Fields of Reference
a conversation with Alluvium editor Susie Gordon
Hi, Susie. In our conversation last month, you ended with the suggestion that we talk more about translating Shakespeare this month. In anticipation of continuing our conversation, I posted a little background information about the event we mentioned in our last conversation, the Singapore edition of A Great Feast of Languages in September 2016. That gives a little more insight into the problems that can be involved in translating even (or especially?) the simplest utterances in one language into another, particularly in a text as culture-loaded as Shakespeare is for English-speakers.
You mentioned that you’ve always been fascinated with Shakespeare in translation. What has your experience in the field been like?
Hi! Thanks for having me back again, particularly to talk about a topic I find so interesting. As it happens, my only experience of translating Shakespeare comes through conversations I’ve had with you about it. Our discussion about the rendering of “to be” into Chinese really captured my imagination and got me thinking about the challenges of the task. It strikes me that for the translator, there is surely the double bind of the Bard’s Early Modern English and the iconic nature of the work. An expression like “to be or not to be” has such legendary status in English language and culture that it is almost a cliché.
I have some experience with translating much earlier English texts. During my undergraduate studies I was tasked with rendering Old English works into Modern English as an academic exercise. The challenge there lay not only in the language of the texts but also in the field of reference. The Anglo-Saxon world was one of complex feudal and military relationships, as well as religious upheaval as Christianity spread across a formerly pagan land. These elements vastly influenced vocabulary and metaphor/simile, while the original oral mode of transmission affected the meter and structure. Unravelling all of these considerations made for an exceptionally challenging task, one that Seamus Heaney accomplished with great and enviable aplomb in his translation of Beowulf. Have you read this text? I know you’re a Heaney fan!
I did read Heaney’s Beowulf when it first came out, which was some years back now. It’s one worth revisiting, for sure.
I think the point you raise in regards to the challenge of translating from Old English into Modern English is worth reiterating. It isn’t just about language, but about the “field of reference.” That’s a very good way of looking at it. It calls to mind for me how the Malay group translating Shakespeare in 2016 discussed both the challenges and the serendipitous moments in the process, especially in the Romeo and Juliet excerpt. The phrase “This holy shrine” that appears early in the excerpt they were translating presented a potential problem, but the group found a nice local connection with the Datuk Keramat scattered around the region. The references to pilgrims and pilgrimage that follows in the text provided a close connection with the religious practices of the Malay community, but those references are simultaneously problematised with the lovers’ talk of touching hands and kissing, which clearly created a level of discomfort within the culture of the target language that was not merely immodest, but came awfully close to the sacrilegious. I was really drawn in by the whole discussion (and I’ve not done it justice at all here). The obstacles the group faced were very real, but they also found incredibly creative ways around them. What is interesting is that none of the obstacles were really linguistic in nature, but all cultural, and especially religious.
That calls to mind a criticism I’ve heard from friends from the Mainland when they read many translations of religious material. One of my friends told me it is almost impossible for her to read religious material without seeing it as more political than anything else – and certainly not spiritual. While most of us would acknowledge that there is a political aspect to many, or even most, religious writings in English, I’m sure that most religious people would see the primary purpose and function of those writings as spiritual instead of political. That is a point definitely worth considering when translating those works.
I think the notion of translation as a political act transfers to a more subtle propagation of ideas and envisionings. I’m currently working on a doctoral thesis about the representation of China and Chinese people in contemporary English fiction. One of my chapters is about work that has been translated from Chinese to English. My main hypothesis questions whether publishers in the West select certain novels and texts for translation purely because they confirm stereotypes about China. It strikes me that Anglophone readerships have often gravitated towards work dealing with what I term ‘oppression and repression’ themes, as this shores up their preconceptions. Is this something you have experienced in your work as a translator, or do you think a wider range of literature is being translated from Chinese into English?
I think that has historically been a very accurate picture of the situation. There are certain topics that are sought out for publication by foreign/Western/English language publishers, regardless of whether they are truly reflective of what Chinese authors prefer to write. This is largely market driven, I think, and it’s worth asking what forces are behind that drive.
Chinese author Lu Min mentioned one such phenomenon in a speech some time back – I’ve forgotten exactly when the speech was given, but I was asked to translate a transcript of it in July 2016 (it was later published in Chinese Arts and Letters). She talks at length about how writing about urban environments is what foreign publishers want, saying, “[T]hey ask, ‘How can your generation write “old-fashioned, Chinese style fiction”? Don’t you all live in big cities? Isn’t this what you are familiar with?’” The rest of the speech consists of an exploration of the sort of pressure this puts on her and her contemporaries, many of whom do indeed live in the city now, but grew up in rural areas. It comes to an eloquent culmination when she says, “But in fact, when it comes to urban writing, I have my doubts […] when our generation enters the world of urban literature, it seems we will unconsciously bring the strong rural traditions that nurtured us, like a roof over our heads. We always have a sort of pastoral grace, comparing the past with the present, a moral inertia that, with superior ethics, like a psychologist, sociologist, or critic of human nature, seeks the warped, the repressed, and the incomplete. We will always be sentimentally attached to our homeland, have a sense of parity deep in our bones, see through failures and ignorance, and see slowness and backwardness as a sort of tone for old pictures, a sort of sadness, a dilapidated but ‘classical’ beauty. And when we turn our sights to the city, a black veil always falls over us, even if we acknowledge the city’s strengths, its progress and advancements, and even if we have embraced and possessed each other, innately we still have this sort of judgement towards a ‘secondary nature,’ nervous and overly violent. The city is evil; the countryside is beautiful. What we see are violations and the harm of beauty by evil, the dismembering of the body and covering up of the old by the new, like steel and concrete slicing humiliatingly and destructively through the soil and plants.” All of this drives home the objections to the pressures she and other contemporary Chinese writers feel because of the expectations of foreign publishers when she says, “Whether the story is set in urban or rural, ancient or modern times and whether it is fiction or non-fiction are not measures of their literary merit. If we rely on these questions to determine whether we should translate or import a given work, we lose the simplicity of it, and even go against the whole purpose of literature.”
Something I think can be overlooked is that the desire to be published in translation, especially in English, is very high among Chinese writers. I don’t know of any English-language writers who consciously think of being published in translation for the Chinese market and thus tailor their work to that goal, but I have heard many Chinese writers speak explicitly about writing with the aim of getting their work translated into English. That in itself is a powerful indicator of the balance of power – and the political situation that grows from it – within the industry. It is hard to imagine the immensity of the pressure this places on those writers. It must be terribly frustrating to feel pressure not only from one’s own culture, but also from the expectations set by those who are essentially outsiders to this situation one is living in and presumably writing to.
I’d love to hear more about your findings in relation to your hypothesis. Is it too early for you to share that at this stage in your research?
I haven’t actually started the research for that element of my thesis yet, but when I do, I would be more than happy to share it, perhaps in a future conversation for Polite Lie! The quotes from Lu Min’s speech that you translated are interesting and very poignant – the dilemma of being stuck between representing one’s own culture and the demands of publishers from another culture, especially when so much hinges on being read in a language that – for better or worse – has a certain degree of “prestige.”
Speaking of the so-called “prestige” of English as a target language for translation, I’ve been cheered by some recent submissions to Alluvium, the journal of Literary Shanghai, which I edit. It is part of Alluvium’s ethos to publish work in translation, and most of our submissions so far have had English as the target language. However, within the past couple of weeks I’ve had one submission that is a translation from Croatian to Mandarin, and another from Mandarin to Romanian. The latter was inspired by the recent Sino-Romanian poetry translation project that was launched at the Beijing book fair. All of this gives me hope that English will one day lose its stranglehold!
I’m so glad to hear about those recent submissions to Alluvium, Susie. I think you know of my own interest in finding more works about from non-Chinese-languages to translate into English – things like Andre Malraux’s Man’s Fate. One reason I take such an interest in these works is that I’d like to see the complete dismantling of the typical Chinese-English binary that exists in much English-language talk about China. There is obviously much written about China in Japanese, Russian, Korean, German… so many other languages. Most of what is translated from those languages into English is academic work, but I’d like to see more fiction and other creative works translated as well, simply to challenge the construct of an English-Chinese binary that seems to exist in so much of the talk I hear about China in English-language circles.
Even before our conversation took this turn, I was planning to include a couple of posts about the politics of translation and/or translating politics at A Polite Lie, once I finish the current theme on translators and readers. Thank you for pushing this discussion in that direction here. I hope we can revisit it again together – especially when you’re ready to share some of your findings with readers here.
I’m looking forward to that!
Born in the northwest of England in 1981, Susie Gordon is a Liverpool-based editor and writer of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.
Living in China between 2008 and 2016, she wrote and edited for many of Shanghai’s English language magazines, as well as for international publications such as Virgin Media, Condé Nast, Executive Travel, and the BBC. As a literary editor she has worked on the English translation of S. P. Tao’s memoir, as well as Fan Wen’s ‘Land of Mercy’ for Rinchen Books.
In 2016 she co-founded Literary Shanghai – a publishing and events company specialising in Chinese literature in translation as well as original work in English. She is currently the commissioning editor of Literary Shanghai’s international journal Alluvium.
Her short fiction has appeared in the Singaporean journals Eunoia Review and Junoesq, and in HAL Publishing’s two anthologies Party Like It’s 1984 (2010) and Middle Kingdom Underground (2011). Her non-fiction essay Empty From the Outside was published in Unsavory Elements (Earnshaw Books, 2013), sparking considerable press interest in China and beyond. In 2016 her short story Claire was selected for publication in Epigram Books’ Best Singaporean Short Stories: Volume 3.
Her first poetry collection, Peckham Blue, was published in London by Penned in the Margins in 2006, and her second collection, Harbouring, came out in 2015 under Math Paper Press in Singapore. Her poetry has appeared in the May Anthologies 10th Anniversary edition (2003), Unshod Quills (2011), and United Verses (2014), and her 2005 poem On Raymond’s Bike has been translated into Hungarian by the poet Kőrizs Imre.
Susie holds a BA in English (2003) from St. Anne’s College, University of Oxford, and an MRes in Chinese Studies from the University of Liverpool (2016 – 2017), where she is currently a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature, researching the persistent appeal of the “China exotic” in contemporary English fiction.