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Talking Translation: Jack Hargreaves

Talking Translation

We're very happy to welcome Jack Hargreaves to the blog for the latest in our 'Talking Translation' series of interviews. Jack's translations have appeared in Asymptote, Read Paper Republic, and the LA Review of Books' China Channel, and his translation of Shen Dacheng's short story, 'The Novelist in the Attic', appears in The Book of Shanghai, from Comma Press. Forthcoming translations include Li Juan’s Winter Pasture, Yang Dian’s flash fiction collection A Contrarian’s TalesA History of Chinese Philosophical Thought by Zhang Xianghao, and Buddhism and Buddhology by Hong Xiuping. Jack also recently joined the Paper Republic team. You can find him on Twitter here.

What got you started in translation?

Professionally: a friend. I studied some translation at university and always helped my parents find sense in French documents, but I had long had the idea that I wanted to do something “active” with the languages I was learning. Whatever that means, for some reason translation didn’t qualify. Perhaps it was related to the pace of the work or wanting to be facilitating face-to-face communication. Anyway, later when a friend, whom I’d been casually discussing translation with, asked me to be co-translator on a book, which was to be the first for both of us, I jumped at the chance, not entirely knowing what I was getting myself into. I vaguely remember being told at university, should translator be the career you choose, not to expect to be translating books all the time, yet that was where I was jumping in (they were right though, I’m not translating books all the time). Maybe then, 'friend, a heavy dose of good luck, and right place, right time' makes for a more accurate answer. The book was by the now disgraced Master Xuecheng, the then abbot of Longquan Monastery and former president of the Buddhist Association of China—not something I’d consider a highlight in my short career, but it got me my start, though I’m not sure that our translation has ever seen paper. It was Scott Rainen who offered me the co-translation gig; he now heads Zhege, a translation company, which we started together. 

Clearly, I’m over that particular delusion now, of not believing translation to be engaged enough, which was a weird point of view in the first place considering that I enjoyed reading translated literature. Part of me thinks that my confusion came about because of how unattainable literary translation seemed, and sometimes still seems, as a career. 

As for the stories that got me started with Chinese literature, they are probably no different from lots of other people’s introduction, as they’re veritable classics, but I’ll add them here anyway: Lu Xun’s ‘A Madman’s Diary’, then the rest of Call to Arms, and Zhu Ziqing’s prose essays, the most memorable of them being ‘Retreating Figure/The Image of His Back/Beiying’. And I maintain to this day that some of the best Chinese writing out there comes in smaller packages. Plenty of which is still untranslated. 

You translated the story 'The Novelist in the Attic', by Shen Dacheng, for The Book of Shanghai. Can you tell us a bit more about the story, and some of the rewards and challenges of translating it?

Since it’s a bit of an unexpected thriller, I’m hesitant to give too much away, but it was a lot of fun to read and just as much fun to translate. I guess the most pressing thing to say is don’t be put off by the fact that the story’s protagonist is a writer, as some readers are. If you can get past that, the twist will blow your socks off. Since that story, I’ve read Shen Dacheng’s newest collection, Asteroids in the Afternoon (《小行星掉在下午》), and translated two of the stories from it. One is ‘Little Miss Box Person’. It’s about a young man, hopelessly in love with the girl he might never get, which sounds simple enough until you’re told they live in an epidemic-stricken city, and something as everyday as a stroll sees him hosed down with disinfectant, subjected to compulsory blood tests and rammed aside by the rich who live in sealed boxes to protect them from the pathogen. It’s eerily redolent of the current situation given that she wrote it two years ago, and downright frightening as a dystopic glimpse of our own future.  

The thing that I’ve enjoyed most about reading and translating her work is how playful a writer she is, both in terms of the stories’ premises and her use of language. An example of the latter are her descriptions of sound that are both hilarious and frankly bizarre, they’re like slapstick cut scenes that momentarily whisk you somewhere else entirely. 

You've recently joined the Paper Republic team; can you tell us anything about the current projects you're working on, and why you wanted to be involved?

Paper Republic is the closest thing to an online community of Chinese-English translators that I’m aware of, so naturally, I wanted to be involved. The organisation’s goals with regard Chinese translation extend beyond simply translating, as do mine, and as an established platform, it has lots of potential for running really productive activities that build community, make translation a less solitary endeavour and promote Chinese translation in all sorts of ways—and has already long been a leading force in these regards. A great example is that when I joined, planning for the Give-it-a-Go collaboration with the Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing was already underway and that turned out to be a great success. Now, partly inspired by that project, we’re running Sunday Sentence 一周一句, which has had plenty of participation already and will hopefully be something we can continue into the future. Generally, we’re looking to design more interactive content and educational activities, besides more of the same—all the good stuff. 

Are there any authors or projects that you’d like to work on, or any particular genres? (Or simply authors that you’d love to see in translation?!)

Like I alluded to above, there’s a wealth of shorter literature (novellas, short stories, prose essays) that remains untranslated. The mainstream English publishing industry’s apparent aversion for putting out shorter works means that English readers miss out on a lot of brilliant Chinese writing. The same, I’ve been assured, goes for short works from the rest of East Asia, and I’d hazard a bet for elsewhere too. I’m far from the first person to notice or talk about this (one example:, but I hope in the future to do something about it. 

Do you have any advice for others hoping to get into translation?

Like I said, landing my first translation gig was a stroke of luck, but after that Scott and I applied for every project going, whatever the type of translation that involved. So, I guess the advice would be, every motorbike operator manual and dock company website that one battles with along the way to getting “literary” work is an education in itself. In other words, reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or Moby Dick is only one means of preparing for what literary translation might throw at you in the future.

Also, if possible, attend translation workshops. Warwick Summer School was incredible—an enormously helpful crash course in everything literary translation and a great chance to meet lots of lovely people with a shared interest—and I’ve no doubt that the BCLT Summer School is just as good. 

Lastly, and the one that is most important for anyone whose source language is a second language, especially when that language is Chinese, is to work alongside a native speaker(s) as much as possible, and in whatever capacity possible. And pay them for their work. Early on, this might take the form of an exchange rather than a work partnership, asking them a few questions here and there, but if it’s anything more, coming to some sustainable arrangement involving proper remuneration is only right and will greatly benefit your work in the long run. Translators, no matter where they are in their careers, misunderstand things or have an incomplete knowledge of the entire cultural or historical tapestry that makes up their source language. Reading to prepare for a project is important, and having someone you can ask questions on top of that is even better. 

Disclaimer: Maybe don’t try to translate a motorbike operator manual if you know naught about motorbikes—that was a bad example… but the point still stands. 

Are you working on anything at the moment that you can tell us about?

I’m chipping away at Yang Dian’s 杨典 A Contrarian’s Tales (《懒慢抄》), a collection of 316 flash fiction stories in the traditional style of bijiti (note style writing). The collection is like a Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio for the modern age, full of wry wordplay and slapstick narratives, playful uses of language and storytelling, and spooky, grotesque, and humorous premises. Some of it could be called strange for the sake of strange (not that there’s anything wrong with that—more strange please), while some of it contains very subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) commentary on current and recent Chinese society and global issues. No publisher for that as of yet, but the search is on! And a new Chinese edition should be released late this year/early 2021 with seventy new stories included. Then, coming out early next year from the new Astra Publishing House is Li Juan’s Winter Pasture, which I translated alongside Yan Yan and will be my first full-length published in an English language market (previous full-lengths translations have disappeared into the ether, or are sitting in a box somewhere in China collecting dust, as they never had an ‘overseas’ release).  

Thanks, Jack!

And to find out more about The Book of Shanghai, you can see our Book Club feature here, and read our reviewers' thoughts here.