Thursday, February 5, 2009

Comments from Behind the Great Firewall

[I'm still in China. Today I received the following note through the Contact page. Because the Great Firewall prohibited me from viewing or commenting but not posting on my own blog, I'm making a special post for those comments. Discussions are welcome. -- Xujun]

Comments from hsknotes:

I'm in the mainland so I can only access your site through secure-tunnel. (If you know of a better alternative that would allow me to post comments directly in response to post, that would be much appreciated.)

Anyway, here are a few comments I wanted to leave, but couldn't. By the way, I'm an American who is currently living in Beijing working as a translator.

Comment 1:

Does anyone in the English speaking world even know where or what Canton is? What are we from the 70s? Peking, Canton, Chungking fell off the map for English speakers at least 20 years ago at the latest.

As for Charter 08, I don't even know why the government tries to block such things or even takes actions against a few of the signers, the impact and push for that kind of thing is non-existent in China. The rioting in the countryside where the real disquiet and unrest is is so out of sync and out of touch with the rhetoric coming out of the foreign (overseas) intellectual community that it's bizarre. Its more disturbing that the overseas intellectual community still even bothers or thinks that their declarations make any difference.

Comment 2:

Ok. About "awkwardness". I myself work as a translator and also had the experience of reading Chinese literature in translation (and loving a lot of it) before I ever knew any Chinese. Years later when I got around to say, looking at what Howard Goldblatt does to modern Chinese literature in translation, I was frightened. 师傅你越来越幽默 becomes Shifu, You'll do anything for a laugh. What the fuck is that? Was he planning on putting a footnote on the cover?

Ok, back to the point at hand. When you pick a book translated from any language into English there's a certain amount of "local flavor" you can stand without it being 拗眼? Sometimes, when you're translating you feel like you can go pages and translate things freely, because every other word isn't piled with chengyu or beijing slang (Wang Shuo's writing for example). When I translate his work, there is no choice like you have, to think about a phrase. From the first word to the last line of much of his work there's nothing there that cleanly "translates" to english. When people like Goldblatt take Mo Yan or even Wang Shuo and make it clean and "Nobel-worthy" they're essentially rewriting it in nice smooth English of their own creation. That is bad, very, very bad.

Ok, once again back to your issues. You obviously have to choose the "english" phrase as opposed to the "literal" chinese one. The problem here is that you're thinking the "literal" chinese phrase carries some sort of meaning when the truth is that even in chinese, these "stock phrases" are incredibly unimportant. No serious chinese-to-english translator in a million years should ever consider translating "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" into Chinese literally, but Chinese people live under this delusion that chengyu and "phrases" somehow operate differently in their language. They don't, they operate how all these "historical sayings" worked in European languages till about 50 to 100 years ago. Allowing the "chengyu" and other related sayings to be translated "literally" for "effect" or "flavor" when there is no incredible and abiding reason (for example, someone says the "sticks and stones" line and then has rocks thrown at them, but even then a footnote explaining the phrase is well-deserved) is mistake, a giant mistake that ghettoizes, ethnicizes, and just is one whole pile of otherness and things good translations shouldn't get into. Awkwardness, strangeness in "language" is the enemy of any good translator or writer. Your well intentioned search for flavor and "effect" should come across from characters, style, story, etc. Given all that, tons of the translators still feel it's ok to throw in a few "non-translations"/"literals" for effect. To anyone who knows the original language it's almost always an eyesore/embarassment, but to people who don't, its always up for grabs. The point is your readers don't know anything, I could translate 200 pages of "literal" translations of Wang Shuo's hoodlum dialect mixed with slang and refined Chinese and I can guarantee you not a single person would like it. On the other hand, I could pull a Goldblatt and make shit up and that's also horrible. The point is, be very, very careful and never try to "ethnic up" something. Look at Naipaul's comments about the young Indian writers writing in English and doing the whole exoticism shtick. He rightly calls a spade a spade and sees it as horribly crass boutique multicularism gone marketing. Don't do the same with translation, and the literal chengyu translations go scarily close to that. It's why people who know chinese feel so incredibly uncomfortable when they see things like that.

Here's a link to some of what I'm talking about with Naipaul.

(from hsknotes)

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