On Titles and Poetry
A Conversation with Alluvium editor Susie Gordon
I’m very happy to have Alluvium editor Susie Gordon back for another conversation at A Polite Lie this month, where we will once again cover a wide range of topics.
It’s been a while since we were last able to post a conversation here at A Polite Lie. We’ve both had a lot going on. But I’m glad you’re here to chat with us again and share your insights as a regular editor of translations.
The major project that has been occupying the bulk of my time over the past 2+ years has been translating a book entitled 《中国稻史研究》。 When I received the file, the title had already been translated – the English title is on the cover page of the Chinese edition – and I was very pleased to see that it has been rendered in English as A History of Rice in China. It would have been easy enough to translate that as The History of Rice in China, so I was very pleased to see that it had not been expressed that way. It's a small decision, but one that makes a very different statement.
Hi! Thank you for having me back. I'm always happy to talk about translation from an editor's perspective.
It's interesting that you mention titles. A History of Rice is so much more nuanced than The History of Rice would have been. I had a slightly similar experience recently, in which a client asked for my advice about the title of a translated book I was editing. This was quite refreshing for me, as it's more often a case of me suggesting a tweak to a title, and the client rejecting it, either because it's already been confirmed by the publisher, or because they prefer their version. But in this instance I was very pleased to be able to offer the client several options that reflected the content, having become very familiar with the text throughout the editing process.
However, I've never been tasked with translating the title of a work of fiction. I imagine that would be a more difficult endeavour than for a non-fiction work or a textbook, which have formed the majority of my editing work recently. How have you approached this in your work as a literary translator? Have you suggested titles to clients/authors that have been appreciated, or rejected? Is the title an area where you exercise more or less "translator's license”?
Ah! you’ve hit on a really big issue for me. Titles can be really tough to translate. It might just be me – I find titles challenging in my own writing too – but I always find it requires a fair bit of extra thought to get the title just right.
It’s generally accepted that there is a lot of room for freedom with the title when translating a book. The shorter a phrase is, the harder it is to translate it meaningfully, and a good title is always very short. So it stands to reason that translating titles is going to naturally have plenty of pitfalls that need to be avoided. Added to that is the importance of the title. It has to hook the reader, and it needs to give an immediate feel for what to expect from the book. It can be very hard to do that with a translated phrase, so sometimes it is preferable to just go with a different title altogether, rather than trying to translate the original at all.
When I translated Sheng Keyi’s 《野蛮生长》, the title was a real struggle. The book came to us with the English title “Barbaric Growth” on it when the publisher asked me to prepare a sample (again, the Chinese version included that English name on the cover). When I worked on the sample, I spoke with my team members about the title, and one of them came up with “Savage Life” instead. I included that as the title when I sent the sample back, not commenting on it at all when I sent it. The editor immediately replied to my email, even before she had opened the file, thanking me for changing the title. We used “Savage Life” as the working title throughout the project, which spanned several years and weathered 2 changes in editor. But as we reached the end of the project, we came to a point where we knew we were going to have to tackle the issue of the title. The idea of using “Savage Life” to describe the everyday living of rural Chinese people was just not going to happen, even if it was a very accurate translation of the original title. There are just too many colonial associations that make it a title that could never work in English (associations absent in the original title), so we knew something had to be done. It turned out to be the very last thing we did with that book. Our solution was to pull the title from the English text, rather than to seek to translate the original title. I found the phrase “wild fruit” in a passage that seemed to sum up the intent of the original title, and we decided to go with that. My editor then made a very good call, quoting the sentence the title had been drawn from ("The four of us were like wild fruit falling from a tree.") on the front page. I think it made a huge difference in how the title reads overall.
A similar situation arose with Zhang Ling’s 《劳燕》, which is half of the Chinese idiom 劳燕分飞, referring to lovers separated during a time of calamity and unable to reunite. That concept is the immediate association a Chinese language reader will make when seeing the original title. Obviously the translation of the title won’t generate the same associations for an English language reader, simply because they won’t have access to the full idiom and all it implies. Similar to what happened with Wild Fruit, we discussed this title from the beginning, but left it until the very end to revisit and make a decision on. I came up with twenty or more suggestions for titles, but didn’t feel really sold on any of them. After lengthy discussion with the author and editorial team, we decided that sticking with A Single Swallow, the working title we had used throughout the process, was the best way to go. It obviously does not call up all the associations that the original title does, but that’s fine. It doesn’t have to. It just has to work for the English language reader, and we felt that A Single Swallow was evocative in English, regardless of its relationship to the Chinese idiom referenced in the original title. I think that call has proven to be the right one, as the book has sold very well.
One of the key things to keep in mind is there’s no real rule for this. As with so much of literary translation, there are strategies and guiding principles, but those are things one develops over time, and they are highly individual. So often, it’s simply a judgement call. And as is evident from the two examples I offered, sometimes you go one direction in making the decision, and the next time you might go the exact opposite direction.
I remember some of our conversations when you were translating Wild Fruit, and the issue of the title came up frequently. I was particularly struck by what you said about the dangers of perpetuating colonial stereotypes by calling the English version Savage Life. At that time, I was researching and writing the final chapter of my doctoral thesis, which deals with fiction translated from Mandarin to English. I focus more on the politics and economics of literary translation rather than the poetics thereof, but also consider the choice of titles, as this can play into the wider picture in terms of the way Chinese fiction is marketed to an Anglophone readership. My research has indicated that publishers have often played upon stereotypes of China and Chineseness as “exotic," prompted by the presumed appeal of such stereotypes to a readership conditioned by years of Orientalist representations in literature, and in Anglophone culture more widely. Therefore, it comes as a great relief to know that there are translators working today who bring integrity and cultural sensitivity to their practice.
However, let's say that the material you are working with contains themes, words, or depictions that you find questionable. Do you feel that you have a duty to flag this up with the publisher, or even the author? Or do you take a neutral stance?
That’s a really good question, and it comes up way more often than one might expect, mainly because what is offensive in one language/culture is not necessarily offensive in another. This can be very problematic when trying to shift between the two, especially when the two languages and cultures are as different as are Chinese and English. There are probably a million (using that very literally, not as an exaggeration) different examples I could cite from my work over the years. Again, it does often come down to several different factors, rather than there being a one size fits all solution. One consideration that comes up in determining whether I will discuss the issue with the publisher or author is what my own role in the project is and what that means for my relationship to the final work. For instance, when I work with clients in China, the work is usually simply work-for-hire, rather than a contract and payment structure that makes me a stakeholder in the final product. I do not hold any rights to the final English version and I am not usually paid royalties (and thus also withhold the use of my name from the final project), so my relationship to the work is that I do the job, then leave it to others to finalise the work. Once I’m done with such jobs, I’m done. In those instances, if there are depictions that seem objectionable, I will generally raise it in a comment and mention it in an email to the client, and then I just leave it to them to decide what to do with it. However, in situations in which I am a stakeholder in the final work, I will also be more involved in not only flagging the problems, but also in finding solutions to them. Rather than simply noting that a particular passage or phrase is problematic, I actively seek out ways to make the text better reflect the effect of the original, rather than simply saying the same words that the original says.
For me, that translation of the effect of a text, rather than just the words, images, or events, is much more important. It’s not just “what does this Chinese word say” that matters, but “what does this Chinese word mean in its context when encountered by someone who lives within that culture.” It’s relatively easy to find word for word equivalences for most passages – even machine translation gets it right a fair bit of the time. What is more difficult is effectively rendering the impact of those words as they strike the ear and mind of a native speaker of that language. In fact, that is really hard to do. It is much more art than science, I suppose, in that it is far from a mechanical process of merely plugging in the right words in the right order.
That strikes me as a very sensible and ethical way of approaching the translation of potentially problematic material.
As for your point about translating the effect of a text rather than just the words, this has become relevant to me recently in my attempts to translate Chinese poetry. Let me preface this by thanking you for encouraging me to do this! Translating poetry was something I avoided for many years through fear of not being able to capture the effect – the essence – of a Chinese poem in English. It seems to me that the translator of poetry bears a greater responsibility, somehow, than the translator of prose, as I feel (perhaps wrongly) that there are more options for translating a line of verse than a line of narrative or dialogue. The first poetry I translated was the work of my friend Chen Liwei, who is a minister for the arts in Tianjin. His poems are a mix of often whimsical classically-inspired concepts and abstract notions, contrasted (often starkly and poignantly) by more everyday images. Capturing all of this in English was quite a challenge.
Translating poetry is a topic we could probably discuss for many hours, so perhaps we ought to devote an entire future dialogue to it!
Yes, we definitely need to do that! Poetry is what I most enjoy translating, for all the reasons you mention. It is a bit of a daunting task, but once you get started, it’s something you want to keep doing.
I was very pleased when you started translating poetry. I knew it was something you had avoided before, so it felt like you had overcome some mental hurdles when you undertook the task. That was good to see. I think there can be many such hurdles in the work of translation. I went through a similar process, in fact, when I started translating. I always felt my Chinese would never be good enough to translate because I had never had formal language lessons for more than a few months at a time. I decided at one point to take up language classes in Shanghai specifically to try to improve my reading and writing. I didn’t study at the school for very long, but while I was there, I met a teacher who was doing her postgraduate work in Chinese literature at the time, and we really hit it off. We spent most of our time talking about literature, and she was the one who helped me gain some confidence in reading Chinese poetry. We continued reading poetry together, and she is still a huge help to me today when I encounter an especially tough passage that I need to translate. I think one of the most important lessons she taught me was that when you encounter something that is a little beyond you, that’s precisely what you need to try to read. We did not spend much time in formal lessons together, but she has taught me so much just by presenting me with material that I very much wanted to read, and which was just a little out of reach at the time she shared it with me. I appreciate that a great deal. It has been a huge factor in shaping my practice. And while I do often encounter texts that are quite daunting – the recent project, A History of Rice in China, being especially so – I’ve learned that there’s really nothing that can’t be tackled with patience and dedication. In fact, perhaps the biggest strength I have as a translator is that I’m stubborn. I can spend a very long time chipping away at a thing until I finally get a grasp of it. Of course, I like to frame it more positively in my mind and call myself "tenacious,” but I think "stubborn" is the word I hear more often from others. Whatever you call it, it’s a good thing when it comes to my work, because I do often find myself filled with the sort of self-doubt that kept you from getting started translating poetry in the first place. And I’m very glad you did get started, because your poetry translations have been beautiful.
That means a great deal to me – thank you! I'm looking forward to translating more poetry as time goes on. As for your tenacity, it's definitely one of your strengths. I recall some of our discussions over the years, about certain words or phrases you were trying to get just right. I always admired how much thought you put into the process. Something I've never asked you is whether you've ever thrown in the towel and settled for a translation you weren't happy with, only to regret it (or come to accept it) later on?
Oh, for sure! But then… not exactly.
The thing is that sometimes I have no choice but to go with a translation that I’m not entirely happy because deadlines are pressing. I very rarely miss deadlines, and only do so if there is a very good reason. Me not being entirely happy with one word or phrase is not a good reason, so there are times where the need to meet the deadline necessitates handing in work that might have a spot or two where I am sure I could produce a better option, given more time. In all honesty, if given more time on any translation I’ve ever produced, I’m sure I could find some way to improve it. There’s just no such thing as a perfect translation, so there is always room for improvement.
When I was doing my Masters degree, one of my professors gave us some very good advice. He said that there is a tendency to want to hold back until you are very certain about your argument before you submit it, but that is the wrong way to approach academic work. Instead, you have to recognise that every paper you write is a record of where you are in your thinking at a given time. If you change your view or part of your view, then you write a paper to record that. You aren’t bound to live by every imperfect opinion you’ve ever held, even if you have published it at some point.
Though he was not talking about translation at all, that principle has helped me a great deal in my translation work. Each publication comes with a deadline, among various other constraints, and the work we do has to fit within that. This is why I believe there is no such thing as a “definitive translation.” There are records of how one translator or team of translators expressed her/his/their understanding of the text at a given point in history. That’s really all we can ever produce. If we remember that, it makes the overall work less daunting.
There have been regrets, of course. I have found errors in my previous work, and I make it a point when I see one to notify the publisher and author immediately. In doing so, corrections can be made to future editions, and sometimes even immediately to electronic editions. There have been other instances in which there were errors I didn’t catch myself, but someone else did. Some of those have led to unpleasant interactions, and I have had to learn over the years how to deal with such situations. That’s definitely a topic that needs a whole separate conversation!
But at the end of the day, I have been able to come to accept even the errors in my work. I am human, and I make mistakes. Sometimes the mistakes I make are recorded in a way that is right there, publicly available, for everyone to see. I’ve had to come to terms with that overriding principle, and once I did, it’s made it easier to accept the imperfections in my work.
And if that’s true for errors, it’s even more true for translation problems for which I haven’t yet found an ideal solution. But it doesn’t mean I don’t think about them. Obsessing over how to express something just a little better – that’s kind of my thing. Not just in translation, but in my poetry too. Really, in all my work.
Have you encountered such instances in your work translating poetry? How do you deal with it?
What your professor said rings very true for me. In the final stages of writing my doctoral thesis, I have been gripped by something close to fear. What if my argument is wrong? What if I've approached it incorrectly? But the idea of recognising that every paper you write is a record of where you are at a given time – that's very comforting.
As for ruminating over a certain word or phrase in translation, I had a long battle with myself when translating one of Chen Liwei's poems. It was the title that was giving me issues. The Chinese was 钢轨的声音, literally "the sound of steel rails". The poem itself was a very lyrical comparison of a person to a railway, and I felt that a literal translation of the title into English would not have the effect I was hoping for. I came up with "Railsong" instead, which felt a little risky. I thought about it for several days. Eventually, I left it in the hands of my colleague who was doing my accuracy check. She didn't flag it up as problematic, and understood why I'd made the decision. But I did lose some sleep over it, especially since it was my first translation of poetry for publication!
An amusing episode has just sprung to mind regarding poetry translation. I was involved in a project a couple of years ago in the Czech Republic, putting on an interfaith event in a town outside of Prague. A Czech poem was going to be read at the event, and I was curious to know the general gist of it. I put it through a machine translator, and the result was a lovely imagistic piece about sunsets and night skies. However, there was a strange line in the middle of it that read "Chickens! Chickens!" - a translation of the word "kuřátka." When I arrived in the Czech Republic and met the rest of the team, I asked them about this word. Why did chickens appear seemingly randomly in this beautiful verse? They laughed (one might say uproariously) and told me that Kuřátka is another name for the constellation Pleiades in Czech!
Ha! Thank you for that image, Susie. I am going to smile every time I think of that.
It’s been great to catch up again, and I think we’ve raised several issues in the course of this conversation that will end up taking off to become entire conversations of their own somewhere down the road.
It’s a pleasure to have your thoughts included at A Polite Lie. Thank you!
Thank you so much for having me. As always, it's been a very interesting discussion. Looking forward to future dialogues!
More conversations with Susie:
Fields of Reference