The Moon Is Beautiful Tonight: On East Asian Narratives

1. Once a conversation with an Australian friend surprised me; she told me that Haruki Murakami, the world-famous Japanese novelist, struck her as “very Japanese.” “But why?” I puzzled, thinking of the Western pop culture references sprinkled throughout his works and his Englishized prose style. “Many of his stories don’t have a real conflict,” she said. “Like in 1Q84, you feel all those surreal elements are built up for something, but in the end, nothing really happens. Even the romance between Tengo and Aomame ends up half-baked.” That day, we were talking about story structure. I told her that very often my workshop friends comment that my stories don’t contain conflict. Their critique reminds me of the East Asian story-telling convention—at the risk of generalization, we tend to generate a plot without using conflict. As opposed to the West’s five-act or three-act, the term Kishōtenketsu is often used to describe the development of a classic East Asian narrative. It includes four different acts: introduction (ki), development (shō), twist (ten), and conclusion (ketsu). Introduction and development are comparable, though only slightly, to exposition and rising action, and conclusion to denouement. There’s not a climax that determines the character’s fate one way or the other in this setup. In fact, the present story in many East Asian narrative remains largely unaffected by the turbulent emotions roiling inside the characters. Then, you may wonder, what’s the point of storytelling? Isn’t that boring? It’s still intriguing. Take the great Japanese writer, Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Key. Written in diary form, the novel grapples with the sexual fantasies an elderly man harbors towards his wife, 11 years his junior, and his wife’s towards their daughter’s boyfriend. Both the husband and the wife lock their diaries in drawers, leaving the keys out purposefully—they hope the other will peek. The story is saturated with the couples’ intense suspicions of one another. Reading the book for a third time, I still found myself hooked till the very last page. However, Tanizaki’s work doesn’t involve a conflict in the Western sense. The disconnection between the couple doesn’t escalate into a separation or a divorce. Even though the wife admits she hates her husband, she still succumbs to his lust and even takes an active part occasionally. The husband eventually suffers a stroke and dies, not because he learns about his wife’s adultery, but because of his own long-time debaucheries. Therefore, the husband’s death functions more as a twist than a climax leading to a falling action. The story has no confrontation. For example, when the daughter moves out, she does so under the guise of wanting a quiet place to study. The mother suspects the real reason but the family never discusses it overtly. The family remains unbroken, at least in appearance. A similar use of alternating narrations divulging the miscommunication in a relationship can be found in quite a few Anglo-American novels: Evan S. Connell’s Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, and, most recently, Margot Livesey’s Mercury. But, unlike Tanizaki’s work, these stories tend to create a dramatic build that invites a self-revelation. Take Mercury. Donald, the husband, gradually realizes that he and his wife, Viv, have grown so apart that she needs a gun to protect her real love, a horse. Their disconnection, the core conflict, is slowly revealed and climbs to an irrevocable moment, the climax—Viv fires the gun and shoots Donald’s friend. The relationship is thus damaged: Viv goes to the jail, leaving Donald unsure about his feelings. All those inner emotions breed the characters’ actions, which in turn transform the family dynamic. The narrative is thus an analytical search for the reason why their intimacy falls apart—since when did they stop listening to each other? Fates and Furies, set in a more traditional matrimony in which the wife assumes a domestic role while the husband works to support the family, also dedicates itself to uncovering the hidden face of a relationship. The wife’s side of the story wrenches apart the husband’s golden boy formula and indicates that she’s the real puppeteer of the “happy marriage.” Both novels are seeking the “truth.” In The Key, by contrast, the disconnection between the couple is established as a premise rather than a conclusion: Ikuko, my beloved wife! I don’t know whether or not you will read this. There is no use asking, since you would surely say that you don’t do such things. But if you should, please believe that this is no fabrication, that every word of it is sincere. I won’t insist any further—that would seem all the more suspicious. The diary itself will bear witness to its own truth. This is from the husband’s first letter. It’s clear the couple lack mutual trust at the beginning of the story. In that regard, Tanizaki has no interest in discovering an underrepresented or repressed voice or exploring a mystery within the relationship. He cares more about the dark psychology of human beings: the pleasure we take from jealousy and infidelity, and our sadistic tendencies. Unlike his Western counterparts, Tanizaki isn’t using the case of a problematic marriage to teach a lesson. The dark side of humanity is what all of us are born with; a mishandled past trauma or a long-time subjugation are both oversimplifying the complications of relationship. In Tiger Writing, Gish Jen uses the word “interdependent” to describe the East Asian mode of self-conception, as opposed to the “independent,” the West’s mode: The first—the “independent,” individualistic self-stresses uniqueness, defines itself via inherent attributes such as its traits, abilities, values, and preferences, and tends to see things in isolation. The second—the “interdependent,” collectivist self-stresses commonality, defines itself via its place, roles, loyalties, and duties, and tends to see things in context. As a Chinese woman, I am surprised to see Alicia Florrick in The Good Wife dare say to her in-law, “Next time you want to see your grandchildren, you give me a call.” Likewise, American audiences may consider those East Asian women who are obedient to their in-laws’ unreasonable commands weak and cowardly. At the danger of stereotyping, according to our conventions, those women are strong and mature because they embrace a holistic picture of family and understand that humility is the key to a harmonious life. Gish Jen also talks about her father’s distinct memoir-writing mode. After describing the Chinese traditional morning-greeting rituals, she concludes: This is not a modern, linear world of conflict and rising action, but rather one of harmony and eternal, cyclical action, in which order, ritual, and peace are beauty, and events spell, not excitement or progress, but disruption. Stormy as the relationship in The Key is, the marriage remains stable—the couple copes with the commotions of life within an orderly framework. A peaceful, present story—like the rituals in East Asian everyday life—is thought beautiful. 2. The plot difference in these modes of writing also brews structure variance. Very often, the wandering quality of East Asian stories confuses and bothers readers from outside this context. Matteo Pericoli, viewing The Key through the lens of architecture, compares its structure to “two buildings made of huge fin walls whose cantilevering floor slabs slide into the other’s like the pages of two books.” According to him: The floors of the “double” building therefore alternate, as though one of the buildings has even numbered floors and the other only odd. To go from one level to the next—say, from the fifth to the sixth floor—we’d have to go downstairs, exit one building, enter the other, and go back upstairs. To Pericoli, this is a “huge” and also “meaningless” effort. I can see his point, but again I notice the structure difference roots from our distinct ways of thinking. But what if Ikuko reads this, what will she be likely to do? Will she worry about me, and try to control her sexual instinct? I hardly think so. Even if her reason demanded it, her insatiable body would refuse to comply. Short of my collapse, she will never stop insisting on gratification. Doubtless she will ask herself why I am writing this. “He seemed to be doing so well lately,” she will think; “but he’s been forced to give in, hasn’t he? I suppose he means to frighten me, so that I’ll be less demanding.” The Key is full of similar fantasies where the narrator projects his thoughts onto his wife and even presumes her response in order to modify his imaginative behaviors. Paranoid though it may seem, this psychology is very typical in East Asian culture as I experience it—we tend to make conjectures about others’ reactions to the extent that we can be trapped in our endless imaginations, rarely taking action. Last year when I came to the U.S. for the first time, I struggled to ask American friends for a ride, even though they expressed their willingness to help—“Just give me a call.” But I didn’t dare ask, afraid that my need would inconvenience them. In China, the car owner would ask me each time she goes out—“Jianan, I’ll go get groceries from Walmart this afternoon. Would you like to come along?” As you can see, it’s the car owner who foresees my reluctance to bother her and thus makes a further move to anticipate my need. In the fabulous Japanese film director, Shunji Iwai’s 1995 movie, Love Letter: it is only after the main character passes away that his dream girl finally discovers he loved her, when she finds her name written on numerous library cards in their high school. Recently a story went viral in China and Japan; it tells of a Japanese programmer who coded the name of his love into a video game he’d invented. But he never confessed his love, remaining single in his entire life. “But why?” I remembered my American peers widening their eyes when I told such stories. It’s not the humiliation we may suffer if being turned down, but the concern that passions might upset the loved ones’ harmonious life—we don’t want our personal happiness or sadness to become their psychological burden. We prefer doing “small, good things” (Raymond Carver) to brighten up their days without asking for anything in return. This one-sided caring, or so-called “pure love,” is considered the highest form of romance in East Asian culture. Jun’ai, the Japanese word for “pure love,” means “genuine, dedicated love” according to the Japanese dictionary. Turning to Tanizaki’s work, readers are urged to journey back and forth between the husband's and wife’s respective projections and even paranoias; how many of them are true remains a mystery. Again, Tanizaki has no interest in diagnosing the marriage; he embraces a larger scope: because our ways of communication can never do justice to the chaotic, ambivalent, and ever-changing human mind, mutual understanding becomes a luxury we can ill afford. [millions_ad] 3. Apart from the recursive quality of narrative that may read as repetition or lack of focus to Western readers, the profusion of objects and details in East Asian texts may also seem unnecessary and baffling. One critique I often receive from my workshop is that I need to trim down certain details in my writing, particularly in the beginning. I didn’t understand why the slow pace bothered my American peers until, again, I stumbled upon a very similar narrative mode used by Gish Jen’s father. “Written over the period of a month and totaling thirty-two pages, it does not begin à la David Copperfield with ‘I was born’; in what we will come to recognize as true interdependent style, my father does not, in fact, mention his birth at all.” (Gish Jen, Tiger Writing.) Instead, Gish’s father opens with an elaborate family history and a comprehensive depiction of their household—another example of an interdependent mind. Different from Western stories that value the personal, concrete textures of life, a successful East Asian fiction must relate to a larger social-historical picture. I enjoyed reading Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” in The New Yorker recently, but it also struck me that if the same story was written by a Chinese writer, it probably wouldn’t receive the same amount of attention. Right from the beginning, it is clear that the story would focus on a woman’s personal dating experience: Margot met Robert on a Wednesday night toward the end of her fall semester. She was working behind the concession stand at the artsy movie theatre downtown when he came in and bought a large popcorn and a box of Red Vines. In her 1943 story titled “Sealed off,” Eileen Chang, a then emerging Chinese writer, dealt with a very similar subject matter—romance as a game between narcissism and self-pity and women’s one-sided creation of the object of their love. By contrast, Chang’s story opens with almost a panorama of the people living in that moment, which may seem clunky next to the concise opening of “Cat Person:” The tramcar driver drove his tram. The tramcar tracks, in the blazing sun, shimmered like two shiny worms oozing out from water: stretch, then shrink, stretch, then shrink. Soft and slippery, long old worms, slinking on and on and on…the driver stared at the wriggling rails, and did not go mad. The tramcar would have gone on forever, if the city hadn’t been shut down. It was. The streets were sealed off. “Ding-ding-ding-ding” rang the bell. Each “ding” was a small, cold dot: dot after dot, they formed a line that cut through space and time. The tramcar stopped, but the people on the street started rushing around: those on the left rushed over to the right, those on the right rushed over to the left. The metal shop gates came rattling down, all in a single sweep. Matrons tugged madly at the bars. “Let us in!” they cried. “At least for a little while! There are children here, and old people too!” But the gates stayed tightly shut. The two sides glared at one another through the bars, feeding off each other’s fear. On the tram, people were fairly calm. They had somewhere to sit, and though the tram interior was shabby, it was still quite a bit better, for most passengers, than their rooms at home. Chang goes on and on to portray almost every passenger in the tramcar; in fact, the main characters, Wu Cuiyuan and Lu Zongzhen don’t appear until seven paragraphs later. These seemingly redundant descriptions extend the themes. The story is set in Japanese Occupied Shanghai, when Japanese authorities often blocked the road to search and arrest underground resistance fighters—thereby “Sealed Off.” It is in this very short time and on this temporarily stopped tramcar, two strangers, out of pure boredom, begin to flirt and even think they are in love. Chang doesn’t only show women’s particular anxieties when embarking upon a romance, but also the general selfishness and indifference of people—even war fails to make them compassionate. Without this elaborate opening and an echoing ending, the story would be too narrow to hold standing in modern Chinese literature. One famous anecdote of Sōseki Natsume, an outstanding Japanese novelist in the Meiji period, follows that he taught his students the appropriate Japanese translation for “I love you” should be “The moon is beautiful tonight, isn’t it?”  East Asian stories lay great emphasis on the richness of themes, which, too, may derive from our unique ways of communication, where “beating around the bush” is common, to avoid any possible conflict and embarrassment. Similar cultural implications are embedded in our stories to channel our emotions, but it is often the case that Western readers fail to decipher them and are thus bewildered and even bored. A striking example is the translation of the 1968 Nobel Prize laureate Yasunari Kawabata’s early masterpiece, “The Izu Dancer.” Shockingly, the English translation appeared at first in an abridged form; Edward Seidensticker, the translator, streamlined the plot by cutting the parts which he thought irrelevant to the center theme. “The Izu Dancer” mixes elegant reminiscences with lyrical fiction, telling a high school boy’s first romantic encounter with a young traveling performer. Again, it may hardly fit in the West’s category of “love story,” because nothing dramatic ever takes place. The two closest points towards intimacy are perhaps when the Izu dancer addresses the protagonist as “a very nice person” and when she comes to see him off at the port. No kiss, no hug, not even a vocal goodbye; they just keep gazing and waving at each other. After a close study of the curtailed version, I am very sad to find the most scintillating details of this story were all “pruned.” In the opening chapter of the original, the narrator runs into an elderly man in a teahouse. A horrible scene: the man, suffering a stroke years ago, is bruised and swollen all over, as if he was drowned. Beside him stand piles of yellowish letters and moldy medicine bags—he asks every traveler for any potential prescription to cure his illness. The narrator, in a indifferent tone, describes the elderly man as “a monster in the mountain” and says he can’t believe the man is still alive. In the ending chapter, there is an echoing scene cropped in the English. When the narrator boards the return ship, a stranger who looks like a miner asks him to escort an old woman to her destination. After the accidental death of her son and daughter-in-law, she is left with three little grandchildren; she holds a girl with either hand, a baby on her back, “her eyes look empty and miserable.” The narrator agrees to help. In Chinese, we have a particular term to refer to those seemingly unrelated details, Casual Touches (闲笔). We believe the best writers are not those who show a refined mastery of a self-contained story, but who can add beautiful touches here and there effortlessly to stretch and strengthen a story’s meanings. In Kawabata’s case, the two vignettes are crucial to the narrator’s self-awareness. In the beginning, though born into a privileged family in Tokyo, the protagonist loses his parents at an early age. Taking the tragedy personally, he grows cynical and apathetic. (He calls himself a “misanthrope.”) We feel no empathy in his observation of the old sick man. But the love toward the Izu dancer gradually connects him to the lower-class people and to anyone who might previously have seemed unrelated to his life. From the dancer’s family, he realized that most people had suffered, were suffering, and would suffer much more hardship than he had. (Eikichi, the dancer’s elder brother, lost his second child on his performance trip; the Izu Dancer probably wouldn’t avoid entering into prostitution later on.) Therefore, he understands human woes are universal and inevitable. Also, the cheerfulness and kindness of Eikichi’s family moves him, affects him, and revives his capacity to give and love. I did not know when evening came, but there were lights on when we passed Atami. I was hungry and a little chilly. The boy opened his lunch and I ate as though it were mine. Afterwards I covered myself with part of his cape. I floated in a beautiful emptiness, and it seemed natural that I should take advantage of his kindness. Everything sank into an enfolding harmony. In the original, the old woman is mentioned again—she functions like a test for the narrator’s compassions, and thus confirms his maturity. This eventual self-reflection is also trimmed and modified in English. […] I was immersed in a beautiful emptiness. Now I felt free to accept people’s kindness. I imagined taking the elderly woman to get her ticket at Ueno Station. Of course I’d do that. Everything blended into a harmony. In his book review “Orphans,” Mark Morris points out “The Izu Dancer” is about cleansing, purification: “A narrative vision that generates impulses of release, near jouissance, by means of an effacement of adult female sexuality and its replacement by an impossible white void of virginity.” But without those seemingly unessential details, Western readers may take it for granted that Japanese culture—or East Asian culture—worships female virginity in an obsessive, if not morbid, fashion. But Kawabata has carefully built the links between the dancer’s innocence and human kindness and empathy, the protagonist’s personal romantic feelings and his connections to life in a general sense. Sexuality, in this regard, is not the West’s notion to mark a teenager’s independence, to mark the time that he needs to leave his parents and start his own life—Kawabata means quite the opposite, sexuality lifts an individual out of his self-absorption and engages him in a larger social landscape, with his people and country. In East Asian context, the notion of pure love teaches us to give and care with no intention to win or take. “The moon is beautiful tonight, isn’t it?” The line conveys genuine feelings not only because the one who says it is shy, but also because they want to express gratitude to the loved one, as if to say, “you’ve opened my eyes/heart to the beauty of life.” The conventional love in East Asian context doesn’t necessarily culminate in the union of a small family, but in the contribution of harmony of society. Sadly, it is often the case when Westerners find themselves unable to translate our subtleties and inferences, they may tag those as distracting and, if not having the liberty to cut them, would probably skip them altogether. Image Credit: Pexels.

What Gets Lost in Translation Gets Transformed

1. One day before I came to the residency in Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Gu Xiang, a young Chinese novelist, chatted with me in Shanghai: Last week I came across two young men in the countryside. They were both migrant workers in a local factory. Standing on a bridge, they talked about how to get some fish from the stream below. As a young writer craving new stories, I hid myself behind a bush and eavesdropped on their conversation. They came up with quite a few plans, but all were rejected because of the various inconveniences they may cause. For example, they couldn’t fish because they didn’t have a fishing rod. After about three hours of scheming and observing, one man said to the other, well, let’s forget about the whole plan and go home. We can find some eatery to have some fish if we want to. The other man replied, sure, but I don’t think I crave fish. So they headed home. And I ended up with no story. I told Gu what she just said could be developed into a typical Carverian story—a chronicle of blue-collar despair.  However, my response was not a tribute to the great American short story writer but quite the opposite. A boring piece without a real narrative: this formed all my impressions of contemporary American short fiction. Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Richard Yates, and John Updike—the list can be prolonged endlessly—all read very similarly, if not the same, in Chinese translation, and even their different subject matter does not help. They seemed to speak in a unanimous voice about the similar, repetitive, and desperate contemporary American life. Not until I reread these works in English and carefully compared the original texts with Chinese translations did I realize that translation plays a pivotal role in influencing readers’ understanding of these works. It is both interesting and sad to see how the so-called “translation style” has compressed these very different writers into one boring contemporary American voice. The beauty of the language is always the first to go. Perhaps all of us have heard the saying “three moves equal one house fire.” Unfortunately, things can be even more dismal to those writers who build their style on symbols—a single move brings off a catastrophe. Take John Updike’s short story “Separating.” The story is about Richard, who struggles with how to break the news to his children of his separation from his wife. Updike employs at least two major natural images to lay clear Richard’s inner life—the wave and the mountain. Hearing his daughter’s harsh comment on the separation, Richard bursts into tears at the family party. Updike writes, Richard’s crying, like a wave that has created and crashed, had become tumultuous; but it was overtopped by another tumult, for John, who had been so reserved, now grew larger and larger at the table. Except for the challenge a translator has to meet such as some wordplay here (e.g. the alliteration of create and crash, and the stress on the word tumult), the image of the wave is even more tricky because it is linked somewhere later in the story: “They sat on the crest of the rise, shaking and warm from their tears but easier in their voices, and Richard tried to focus on the child’s sad year…” As we all know, crest in English does not only refer to the top of a wave but also the top line of a mountain or a hill. Therefore, the crest here connects with both the afore-mentioned image, “wave” and the later important image, “mountain,” which represents the psychological burden on Richard. When Richard’s wife tells him to deal with Dickie, their mature elder son, in person, Updike depicts Richard’s gloomy moment as “The mountain before him moved closer, moved within him; he was huge, momentous.” Then, after breaking the terrible news to Dickie, Updike says, “He felt immensely lighter, saying this. He had dumped the mountain on the boy.” Clearly, the two symbols here carry significant weight of the tension within the family throughout the story. But it is almost impossible for the Chinese translator to retain the double meaning of the word crest. Having tried his best, Yuan Honggen, the Chinese translator of Updike’s short fiction collection, writes, “They sat on the top of a hill, shaking from their tears while warm in heart…” The abstract connotation of crest becomes a concrete place mark where the party is held. Thus, the Chinese readers are no longer able to track the symbols that are embedded in the story. Of course we can argue whether Yuan’s choice is good enough in terms of rendering the symbolic structure of the short fiction. But one reason why a translator has to forsake some symbols is a simple wish not to let the translation read awkwardly to the target readers. Eudora Welty, the fabulous southern American writer famous for her skillful mastery of symbols, offers another example of how style is flattened in translation. As the translator of her short story “Livvie”, I am amazed by how many vivid symbols she implanted in her detailed depiction of Solomon’s house. The story has plenty of contrasts, old and young, life and death, etc. To attain the full effect of those contrasts, Welty brings out a particular pair of symbols, spring and winter. With that in mind, the readers will find that the details of Solomon’s house work very well on both realistic and symbolic levels. The core of the house, Solomon’s bed, oozes winter: the iron bed, the snow-white curtains, and the thick quilt Solomon clutches though it’s the first day of spring. Nevertheless, the outside of the house seems already bathed in the light of spring. There are “fern baskets hanging overhead from the ceiling” and “dishpans of zinnia seedlings” in the corridor. But one specific detail that puts me under tremendous pressure is “one easy chair with high springs.” I feel certain that Welty manipulates the double meaning of spring on purpose, but in Chinese translation, in order not to let the text sound jarring, I have to translate the phrase into “one easy chair with thick cushions.” From time to time, I feel that we translators are knocking out the rungs of an exquisite ladder the author fabricates in order to help his/her readers claw through multiple levels of the story; after the ladder falls apart, the readers can only rest on the surface of the fiction. One of the major reasons I found contemporary American short fiction boring in the past is that all that is left after the “move” of the story to Chinese is an undramatic plot. The use of symbolism aside, even the very distinct American writers’ prose style can hardly be differentiated in Chinese translation. The day was fair. Brilliant. All that June the weather had mocked the Maples’ internal misery with solid sunlight—golden shafts and cascades of green in which their conversations had wormed unseeing, their sad murmuring selves the only stain in Nature. (John Updike, “Separating”) …He (Francis Weed) had traveled faster than the newspaper or the rain, and the weather in New York was sunny and mild. It was a day in late September, as fragrant and shapely as an apple. Trace listened to the story, but how could he get excited? Francis had no powers that would let him re-create a brush with death—particularly in the atmosphere of a commuting train. Journeying through a sunny countryside where already, in the slum gardens, there were signs of harvest. (John Cheever, “The Country Husband”) These two passages read quite different in English, but one may find the Chinese translations of the two texts pretty similar. The weather was fair and sunny. Throughout June the sunny weather seemed to pit against the Maples’ internal misery. Their conversations had inched along as worms did in golden shafts and layers of green, unbeknownst to others. The shadows of their sad murmuring forms the only stain in Nature. (Yuan Honggen’s translation) The Speed of his travel exceeds that of the newspaper or the rain. The weather in New York was fair, sunny, and mild. This is the weather in late September, fragrant and fair like an apple. Trace listened to him, but how could he get excited? Francis had no capacity to recreate the atmosphere of how he fled from death—particularly on a commuting train. The train pulled along through a sunny countryside, and the poor family had already shown the signs of harvest. (Shi Xianrong’s translation) Judging from the language, those two translations are rendered in fine standard Chinese that forms the so-called “translation style.” “Translation style” is beautiful in its own way, but, as I see it, it is also a process whereby handicrafts production is replaced by machine manufacturing. In the two cited translations, a progressive shade of meaning in Updike’s word choice of fair and brilliant is lost in Chinese, which makes it little different from Cheever’s more concrete choice of sunny and mild. To make things worse, Chinese translators are in a habit of using four-character/syllable idioms as a proof of their high command of their mother tongue. Therefore, the meters of those lines are similar, which leads to a similar rhythm. The day was fair. Brilliant. 天气不错,阳光明媚。 tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh, tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh the weather in New York was sunny and mild. 纽约的天气很好,风和日丽。 XXX-tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh, tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh A default use of the four-character/syllable idioms does not only apply to the description of nature (the setting of a story so to speak), but in fact everything. For example, a line in the opening paragraphs of Eudora Welty’s “Death of a Traveling Salesman” sounds like this: …He had had a very high fever, and dreams, and had become weakened and pale, enough to tell the difference in the mirror, and he could not think clearly… ……病中他高烧不退,幻影重重,体力衰弱,面色苍白,一照镜子就知道自己的变化,而且他脑子也混沌不清…… (Wu Xinyun’s translation) ...XXX-tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh, tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh, tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh, tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh, XXXXXXXXXXXX, XXXXXX-tuh-tuh-tuh-tuh… In the Chinese rendition of A Curtain of Green and Other Stories, a certain basic rhythm develops like a steady drumbeat in the background, which I doubt Welty would like. Besides, due to the linguistic difference between Chinese and English, the counterparts for certain English verbs do not exist in Chinese. The verb worm, if the translator purports to keep to the precision, can only be translated as something similar to “moves like worms,” and the additional simile in translation makes it read closer to the simile Cheever puts in his original text, “fragrant and fair like an apple.” The same is true of the adjectives that end with “-ing” (e.g. exhausting). Chances are that such adjectives as “exhausting” very often cannot secure their alternatives and have to be translated as “makes someone exhausted,” which does not only give the author a wordy style, but also equates the phrase “makes someone exhausted” with “exhausting.” Disaster strikes the passive voice. In “The Country Husband,” Cheever elaborates on a vibrant scene of a female prisoner, who is now the main character Francis’s maid, during WWII. The prisoner arrived sitting on a three-legged stool in a farm cart. She stood by the cart while the Mayor read the accusation and the sentence. Her head was bent and her face was set in that empty half smile behind which the whipped soul was suspended. Here, the passive voice inherent in Line 3 can only be rendered an active voice in Chinese, otherwise it will sound verbose even to the most patient reader. But Cheever utilizes the passive voice intentionally to contrast with the prisoner’s later spontaneous actions: “she undid her hair and let it fall across her back” and “the prisoner pushed her (a woman) aside and undressed herself.” The following three sentences are what I plan to have the undergraduates ruminate in my creative writing class, but sadly these are also the examples of certain nuances of prose style that are not working in Chinese. (1). No tear was shed by her. (2). She shed no tears. (3). All came to the funeral but no tear was shed. The first sentence can only be translated identical to the second sentence in Chinese, and the third sentence has to become “All came to the funeral but no one shed tears.” The cited excerpt of Cheever’s story also contains another example of how certain nuances of syntaxes make no sense in Chinese. (1). The prisoner arrived sitting on a three-legged stool in a farm cart. (2). Perching on a three-legged stool in a farm cart, the prisoner arrived. (3). Here was the prisoner, sitting on a three-legged stool in a farm cart. (4). The prisoner came all the way here on a three-legged stool in a farm cart. Sadly, these four sentences can only be rendered as “the prisoner came, sitting on a three-legged stool in a farm cart.” Very often, the difference in the source text, as striking as that between “Her bedroom light burned” and “Her bedroom light was on,” has to be erased. The difference of word choice does not go alone; it takes the mood with it. Good writing relies on good description, which turns readers into sensory participants in the story. Ironically, if the key adjectives or verbs are unable to find their equivalents in the target language, the whole vivid description is hollowed out. …He (Francis) took her free hand, letting his fingers in between hers, climbed at her side the two concrete steps, and went up a narrow walk through a front garden where dahlias, marigolds, and roses—things that had withstood the light frosts—still bloomed, and made a bittersweet smell in the night air. (John Cheever, “The Country Husband”) The adjective bittersweet here is of crucial importance because it does not only give a visceral sense of how those flowers smell, but also foreshadows the bitter aftertaste of Francis’s ephemeral romance. Unfortunately, the translator is not able to locate a word that can convey the two shades of meaning, and he chooses the adjective “扑鼻” which means “tangy.” The Chinese readers are therefore disconnected with the concrete fragrance of the flowers, the names of which, by the way, are purely exotic and do not ring a bell in the Chinese context. Furthermore, “扑鼻” is a cliché word in Chinese, a word that carries hardly any valence—a typical consequence of relying on “translation style.” 2. The same is true the other way around—the translation from Chinese to English. Yu Hua, one of my favorite Chinese writers, loses his signature writing style in English and becomes someone like a distant relative of himself. Yu Hua’s early short story collection came out in a new English translation with a subtitle that did not exist in its original Chinese version: Stories of Hidden China. As Drew Calvert put it in his book review published in the Boston Review, “(The subtitle) may seem like a marketing ploy to give the book an exotic appeal. It may also seem redundant: isn’t it standard for writers of fiction to explore life’s obscure realms?” This “exotic appeal,” according to Calvert, shapes the mentality of English readers, for whom “the default response has been to view it through the lens of modern politics.” Yu Hua, a highly stylistic and apolitical writer in Chinese, is transformed to a less artistic but highly political writer to accommodate an English-speaking audience. In China, Yu Hua is known as an avant-garde writer who emerged in the 1980s. His avant-garde elements of style include his clear and concise language that fits into what the French critic Roland Barthes called “writing degree zero,” suggesting a break-up of Bourgeois writing. Yu boldly confronts violence in his work, interweaving it with minimalist prose. In contrast, though the violence is retained within the totality of the plot in the English translation, Yu’s signature language is rectified and polished by the translator, thus losing his avant-garde style. Yu’s narrative in Chinese is often compared to Albert Camus’s The Stranger. Like Camus, Yu employs a lot of independent clauses. But in the English translation, perhaps in order not to let the readers feel the language is too fragmented or even broken, these independent clauses are connected by conjunctions to form complex sentences. Consider the opening paragraph of “No Name of My Own” as an example. In Allan H. Barr’s translation this paragraph is rendered as follows: One day, as I crossed the bridge with my carrying-pole on my shoulder, I heard someone say that Pug-nose Xu Asan had died, so I laid down my baskets and took the towel that I wore around my neck and rubbed the sweat off my face while I listened to them talk about how it had happened… But if translated literally from Chinese to English, this paragraph should read like this: One day, I crossed the bridge with the carrying-pole on my shoulder. I heard them say Upturned-nose Xu Asan had died. I put down the carrying-pole, took the towel hanging on my neck, rubbed the sweat off my nose. I listened to them talk about how Upturned-nose Xu Asan had died… It seems the two translations bear no major difference, but it needs to be pointed out that Yu refuses to use such linking words as as and while. The narrator of this story is an old man with an intellectual disability—his limited command of the language only allows him to make simple sentences. Yu also dislikes the conjunction word but. Barr adds but whenever he finds the logic unclear, whereas, in the original Chinese text, but is nowhere to be found. Take another two sentences in “No Name of My Own” for example, “their goggling eyes blinked shut, but their mouths opened even wider;” “the kid was crying louder than anyone, but he asked me as he wept, ‘Hey, am I your daddy?’” But in these two cases implies the narrator has the capacity to understand a contrasting relation between two facts, whereas in reality the narrator should not demonstrate such a high level of nuance. Further, by adding but, the perspective in viewing Yu’s fictional world may go through a certain degree of distortion from Chinese to English. The second example is set in a funeral scene. The kid seems to behave properly according to traditional Chinese rituals (i.e. to cry very loud for his late grandpa), yet he does not really feel grief, given the proof of his derision of the narrator on the way to the crematorium. By getting rid of but, Yu entitles the narrator to offer his observation of the society without providing any specific understanding or interpretation. The removal of nearly all conjunctions in Yu’s original text does not only do justice to the narrator’s mental disability, but also, like the aesthetic effect Camus has achieved in The Stranger, maps out a genuine and objective panorama of the absurdity of the society; the mode of writing is intended to be, as Roland Barthes put it, “a transparent form of speech.” On a similar note, the repetitions in Yu’s stories are either trimmed down or refined in the English translation, thus failing to carry the weight of the embedded emotions of the original text. In “No Name of My Own,” the narrator meditates on death: “I know I’m an idiot. I know I’m getting old and will die soon.” But in the Chinese version, this line goes: “I know I am a fool. I know I, the fool as I am, am getting old. I know, the fool as I am, will die soon.” The word fool keeps bothering the narrator and thus causes the repetition. However, in the English translation, in order not to let the prose sound jarring, Barr deprives both the narrator and readers of the right to be bothered. In certain cases, the refinement of the original prose violates the authorial intention to keep away from bourgeois writing and intellectual writing. The title story, “Boy in the Twilight” tells of a series of brutal punishments a boy is given by a vendor after the boy steals an apple from the vendor’s stall. Yu’s violent world in Barr’s translation is rendered like this: Sun Fu swung his arm and struck the boy, knocking the apple out of his hand and connecting so firmly with the boy’s chin that he collapsed on the ground. He shielded his head with his hands, all the time chewing vigorously. Sun Fu, incensed, seized the boy by the collar and hauled him to his feet. Here we need to pay special attention to two specific details. One is that such verbs in English translation as swing, knock, and connect are written originally as the same word in Chinese, da, which means “hit.” Yu ventures to challenge the lavish profusion in Chinese literary language before his time by using raw and simple word choice and sentences. That is, he does not only use his storylines to connect with regular people in China, but also lets the characters speak their minds using their own language. Thus, the violent world reads very authentically and vividly in the Chinese context. It is understandable that Barr’s variation of word choice is in a translator’s concern to connect with target readers. As James Wood comments in his review of War and Peace in a new English translation, “Flaubert, the agonist of style, swatted repetitions like insects, and today’s copy editor, no less than Tolstoy’s early translators, is post-Flaubertian in this way.” Yet we cannot deny the fact that Yu in English is forced to be more Flaubertian, closer to Bourgeois writing so to speak, something Yu has explicitly avoided throughout his writing career. The other detail that is worth mentioning is the last line in the paragraph above: “Sun Fu, incensed, seized the boy by the collar and hauled him to his feet.” In the original text, there is no such interpretation as incensed, but it should be: “On hearing the chewing sound, Sun Fu seized the boy by the collar and hauled him to his feet.” There are perhaps two reasons why Barr has made the modification: first, Barr, like today’s copy editors, cannot endure the repetitions; second, after cutting the repetition, he has to add the interpretation to smooth over the logic. But in doing so, Barr has also changed the original logic of this line in a very subtle way. Yu purports to emphasize that Sun’s brutal violence is all triggered by trivial matters such as an apple, the chewing sound, etc. The chewing sound in the Chinese context may also remind the readers of Japan’s infamous “Piano Murder” in 1974 (a man killed a female neighbor and her two young daughters because he could not tolerate their piano practice). Yu has no intention to remark that Sun is incensed. The trifles of daily life add up little by little to an eventual unbearable burden to Sun, and Sun is always on the lookout for a justified excuse to let out a flood of his repressed emotion—a mixture of boredom, grief, despair, grievance, anger, and perhaps something more. By trimming down the repetitions and appending “smart” interpretations, Barr has narrowed down the original, much broader scope of these stories. Yu also rejects the use of conventional metaphors in his works. But in Barr’s polished English version, certain images are given so much focus that they turn into metaphors in a perhaps inadvertent way. The opening paragraph of “Boy in the Twilight” is beautifully rewritten by Barr in English: “When a car drove by, it shrouded him in the dust stirred by its passage, plunging him into darkness, and it was a moment before he and his fruit re-emerged, as though unveiled by a new dawn.” In Chinese, however, this line is written by Yu in a very neat, curt fashion: “A car drove by. Dust stirred up covered him like the coming darkness. In a little while, he and his fruit re-emerged like the dawn.” This example alone may not become a serious problem affecting interpretation. Yet Barr’s elaboration on such natural imagery is evident throughout the text. One page later, Barr’s translation reads, “It was afternoon now. Dust flew as the boy fled along the highway.” A literal translation from Chinese would be: “It was already afternoon. The boy was running on the dusty road.” Neither dust nor highway are highlighted, as neither darkness nor dawn are highlighted in the first place. By imposing a new intellectual writing style on Yu and providing the misleading subtitle, Barr encourages the English readers to imbue these stories with political connotations: darkness may refer to the Cultural Revolution whereas dawn indicates the Reform and Opening period, and dust could represent the pain one experienced during the transitional period. However, in Yu’s original text, it is clear that he defies such interpretation. A final flashback in the story explains where Sun’s cruelty originates—the loss of his son, followed by his being abandoned by his wife. Yu’s stories deal with very personal relations and have no bearings with politics. Also, all of those images—darkness, dawn, dust, and highway—are never mentioned in the later part of the story, which means they should not be over-interpreted. Indeed, Barr’s translation is beautiful, but perhaps it is too beautiful to lend fidelity to Yu Hua, a writer who has no interest in receiving praise about the beauty of his writing. 3. Since there are certain linguistic and cultural gaps that translators may not be able to negotiate, what should we do? I cannot speak for all the translators, but I set some expectations for myself. First of all, get rid of the canard that all works should be rendered in a fine standard language, that is, rule out the “translation style.” As a translator, I am often caught in the fear that if I do justice to a strange prose style without refining it, the readers may think it is I, rather than the original author, who has a mediocre command of the language. But translators need to take such risks; otherwise we can see from the various examples mentioned above how different fiction writers are given one serene, unanimous voice. Second, try every means to retain the style of the author. Last semester, I was in Professor Aron Aji’s translation workshop at the University of Iowa. Whenever a certain word choice or a sentence structure read awkwardly in translation, Professor Aji would confirm with the translator first: “Does the word/line read awkwardly in the original language? In what ways?” The author’s style, like museum artifacts, are the treasures we must restore and feature in the translation. Third, give as much thought to the sound and sight of the prose as a poet does to his verses. Almost all the greatest writers care about the music of their prose. This is also something I learned from Professor Aji. Under his guidance, I am translating Zhu Yue’s short fiction collection from Chinese to English. I was surprised to hear one rule of his the first time: “if this is one sentence in Chinese, no matter how long it is, we need to make it one sentence in English.” I never asked him why, but I knew this has to do with the rhythm of the original text; until one day I happened to reread “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” by Flannery O’Connor, I came to understand more reasons behind this rule. All the sentences in Madame Bovary could be examined with wonder, but there is one in particular that always stops me in admiration. Flaubert has just shown us Emma at the piano with Charles watching her. He says, “She struck the notes with aplomb and ran from top to bottom of the keyboard without a break. Thus shaken up, the old instrument, whose strings buzzed, could be heard at the other end of the village when the window was open, and often the bailiff’s clerk, passing along the highroad, bareheaded and in list slippers, stopped to listen, his sheet of paper in his hand.” The more you look at a sentence like that, the more you can learn from it. At one end of it, we are with Emma and this very solid instrument “whose strings buzzed,” and at the other end of it we are across the village with this very concrete clerk in his list slippers… What I have learned from Flaubert’s second sentence in the quote is that if the translator breaks down the long line into several short sentences, which many translators do when confronted with a dilemma to decrease the difficulty of translation, readers may never get an opportunity to know how much a great writer like Flaubert can accomplish in a single sentence by constructing a bridge of various vivid details to connect the two sides of his fictional village. Translators are hunters who are always on the lookout for equivalents in the target language, equivalents of words, syntaxes, and rhythms, etc. Perhaps one thing we need to keep in mind in this fun but demanding game is that we also need to work hard to become the equivalent of the great author of the original text. Image Credit: Flickr/Gary Denham.