Lucas Klein correctly asserts in his Rain Taxi review of Apologies Forthcoming that the value of my writing "is to convey to an American audience the emotional complexities of individuals amidst the historical change of recent Chinese history." I find consolation that a discerning reader and reviewer has recognized my intention in realistically portraying individuality of Chinese people even in a time of collectivism.
In terms of writing style, on the other hand, Klein raises an interesting – and recurrent – issue. He writes:
Not coincidentally, the same issue of "translationese," or "Chineseness" in English writing, has concerned other readers and reviewers as well, for example in Cliff Garstang's review, see discussion in an earlier post titled "On Chineseness". In that post the same example is mentioned ("to spend too many lips and tongues in explanation") – what a coincidence! – though with an opposite view.
I appreciate very much Klein's recognition that such stylistic switch is by design. He has noticed, again correctly, my purposeful use of the "translationese" style in dialogue, as opposed to the more standard English expressions in the narrative voice. And he isn't the only one. Matthew of Waiguoren Critic of South China, for example, writes in his review:
Obviously, my dialogue-writing approach has met with different reactions. My rationale is exactly what Matthew points out, that the "Chineseness" in dialogue can help portraying realistic characters in the context of their culture. As Chinese, in our real-life daily dialogues, folk adages (俗语), two-part allegorical sayings (歇后语)，and even 4-character idioms (成语) are a common occurrence. To me, nothing reflects the thousands of years of Chinese culture more than the language. So why not use it with as many of the native idiosyncrasies in place as possible when writing in English? There is also, of course, the intentional effect of "otherness" – in Klein's word – to be considered.
Interestingly, there is often an English saying corresponding to a Chinese adage with nearly identical meaning and connotation. For example, in English "shoot yourself in the foot" and in Chinese "drop a rock on your own foot" (搬起石头砸自己的脚) . Apparently, when the English invented guns Chinese were still using rocks as weapon :-). If I invoke such a saying in a Chinese story dialogue, which form should I use? Naturally and without hesitation, my choice would be the latter. The reason, again, is the cultural context.
Do I sound convincing? Still, things are not that simple. I have heard several readers and reviewers expressing their feeling of occasional "awkwardness" while reading my book, for example see the latest Amazon review by Linda Austin. And they do have a valid point.
The problem as I see it is not the "translationese" but how to blend English and Chinese expressions in a seamless way, and that is the hard part, as the two languages are, well, not designed for blending. But this is not to say improvement is impossible. One way to do it might be to break long lines into short parts, to make the "translationese" appear more like accent and with less frequency.
Right now I'm proof-reading Apologies Forthcoming for its Asian edition (again in English), which is scheduled for publication by Blacksmith Books around the coming holiday season. I see this as an opportunity for improvement. If anyone who has read my book found a particularly awkward expression, I'd appreciate it very much if you could tell me.
Okay, I've just found one myself, in "Disciple of the Masses":
Perhaps I should change " Who’d have eaten a leopard’s gallbladder to disobey Chairman Mao’s instructions, huh?" to " Who’d dare to disobey Chairman Mao’s instructions, huh? Unless he has eaten a leopard’s gallbladder." What do you think?