Putting World Fiction On The Map 

     Talking Literary Translation 

           Stumped  by Translating  Surreal Stories?

 Award winning translator Nicky Harman gives us a  masterclass on how to translate surreal stories in her piece for Globooks.

One way of thinking about literary translation that I find particularly useful comes from Christiane Nord. She puts it very neatly: “… the translator has a responsibility both to the target audience [ie the readers], whose subjective theories have to be taken into account, and the source-text sender [ie the author], whose communicative intentions must not be turned into their opposite.”   
I’ve always interpreted “communicative intentions” as meaning that where the author intends the original to be humorous, for example, the translator should ensure that the translation is humorous. A simple enough principle, but in complex texts, the intentions of the author are sometimes subtle and difficult to interpret, let alone reproduce. This is especially true with surreal writers.
I recently translated the Hong Kong writer Dorothy Tse’s short stories, published as Snow and Shadow, (East Slope Publishing, 2014), and long-listed for the Best Translated Book Award in 2015. Christine Zoe Palau describes it thus in Why This Book Should Win: “Dorothy Tse’s collection of thirteen stories will force you to experience life in ways you’ve never imagined. While often outlandish, the stories make perfect sense on a metaphysical level. Her paragraphs are paintings that transport you to bizarre places (bartering amputated limbs for sex, why not?). You don’t necessarily want to become a part of these worlds, but you do recognize the truth in them. …. A wife turns into a fish; a father donates his head to his son ….”   As the translator, my initial problem was to envisage the landscape where the stories took place. I naively assumed the stories were set in Hong Kong because objects and places sounded as if they should be. In “The Traveling Family” [旅行之家], we read: “As I cycled down the winding streets of
Babaqi” [当我骑著单车沿巴巴齐曲折的街道驶行]… Where was Babaqi? The description was so realistic (bus stops and all) that I was convinced that the place must be there somewhere in Hong Kong. Eventually, after much consulting of street maps, I gave up and asked Dorothy, who disabused me: the name was entirely made-up. Similarly, in the same story: “His breath, as he opened his mouth, smelled fishy, reminding me of the black-ish turtle and lulu fish soup he had had the evening before.” [他张开嘴巴,散发出一阵鱼腥味,那种味道令我想起前一晚喝过那些青黑色的乌龟煮鲁鲁鱼
                                                           1 Nord , Christiane. “Loyalty revisited. Bible translation as a case in point.” The Translator 7(2), 2001:195. My additions in square brackets and emphasis.
汤。] I went on a wild goose chase with lulu fish. I mean, all Hong Kong fish are going to be
different from the North Atlantic kind I normally eat, aren’t they? So I expected something exotic, a species that I hadn’t heard of before. Again, Dorothy explained: “Made-up fish. A strange name with a sound that I like.”
As another of Dorothy’s translators, Natascha Bruce comments: “Her stories are designed to disorientate readers, which means they disorientate translators, too. But the translator, somehow, has to be orientated enough not to spin things in ways Dorothy doesn’t intend, and to notice the clues she’s laid for piecing things together.” So much for my own feelings of geographical and cultural disorientation. What about reproducing that feeling in the reader, since that is, after all, the surrealist writer’s communicative intention?
Here’s an example from Dorothy’s story “Woman Fish.” In the two sentences below, Version 1 is a literal translation for the benefit of non-Chinese speakers, version 2 is my first draft, version 3 is a revised version after discussion with the author, and version 4 is what we ended up with, after the publisher’s edits. 
To set the scene, the husband sometimes takes his wife out for a walk, even though she is beginning to look a little odd as she gradually turns into a fish, and is attracting curiosity.
Version 1, literal translation  He saw some gradually-opening eyes, with knife-blade-like sharp gazes. At first, they lay concealed in the corridor. Later, one thin-narrow evening, in the uneven, dried-up streets, he discovered that those gazes were gradually making noise on his wife’s skin. [Note 1] Note 1: there are several elements that make this description very strange indeed: the eyes and gaze acquire an agency of their own, and can even make noise; the evening is given a shape (see below); and the streets are dried-up but we don’t know why.    Version 2, my first draft He saw some of those eyes open up, revealing a razor–sharp [Note 1] gaze. At first, they lay concealed in the corridor. Later, one evening on an uneven, dusty city street, he became aware that they were creating a disturbance on his wife’s skin. [Note 2] 
Note 1: I deliberately adopted a common collocation here. While knife-sharp or blade-sharp are not unknown in English, I felt justified in adopting an image that readers would be used to, because I did not want to focus too much attention on a relatively unimportant part of the sentence. Note 2: What disorientated me here was that the Chinese refers to noise, which is not what you expect from someone’s gaze. In the end, I chose “disturbance” because that can cover both visual and auditory disturbances, in other words, I used a word that was a little less incongruous than the English “noise” but still allowed for ambiguity.   Version 3, revised after discussion with the author He saw some eyes open slowly, revealing a razor–sharp gaze. At first, they lay concealed in the corridor. Later, one narrow evening on a dried-out city street, he became aware that they were creating a disturbance on his wife’s skin….. Note 1: I originally omitted “slowly/gradually”, on the grounds that this word in Chinese is often conveyed in English by means of a verb: “open up” already implies slow movement, in my view. If they had opened their eyes fast, I might have used “snapped open”. However, Dorothy, who speaks excellent English, wanted “slowly” put back in and I agreed.   Version 4, after the publisher’s edit Hidden eyes in the corridor [Note 1] open slowly to reveal a razor-sharp gaze. One narrow evening [Note 2], he notices them on a dried-out city street, making ripples [Note 3] on his wife's skin.  Note 1: the editor, with his keen ear for the rhythm of the sentence in English, suggested this cutback. Note 2: the editor suggested switching to the historic present, and I agreed. It makes this short story sound especially immediate and vivid. There was nothing to indicate tense/time in the original Chinese, so we were free to make our own choice in English.  Note 3: Interestingly, I see that we did not discuss this unusual collocation. In Chinese as in English, thin or narrow refers to a physical space or shape (for instance body shape or a garment), rather than time. Perhaps we all assumed that it indicates a brief twilight, a narrow window of time. Note 4: the editor voted for the more usual “ripples”, which usually refers to light or water, instead of “disturbance”, which could refer to both sound and visual effects. 
I can’t, in all honesty, say that I work and re-work every sentence I translate from Chinese so painstakingly―some writing has a much easier birth into English―but other beautifully-written and complex texts amply repay the time spent in digging deep and peeling back the layers of meaning, and that is one reason why I love literary translation. No one describes this process better than the scholar Jin Di who translated James Joyce’s Ulysses into Chinese: “What motivates this endless pursuit of an ideal that is always ready to reveal a new defect when you think you have it as fine as possible? Answer: dedication to the art and love of the work.” He describes the artist chiselling even the back of the statue which no human eyes can see, and goes on “…the devoted translator takes delight in [making] the necessary adjustments that may bring him or her just a little bit closer to the mathematical limit of perfect translation.” 

Translator of the recent International Man Bookers 2019 Winner, Celestial Bodies, Marilyn Booth, reveals her key challenges.

It was great to see three talented literary translators come together at the recent International Man Bookers Prize Translator event at Foyles Bookshop in Charing Cross  - a nice precursor to the International Man Bookers main ceremony. It was great for so many reasons. 

For me it was an opportunity to demystify and deconstruct the art of literary translation for readers. The fact is that you read a great translated novel and you just don`t think about the effort taken in translating the novel and bringing the author`s words to life, capturing the nuances, the emotion and oh and let`s not forget capturing the author`s voice in the pursuit 0f authenticity.  No mean feat for sure. The work of the translator doesn't even enter your plane of thinking because you're just plain absorbed in the novel itself full stop.  That's not to say that you don’t appreciate the work of the translator, it`s simply the fact that the translator just did a great job of translating the work and making it seamless, that you just don`t see the joins. 

As a reader, you can become absorbed in a good book and the likelihood is that you might even (dare I say it), forget the translator (forgive me) . Perhaps forgetting the translator whilst reading a good book is an occupational hazard you might say. The interviewer during the event asked What goes into translation as it`s just not a plain case of literary translation?  According to Marilyn Booth, it was challenging getting to grips with the language. 

"We often  hear about the Middle East in the Western Media but these are often incredible societies, cultures , world heritage and for me as someone who is more familiar with Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine, translating the book online was difficult for me because I don’t know Oman as well. 

But literary translation doesn't have to be a solitary battle, a healthy relationship with the author can help as Booth explains..

"I`m very lucky to work with an author who is wonderful to work with and is very giving and very helpful."  

Navigating through the demands of a translator is one thing but certain novels may be more problematic than others. Booth talks about the specific challenges with Celestial Bodies. 

"... People  who have read that book have said that there are so many characters and that's because their family structure is so complicated and challenges our notion of what a family is. Culture in the book is something most challenging but the most important thing. I like to weave a lot of Arabic in the novel and this book lends itself well to that.  – There is the thickness of the material culture and also the  dialogue, particularly with women`s speech. So I  leave a lot Arabic in to give a flavour of that. "

Does translating from different languages  change the translator`s mindset ? Not according to Marilyn Booth.  

" I think readers have to decide that. I think basically I am who I am. The translator is also a reader and we are also interpreting from  a particular perspective."

The age-old question of  which "voices" dictate the novel`s style ; be it the translator or the author`s voice is one that`s given an airing. How do you essentially negotiate with the rightful demands of the author`s voice ?  Does the translator sometimes  unconsciously end up rewriting the novel instead ? 


" There are many voices and I do them as much justice as I can. [The author]  has a spare style of writing, {infused with} her use of culture and dialogue and I do justice to them. It`s a very intimate relationship when you are entering this space."

Celestial Bodies by  Jokha Alharthi and translated by Marilyn Booth is available in all good bookshops. Winner of  International Man Bookers Prize 2019.