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Translating outside the box

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.

Age of Prosperity as a noir thriller

In a post at Twelve Hours Later, I discuss the political fantasy Age of Prosperity (盛世, aka The Fat Years, aka The Gilded Age) by John Chan Koon-Chung (陈冠中) in the context of other recent socially critical Chinese science fiction.

One curious aspect of this novel is the shift in point-of-view. Part I is largely told by Chen in the first person, aside from one chapter in which the characters who remember the missing month narrate their personal histories. Part II switches to limited third-person narration. Because Chen identifies himself as a genre writer (an author of third-rate detective fiction) in the first half, one likely explanation for the point-of-view switch is that he’s composing a mystery based on the old friends he’s encountered. With that in mind, both the character histories and the third-person narrative are the creation of first-person Chen from Part I. There are indications that this may be the case: Chen’s musings in Part I that he really ought to take up writing again, the interrogation of the government official in Part II, when Chen remarks that he feels like a character in a novel.

This hypothesis suggests that an English translator ought to style the dialogue with a little bit of hard-boiled coloring, along the lines of the weary narration at the opening of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. Chen the dilettante detective stalks through Beijing’s well-to-do neighborhoods in search of a missing month, gleaning bits of information from old friends who have conveniently managed to track him down and from well-placed members of the establishment who may be using him for their own purposes.

The risk with this approach is that you’d be imposing a voice on the original text that might not be there — the Chinese is colloquial and conversational, but not particularly stylized — but occasional quips in the dialogue and self-deprecation in the interior monologue hint that it might be justified, if just barely.

On not acting in a Chinese TV show

Back in October 2009, Evan Osnos of the New Yorker blogged about his experiences filming scenes for a tacky Chinese soap:

In the late afternoon, I taped my scene, which consisted of standing at a pay phone and making a call. I was to ask for a girl, and then nod while I was told she was unavailable. Then I was to hang up and gaze at an apartment window, which was, presumably, hers. My delivery needed work, and it took several takes. Eventually, the crew was satisfied enough to declare victory and hand over my lines for the following day. It was then that I discovered that I would be playing a sexual predator.

He ultimately decided to pull out from the gig, ticking off the producers.

The show I didn't appear in

The show I didn't appear in

My own non-experience with a Chinese TV production was pretty similar. In 2001 or 2002, when I was teaching at the Northeast Institute of Electric Power in Jilin City, I was invited to appear as a lecherous foreigner in three scenes of a crime drama. Filmed on location in the city, it would focus on the exploits of northeastern mobsters and the police hot on their track. It would be broadcast on local TV, so I’d be seen by all my students. A middle-aged colleague of mine was cast as a foreign bartender in one scene. The character I was to play was part of a trap set by local mobsters, whose boss had wormed his way into a job with the city police. I was to be bait in an attempt to gain evidence to blackmail the heroine, who had gone on the lam for reasons I can no longer recall.

Before they confirmed my participation, they made sure that I was comfortable with appearing shirtless in one scene: the police would burst into my hotel room and arrest me for soliciting a prostitute, and I would have to dress for the occasion.

Decency is a fluid thing — I’d already adjusted my suburban American attitude to the Speedos of Jilin’s public pools and the dress shoes of its mountain pathways — so I decided I didn’t have a problem. Then the script came. It turned out that my dodgy foreigner would first appear in an elevator casting a lustful eye upon the heroine. Later he would come on to her and react with pervy delight when she claimed to be a college student. That was the deal breaker. Due partly to the conduct codes handed out every year while I was an undergrad, and partly to the stereotype that foreign teachers were only in China to score, student-teacher relationships were off-limits as far as I was concerned. I didn’t want to give anyone the wrong impression in a prime-time soap. My colleague also decided to back out.

The casting director was not pleased. He tried to persuade us to reconsider: “It’s just acting.” “We can erase the college student line.” “It’s going to premiere in Yunnan, and it won’t even show in this city.” Eventually he gave up and went to the other big university across town, where he found two other foreign teachers to fill the roles.

The program did end up on Jilin TV, and everyone had fun identifying where everything was shot. The scenes in question came off pretty much as you’d expect, if you’ve ever seen foreign non-actors playing bit parts on Chinese TV.

The only thing I really remember about the show is a scene where a police officer eating hotpot out on the street is taunted by a mobster and for some reason has retrieve his gun from the hotpot dish. By the time he screws up enough courage to dip his hand into the boiling water, the mobster has already turned a corner. I wouldn’t have minded playing a role like that.

additional stories

A bootleg encounter

From Jajia’s twitter feed:


At a book vendor’s cart outside the Yanhuang Chunqiu building I saw Tombstone, The Sino-Vietnamese War, and Liao Yiwu’s latest. All bootlegs, naturally. The vendor said that business was good. He also said that an old man had come by once, flipped open Tombstone to the flyleaf photo, and said, “Guess who I am.” The vendor was shocked. Yang Jisheng said, “No big deal. Pirated — that’s good.”

Highly inefficient punctuation

Chinese texts traditionally used no punctuation. A small circle (。) could be used in annotations to mark the end of sentences or phrases, and it also turned up in printed texts, to the lower right of the last character in a sentence.

Before today’s system was standardized, some publishers experimented with alternate ways of punctuating text. We can be glad that the system shown below, on the first page of the 1910 edition of New China (新中国), did not live very long:

The first page of New China by Lu Shi'e

In this text, the “。” represents a continuation: the first character of a phrase has no punctuation, but every subsequent character is marked with a “。”. The text is maddening to read, and while some of that difficulty may be due to the mark meaning roughly the opposite of what it means today (a full stop), I suspect that it may not be a very efficient system even for an experienced reader. It’s certainly not meant for hand-written texts.

In a modern edition, the opening paragraph reads:


In rough translation:

on the first day of the first month of Xuantong’s second year I awoke a window filled with red sunlight and a grating sound in my ears so I knew it was not early and I hastened to put on my clothes and get out of bed going out I saw a pair of candles burning brightly and incense smoke wafting in the hall a scroll of a deity faced outward flanked by a couplet on coral paper a dozen high-legged nickel basins full of tea snacks several chairs draped with red cushions a red candle in the candlestick burnt down more than two inches a red carpet on the floor all of this arranged by the master of the house

New China was written by Lu Shi’e (陆士谔, 1878-1944), a Chinese herbalist, and tells the story of a man who falls asleep in 1910 and wakes up in 1951 to a fabulous new world in which China is no longer the sick man of Asia. The novella resembles Liang Qichao’s Future of New China (新中国未来记 ,1902) and other late-Qing utopian fantasies, but Lu could actually write fiction: his output ranged from martial arts romances like The Eight Swordsmen (八大剑侠) and The Flying Guillotine (血滴子) to unauthorized sequels like New Outlaws of the Marsh (新水浒) and amounted to some hundred novellas and novels.

New China was recently exploited for use in promoting the Shanghai 2010 World Expo: Lu’s novel was said to have accurately predicted that Shanghai would hold an expo of “10,000 nations” (万国博览会) one hundred years from its date of publication (i.e. in 2010). The novel actually says that Shanghai hosted a domestic expo (内国博览会) in 1928.

In April, Chen Zhanbiao (陈占彪), who has compiled a fascinating volume of eye-witness accounts of World Expos by late-Qing and early Republican Chinese travelers (清末民初万国博览会亲历记, 2010), wrote an excellent rebuttal of the erroneous claims in the China Reading Journal.

As proof, Chen’s article reproduces one of the pages from the 1910 print edition which, like the above image, uses a nearly unreadable system of punctuation.