Talking Translation: Anders Hansson and Bonnie S. McDougall

In the latest of our series of interviews with translators, we asked Anders Hansson and Bonnie S. McDougall to tell us more about their translation of Cantonese Love Stories (Penguin, 2017) by Dung Kai-cheung 董啟章, our author of the month this June. We’ve chosen one story – ‘A Bathing Ape’ to feature on our book club page, in both Chinese and in English translation, and the book is also one of the titles on our Book Review Network. You can read more about our reviewers’ thoughts here.

What is the significance of the English title, which is quite different from the Chinese one? Why ‘Cantonese’ rather than ‘Hong Kong’?

One reason for the difference would probably be that this selection only has a quarter of the stories in The Catalog (夢華錄). The title ‘Cantonese Love Stories’ was Dung Kai-cheung’s idea. It alludes to Cecil Clementi’s Cantonese Love Songs (Oxford, 1904), which is mentioned in Virginia Anderson’s ‘Introduction’.

The stories originally come from a longer selection – how did you decide which ones to translate?

Bonnie used some of the stories from The Catalog for a class in literary translation at Sydney University c.2011–2013; Dung Kai-cheung suggested stories that might be suitable for that purpose. There is thus some student input in the translations of part of the book (see ‘Translators’ Note’). Bonnie then translated a number of stories on her own, probably those with topics that she was familiar with (e.g., excluding computer games and Japanese soap operas). In 2015 Bonnie asked me to look at 21 stories. I made revisions and suggestions and added one story that I translated from scratch. From then on, I made the initial drafts, which Bonnie revised, and then we discussed them and revised them again. My selection of stories to translate was pretty haphazard: I had imagined that we would finish all of The Catalog before a possible publication. Dung Kai-cheung checked our translations. By January 2016, when Penguin invited him to contribute to their Hong Kong Series, Bonnie and I had 37 stories more or less ready. Dung Kai-cheung selected 25 of those 37 for inclusion in the Penguin volume.

Was a knowledge of Cantonese necessary for the translation? How difficult was it to convey some of the nuances of the language in English?

Most of the text is Hong Kong Mandarin with some Cantonese expressions. Cantonese is often used in dialogue. And yes, some knowledge of Cantonese was necessary. Our grasp of Cantonese is pretty basic and we did of course rely on dictionaries, such as Sidney Lau and the online Pleco Cantonese dictionary. Christopher Hutton and Kingsley Bolton’s Dictionary of Cantonese Slang was very useful. Dung Kai-cheung helped with things we didn’t understand and spotted mistakes. Romanisation of people’s names and place names is based on Cantonese and Hong Kong usage.

Conveying nuances in English did not seem to be a major difficulty to me. Whether we were successful in that is another matter. However, the frequent puns and some personal names often caused problems and led to lengthy discussions between Bonnie and myself.

Was it difficult to handle the humour in your translation?

I didn’t feel that was much of a problem – whether or not we were successful is another matter.

The story you chose for our book club was ‘A Bathing Ape’. What was it about this story that you felt was particularly interesting?

I suggested several stories to Bonnie out of which she picked ‘A Bathing Ape’. I felt the story was funny (well, maybe not the end). I probably also suggested the story because I like Cheung Chau.

Are there certain skills needed for translating short fiction, as opposed to novels?

Not really. Perhaps short fiction is easier on the whole, although even in a collection of short stories there is still a need to watch out for internal consistency.