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Interview: Yan Ge, an Emerging Sichuanese Writer on the Task of Translation

2016-12-28 18:37:53 Yue Xin

Born in Sichuan in 1984, Yan Ge’s writing career was launched when she won the national New Concept Writing Competition in 2002. Set in contemporary Chinese with a historical context, her strongly Sichuan-based realist fiction works concentrate on warmth, humour and razor-sharp insights on squabbling families and small-town life. Having received various awards including Chinese Literature Media Prize, Mao Dun New Writer Literature Prize and many more, she is a rising star of contemporary Chinese literature who has published more than 10 novels and attracted wide readership domestically and abroad.

As a writer of a new generation, she has exchanged with writers internationally, attended literary talks, with names such as Jeanette Winterson and Nicky Harman. Having living in Dublin for few years away from home, she views her Chinese roots and culture in a different light. So far, her works have been translated into English and Italian, and will be available in French soon.

On 16th December for the Found in Translation event, as part of the China Changing Festival, at Southbank Centre, she was one of three on a panel discussing contemporary Chinese fiction, with Hong Ying, and Guo Xiaolu. We invited her prior to the discussion to talk more about writing, her cultural encounters, and the challenges of translation.

From right to left: translator Helen Wang, Yan Ge, Guo Xiaolu and Hong Ying

Q1, You have attended lots of readings and meetings at universities in the West and had exciting talks with Western writers. What’s been your biggest gains from these talks?

There was one particular moment that left quite an impression on my mind when I was attending a literary event in Macau. The main guests were Spanish and Portuguese writers, and as I barely know anything about that region of literature, I felt slightly awkward. Though, after the event when we were having dinner together to ease the situation I decided to mention a book that we’d all know. I chose Garcia Marquez’s A Hundred Years of Solitude, what surprised me was that each writer immediately recited the first sentence of the book in their mother tongue. I’m was so touched and felt that literature could unite us all.

I met an Irish poet this year in Dublin. He told me about his favorite Chinese poet “Tofu”, from the name I really couldn’t figure out who he referring to. Later I realized he was talking about one of China’s greatest poets, Du Fu. He went on to explain the many reasons why he liked Du’s poems, which moved me greatly because I feel that classical Chinese literature is hard to translate and understand for an English-speaking poet like him. Coincidently as I’m from Chengdu, I told him more about Du Fu’s life and the cultural sites in the city that are built in memory of him.

Q2, You have adopted the usage of the local Sichuan dialect in your stories that are based in a small town, the term “Po Niang” is an example. How challenging is it for the translator to find the appropriate word in their language?

“Po Niang” is commonly used by Sichuan men to call women, sometimes their wives, in a very condescending and rude way. But in English it can only be translated to “woman” so the typical characteristics and original meaning of it gets lost. The translator explained a principle to me: always add the meaning to the place where there’s anything lost through translation. Although it’s impossible to express the meaning accurately, some other phrases or connotations still can be added to make the reader perceive that the tone of the whole sentence is impolite at all. It’s impossible to find the exact correspondence for each word.

Yan Ge's novel: Sad stories from Pingle Township

Q3, Lots of your stories are about your hometown - a small town called Pixian in Sichuan, but now you are based in Ireland, travelling a lot and away from the place that has shaped your cultural identity and memories. Will this influence your writing?

Of course. I do rely on materials I gathered and the interviews I conducted, but now I’m a little worried about finding writing resources in Ireland. I already told the publisher in China that after finishing this novel that I’m now working on, I will definitely change the content of my writing. Actually I’m so far away from the countryside life in Pixian and I feel I am quite different compared to how I felt when I was in China.

Q4, You’ve mentioned in a previous interview that you write in English from time to time, do you have any new experiences to share? Can we expect your novel to be written in English in the future?

To publish an English novel is very difficult. The truth is that most of my English writing doesn’t count as creative writing so far. I think the biggest problem to write in English is not the barrier of language itself but the object. The readership will be English-speaking groups who haven’t shared the same cultural background with me. So it’s very important to make sure about the narrative voice that I choose. As a Chinese writer, regardless if I write in English or not, I’d write China-themed stories or stories including Chinese characters. So, currently I’m still thinking about of what story I want to tell, whether it’s about sharing knowledge about things that are interesting that few people know about or rather more fundamental and substantial experiences? If I haven’t figured out these problems, I will not choose this step.

Q5, What it is like being translated? Do you care about how your work gets translated? Are you interested in reading it and do you read it?

I can’t read any other translations except the English one. I do think that translation is something that mainly belongs to the translators themselves. I don’t really want to consider myself as a “mother” of this product. I think translation is like the revision of the original narrative, the language, and the wording system that the translator will pick. So I don’t want to put too much of my personal feelings as a writer into that.

I think for a writer, if it’s really close with the thing that the writer tries to represent, for example when the writer is more culturally specific, in terms of language and regions then it’s more difficult to translate.

As a writer of a particular language, you actually want to get closer to the language. But the closer you get to the language, the more difficult you can get it fairly translated. So I think that’s just a paradox since I’ve been reading some works of Irish writers in Dublin. By reading literature of the place I’m living in helps me romanticize the place and relieve daily suffering. For those writers whose works that have moved me, I can’t imagine their works being translated into Chinese.

When I firstly arrived in Ireland, I was staying in the West. And I was so fascinated because what I read was not my definition of the works of an “English writer”. Because for me, English literature in some way equals American literature. I don’t think Irish writers should be categorized as English writers. I was shocked as I was always imagining, how could it to be translated into Chinese, because I wanted it to passed on to Chinese readers in general and for them to be touched. I think it’s nearly impossible to translate.

For example, I’m reading Solar Bones by Mike McCormack which was merely composed by one sentence and only one period in the end. It’s highly acclaimed but from my point of view, it’s really impossible for it to be translated into Chinese. So sometimes I feel this is such an enormous challenge that anyone who puts their mind to the task of translating any given word from one language to another is a hero/heroin.

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