer’s The Odyssey: challenges for the 21st century translator

Homeric word-order is unusually accommodating towards its English equivalent. Verbs usually come where you expect them, adjectives sit near their nouns. Compared to, say, the complex structures of a Pindaric ode, or the elliptical one-line exchanges of dramatic dialogue, Homer’s largely paratactic progression of ‘…and…but…when…then…’ presents his translator with few immediate problems. I found this particularly helpful, as I had set myself a discipline of keeping as closely as possible to a version where the English line corresponded to the Greek. As well as offering easy reference to those studying the poem closely, I found it helped sustain the onward drive of the narrative.

The toughest challenge for the 21st century translator is undoubtedly that of register. As we all know, no one ever spoke Homeric Greek. It is an amalgam of different dialects, predominantly Ionic, whose effect is to set the story apart from the everyday, and to lend it a dignity appropriate to a tale of long ago heroic deeds. That said, Homer does often go remarkably well into current English. ‘Tell me, Muse, of the man of many turns, who was driven/far and wide after he had sacked the sacred city of Troy’ is a near-literal rendering of the Odyssey’s first two lines. Compare the task of producing an acceptable version of ‘His sweet spirit surpasses the perforated labour of bees’ (Pindar, Pythian 6.52-4).

Still, there are times when one yearns for a modern epic poetic, to capture something of Homer’s heroic loftiness, at the same time as satisfying the two classes of notional classics readers: staying close to the Greek and offering a good read to the casual bookshop/internet buyer. It can’t be done consistently, of course. We can no longer draw on the poetic diction available to English writers in the 300-odd years from Shakespeare to the Georgians. T.S. Eliot saw to that, and in any case no one these days – with the possible exception of Derek Walcott – writes epic.

Read more: Oxford University Press blog

Translation project expands reach of Taiwan literature

Sixteen books by Taiwan authors have been translated into English, French, Japanese, Korean and Swedish as part of efforts by National Museum of Taiwan Literature in southern Taiwan’s Tainan City to expand the international reach of local literature.

“These translations enable Taiwan’s national treasures to be enjoyed by our foreign friends,” NMTL Director Chen Yi-yuan said earlier this month at a museum-staged event announcing publication of the newly translated books.

Since 2011, the NMTL’s translation project has seen 101 volumes rendered into nine languages. One of the most impressive works was in Swedish by Göran Malmqvist, a Sinologist and member of the Swedish Academy that decides the annual Nobel Prize in literature. He translated an autobiographical novel set in Beijing by the late Lin Hai-yin before she moved to Taipei City in the late 1940s.

Prominent novelist Li Ang thanked the NMTL for producing the English version of “The Lost Garden,” one of the feminist writer’s major works presenting a Taiwan family saga exploring local history and the heroine’s sexuality. Published by Columbia University Press in New York, the fictional piece was co-translated by Howard Goldblatt, an acclaimed translator of Mandarin-language works such as the novels of Mo Yan, a 2012 Nobel Prize in literature winner from mainland China.

Read more: Taiwan Today

Jon Snow knows nothing but a translator knows a lot

The universe built by G.R.R. Martin is not just a beautiful, haunting story, but also a real minefield for translators all over the world. Far from being invisible, as argued by many scholars, the translator adds his/her own contribution to the course of a book towards the reader.

As a literary translator, an avid reader and fan of the books and show myself, I had been wondering how on earth had the various translators managed to render such a complex mosaic of characters and plots to a smooth, compelling narrative to their respective languages.

I interviewed the translator of 3 of the GoT books in Greek, Alexandra Letsa, who was more than happy to shed some light in the dark and sinister world of Westeros and beyond, where Lannisters always keep their debts, Starks reunite, dragons are re-born and all fans await the Winds of Winter.

Read more: Huffington Post

Project ‘Poets Translating Poets’ proves that poetry is more than art

“It was splendid for me,” says Indian poet Rajendra Bhandari. “We usually lose so many things by translating poems. But this time, we gained much more. We got to know the language, the culture.”
Bhandari was among the participants of a project established in 2002 by a Berlin-based center for poetry called Literaturwerkstatt. The project “Poets Translating Poets,” or PTP, aims to bring poets of foreign cultural regions into contact with German poets.

With the help of linguistic mediators, they translate poems from one language into another, like from German into French, Russian and Hebrew, and vice versa. The results of these efforts fill 13 volumes published over the years by the publishing house Wunderhorn Verlag.

“Poets Translating Poems South Asia” is a unique translation project, involving 51 lyricists working in 20 languages. Seventeen German-speaking poets encountered colleagues from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The participants of this project have demonstrated that it is actually possible to translate poetry.

Read more: Deutsche Welle

Gregory Rabassa, a Premier Translator of Spanish and Portuguese Fiction, Dies at 94

Gregory Rabassa, a distinguished translator from Spanish and Portuguese who brought the work of luminaries like Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa to a wide English-speaking public, died on Monday in Branford, Conn. He was 94.

His family confirmed the death.

A longtime faculty member of Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, Professor Rabassa was widely considered one of the foremost translators of any kind in the world. He was known in particular for making the wave of dynamic and powerful fiction, much of it magic realist, that emerged in Latin America in the 1960s and afterward — a literary phenomenon known there as “El Boom” — accessible in English.

Foremost among those novels was “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Mr. García Márquez’s epochal multigenerational saga, first published in the author’s native Colombia in 1967. Professor Rabassa’s critically acclaimed translation, issued in the United States in 1970, marked the inaugural appearance in English of both the novel and its author.

The novel, in Professor Rabassa’s rendering, became a best seller. Mr. García Márquez, who publicly described Professor Rabassa as “the best Latin American writer in the English language,” received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982.

Writing in The New York Times, John Leonard reviewed “One Hundred Years of Solitude” — which centers on the fortunes of the mythical South American town of Macondo and includes such spectacularly routine phenomena as ghosts, mass insomnia and tumbling clouds of butterflies — calling it “superbly translated.”

He further called the novel, in an encomium that speaks to the translator’s skill as well as the author’s, “a cathedral of words, perceptions and legends that amounts to the declaration of a state of mind.”

Read more: NY Times