“Elder Sister“, translated by Zhang Min
Bill Leverett, 20/1/20
From the Cultural Revolution to some time after the fall of the Gang of Four, a young boy in a
farming family observes the progress of his older sister’s secret romance. Her young man, part of a
group of youth sent to the countryside, is the son of parents who are, for most of the story, on the
wrong side of politics, so he too is shunned and reviled. Can this end happily? Fans of Chinese
fiction know the answer.
This story has many familiar facets: the twists and turns of Chinese history and their impact on
ordinary people; the tensions between city and countryside; intra-family relationships; the
gossipiness of small towns; the pressure for women to marry before they’re too old; the constant
references to food, and its scarcity, and the tragedy of any of it going to waste; and of course
morality. They’re packed in with great economy, so the whole story is less than 5000 words. We
don’t get a lot of scenery, extended dialogue, or detailed description, but what there is is very
The translation is good, for the most part, with just enough odd phrasing (“Can we bear to see him
suffer to death?”) to give a whiff of foreignness. There are some odd choices. In the first paragraph,
village gossip is compared to “the severest slap to our faces”, while in the original it is compared to
being hit with an ear-scraper, which may take some explanation, but is a more interesting, and
fitting, image. When the Gang of Four is mentioned, we get all their names in the translation. And
for some reason a character’s 屋, a room or house, gets translated into a ‘cave dwelling’.
On the whole, though, the original story is conveyed faithfully and believably, and I found myself
being compelled through it, and left satisfied at the end.