What We Are Choosing to be Faithful to
Conversation with Alluvium Editor Susie Gordon
Hi, Susie. I’m glad you’ve decided to join us here at A Polite Lie again, after your first conversation with me last month.
I was recently reading an article that highlights the work of translator Daniel Hahn. I really appreciate two quotes from him and how they are juxtaposed in the article. He says:
“I don’t think there’s any question that we want to be faithful. The question is what we are choosing to be faithful to. Sometimes you’re being faithful to the spirit of the book in ways that are quite profound and subtle and have very little to do with meaning.”
“I have no self-expression that needs to be fulfilled through this process. That’s not how translation works. I have a desire for someone else to be able to express themselves via me.”
I like how these two ideas are put side by side, as they nicely capture something like the general framework for literary translation, how the translator is both confined by the original text and also allowed – or more accurately, obligated – to be creative in rendering the text into the new language. And, as Hahn points out, it’s not about self-expression, but about expressing one’s encounter with and experience of a text, but doing so in a different language (and thus culture) from the one in which the text was experienced.
Hello! Thanks for having me back. Looking forward to talking more about translation.
That article really gets to the crux of several of the issues we talked about in our last conversation, particularly regarding accuracy. I also found Daniel Hahn’s point about invisibility to be very interesting. A couple of years ago I heard about the #NameTheTranslator hashtag that was started up by a group of translators who felt that their contributions were being overlooked. I actually had reason to use the hashtag myself, as the English translation of Foucault’s The Order of Things fails to name the person who translated it. In my opinion, anyone who can translate Foucault in all his complexity deserves a medal at the very least, not to mention a name-check. Do you think the work of the translator is being recognized more fully these days, possibly due to movements like #NameTheTranslator?
I started my career at a time when the push for more recognition for the translator was really coming into its stride. I am very grateful for those who blazed that trail, as it is much easier for us now. For instance, if I mention to a publisher now that we need to make sure I’m acknowledged as the translator, there’s rarely any resistance. I have sometimes had the opposite problem, of people asking to use my name on projects that didn’t warrant it, such as me polishing someone else’s translation, but that has only happened in China, and I think it is a result of wanting to use the name of a “reputable translator” to apply for grant money and things like that. In Singapore, there has been a rise in the recognition translators are given, though not quite to the same extent as I’ve experienced in China.
But no matter what the circumstances regarding name recognition, I think the literary translator has to recognise that our work is seldom given monetary compensation that correlates properly to work put in. Literary translation is rarely paid what it is worth, in terms of hours spent. It is almost inevitable that we will have some other form of work by which we supplement our income, whether it be commercial translation, editing, teaching, copywriting, or things less directly related to what we do as literary translators.
That said, I still think editors remain the biggest unsung heroes in translation work – or any publishing, really. I’ve worked with some outstanding editors, and I have to say, they elevate the work to an extent that is hard to imagine for someone who has never been a part of the process.
There really is so much that goes into the translation process. Going right back to the start of this process, something that Daniel Hahn said in the article gave me pause. He said that a translator is often assumed to have absolute fluency with the original language, but this isn’t necessarily the case. To be a good translator, the ability to write well in the target language is more important. Do you agree that literary talent in the target language is more important than fluency in the language of origin?
I think the statement is true, but needs to be understood in the context provided by Hahn when he says, “I think a lot of people assume that language familiarity is on a spectrum from knowing nothing to being fluent, and actually it’s a lot more complex and interesting than that. You can, as in my case, be a very good and comfortable consumer of a language and a very poor producer of that language.” Additionally, there are various types of fluency, some of which are primarily linguistic and others that are more cultural. I would say that I have a higher degree of “cultural fluency” than I do linguistic fluency in Chinese. I would even say that I often move around in a Chinese world/mindset while using the English language. I think many younger Singaporean Chinese people find themselves in a similar situation, in that they are culturally Chinese, but prefer to speak/interact in English most of the time. To me, this can be a huge advantage for a translator, if used properly, but it will only work if she also puts great effort into gaining greater linguistic fluency, and does so on a constant basis, rather than just trying to coast by without improving any weaknesses in her translation arsenal. A translator should always be studying both languages she works in, seeking to increase fluency and skill in the use of both languages, while also recognising that fluency means many different things, and is not just a yes/no answer, as Hahn has rightly suggested.
Your experiences with French, Chinese, and Hebrew have taken three very different approaches to language learning. If I’m not mistaken, you probably work most with translated material from Chinese, but it is the only one of the three languages you haven’t studied formally. How has that situation come about, and how does it work for you, in practical terms?
Your point about various types of fluency rings very true regarding my own experience. The first language I learned was French, starting from the age of ten in a school environment. I’ve spoken and read it for nearly three quarters of my life, so it’s definitely the language I’m most linguistically familiar with, after English. However, I have never lived or worked in a Francophone country. This means that my knowledge of French doesn’t have quite the same cultural nuance as my knowledge of Chinese. I lived in Shanghai between 2008 and 2016, and although I only formally studied Mandarin on and off over that time, living and working in a Chinese setting gave me a knowledge of the language that went deeper than words.
Interestingly, my current work projects illustrate this quite well. I’m translating a book from French to English, which I’m able to do due to my long-standing familiarity with the French language. Alongside this, I’m editing work in English that has been translated from Mandarin, which is possible thanks to my cultural familiarity. I can often glean what the translator is trying to get across, either because I have experienced the same situation, or can extrapolate how it may have transpired. I think this makes up for my lack of formal learning. There’s a lot to be said for learning a language outside of the traditional classroom setting. While being able to recite verb conjugations and declensions is interesting (at least, for a language geek like me!), I’ve learned more about Mandarin over a dinner table with Chinese friends than I have through poring over books.
That being said, my knowledge of Hebrew has been gained solely from books. My studies have been purely textual and not spoken, because it’s the biblical form of the language that I’m learning. It very much takes me back to my university days. I did an English Literature degree, but managed to choose modules that made it as linguistic as possible. Anglo-Saxon philology, Old Norse, Middle High German – the sort of languages that can only be studied with books, usually dusty old primers filled with tables and charts. My knowledge of these languages, and of biblical Hebrew, is solid but not usable in day-to-day life.
Your experiences with languages are the sort that illustrate perfectly why literary translation is something very different from merely rendering words from one language to another. I’m glad you’ve shared those experiences and the insights you’ve gained from them with us. I think it provides a useful framework for thinking about translation.
I’m already looking forward to continuing the conversation next month!
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.