Tag Archives: Pan Haitian

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.

Running to Neverland

In this article:
Run, Dajiao! Run!
Pan Haitian (潘海天)
266 pages / 160,000 words

I was tapped for the “123 meme” a while ago and fulfilled my duty in the comments section of the Mutant Palm blog with a citation from a Xu Kun novel.

I’ve been asked to do the same thing for a SF book, so I’ll use Pan Haitian’s Run, Dajiao! Run, which actually happened to be the closest science fiction book around when I learned of the meme.

It’s a short story collection by an author who’s probably still best known for The Legend of Master Yan, an adaptation of an anecdote from the ancient classic Liezi that describes automatons who do their masters’ bidding. Pan’s most recent work has been in the realm of fantasy, and he’s been involved with Jin He Zai in the Novoland project, an attempt to build an indigenous fantasy universe.

The title story in Run, Dajiao! Run! is constructed as a fable: on a quest for a drug that will save his dying mother, a young man runs from city to city, passing through cities of Hedonism, Industry, and so forth. It’s an old trope, but Pan’s writing is engaging and the various worlds are well-drawn.

Page 123 turns out to be in the centerpiece of this collection, the novella Out of the Darkness (黑暗中归来), which is an interesting take on the Space Ark story. A ship headed for some distant star has navigated into a cluster of dark matter, rendering all sensors ineffective. The crew, grown from test-tubes, take classes in stellar navigation and astrophysics, information that to them seems nothing more than faith-based superstition. They eventually revolt.

Just before the following excerpt, tensions among the crew are high. The narrator spooked his crewmate Eberhard while he was holding a test-tube full of cockroaches, causing him to lose control and drop it, scattering the bugs everywhere.

After that moment of fright, I turned and glared at Eberhard: “Fine. You stupid blockhead, you think you’re so special. You’ve let out the cockroaches. Are you satisfied?”

Flustered, Eberhard said, “I was just trying to help you.” He was always trying to find ways to help people, I thought angrily. “Are those things dangerous?” “There won’t be any problems, right?” He was always asking that, his voice quavering with fright. But whenever he was around, there was no chance for safety.

The cockroach infestation of the ship is just one symbol of the breakdown of order among the crew. The narrator eventually breaks with the paranoid conspiracy-mongers (who see the on-board computer as part of a vast conspiracy to hide the Real Truth) and learns the self-discipline necessary to take his place as captain of the ship and see it through to starry shores.

There are other interesting stories in this collection:

  • A Ladder to the Stars: Hanuman, The Monkey King: The earth, which holds a backward society whose only hope is to escape to the stars, is visited by colonists who look like Monkeys and talk of their great King, Hanuman. Naturally, the earthlings kill off most of these monkey spacemen, or relegate them to concentration camps. A girl and her friends attempt to escape the planet with the help of one monkey who wasn’t caught up in the security sweeps.
  • The City of Clones: An empire has made extensive use of clones in its wars of conquest. The son of the emperor is sent out to deal with a clone revolt, but disagrees with his father’s treatment of the clone army, because of his affection for a palace servant woman who has asked him to spare the leader of the rebels. It’s a relatively straightforward story distinguished by its references to Plato.
  • The Dark Side of a White Star: There’s an accident at a mining colony and a team is sent to investigate. It discovers a strange life form that is killing off human life. The set-up of this story reminds me of a Star Trek episode, what with the search for a way to live in harmony, but some of the syncretic religious elements are fairly interesting.
  • A Place Where Fate is Determined: The story of a “Non-Player Character” in a role-playing game.

Pan Haitian’s English name is Peter, which at first glance you’d be inclined to chalk up to an unfortunate coincidence. However, Peter Pan has decided to make the connection to his literary namesake explicit with a pull-out illustration of a boy on a pirate ship. Nothing to do with the book’s contents, I’m afraid.