Meet the LARB China Channel Team, Part 5 — A Q&A with Academic Editor Eileen Cheng-yin Chow

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

This is the fifth in our BLARB series made up of interviews with some of the people who will be playing key roles in the soon-to-launch LARB China Channel. This week’s Q&A is with Eileen Cheng-yin Chow, who has, like some other interviewees, worked as both a writer and a translator—in her case, in one very high profile case, also as a co-translator, of the bestselling Yu Hua novel Brothers. She also has two institutional homes, which I’ll ask her about, one at Duke and another in Taipei. JW 

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: You’ve done a lot of work donning two different hats: that of a translator and that of a writer. Could you tell us a bit about one thing you are particularly proud of doing wearing each of those hats?

EILEEN CHENG-YIN CHOW: I could open a millinery with the number and variety of odd and fanciful hats I have worn, inherited, fashioned, and shed over the years…

Writing and translating have not seemed so much like separate spheres of work as through-lines in a diasporic life. Growing up in Taipei, in a family assembled there from various parts of China, everyday life consisted of a mash of dialects and half-understood colonial languages —not only the Taiwanese and Japanese spoken around me by neighbors, but also happenstances such as having a grandmother who always imagined herself speaking in Mandarin to me, while she really chattered on in Shanghainese. That, plus learning English for school at a fairly young age, meant that translating was simply about navigating the world around me, and reading and writing (especially classical Chinese), ways out of verbal cacophony.

But to your question — I’ve loved writing about Republican-era China and the celebrity author Zhang Henshui, and translating Yu Hua’s sprawling epic two-volume novel Brothers was certainly a passion project. Probably because in both instances I was allowed to inhabit a time and space that was familiar yet not quite my own.

What is the most unusual project you’ve taken on as either a writer or a translator?

I worked my way through college and graduate school taking on interpreting and translating and subtitling jobs of all sorts, and basically have never quite stopped — though now, I take them on mostly as favors.

A few oddities in my life as an interpreter:

  1. Working in the mountains of Jiuzhaigou, Sichuan, for a summer as an on-set PA and interpreter for a Warner Bros.-Beijing Film Studios co-production. I lived next door to pandas. Literally.
  2. Subtitling the classic Marilyn Monroe/Yves Montand film Let’s Make Love into Chinese for a rush job in a single afternoon, and winging the French/Italian/German/Spanish dialogue Montand peppers throughout the film to seduce Marilyn. Pre-internet and Google Translate, people.
  3. Perhaps most challengingly, in my first year as an assistant professor, I interpreted for and moderated a live conversation between Nobel Laureates Saul Bellow and Gao Xingjian for public television. Gao had just won the Nobel and was at Harvard for part of his victory tour, and he wished to meet his literary hero, then emeritus at BU, I believe. Bellow, cantankerous, made no effort at pretending to having read anything by Gao, or of considering him a literary peer. Thrown together for nearly an hour on live camera, Bellow decided that the way through this conversation was to crack lewd jokes about bouncy breasts and such, while Gao’s bewildered response was to make repeated reference to Bellow’s seniority and sagacity. Every respectful mention of Bellow’s age by Gao, however, would provoke Bellow into more off-color comments about virility and the women he had bedded. And then there was me – young, feminist, and pissed off. Awkward, to say the least. I think towards the end of that conversation I was just making stuff up instead of interpreting their words.

You have a foot firmly planted on this side of the Pacific but also on the other. Can you tell us briefly what your main focus is in the positions you hold in the U.S. and in Asia?

All my research and teaching interests hew towards story and narrative, broadly defined: literature and film and animation/anime and visual narratives, but also non-fictional forms of storytelling such as journalism, public engagement, and oral history. At Duke I teach in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and co-direct Story Lab, an experimental Humanities Lab exploring all things storytelling: our motto is “no story is told alone” — so as you might imagine, we are very interested in how communities coalesce around texts, including in fandoms and social movements, as well as how they migrate through genres and media and languages and time and space.

My role in Taiwan plays to my interest in public storytelling as well: I direct the Cheng Shewo Institute of Chinese Journalism at Shih Hsin University, where we see our mission as archiving and amplifying the repeatedly squashed yet surprisingly robust and enduring work of independent Chinese journalists throughout the long 20th century. I’ll share with you an anecdote from the life of Cheng Shewo, a pioneering Republican-era journalist and publisher (full disclosure: my maternal grandfather) that sums up this attitude of press resistance and commitment (and badassery) to Chinese officialdom. When one of Cheng’s newspapers, the Nanjing Minsheng Bao (民生報) was threatened with closure and Cheng with imprisonment, by the then KMT Minister Wang Jingwei in 1934, if the paper didn’t acquiesce to wartime press censorship, Cheng scoffed: “I can remain a reporter for my entire career, but Mr. Wang surely could not remain Minister for his.” Well, turns out he was right. To my great surprise, I saw this quote resurface repeatedly as an inspirational resistance mantra in Hong Kong news and media coverage during the 2014 Umbrella Movement!

In Taiwan I am also part of the editorial team at Biographical Literature (傳記文學), a longstanding monthly journal that has a fervent and loyal readership among Chinese history buffs throughout the Chinese diaspora. So in both of my roles, I have the good fortune of listening to smart and passionate voices within and outside of the academy, and I hope to draw many of them into the space of LARB’s China Channel.

Tell us more about how you envision your work as one of the two Academic Editors of LARB’s China Channel — the other being yours truly? Are there any tips you want to give prospective contributors of the sort of things you’re particularly interested in having them pitch to you?

I guess my one suggestion to prospective contributors would be similar to the advice we often give our students writing papers in Asian studies classes — don’t set off to write a story “about China” (or “about Taiwan,” “about Singapore,” etc.), just as you are not likely to write or read an LARB essay “about France.” I do think (and hope) that we have moved past the point of reportage that treats anything beyond the U.S. and western Europe as curiosity item or general decoding key to an exotic part of the world — or secondarily, only as reference point or in contrast to the “known” literary or film canon. Any angle other than that, I would be excited to hear about, especially given my own fairly broad and eclectic (both high-brow and no-brow) curiosities. In particular, I would encourage pitches of stories that pay less heed to cultural, disciplinary and national boundaries, including those contested ones within Greater China.

More generally, this question might be most properly answered in a dialogue between the two of us, Jeff- so I do hope we will have the opportunity to do that in some kind of interactive format down the line. Not to mention that I want to pose the same questions to you that you’ve been asking of our editorial team – including what China book you wish were getting less attention – and will delight in scandalizing one another in confessing to what we ought to have read, but haven’t. Till then…

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