The topic was about a Chinese novel that I translated with Bruce Humes into English. And the audience response was enthusiastic.
I have revised the speech to answer some of the audience inquiries. The following is the revised article.
An Attempt at Meaningful Cultural Dialogue
Literary translation is a unique form of translation, and practitioners need to think creatively as they struggle first to decode the source text, and then to convey it in a style that meets the very demanding standards of a reader of fiction.
In a recent co-translation project of a 21st-century Chinese-language novel featuring almost exclusively Uyghur characters, the close collaboration of two bilingual translators — one a native English speaker, the other a native Chinese speaker — enabled their rendition to touch upon the essence of Uyghur culture and present it in English through meaningful dialogue.
Mafioso Jade Boss
Titled Confessions of a Jade Lord (时间悄悄的嘴脸), this novel by the prolific Uyghur author Alat Asem (阿拉提·阿斯木) depicts the life of a big-shot jade trader based in Xinjiang of Northwest China. The ancient Silk Road that once traversed Eurasia crossed through Xinjiang, and much of the autonomous region is populated by Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking, Muslim people numbering ten million or so.
In order to get his greedy hands on nine chunks of extremely valuable creamy-white, so-called “mutton-fat” jade, the protagonist Eysa ASAP orders Xali, a fellow trader, terminated. Fearing arrest, he flees to Shanghai where a plastic surgeon fits him with a state-of-the-art mask that allows him to escape detection. But as his feud with Xali deepens — it emerges Xali was only crippled — Eysa gradually realises the futility of amassing a fortune in the face of everlasting Time.
Deciphering an Idiom
Alat Asem has written a number of novels and short stories shedding light on the daily life and spiritual world of his fellow Uyghur. He is known for intentionally endowing Mandarin with fresh, Uyghur-inspired meanings that challenge the translator.
A typical example is the Uyghur idiom: “鸭子过去鹅过去,” literally, “Ducks pass by, geese pass by.” But what does it actually mean?
The first character to cite this idiom is a middleman in his opening monologue to the key players in a big real estate deal:
The building is new, constructed just five years ago. Buyer and seller both have things itching at their hearts. Each of you knows this. My mouth is a hand that can scratch that itch for you. I do not know the depth of the water, but my sincere hope is that both duck and goose may cross safely.
As you can see above (italics), our rendition emphasises his wish that a deal may be reached.
However, the same idiom takes on a slightly different shade of meaning for a forest ranger (Lumber Haji):
As Lumber Haji put it, if you let a flock of ducks waddle by, why can’t a goose tag along?
Over time, the ranger has gradually become more interested in striking deals with smugglers than catching them. Thus — given the right incentive — he can turn a blind eye to a goose (i.e., a timber smuggler) as a flock of ducks (armed with logging permits) exit via his inspection station.
Minority Writers and “Ethnic” Literature
The duck and goose idiom is one of the minor but intriguing challenges the translators faced in this project. Unlike technical or legal translators, for instance, who excel by remaining highly faithful to the exact content of the source text, almost by definition the literary translator must take a somewhat different approach to capturing and rendering what the author meant — and not merely what s/he wrote. And simultaneously, doing so in a literary style that echoes the original.
In the case of Confessions of a Jade Lord, this task took on an additional level of difficulty. Alat Asem is an ethnic Uyghur and bilingual, and he wrote Confessions in Mandarin, so our brief required seamlessly transplanting his uniquely Uyghur world — intended for the Chinese reader — into English, a European tongue. This added cultural twist helped attract me, a native Chinese speaker born and raised in China, to work with Bruce Humes, an American.
Our translation, slated for publication in 3Q 2017, is part of a series entitled Kaleidoscope: Ethnic Chinese Writers. By year-end, China Translation & Publishing House aims to publish some thirteen works of translated fiction authored by writers from ethnic groups such as the Kazakh, Manchu, Mongolian and Tujia. Accounting for about 8 percent of the total Chinese population, the 55 ethnic groups possess cultures that are distinct from that of the dominant Han.
In recent years, many ethnic authors have caught international attention thanks to translators’ efforts. A good example is Red Poppies (尘埃落定, Mariner Books, 2003) by Tibetan author Alai (阿来), which became a bestseller thanks to the veteran translator duo, Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin.
Translating from the Bone
In the literary publishing world, it is common practice to commission a translator who works into his or her native language. A source language speaker often serves only as a cultural consultant and plays a small part in the translation, proofreading or editing process.
In actual practice, however, there are some advantages to have a co-translator of the source language on board from the outset.
Confident that one’s partner will eventually catch and correct errors, both translators can focus on putting their instinctive impressions of the text down on paper quickly, without worrying about the perfect grammar or wording.
This is especially important when the storyline is complicated and switches frequently between past, present and future, as the native speaker can get a quick grasp of the order of events. In Chinese, verbs are not conjugated. Recognizing when certain actions take place, and thus which tense to use, can be confusing and time-consuming for the native English speaker.
Aside from a quicker first draft, greater translation accuracy is assured because the draft is scrutinised against the original text by a pair of fresh eyes. This can help to avoid errors — including misinterpretations of the source text — before the translated text reaches the final editor, who may not be fluent in the source language.
More importantly, the co-translators complement each other due to their distinct cultural backgrounds. Cultural nuances and the subtle tone and mood of the characters and scenes might be missed by a person who did not grow up surrounded by the source language, and finding their most suitable rendition in the target language can be equally difficult for someone who doesn’t speak it as the mother tongue.
Through discussion and exploration — and occasional heated debate! — in theory the co-translators should be able to bring the translation onto a higher level than if they worked alone.
When both translators have a solid training in literature, their collaboration can truly breathe life into a novel. As my co-translator Bruce Humes points out, a moving translation starts “from the bone, not the skin”.
Co-translation is not a new idea. In the translation of Chinese literature, examples abound.
During the latter half of the 20th century, British translator Gladys Yang and her Chinese husband Yang Xianyi (杨宪益) translated some classic works of Chinese fiction. The best-known is A Dream of Red Mansions (红楼梦) written by Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹) two-and-a-half centuries ago.
American Professor Howard Goldblatt and his wife Sylvia Li-chun Lin have mainly focused on contemporary works. Their rendition of Three Sisters (玉米, also known as三姐妹, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010) by Bi Feiyu (毕飞宇) won the 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize.
In an article at the website of the University of Notre Dame where the couple teach Chinese literature, they talked about the great disparity between Chinese and English that makes creative translation a must.
In particular, they mentioned the smaller vocabulary, the declarative sentence structure, and the habit of using a character’s full name (including nicknames) throughout the novel as reasons that translators cannot stick word-by-word to the original Chinese story.
In 2009, Martin Merz and Jane Weizhen Pan also co-translated a novel set in Xinjiang. But Han Chinese author Wang Gang (王刚) only touched lightly upon Uyghur culture in English (英格力士, Penguin Books, 2010).
In an interview, Merz and Pan explained the “hopscotch” method they employed — Merz would translate one chapter while Pan busied herself with the next one. Then they’d swap drafts, each editing the other’s draft, and discuss and resolve problems as they arose. In this way, they were able to stay “on the same page” and tackle issues including consistency from an early stage.
Five years ago in 2012, I worked with my British colleague Thomas Hale on a collection of short stories by Lao She (老舍, Classics of Modern Chinese Literature: A Lao She Reader, China Intercontinental Press, 2013), an iconic author of modern Chinese literature (and also a Manchu writer).
We had the luxury to meet several times a week to discuss any questions, and many culturally specific issues neither of us had noticed surfaced in occasionally heated conversations.
Painstaking Translation Process
When Bruce and I began working on Alat Asem’s novel in June 2016, we quickly realised that to meet the deadline, we had to adapt the hopscotch method to suit our busy schedules.
So we split the novel in half, but always made sure that as soon as the other finished a chapter, we’d devote time to compare the translation against the original, and flag any issues that might affect future chapters.
At the drafting stage, we put the translation alongside the original text paragraph by paragraph, to make sure nothing was missed or misinterpreted.
It’s interesting to note that while Bruce pointed out how I strayed from the original at times, I often found his rendition sticking too close — to the point of reading like “Chinglish”.
In the second stage (once we had both edited a given draft at least once), we deleted the Chinese original and focused on tweaking the English. Without visual “interference” of the source language, we were much more likely to notice expressions that didn’t sound right — even if they felt “accurate” when first translated — or didn’t fit a character or a particular scene.
Instead of pursuing a purely “British” or “American” feel, we tried to preserve the author’s unique Uyghur-inspired voice: poetic and philosophical when a character was lost in contemplation; or humorous, down-to-earth, even crude (e.g., I’m a man who pisses standing, not squatting), and full of action when the jade bosses clashed.
We went one step further — we noticed a few inconsistencies in the narration, and the author was quite happy to give us suggestions. With the publisher’s permission, we took out repetitive parts, shifted some paragraphs around, and italicised surreal scenes and Uyghur anecdotes.
More importantly, we experimented with the tense by putting the beginning chapters in the past, and switched to the present when Eysa ASAP went back to his hometown under a mask, thus creating a dramatic turn that wasn’t obvious in the original.
All in all, we both went through the novel a dozen times, tinkering here and there to make sure a reader who has no knowledge of Xinjiang or even China would thoroughly enjoy the story.
What’s in a Name?
From the very beginning, we realised an authentic Uyghur flavor to the translation would help the novel stand out in the market.
The naan flatbread, the kilim carpet, the hoyla-jay mansion with shaded courtyard, these are Uyghur cultural icons that we insisted on romanising, rather than using standard English translations. When it was feasible, we also tried to use the Uyghur rather than the Arabic or Turkic term. For instance, after one mention of the Arab Eid al-Adha, we used the Uyghur Corban Festival thereafter.
Most characters in the novel have fascinating and insightful names, but the author didn’t explain them all; he merely “transliterated” them in Chinese characters, which meant that for the average Chinese reader, many of the names represented nothing more than a distinctly un-Chinese sound.
We asked Nurahmat Ahat, a young Uyghur M.A. student in archaeology, to help us with cultural questions, and his detailed explanations enabled us to shed light on these names in different ways.
For straightforward names, like Eysa ASAP’s opponent 哈里 (Xali) and younger brother 开沙尔 (Caesar), all we needed to “recreate” the effect in Chinese was to romanise the spelling.
Then there were names with special meanings. The name 比比努尔 (Bibinur) itself means a girl bright as sunshine in Uyghur. Such a beautiful name was too good to waste, so we named her Beaming Bibinur.
A very striking feature of the Uyghur culture is to give men nicknames. Some nicknames indicate a profession. 扎克尔地毯 (Kilim Zakir) used to deal with the hand-woven kilim rugs before turning to jade. As it’s part of the name, we didn’t italicise Kilim.
But more often, nicknames indicated a person’s character or social standing. Eysa ASAP’s close friends 艾海提老鼠 (Exet the Mouse) and 居来提公鸡 (Jüret the Cockerel) were so named because one stole wheat from mice to support his family during famine, and the other made a killing selling a rooster — several times over — to his uncle, while the two hid away in separate wardrobes, and thus could not see who was buying and who was selling.
We used their full names as they appeared in each chapter, then just Mouse and Cockerel afterwards. This worked very well, especially when the gang members joked about each other’s nicknames.
Eysa’s brother-in-law 外力乔康 (Weli Chokan) was a peculiar name. We thought it was his full name until our consultant pointed out that “chokan” is a term for a married woman. We always called him Weli Chokan, but explained that he was notorious for sponging off his missus.
There were also a few really tough ones. The book’s protagonist jade boss艾莎 (Eysa) is nicknamed 麻利 (ma li), a reference to his quick reaction time, especially when he set his eyes upon a pretty woman. The question was, how do you say so much in just a few syllables?
Several months into the project, there was an “aha” moment for me: How about ASAP, I wondered. It rhymes with Eysa perfectly. Bruce was thrilled and we christened our hero “Eysa ASAP”. We didn’t want to overuse it, so we employed it only when his friends or enemies talked about him in awe or with gut-felt hatred.
Bewildering Brotherhood Terms
The intimate relation between men in the Uyghur society is very striking. If we knew how Uyghur men address each other on the street, in bars and when daggers are drawn, maybe we could bring readers closer to the genuine Xinjiang.
But this turned out to be surprisingly difficult.
With the deadline drawing nearer, we frantically discussed this with Nurahmat, and drew up a list of words that progressed from stranger to bosom blood brother: adash - dos - aghine - qirindash - janjiger dos.
But whenever we settled on a term, our diligent consultant would suggest yet another Uyghur term! There simply wasn’t time to get fully immersed in Uyghur culture, but the effect of using “brother” or “friend” mechanically didn’t appeal.
In retrospect, that might have been the most frustrating moment for me in the project, but we had to decide and move on.
Eventually we settled on three words:
Adash: A friendly way to address a stranger or a “new” friend.
Aghine: To indicate a deeper relationship among those in one’s circle.
And finally, kidney brother. This is the equivalent of “blood brother”, but we chose this expression because the author specifically said this was someone who would give you his kidney to save your life without hesitation.
Cultural Appropriation vs. Meaningful Dialogue
Today we live in a world where endless conflicts arise out of a lack of understanding of other cultures. There are too many examples of cultural (mis)appropriation, in which a dominant culture simply yanks symbolic items of a lesser known culture, strips it of its original meaning, and displays it as a trophy.
Despite the many challenges in our translation, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience as I worked alongside some very open-minded polyglots.
The author Alat Asem is well-versed in Uyghur literature, and he opened my eyes to new ways of using Chinese. Our Uyghur culture consultant Nurahmat Ahat was especially helpful with the languages and history of Central Asia.
My co-translator Bruce grew up speaking English, learned French from his mother while still in his teens, spoke Chinese during almost two decades in China, and more recently studied Turkish, whose shared roots with Uyghur helped us resolve some issues.
Being proud of our own cultures and appreciative of that of others enabled us to hold meaningful discussions that tapped into the novel’s “bone marrow,” and helped us “transplant” its essence to the English-speaking world.
Many of us in the translation and interpretation circle are worried about being replaced by Artificial Intelligence one day. But I firmly believe in the human value in translation: We are willing to reach out and work with like-minded people of other cultures, so that the wider world can discover and appreciate lesser-known cultures in their genuine and beautiful form.