Co-translating a Chinese Novel: Meaningful Cultural Dialogue

By Jun Liu, (Auckland, NZ)
Literary translation is a unique form of translation, and practitioners need to think creatively as they struggle first to decode the source text, and then to convey it in a style that meets the very demanding standards of a reader of fiction.

In a recent co-translation project of a 21st-century Chinese-language novel featuring almost exclusively Uyghur characters, the close collaboration of two bilingual translators — native English speaker Bruce Humes, and I, a native Chinese speaker — enabled our rendition to touch upon the essence of Uyghur culture and present it in English through meaningful dialogue.

Confessions of a Jade Lord (时间悄悄的嘴脸), by prolific Uyghur author; Alat Asem (阿拉提·阿斯木), depicts the life of a big-shot jade trader based in Xinjiang of Northwest China.

To be published in 3Q 2017, this book is part of a series entitled Kaleidoscope: Ethnic Chinese Writers by China Translation & Publishing House.

In the literary publishing world, it is common practice to commission a translator who works into his or her native language. In actual practice, however, there are some advantages to have a co-translator of the source language on board from the outset.

Confident that one’s partner will eventually catch and correct errors, both translators can focus on putting their instinctive impressions of the text down on paper quickly, without worrying about the perfect grammar or wording.

This is especially important when the storyline switches frequently between past, present and future, as the native speaker can get a quick grasp of the order of events. As in Chinese, verbs are not conjugated, it can be confusing and time-consuming for the native English speaker to recognise when certain actions take place, and thus which tense to use.

Greater translation accuracy is also assured because the draft is scrutinised against the original text by a pair of fresh eyes. This can help to avoid misinterpretations of the source text before the translation reaches the final editor, who may not be fluent in the source language.

More importantly, the co-translators complement each other due to their distinct cultural backgrounds. Cultural nuances and the subtle tone and mood of the characters and scenes might be missed by a person who did not grow up surrounded by the source language, and finding their most suitable rendition in the target language can be equally difficult for someone who doesn’t speak it as the mother tongue.

Through discussion and exploration — and occasional heated debate! — the co-translators should be able to bring the translation onto a higher level than if they worked alone.

When both translators have a solid training in literature, their collaboration can truly breathe life into a novel. As my co-translator Bruce Humes points out, a moving translation starts “from the bone, not the skin”.

At the drafting stage, we put the translation alongside the original text paragraph by paragraph, to make sure nothing was missed or misinterpreted.

Once we had both edited the draft at least once, we deleted the Chinese original and focused on tweaking the English. Without visual “interference” of the source language, we were much more likely to notice expressions that didn’t sound right — even if they felt “accurate” when first translated — or didn’t fit a character or a particular scene.

From the very beginning, we realised an authentic Uyghur flavor to the translation would help the novel stand out in the market. This means using the Uyghur terms for cultural icons, character names, and the way Uyghur men address each other in daily life.

Instead of pursuing a purely “British” or “American” feel, we tried to preserve the author’s unique Uyghur-inspired voice: poetic and philosophical when a character was lost in contemplation; or humorous, down-to-earth, even crude, and full of action when the jade bosses clashed.

We also went one step further — we noticed a few inconsistencies in the narration, and the author was quite happy to give us suggestions. With the publisher’s permission, we took out repetitive parts, shifted some paragraphs around, and italicised surreal scenes and Uyghur anecdotes.

More importantly, we experimented with the tense by putting the beginning chapters in the past, and switched to the present when Eysa ASAP went back to his hometown under a mask, thus creating a dramatic turn that wasn’t obvious in the original.

All in all, we both went through the novel a dozen times, tinkering here and there to make sure a reader who has no knowledge of Xinjiang or even China would thoroughly enjoy the story.

The author Alat Asem, our Uyghur cultural consultant Nurahmat Ahat and my co-translator Bruce Humes are all open-minded polyglots who made this project a thoroughly enjoyable experience for me.

At a time when artificial intelligence might replace human translators and interpreters very soon, I firmly believe that human value shall prevail. This is because we are willing to reach out and work with like-minded people of other cultures, so that the wider world can discover and appreciate lesser-known cultures in their genuine and beautiful form.

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Published: 04/07/2017