Wednesday, December 17, 2008

On "Translationese"

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:

Written in English, the stories often narrate with an awareness of the distance between the circumstances told and the circumstances of their being read. While the narrative voice tends toward a native fluency, quotations of speech or writing often come across in a kind of translationese. At its most productive, the styles of English and Chinese are blended, as when a character in "Second Encounter" is described as having "to spend too many lips and tongues in explanation." Too often, however, the stylistic switch locks the Chinese language into an essentialized otherness, and Chinese speakers come across as linguistically clumsy.

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:

One quirk of Xujun's writing is the dialogue. It's not typical dialogue by American standards, but it is a close translation of Chinese speech, which helps to portray more of the culture to readers.

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":

Then he told her, “They’ll be here. Don’t worry. Who’d have eaten a leopard’s gallbladder to disobey Chairman Mao’s instructions, huh?” He laughed.

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?


Robert Burnham said...

I'd make it "Who'd dare to disobey..." because the Chinese expression literally translated is so far from any English equivalent as to jolt the reader. This is something authors should do only rarely and with carefully considered intent.

But perhaps there's an English colloquial saying that would fit the _emotional_ sense of the Chinese phrase? I'm not sure here.

My hunch is it's probably better to opt for the "who'd dare" locution, even if it's a bit ordinary. Better to lose a bit of Chineseness color than to jolt the reader irrelevantly.

Xujun said...

Hi Robert. Thanks for the sensible comment. You are not alone in the opinion "Better to lose a bit of Chineseness color than to jolt the reader." In fact you are probably with the majority of readers. :-) Yet I'm still debating myself whether there is merit in keeping a bit more Chineseness even it jolts the reader sometimes,as everything comes with a price.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your very thoughtful response to my review from Rain Taxi. I'm glad to see someone taking my writing so seriously!

I also think you make a good observation in your previous post, when you say, about your use of noticeably Chinese expression: "While many native English speakers seem to enjoy this aspect of my writing, it is curious that the mixed feelings come mostly from those who know the Chinese language." While non-speakers of Chinese might appreciate the freshness, perhaps those of us who speak Chinese are more sensitive to how that language has been parodied in the English-speaking world, and hate to see it reduced.

Still, I wouldn't want to diminish what is unique about Chinese in favor of an Americanization of expression, either. I think it's best dealt with on a case-by-case basis, just as you've done. And while some instances may not work, many of them do.

How else are we--no matter where we're from--going to reconcile the opposite extremes that threaten to impede cross-cultural interaction: Are we all irreducibly the same, or are we all irreducibly different? The writing I like is writing that allows us to find real similarities and differences amongst ourselves between those two poles.

Thanks again for your response to my review.

Xujun said...

Hi Lucas,

You've written a serious review - it deserves to be taken seriously. Thank you very much! And the question you asked in the above comment is again a serious one and deserves more thought.

Donna said...

My perspective might not be typical because I've taught English in Japan and spoke Japan-glish as well as an attempt at Japanese (I shudder to think what language that really was) while I lived there. I only know a bit of Chinese, but I am also aware of how Asian languages (and people) are parodied in our culture.

That said, I had absolutely no trouble with "awkwardness" in your prose. To me the Chinese sayings and figures of speech added flavor, a sense of being closer to the way the Chinese construct the world through chosen images. Any reader of Apologies Forthcoming will be quickly aware they've signed on to a trip to China--the seasoned traveler realizes she has much to gain from being open to the differences in culture. No, we don't talk about a leopard's gallbladder in English, but that jolt of novelty is thought-provoking and pleasant. In genre fiction, we want to be soothed, in literature, we can expect some challenges.

But sure, as Lucas mentioned, there probably are a few places where things could be smoothed out. The example you gave is one. Without worrying it to death, I think your rewrite is smoother and easier for a Western audience to understand without pause. In general, though, I think the prose works beautifully.

Anonymous said...

While my mind read the more Chinese version (1st) in English, it also simultaneously took it in in the original Chinese way. The 2nd is a bit smoother but lack of a certain flavor.

I asked an American friend who knows a little bit Chinese, he said the 1st version made more sense, "because it's clear without having to think about it. with the second one, you have to understand something to see how the exception might apply.", then he added " ...i didn't understand the semantics just the syntax."

Linda Austin said...

I agree with Donna. I LOVED the Chinese flavor of the speech. These are Chinese stories and I want to feel the essence of the culture. The gallbladder bit was the only phrase I totally did not understand but was very intrigued by...perhaps following it with a translation? "Cherry Blossoms in Twilight," my Japanese mother's life story during WWII, also has "awkward" sentences because that is how my mother speaks, and readers have enjoyed the "Japanese-ness."

My own comments about awkwardness in "Apologies" stem from basics - missing quote marks around speech, esp during conversations - as well as some confusion because of wording that has nothing to do with "Chinese-ness." Strangely, I noted this just in the first few stories.

Overall "Apologies" is an outstanding collection of very intelligently (and cleverly) written shorts that drive home the tragedy of life around the Revolution in a very thought-provoking manner.

Xujun said...

Hi Donna, Bien, and Linda, your comments are all very helpful. I truly appreciate your input.

fiefoe said...

Very late to the party... But it occurred to me that the line 'Unless he has eaten a leopard’s gallbladder.' can be changed to 'Unless he has the gall of a leopard.' This hides half of the original Chinese phrase, but still preserves a bit of its flavor.

Xujun said...

fiefoe, that's a good one.