Xu: Translators to 'globalize' Chinese literature

By staff reporter Xu Lin
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China.org.cn, September 2, 2013
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Renowned translator Xu Mingqiang, former editor-in-chief of the Foreign Languages Press and former CEO & editor-in-chief of Long River Press. [File photo]

With the launch of The First China International Translation Contest 2013, China.org.cn had an exclusive interview with renowned translator Xu Mingqiang, former editor-in-chief of the Foreign Languages Press and former CEO & editor-in-chief of Long River Press, USA. He offered his views on the criteria for and difficulties in literary translating, and gave suggestions on how China can "go global" in literature.

Q: This contest is about the translation of short stories, categorized as literature translation. What are the criteria for a sound translation? If we say that other categories of translation focus on "faithfulness" and "expressiveness," is "elegance" more important in translating literature?

A: There are different criteria for a good translation. Yan Fu (1854-1921), forerunner of the Chinese translators, set three criteria for a good translation: Faithfulness, expressiveness and elegance. This could be applied to all translations, but in different categories, their order of importance would differ. For instance, law translation requires first of all faithfulness, having very little to do with elegance; cultural translation needs expressiveness in the first place, that is, the translation has to be understood by the reader and the facts must be stuck to and the language must have flavor; for literature translation, the story must be fluent and enjoyable, with an elegant use of language, whereas faithfulness or accuracy are not that important.

Q: Comparing with other categories of translation, what are the difficulties of literature translation? In terms of Chinese-English translation, who has the advantage? The native English speaker who knows Chinese or the native Chinese speaker who knows English? Why?

A: Translation breaks down into many categories, but literature translation from Chinese into foreign languages is the most difficult type. In most cases, people do translations from foreign languages into their mother tongue. This is simply because it is much easier to command one's own language than any foreign language and also to translate on a more idiomatic level. China is one of the very few countries that are capable of doing translation from its mother tongue into foreign languages. It is practically OK for the kind of translations such as government documents, business contracts, scientific paper, cultural stories and tourist materials, but not for literature.

The requirement of elegance makes literature translation the most difficult for non-native speakers. Literature translation requires the translator to have a strong command of the target language, or the translator himself/herself is a literary writer, because literature translation is in fact creative writing itself. Of course, the translator must also be good at the source language, so he/she must be good at two ends, but even better at the target end. The translator has to know the cultural and political backgrounds of the target country, its economic and social life as well as its idiomatic expressions. For instance, the language a professor uses is definitely different from that used by the common man in the street, and the language used on formal occasions, cursing words, angry terms, cynical expressions and proverb usages are all barriers for translators. However, these are not things that we cannot overcome.

Q: Mo Yan received the Nobel Prize in Literature, shaking up the world of literature. Good translation helped him a lot in winning. Is there anything we can learn from Mo's success for Chinese culture to "go global?" However, the current situation of Asian literature's translation, including that of Chinese literature, is still not optimistic. Why is that?

A: Literature plays an important role in the mutual understanding between different peoples. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Chinese readers began to read Western literature, especially that stemming from Britain, France and U.S., and revolutionary and war fictions from the former Soviet Union influenced one or two generations of Chinese in the early 1950s. Today, new literary works are introduced into China as soon as they appear on the foreign markets. Through reading literature, readers are able to know more about the alien culture, politics, society, lifestyle and even philosophical backgrounds.

At the same time, many fine Chinese literature works, mainly in classical literature, have been introduced to the Western world and Eastern Asian countries. Comparatively, however, we import more and export less. This, to some extent, is the limitation of translation.

Sinologists in the world have done a very good job in introducing Chinese culture and literature to the world, and China’s renowned translators have also tried their best in such translation. A very interesting thing people may notice is that a good number of sinologists must have had some connections with China or Chinese families. Either they married a Chinese citizen or they have lived on the Chinese mainland or Taiwan for a long time -- like Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi, Sidney Shapiro and Fengzi, Anna Gustafsson Chen and Chen Maiping. They worked together as a husband-wife translating team to complement each other in their language skills.

Since China began its reform and opened its doors to the outside world in the late 1970s, Chinese literature creation has entered a new era. Contemporary Chinese literature, in particular, is what foreign readers are most interested in. Chinese Literature magazine translated many good pieces of classical and modern literature into English from the 1950s to the 1990s, Rendition in Hong Kong offers Chinese literary criticism and translations, while the new Pathlight carries translations of contemporary Chinese short stories and poems. Chinese and foreign publishers have also published many Chinese works in recent years. On-line publishing has also provided a new platform for literature translation.

Mo Yan received the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, and this indeed helps with the popularity of Chinese literature in the world. There have been fine writers in China generation after generation, but only very few are known outside of China. Why? They are not promoted overseas and their works are seldom published in foreign countries. Now the government is driving literature to "go global," but there are not many literature translators. Mo Yan won the award; his Swedish translator Anna Chen did a great job for him. It is said that she spent six years on the translation of one piece of Mo Yan's writing. She just loved doing it. Without translators like Anna Chen, Mo Yan's writing would not be accessible in foreign languages and he wouldn’t have had the honor to appear at the ceremony. For many established Chinese writers, they have their literary agents overseas to deal with translators and publishers, but for the majority of new authors goes that they need help from translators and publishers.

Q: What's the biggest significance of this contest? How to raise the popularity of Chinese literature in the world?

A: Generally speaking, China needs more translators to introduce Chinese literature to other countries. We are happy to see that many foreign students studying the Chinese language end up in doing translations. Most of the translators for the new Pathlight are foreign or "ABC," for instance. At the same time, we need to ignite the interest of more people in doing or learning translation. The First China International Translation Contest 2013 is certainly a new event organized for this purpose and also provides opportunities for new translators to practice their skills.

Q: Based on your translation practice and experience, what's your suggestion for young translators? What should they do to become experts in translation?

A: Literature translators cannot be trained once and be done; there is no shortcut. They become literature translators through much learning and reading. Once a college graduate asked Yang Xianyi how he could improve his English and become a translator. Yang answered, "Go back to read at least one hundred literary works in original English, and then come back to me." I guess after reading so many writings in English, the young man must have understood what Yang meant or may even have become a good translator himself by now.

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