Not all readers in China, accustomed as they are to the male-centered discourse of traditional Chinese literature, can appreciate Chen Ran's feminine and individualized narrative style.
But John Howard-Gibbon, a Canadian teacher who is now working as a copy-editor at China Daily, said he feels perfectly at home with Chen's sensitive and challenging prose and the ideas and emotions to be explored therein.
In fact, Howard-Gibbon has translated Chen Ran's only novel to date -- A Private Life -- into English, and the book will be published by Columbia University Press this April. In his translation, Howard-Gibbon adeptly conveys the exquisiteness, richness and slight eccentricity of Chen's prose.
During our interview, he impressed me with his shy but beaming smile when he talked about the little aesthetic thrills he encountered in translating A Private Life.
"The happiest moments in translation work come when you feel that you have caught the full subtlety and intricacy of the original in your translation."
Poetry is perhaps the most difficult thing to translate successfully.
Howard-Gibbon remembers very clearly how much time he spent on some passages from Yi Lei's poetry that Chen quotes in the very beautiful chapter of the novel describing an evening Ni Niuniu spends with her friend and mentor, the Widow Ho; and he remembers, too, how pleased he was, and still is, with the result. Here is one of the passages:.
Graft me everywhere into your skin
So we shall bloom together in profusion.
Let my lips become the petals of your flowers,
Let your leaves become my waving hair,
Your earthen hues become my breath,
And I shall be seen in all things.
Passages like this, he said, both challenged and delighted him and gave him a taste of the kind of satisfaction that comes with knowing you are participating in the dynamic process of self expression.
Despite his diffidence, he does not doubt his abilities in language learning.
He recalls completing first-year Japanese in only two months at Stanford University, in California, obtaining a score of 96 percent in the final exam.
But of course the foreign language he has firmest mastery of is Chinese.
He studied both classical and modern Chinese, a language he found so charming that he translated the play Tea House (Chaguan), one of the masterpieces of famous Chinese writer Lao She, in 1980. The translation was reprinted last year by Foreign Languages Press.
When questioned about his ability to deal with Chen Ran's language and viewpoint, Howard-Gibbon said he is "a bit on the feminine side" himself.
"I used to avoid going to the cinema, because I often lose control and cry like a baby when watching movies. Quite embarrassing."
And he confessed that like Chen and her heroines, he finds it hard to fit in.
"I have not liked being a member of a group ever since my childhood. When I was in the primary school, all of my classmates joined the Boy Scouts, but I refused. The only club I ever joined in my life was a motorcycle club, and I lasted one meeting."
Chen Ran is very impressed with the seriousness of Howard-Gibbon. "I don't speak English," said Chen, "but I was really impressed to see the many notes he jotted down every time he came to ask me about the novel."
(China Daily March 1, 2004)