Translator and blogger Bruce Humes has worked to advance global interest in borderland fiction from China, often spotlighting voices from Altaic cultural perspectives. This work began with his English translation of Last Quarter of the Moon by Chi Zijian, a novel about the Tungusic-speaking Evenki.
Earlier in his career, Humes translated literature reflecting China’s mainstream urban culture. His work on the novel Shanghai Baby by Wei Hui, published in English in 2001 and a bestseller in Hong Kong and Singapore, is a notable example. The original novel was banned in the People’s Republic of China not simply for what was then considered its shockingly bold depictions of sexual acts, but because Hui was the first female author to unabashedly detail the protagonist’s experience—orgasms and all—from the woman’s point of view.
More recently, Humes took an interest in Xinjiang, a huge autonomous region in westernmost China, long populated by a variety of ethnicities including Turkic peoples, Mongols, and Han. Since the Urumqi riots in 2009, a series of crackdowns began, aimed at diluting religious practice and snuffing out any hint of separatism. In August of last year, the United Nations reported that more than a million Uighur Muslims now endure mass incarceration and are undergoing forcibly administered “re-education” programs. The infrastructure, largely constructed with great haste during 2017 and 2018, comprises what is now arguably a network of internment camps that has been likened to the infamous Soviet gulag political prisons of Siberia.
Humes and I talked via email while I reviewed his translation of Alat Asem’s novel Confessions of a Jade Lord for the English-language Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah.
The Millions: How did you come across this book to translate? Describe your process working with co-translator Jun Liu.
Bruce Humes: I launched my blog in 2009. Until recently, I kept a close watch on new novels about China’s ethnic minorities published in the PRC in Chinese, often introducing them on my site via interviews with authors and translators, book reviews, and, occasionally, by translating and posting an excerpt.
I translated Chi Zijian’s Last Quarter of the Moon, a tragic novel about the twilight of the Evenki, reindeer herders of northeast China, that was published in 2013. Chi Zijian is a monolingual Han author writing about the Tungusic-speaking Evenki; that is to say, she is unavoidably an outsider looking in. Since then, I’ve tried to focus on non-Han authors writing about their own people. And while the source text is inevitably in Chinese, I do try to translate non-Han authors who speak the language of their own people. For example, last year I translated The Mongol Would-Be Self-Immolator, an excerpt from a novel by an author who grew up in China’s Inner Mongolia, and spoke mainly Mongolian until his early teens.
I set my heart on learning a language indigenous to one of the peoples who have traditionally lived on the borders of the Chinese empire, so that I could gain more insight into their way of life, rather than perceiving them through Chinese eyes, as it were. I chose a Turkic language and left for Ankara—and eventually Antalya and Istanbul—where I studied modern Turkish. Just before I left, I came across Alat Asem’s latest novel set in Xinjiang, Confessions of a Jade Lord, which won the Jun Ma Literature Prize for Ethnic Minority Writers in 2016. Knowing that he is Uighur, and that Uighur is a Turkic language, I took it with me to Turkey where I read it.
Having already translated two novels on my own, I decided that this time I would experiment by working with a native Chinese co-translator. I chose Jun Liu, a mainlander who emigrated to New Zealand several years ago, partly because she had done an excellent job of proofreading my draft of Last Quarter of the Moon, and partly because she actually prefers to translate into English. I suggested that we work like a literary translation duo I know personally, Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz: She drafts a chapter, sends it to him, and he edits it. He drafts a different chapter, sends it to her for an edit, and so on, back and forth, until they both agree that a given version is up to snuff.
There are some obvious benefits to this approach: My co-translator could immediately detect when I had misinterpreted the original, while I could catch her minor spelling or grammatical errors, and more subtly, tweak the overall register of the text. More generally, I felt I could be more daring in my first rendition, knowing that Jun would catch any mistranslation or misdirection based on my ignorance of things Chinese. In the end, I felt our collaboration made for fresher language and a more creative final text, since it incorporated the vocabulary—and cultures—of two translators from very different backgrounds.
TM: In the context of the current humanitarian crises in Xinjiang, where traditional Uighur customs are increasingly perceived as “un-Chinese” and thus taboo, do you think Alat Asem would still write a book like Confessions today, explicitly referencing Muslim Uighur cultural norms?
BH: I don’t know if Alat Asem would choose to write Confessions now as he wrote it several years ago, some time prior to publication in 2013. Nor do I know if it could be published today—in China—if it were submitted to a publisher.
The reason: A severe and wide-ranging crackdown has been underway throughout Xinjiang since 2017. Its targets are not perfectly clear but appear mainly to be any resident who could be considered a practicing Muslim, a supporter of greater autonomy for Xinjiang, those with separatist sentiments, and, generally, non-Han residents whose lifestyle appears more traditional Turkic than mainstream Chinese.
As of early January 2018, hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, and smaller numbers of other Turkic peoples of Xinjiang, such as Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, have reportedly been incarcerated in newly built camps scattered throughout Xinjiang. This has been widely reported now in the West, in respected media such as The Economist, The New York Times and The Guardian.
What is not so well-known is that well over one hundred Uighur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz scholars, translators, and writers have also reportedly been sent to these camps for incarceration and indoctrination. News of their incarceration has been tweeted by organizations such as Concerned Scholars of Xinjiang, and detailed in articles in The New York Times, and scholars of Uighur culture such as Rachel Harris and Darren Byler.
Given this situation, Alat Asem might well think twice about writing such a novel or trying to get it published right now. Not because Confessions contains problematic text per se—I’m not a reliable judge—but it is evident that even Uighur artists, scholars, and writers who have long toed the Party line in their writing can easily end up incarcerated. Historically, particularly during anti-rightest campaigns in the ’50s, and even more so during the Cultural Revolution (1965-75), published writing has often been used as proof of “unPC” thinking. That said, I have had no news whatsoever indicating that the author has encountered any problems, and, after all, he is a member of the CCP, and deputy chairman of the Xinjiang branch of the China Writers Association.
TM: On the copyright page of Confessions, there is a credit for Nurahmat Ahat for his contribution as the Uighur Culture Consultant. What role did he play in the translation process?
BH: From the start, I intended to hire a bilingual Uighur in order to ensure that we understood and could accurately translate references to Uighur culture in Xinjiang. Nurahmat Ahat is Uighur, grew up in Xinjiang, and is an academic with a useful knowledge of languages such as English, Turkish, and Arabic, who was doing archaeological research at the time.
He ended up doing much more than that, however. In particular, at my behest he translated the literal meanings of all the characters’ names. In the original Chinese text, many of the names were simply transliterations of Uighur sounds; most Chinese readers, not knowing any Turkic tongue, would have no idea of what these names actually meant in Uighur.
I was aware that Uighur men often give one another humorous, even insulting, lifelong nicknames during heavy drinking sessions, and I wanted to know exactly what those names meant. As a result, my co-translator and I had several options for naming any given character: We could use the sound only, the Uighur sound plus a partial translation of the actual meaning, the meaning only, or even create a new, humorous name that was more or less a wordplay on the original. This undoubtedly makes the novel a lot richer and more fun, and most importantly added a genuine Uighur touch to it. It should also be noted that since some of these names were not explained in Chinese in the original, the English reader is therefore privy to a bit of wit and “Uighur-ness” that a Chinese reader of the novel did not enjoy.
TM: Are the capitalizations of key words reflected in the original Chinese?
BH: No. My co-translator and I simply felt that those words, like Dawn, Wind, and Night, had a fable-like feeling to them, and were characters unto themselves, so we decided to capitalize them. Similarly, we tended to italicize dream-like sequences, which was not the case in the original text.
TM: And why did you choose to transliterate—rather than translate—certain Uighur terms?
BH: That’s a good question, and underscores one of the things that gives the novel a somewhat unique flavor. Or so we hope.
I was influenced in doing so, first of all, by Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, which featured 125 or so Dari and Arabic words frequently used in Afghanistan. In my eyes, this slightly exotic touch was a plus for two reasons: It served to remind the reader that we are in Afghanistan, and these characters are Afghani (not English-speaking Westerners). And secondly, by making the reader commit these phrases to memory—the terms were generally defined by context or translation only upon first mention—it subtly engaged the reader in the story.
Chi Zijian also used this technique in her Last Quarter of the Moon, and I found it quite engaging there as well. She used Evenki terms for place names and certain cultural icons in particular.
Frankly speaking, we took this to a new level in Confessions, because many of the terms—perhaps most—that we Romanized in the novel were conveyed mainly or entirely by standard Chinese in the original. They appeared frequently throughout, and I felt that they conveyed something essentially Uighur, so we used transliteration to underline this.
They included: various terms for friend/brother (adash, aghine); foods such as süt chay (milk tea); rexmet (thanks); terms for respected jade mafiosi (Ghojam, Xojayin); karwat (a rectangular couch-like piece of furniture for lounging indoors or outside in the shade); ghilap pichaq (dagger), religious terms such as Sheytan (Satan) and kafan (cloth used in Muslim burial); and, of course, aq qashtishi (mutton-fat jade, suet).
TM: The book is billed as a pulpy work of noir, with its mafia-like jade dealers reveling in money, liquor and whole roasted lamb, but Asem conveys a significant amount of wisdom, both seemingly gleaned from Muslim and Chinese polytheistic (e.g. Taoist) cultures. The middle of the book, which is filled with scenes of Eysa’s homecoming, is bulging with spiritual writing, while towards the end the tone transforms into something utopian, harmonious, and almost one-dimensional. Does this overarching tone speak to the lack of free expression in Chinese letters, where authors like Asem are repressed to the extent that they may not convey more dynamic human drama?
BH: Frankly speaking, I’m not sure how to answer. I did feel that the ending of the novel was a bit Hollywoodesque, i.e., all’s well that ends well. It’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that he tweaked the ending to get the novel as a whole past the censors.
But my impression was that the author wanted to convey—and contrast—three very different sides of his people in a single story: the intense bonds of brotherhood established at their firewater-fueled feasts where stories are told and monikers that belittle are born; the materialism, greed, and violence that has come to dominate the jade trade; and the Uighur’s philosophical bent, which while strongly influenced by Sufism (considered a form of Islamic mysticism by some), also reflects their pre-Islamic faiths that include Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism.
TM: Did you enjoy Confessions as a reader?
BH: Absolutely, otherwise I wouldn’t have translated it. One of the reasons I became interested in Alat Asem is a fascinating interview he did (somewhat ominously no longer accessible at its original URL), in which he spoke at length about how he enjoys experimenting with a new kind of language in his writing. He is bilingual and even today, speaks with a thick Uighur accent—we’ve spoken Mandarin over the phone—and he writes in both Chinese and Uighur.
He spoke in some detail about how he toys with his prose in order to endow his Chinese with a Uighur ambience. On the back of the printed paperback, I described his writing as “a hybrid lingo with an odd but appealing Central Asian flavor.”
In his own unique way, Alat Asem creates his own Uighur universe, and we benefit from this glimpse into his world—realistic or not—where Han Chinese rarely figure and real men piss standing, not squatting, and unsheathe their daggers when honor, brotherhood, or jade require.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.