Last week we were thrilled to welcome Nicky Harman and Helen Wang to Guanghwa Bookshop for Making China Heard, a panel discussion on the translation of contemporary Chinese fiction. If you weren’t able to attend in person, don’t worry – we’ve summarised the best insights from the night right here.
Tackling translation challenges
How are the various challenges relating to translation overcome? Helen said that if there’s something in the text you don’t understand, you could seek the help of friends, or look terms up in online dictionaries and other resources. For example, in Bronze and Sunflower, she encountered a lot of plant and animal names, and Google Images proved a good resource for finding ways to describe them. Contacting the author for clarification is also an option, as Nicky suggested. When she was translating Happy, for example, author Jia Pingwah even sent her some very helpful hand drawings to illustrate specific ideas.
But the challenges extend beyond specific words and phrases. Nicky shared her experiences translating Hong Kong surrealist author Dorothy Tse. As you would imagine, the text was a challenge to understand, but the language itself was not. How do you recreate the same sense of mystery and surrealism in English? Similarly challenging is the translation of dialect. Again, in Happy, she encountered a character, a migrant worker in Xi’an, who spoke in dialect in the text. If you’re translating into English, how do you indicate that to the reader? Would you give him a Geordie accent, for example?
Advice to students of translation
Nicky said that you have to love the target language as well as the source language. Your writing in the target language has to be excellent or as good as you can make it. You won’t secure a publishing contract straight away, so start small, with short stories perhaps. “You need to be very good, and then the rest will be okay”, said Nicky.
Helen’s advice was for budding translators to just start translating. And, always have permission from the author if the translation will be published. Neither Nicky nor Helen studied translation formally, however Helen said that formal qualifications in translation are beneficial, especially as they equip you with the vocabulary to describe what you’re doing and back up your decisions.
Working as a professional translator
There was much to learn from their experiences working as professional translators. Helen’s career in translation was launched when she submitted a sample translation to a competition, and to her surprise, won it. A publisher then got in touch with her for a larger project in which they’d use her translation as a basis for further translations in advance of the London Book Fair one year. She was eventually approached by a publisher to translate Cao Wenxuan’s Bronze and Sunflower, and went on to win the 2017 Marsh Children’s Literature in Translation Award.
Helen explained to guests how the style of the Bronze and Sunflower translation evolved to what it is. She and the publisher agreed that she would start by translating the first chapter very closely to the Chinese. The second chapter was then translated more freely, to a degree that they could settle on for the rest of the project.
For Nicky, sometimes publishers approach her, or she might perhaps be introduced to an author first, then find a publisher herself. This was the case for Xiaobin Xu’s Crystal Wedding, for example.
Both Nicky and Helen read extensively to stay up to date with an ever-evolving language. Nicky said she loves to be “a language magpie – listening, reading, and absorbing.” Helen described the way she experiments with texts in her own time – perhaps changing the tense of a paragraph from past to present, which works to speed up what might be a slow passage. “It’s a process that really frees up the writing,” said Helen.
As for how long it takes to translate a full manuscript, Nicky said it might take around four months if she worked on it for a full eight hours a day. But there are other factors that influence how long it takes. Helen and Nicky agreed that it helps to work on a text then leave it for a while to settle in your mind. You’ll then be able to revisit it with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective. “This is especially useful for dialogue, which can be incredibly difficult to make sound natural,” said Nicky.
A big ‘thank you’ to both Helen and Nicky for sharing their experience and wealth of knowledge with us last week.
Helen and Nicky are regular contributors to Paper Republic – a fantastic organisation that facilitates both literary and publishing connections between China and the rest of the world.
Helen Wang’s Chinese Books for Young Readers project aims to bring together information about Chinese books for children, from various places and in various languages, into one place to make it easier to find what you’re looking for, and discover something new.