Dress-up officials

The 1915 edition of 戏迷传 “Opera Fanatics” by 海上漱石生 “Hermit of Shanghai” (Sun Yusheng 孙玉声 1862–1939) has some of my all-time favorite cover art: colorful, lively poses that turn ridiculous the moment you discover the novel has nothing to do with opera.

It’s actually a satire of corrupt officials into which Sun, a huge opera fan, embeds more than 700 opera titles as names for characters, places, and scenarios, “Because bureaucracy is like theater. Officials seem like they’re play acting rather than serving their office.” There’s a similar show-offy cleverness in Sun’s 1927 wuxia novel 嵩山拳叟 “The Old Fighter of Mt. Song”, whose chapter titles are apt lines from Tang poems. A storyteller’s trick, rather than the sort of plot device Jin Yong 金庸 would later use in 连城诀 “A Deadly Secret”.

戏迷传 was first published in 1903 under a different acting-related title, 优孟衣冠传 “In Costume” or “Playing Dress-Up”; a reprint in the ’20s used the more direct 如此官场 “Officialdom!”

There’s no signature visible, but an advert in Sun’s magazine 繁华杂志 “Prosperity” promises “two comic watercolor covers by Shen Bochen 沈泊忱.” Shen (沈泊尘, 1889–1920) was a prolific political cartoonist also known for illustrations of actors and modern women.

The official singing while playing a tennis racquet like a pipa reminds me of one particular Thangka image of Dhṛtarāṣṭra 持国天王. Would that make the hatless, bearded official Virūḍhaka 增长天王? A mustache comb for a sword, sure, but is he ever shown with a mirror?

It’s probably just fanciful thinking, but I do like the possibility of an additional layer of symbolism: actors playing officials who are themselves just sham guardians of the realm.

Originally posted to Twitter, 2021.09.18.

Foreignized hanzi

A series of translated fiction from People’s Literature Publishing House has an interesting logo design.

The “Year’s Best 21st Century Foreign Fiction,” 2010 edition, published by People’s Literature Publishing House, embeds several foreign scripts into the series logo:

XK110406ks.png
Detail from the cover of Kaltenburg.

Scripts/languages represented: Latin (L), Japanese (), Korean (), Cyrillic (Π), and Spanish (ñ).

See also: Tibetan-style Chinese on Danwei.

Image from Bookuu.com.

Bob Dylan’s body doubles come to China

Xinmin Evening News FAIL.

“Bob Dylan’s coming,” announced the March 4 edition of the Xinmin Evening News. He’ll perform in Beijing on April 6 and in Shanghai on April 8.

Xinmin Evening News, March 4 2011, A17

The page layout proved irresistible to meme-hungry netizens, who replaced Willie Nelson with an array of other people who were not Bob Dylan:

Click for many, many more.

via @ELLE网站Taxloss6.

Overlooked in 2010

Xie Xizhang (解玺璋) calls attention to some of last year’s overlooked gems.

As part of Sina Books’ year in review feature, critic Xie Xizhang (解玺璋) introduces some worthy books that did not receive the attention they deserved last year. The article’s title, “Overlooked and overexposed literature of 2010,” extends the promise of some deserving take-downs, but the only overexposed title Xie mentions is Han Han’s ill-fated literary journal Party (独唱团). Here are his underexposed titles:

Heaven/Tibet (天·藏) by Ning Ken (宁肯). A philosophical novel by the author of the well-received City of Masks (蒙面之城, 2001), which was nominated for the 2009 Newman Prize. Xie writes,

Seriously overlooked, it came to the attention of just a small minority despite being an extraordinarily good work. Apart from showing the history and culture of Tibet, the author how Wang Mojie internalized Tibet; one could say that this is Ning Ken’s own process of internalization. In this novel he writes of a thinker, and he inspires the reader to think as well. Some writers today call themselves word-slingers, and their novels are formed by piling words together. Not so with Ning Ken. His fiction is formed from thought. He is an author who is  willing to think, and his works are heavily imbued with logical thinking. In this novel his “thoughts” are numerous and profound, and even contains an essential reflection and suspicion toward thought itself.

The author discussed his writing in an interview with the Beijing Evening News in October, and Paper Republic has more English-language information about the novel.

Flowers of Purgatory (炼狱之花) by Xu Xiaobin (徐小斌). A fairy tale about a princess from an undersea kingdom who tries to navigate the unwritten rules of the modern entertainment industry. I picked this up mid-year but Xu’s narrative rhythm wasn’t what I was looking for at the time and I put it down two chapters in. I’ll have to take a second look. Xu’s family epic Feathered Serpent (羽蛇, 1998) has been translated into English, and Dunhuang Dream (敦煌遗梦, 1996) is forthcoming this year from Atria.

Judas in Bloom (犹大开花) by Du Chan (杜禅), a writer from Henan, is a satire about the intellectual establishment. Critics quoted on the cover call it a modern version of The Scholars (儒林外史, 1750) and a prose version of the ground-breaking TV series “Stories of an Editorial Board” (编辑部的故事, 1991). Before reading Xie’s article, which praises the novel’s memorable characters, I’d never even heard of Judas in Bloom.

Canticle to the Land (大地雅歌) by Fan Wen (范稳). Fan began his “Tibetan Land” trilogy before the Tibet craze of the past few years. This, the third volume, tells an engaging love story involving a Tibetan storyteller, French missionaries, domestic turmoil in China, a living Buddha, and the engagement between different cultures and religions.

Lu Xun’s Mustache (鲁迅的胡子) by Jiang Yitan (蒋一谈) is a collection of short stories told in simple, direct language that stands in conscious opposition to the massive, overstuffed novels that excite newspaper book reviewers.

The Legendary Huang Yongyu (传奇黄永玉) by Li Hui (李辉) is a critical biography of the early 20th-Century artist.

Wang Meng’s Dream of the Red Chamber (王蒙的红楼梦) by Wang Meng (王蒙), who distilled a lifetime of reading the classic novel into twenty-seven lectures.

Xie also picks one translated book: The Red Wheel (红轮) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Translating outside the box

Recap of translating for Pan Haitian in the Black Box at the 2010 Get it Louder festival in Beijing.


This and other photos at the Get it Louder website (also in English)

Last Friday afternoon I took part in a “Black Box: Literature on Spot” event at the Get it Louder festival, which wrapped up its Beijing leg over the weekend. You can click through for a detailed description of the program and its participants, but in brief, “Black Box” was literary creation as performance art. A writer, sequestered in a curtained cubicle, composed in isolation. Beyond the wall, a translator attempted to keep pace as the text scrolled up the monitor. Spectators viewed the entire process on screens outside.

I was translating for Pan Haitian (潘海天), a writer of science fiction and fantasy and the editor of Odyssey of China Fantasy magazine (九州幻想). (You can find a brief introduction to some of Pan’s work in this post.) I’ve translated a bit of Pan’s work in the past, including a version of “The Eternal City” (永恒之城) in English for submission to ALIA6, an Italian-language anthology of SF in translation.

Pan warned me beforehand that his typical approach to composition involved leaving lots of sentence fragments and place-holders, which he’d expand once he had a rough framework of the story sketched out. Thankfully, this did not become apparent until about half an hour into the event, at which point my nerves had settled.

Ordinarily, I’d probably have gotten sidetracked early on by the quotation from Diary of a Madman and would have spent the full two hours reading up on the historical figures mentioned in the text. Or, if I were particularly disciplined that day, I’d have substituted dummy text for the quotation and moved on to the next paragraph, leaving the decision of how to translate Lu Xun for a later revision. Neither option was available to me, the first because I brought no reference materials and could not access the Internet, and the second because I needed to put up some sort of translation, however imprecise, for the audience. I had to make decisions, even if they weren’t ideal. Don’t recognize a locust tree? Then “tree” it is. Forget the alternate term for tuberculosis? Let’s call it a “fatal illness.” Although I often take this approach in a first draft when I want to capture an uninterrupted voice, I usually tag provisional translations so I can refine them later. Leaving them unmarked disguises my translation as a finished product instead of a work in progress, or more accurately, a partial transcript of a one-time performance.

It’s not a complete transcript because it doesn’t show where edits were made during composition and translation, and it retains just a few traces of Pan’s fragments and place-holders. His writing process seemed to mirror the pace of the story. The opening, which sets the scene and gives a bit of back-story, appears in the final product pretty much identical to how it was initially typed in. The sole edit I can remember was a change from “the man in the gown” to “the mustached man” (which I unfortunately rendered as “the bearded man.”) During the action scenes, things got more hurried and fragmented. For example, at a point in the story when Lu Xun has plummeted from a rooftop to grapple with an intruder (later revealed to be Liang Shiqiu), Pan inserted a bracketed note that I translated as “[insert blow-by-blow].” And the title only became Lu Xun: Demon Hunter after Lu Xun was mentioned by name in the text (to gasps and laughter from audience members who hadn’t caught on yet).

Pan’s original (恶魔猎手鲁迅), an application of wuxia tropes to Lu Xun’s account of why he chose to apply himself to writing, is entertaining, although it terminates abruptly — Pan said afterward that he needed additional resources before he could move forward. As a translator, I enjoyed the game of keeping up with the small changes and additions that the author was continually making to the text; as a reader, my mind had already filled in the details, and I just wanted him to continue with the story.