Talking Translation: Andrea Lingenfelter

We’re delighted to be joined for a special guest blog by translator and poet Andrea Lingenfelter. Andrea translated our July author of the month Hon Lai-chu 韓麗珠, and you can read more about both author and translator here, along with Andrea’s translation of the story ‘Notes on an Epidemic’, as well as the original Chinese. The story is taken from Hon Lai-chu’s collection The Kite Family, published by Muse. We’re very grateful to Andrea for taking the time to answer our questions!

She’s also going to be one of our guests at our Book Review Network residential weekend this November, so attendees will have the chance to speak to her in person about Chinese fiction and translation.

If you had 30 seconds to persuade me to read Hon Lai Chu’s The Kite Family, what would you say?

Imagine a world in which the only way to find gainful employment (and please one’s mother) would be to transform yourself into a piece of furniture—literally. Or what if some unaccountable government was so afraid of people’s autonomy that it eradicated house pets and forced citizens to form pseudo families? Or what if you came home from work one day and found the apartment you’d lived in with your abusive spouse was nothing but a smoking  hole in the ground, but you could move into a hotel for survivors and “shop” at a convenience store stocked with items salvaged from the wreckage, including a human being? This is Hon Lai Chu’s world—familiar in many ways but also uncanny. She captures and expands on the strangeness of life in the modern world with dry wit and great imagination, taking a few swipes at dysfunctional families and oppressive governments and societies into the bargain.

How did you get into literary translation?

I’ve loved writing since I was very young. I started writing poetry seriously when I was in my teens. That led to an interest in classical Chinese and Japanese poetry, which I read in translation. I loved the translations but wondered how poetry sounded and was experienced in the original languages. When I got to college, I studied Japanese; but after several twists of fate, I embarked as a third year university student on the study of Chinese language. I loved the language from the very first day and was carried away by the history and literature of 20th century Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. I also minored in Creative Writing and continued to write throughout graduate school. My classmates knew I was interested in translation, and one of them had a friend who became an editor at a large publishing house in New York. One day, this editor (Will Schwalbe) called me out of the blue. He was looking for translators for a poetry project. That project fell through, but barely a year later he called me up again and asked if I’d consider translating prose. The book was The Last Princess of Manchuria, by the Hong Kong writer Li Pik-wah (Lilian Lee). I’ve been translating fiction and poetry ever since.

How do you choose your authors and projects? (or do they choose you?)

Every project is different. My first projects came to me—The Last Princess of Manchuria, Farewell My Concubine, Candy, plus a lot of contemporary poetry in various journals and anthologies, which scholar/editors like Michelle Yeh and Goran Malmqvist commissioned. The Changing Room was the first project I initiated. I’d read a few of Zhai Yongming’s poems around 1990 (for that ill-fated anthology that never was) and been deeply moved. Her work resonated with me, and I knew I wanted to translate it. In the early 1990s Chicago Review published two or three of those first poems that had come to me. I went on to write a chapter of my dissertation about Zhai Yongming and Hsia Yü. Later, I met Zhai Yongming and asked permission to translate a book’s worth of her poetry, and she agreed.

Nowadays, some projects are pitched to me, and others I pitch to editors or publishers. Writers also contact me directly, or recommend me to other writers; I have ongoing working relationships with a number of writers. Working directly with authors and spending time with the people whose works I translate is immensely helpful—it gives me deeper insight into the works and gives a sort of perspective that would be otherwise hard to come by. Although textual/linguistic precision is important to translation, intuition plays a role as well; and knowing someone personally helps me see the story behind the story or the poem behind the poem. When there are multiple ways to interpret a passage, that background knowledge helps inform my decisions.

Some people say that female translators are better at translating female authors – is there any truth in this, in your experience, or is the gender distinction irrelevant?

That’s a minefield. I wrote an essay about this for Chinese Literature Today (Vol 2, No 2, 2012). I wrote that since translation requires empathy, the only limitation is one’s own empathetic imagination. The translator gives voice to another; so insofar as we can experience and faithfully speak in another’s voice (or an analogue of that voice), there shouldn’t be any gender-based theoretical barriers. Translation is writing, and when we write, we have to adopt a persona. The more personae you can convincingly inhabit, the more versatile you are as a writer or a translator.

That said, I’ve translated mostly women writers. I’d say that the shared experience of living as a female in this world gives me insight into the experiences of other women, and it can make their writing more immediate to me. But sensibility is equally important. There’s experience on the one hand, and sensibility on the other. There are women writers whose work leaves me cold, and I wouldn’t want to translate them. But there are also male writers whose work I relate to, and gender seems irrelevant to the way their work resonates with me. There are also male writers whose work doesn’t move me, but for reasons that don’t seem to be gender-based. And then there are the male writers whose work I don’t connect with for clearly gendered reasons—a certain strain of misogyny/violence/violent misogyny, or a world that is so overtly male and unaware of its lack of universality that I find it alienating. (But what do I really think, right?)

By way of example, I’ll tell an anecdote from a writing workshop and reading group I was part of when I lived in Seattle. The group had read some stories by Raymond Carver, and responses had broken down largely along gender lines. The men in the group generally responded positively to the story and related to the male narrator; the women didn’t want to spend time in this character’s company and didn’t connect with the story. In the course of the group discussion, one of the men, a good friend of mine, observed that the narrator was “like a guy in a bar, when you sit down at the bar and the guy next to you starts talking to you.” I thought that this was a very telling example. It was pretty clear to me that if I’d walked into the same bar (which I probably wouldn’t have, seeing as a certain type of Carveresque dive bar wasn’t exactly a welcoming space for women), that hard-luck Carver protagonist would not have spoken to me in the same way. Chances are he would have tried to pick up on me. He wouldn’t have told me the same story he would have told my male friend. I know Carver has fans who are women; but you have to ask yourself who his intended audience was. All of this is a roundabout way of saying that gender remains a salient issue; it can offer the reader an entrée to a work, but it can also exclude readers, without even setting out to do so.

You have translated many works from Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Are there any particular challenges in translating works from Hong Kong?

If anything, I think that works from Hong Kong are often more immediately accessible to Westerners than works from the Mainland or Taiwan—and especially for people from the Anglosphere, because of Hong Kong’s colonial past. Hong Kong’s experience of globalisation and a near lack of censorship vis a vis 20th century sinophone literature (and I mean this as a catchall term for all writing in Chinese) makes it somewhat easier for Anglophone people to relate to Hong Kong people—at least Anglophone people like me who have degrees in Chinese studies and Chinese literature. It’s also worth mentioning that the professor of Chinese literature who had the greatest influence on me is from Hong Kong (William Tay), so you could say that a Hong Kong perspective on modern sinophone literature and modern China is foundational for me.

That said, the more you understand the history and culture of a place, the better you can translate it. Visiting Hong Kong frequently over the past several years and meeting with Hon Lai Chu gave me insight into some of the material conditions that inform her writing. And we bonded when we shared pictures of our cats. (Howard Goldblatt tells how he finally broke the ice with Mo Yan when he accepted a cigarette from the Chinese writer. I don’t know if this is a comment on the times or on gender, or perhaps a bit of both; but Coco and I definitely connected over a love for our feline companions. This shows up in her stories and informs my translations of them as well.)

If the Hong Kong writers I’ve translated didn’t write in standard Chinese, translating them would be a greater challenge. There was an expression Hon Lai Chu used in a story in The Kite Family that stumped me, which turned out to be a Cantonese expression. None of my dictionaries had it, and the beta version of the online Cantonese dictionary I now refer to hadn’t come out yet. If she hadn’t told me what it meant, I would never have guessed. This was definitely an exception, though. Hong Kong writers who publish in Taiwan and the Mainland often have to “localise” their work for those audiences, and in that regard my task is easier, because I studied Mandarin with Taiwan and Mainland teachers.

You are a poet, academic and translator – how do these roles interact with each other? (And how do you find the time?!).

Short answer—it’s a daily scramble to get things done. Deadlines slip. (This interview being a case in point.) I teach part time, and not every term. On the occasions when I have taught full time, translation has had to go on the back burner. Mostly, I sit in my study and work away. My own writing is a combination of catch as catch can and stolen moments—vacations, commuting hours (I love public transportation!), and the odd lull between larger projects. Luckily, I’m a poet, so it’s relatively easy to steal time. The trick is writing down the thoughts I have (invariably) as I’m walking in my neighborhood or riding the bus or BART (the Bay Area metro). Sometimes, I’ll just take a day or part of day or two to work on poems or prose pieces. I’ve got a vacation coming up next week and can’t wait to spend every morning writing. I’ve got a couple of prose projects started that need long stretches of time. These ideas have been alive in my head for years and I want to bring them out into the light of day.

I don’t do much academic writing. I write pieces for Chinese Literature Today and for book reviews like The Quarterly Conversation, but I decided early on that it would be a more fitting use of my talents—my love of creative writing and my background in Chinese literature, history, and culture—if I emphasized literary translation over academic publications. I thought I could make a bigger contribution and reach more readers, and I believe I have, even if it meant foregoing a traditional academic career. Being a freelancer means working without “benefits”—I don’t know if that’s the term in the UK; but in the US it’s what they call health insurance and pension funds and paid vacations. Not having some sort of national health service or crèche etc can make it difficult to freelance.

If one of your students told you they wanted to be a literary translator after graduation, what advice would you give them?

It’s like any of the arts—you should only do it if you love it; because the rewards are often intangible. The best way to manage it is to have a “day job”—something to pay the bills so you can translate for the non living wage literary translators earn. Some literary translators are academics, some are technical or business translators, some are professional writers or editors, and others are teachers of creative writing. Most of us wear more than one hat.

Finally, we’ve been publishing a series of blog posts about reviewing fiction, as part of the launch of our Reading Chinese Book Review Network. For you,  what makes a good review of translated fiction?

1) Mention the translator by name; and if you can, comment on their skill or something that you noticed about the writing. If a translation is well written, it means the translator is a good writer. The source text may or may not be as well written as the translation. (I may get hate mail for this, but others in the translation world would agree with this statement, at least privately.) Sometimes very cleanly written Chinese is tough to translate into English that’s just as polished and unadorned; sometimes flowery Chinese is easier, although it may require some cutting. The better a work is structured, the easier the translation; but ultimately, syntax and rhetorical conventions require the translator to work hard if they’re going to create a faithful analogue to the source text.

2) Provide context for readers of the review, especially if you’re reviewing for readers who aren’t steeped in the language/culture of the language translated from. That means the reviewer should have a strong enough background to be able to provide that information to their readers. One of the most poorly done movie reviews of a Chinese-language film I’ve ever read (and my friends in the field were equally disgusted with this review) was the NYT review of Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution.” The reviewer didn’t have a clue about the cultural or historical background of Eileen Chang’s story and experienced the film as a rather meaningless and unemotional costume drama. But the failure lay with the reviewer, who hadn’t known how to read the film. I’d seen the film at a special screening in Seattle. The people in the audience were of all ages, but some had been in China during the War, some were from Hong Kong, some from Taiwan, and others were well versed in Chinese culture and language. It’s a long film, but we were all on the edge of our seats from the opening shot—the suspense was palpable. The atmosphere of dread, the moral and physical dangers in the film, had everyone in the theater holding their breath for the 2 plus (almost 3?) hours of the film. That audience understood the context of the film, how to read between the lines, the significance of different gestures, words, historical events, political affiliations. A reviewer who didn’t know anything about Shanghai and Hong Kong in the 1940s was ill-equipped to give a full appraisal of a film like “Lust, Caution.” I think it’s possible not to like the film even if you understand it; but judging from the response of friends in Taiwan and the Mainland (the latter of whom watched pirated copies or saw it in Hong Kong), who found it very powerful and some of whom considered it to be Ang Lee’s best film, the more the viewer/reader “brings to the party,” the fuller their understanding. So where does that leave the book reviewer? The more background they have, the better informed their review. Their job is to evaluate literary quality, cultural context, and give their readers a way into the work that will support their understanding of it and give them a fuller experience of the work, rather than a superficial one. Who is the author? What is their background, place in the literature the write in, point of view? When is the novel set? What are the social or historical conditions that native speakers already know about and read into the book? A good review should also give prospective readers enough grounding in a work that they should be able to tell from the review whether or not the book/movie is their cup of tea. (I’m a big proponent of the wildly positive review that provides enough information for me to know that I would not enjoy the book/film.)

Thank you, Andrea!

And if you’re interested in joining our book review network, you can find application details here, along with the book reviews themselves. You can also find their flash reviews of our monthly stories on our bookclub page. Network members are eligible to apply for our residential weekend, where you’ll get the chance to meet authors and translators and discuss their work!