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'Taking on someone else's voice': Yan Ge and Nicky Harman in Leeds

Talking Translation

Yan_Ge1Last week we were lucky enough to welcome author Yan Ge and her translator Nicky Harman to Leeds for the second in our series of public events. It was a great opportunity to hear about the ways in which an author and translator work together - there have been no fights yet, they assured us! (Though Yan Ge did point out that they were still in the honeymoon period...)

Yan Ge's work is funny, incisive, and refreshingly down-to-earth, even when she sneaks in otherworldly elements like the eponymous 'white horse' of her recent novella (released as an e-book by Hope Road Publishing). In her novel 我们家, currently being translated by Nicky under the title The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, she shows an incredible ability to get under the skin of her characters - the hapless, unfaithful, but likeable Dad in particular. It's this psychological depth that really attracted Nicky to her work, we learnt. Yet it has also got her into trouble. When she first published the short story that would become the first chapter of the novel (and which we're discussing as our book club story this month), Yan Ge's own dad was less than pleased... (Read the story here to find out more!) It took some time before he could be persuaded of its fictional credentials...

Both Yan Ge and Nicky were very open about the difficulties, as well as the joys, of their work. When you're actually writing, said Yan Ge, you think, 'I'm a genius! If I die now, Chinese literature will be safe!' But then you look at your work the next day and go, 'What was I thinking???' Luckily, she has managed to overcome her own doubts, as well as the difficulties posed by a male-dominated literary world, in which comments such as, 'She's doing well, for a female writer', are all too common. 'I just want to be treated as a writer,' said Yan Ge.

For Nicky, it is the window that she can provide onto Chinese writing that is one of the most rewarding parts of her job. 'I have to be a chameleon,' she said, 'taking on somebody else's voice.' And it was eye-opening to learn just how much the translator does - beyond the challenges of the translation itself, the translator has to be 'part of the spider's web', as Nicky put it - pitching to publishers, getting the author's name out, and of course, giving up her Saturday to come and talk to us!

We also learnt about how fluency in another language and familiarity with another culture can affect a writer - Yan Ge told us that she uses English to think critically, but Chinese to think creatively. And she is, she said, a fan-girl of French philosophers. Yes, we were dubious, too, but she pointed out that she loves them for the stories they tell; as a writer, she is a 'multiple agent' - writing in Chinese, speaking English, reading French philosophers - all of this gives her different perceptions, 'different getaways'.

So it was a great morning, and we'd like to thank Nicky and Yan Ge, as well as everyone who came to the event! The enjoyment continued in the afternoon, when our guests continued their hard work by leading a translation masterclass. That, however, deserves a blog post all to itself. For now, have a read of 'Dad's Not Dead' (you can find it in both Chinese and English on our book club page), and head over to our forum to leave your comments! And if you weren't able to make it to Leeds for the talk, you can watch our recording of the event, with Dr Frances Weightman chairing the conversation.