Tag Archives: translation

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Translating and Tweeting

By Joanna Chen

I’m in the lotus position above Iceland. I have two seats to myself and one more whenever the guy next to me totters down the aisle for another whiskey on the rocks. Whenever he does this, I stretch my legs out onto his seat as well. Sometimes I go stand at the back of the plane, where the airline attendants are snacking on potato chips and laughing together. They adjust their smiles as I come towards them. I’d like a cup of tea, I say. The tea is handed to me in a plastic cup and I continue to stand there, moving from one leg to the other, stretching as unobtrusively as I can. Do you need the bathroom? The flight attendant asks me brightly, and I shake my head and obediently return to my seat.

My legs crave movement but the rest of me loves this limbo, this hovering above the sea, this island that is me, surrounded by whimpering babies and businessmen in open-necked shirts popping peanuts and watching movies on their personal screens. I love watching other peoples’ movies as they flicker in the darkness, without knowing what the actors are saying but trying to guess. I love these poems I am translating, scattered on the empty seat beside me, their Hebrew syllables easing into English, shaking off the heavy “r” at the back of the throat, the gutturals.

I am heading to New York. I will try to shake off the jet lag and then fly on to Vermont for the inaugural Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference. I think of home longingly. I think how the leaves fell from the trees yesterday all at once, as if they were in a hurry to fall before I left, to show me that they are truly sorry I am going.

I lingered at home until dusk. I listened to the birds that visit the valley where I live in early summer, calling to each other, settling for the night. By the time I left, the old wooden table on the front porch was covered in leaves of green and yellow. I considered brushing them off but decided against it. There was no point. The leaves would continue to fall after I left.

The man in my row offers to buy me a drink and I smile and say no, thank you. He shrugs, orders himself another one and ignores me for the rest of the flight. Later, he switches places with a woman sitting further down the plane. I can’t work out if she’s his wife; he brings her over, points to the seat and shrugs his shoulders in my direction again. Her head is covered with a pale scarf and she wears an enormous amount of mascara on her eyelashes. She stares at the screen in front of her, at the icon of an airplane moving across the globe on a yellow line that turns green when the distance is covered. Under the airplane is a vast sea, indicated by the kind of blue you see on the balmiest of days at the beach. The woman reaches out long, tapering fingers to the screen and plays with the picture until it becomes a twirling globe and the airplane is flying on top of the globe, against an inky sky scattered with stars.

She manipulates the screen again and the landscape moves, revealing green furrows and what appear to be deserts; we’re flying over Kazakhstan. She draws the globe together with her fingers and Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Iran crowd in together at one end of the globe. She moves around the globe, this time very quickly, as if she is afraid to lose something. Japan, North Korea, and the East China Sea become visible, their names floating in an indigo crater. Our eyes meet for a second across the empty seat. She keeps turning the globe this way and that, her fingers hovering over Argentina, Bolivia, and Paraguay, and I imagine the people of Bolivia looking up for a moment at the sky, wondering who is moving it. The globe spins, and the woman leans forward, minimizing the distance we are traveling so that Amman appears on one side and New York on the other, divided by a short yellow line. We are almost there.

I sleep badly on my first night in New York. The next day I head out with my friend, Ali, to the Whitney Museum of American Art. I linger over an E. E. Cummings abstract painting, “Noise Number 13,” at the swirling colors and conical shapes that appear to expand and contract, a visual depiction of sound. I didn’t know E. E. Cummings painted. I think of the woman on the plane, expanding her own boundaries. Later Ali and I stand on the terrace and look down at people moving like ants along the High Line and I watch the trees, green against the drab, vibrant metropolis, swaying eloquently in the wind.

I sleep badly (again) and fly to Vermont the next day. On the drive up there from the airport, I sit in the front seat clutching my bag. The driver tells us there are bears in the woods. “If you see a bear,” he says, “don’t move. Just freeze.” “One person was killed by a bear in the woods,” the guy in the back chimes in, winking at me. I peer out of the window at the dark spruce trees. The road winds up to the mountain and I’m filled with foreboding. A whole week ahead of me and there are bears in the woods.

The next morning, still jet lagged and unable to sleep, I check out the schedule and decide to join what is listed on the handout as a bird walk. I go down at 6:30am to the entrance of the Bread Loaf Inn. It’s raining a little and mist rests lightly over the mountain. A small crowd is gathered under the yellow porch. I’m the only translator here on this first walk; everyone else is from the parallel Orion Environmentalists Writers’ Conference. They’re sipping coffee in biodegradable cups and chatting together. Some have binoculars around their necks. The packet I received prior to coming to the conference said to bring a jacket. I‘m here for the translators’ conference and here is my first error in translation: I brought a blazer, not a jacket; I’m British. I begin blessing my friend, Ali, for lending me something more subtle as we cross over the meadow in a long line, the damp squelching under our feet. I am also wearing her boots. We walk to the middle of the meadow. We are looking for migratory birds that pass through this area in the month of June. And then, the sentence that resonates for me throughout the conference: “Let’s see what we can hear,” Orion conference co-director, Chip Blake, says, cocking his head to one side and placing a hand to his ear. Everyone follows suit. “Hear that?” Chip asks. Everyone nods. I hear nothing. All I can hear is the wind and the faint sound of water gurgling along down below in the woods. “Anyone know what that is?” Chip asks. We stand there. “That’s a red-eyed vireo,” he explains. He repeats this on every morning walk and the answer is always the same; it really is a red-eyed vireo. The idea of seeing what can be heard, like E. E. Cummings’s synesthetic painting, breaks through boundaries, translating sound into a visual dimension. And these beautiful bird walks, that open every single morning at the conference, become the real gateway for me to the act of translation. These are the woods of Robert Frost and his words echo in my ears as I take these walks:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

These walks into the woods of Vermont are all about translation. They reveal how the sparrow marks its territory between trees by squawking, how the hairy kingfisher’s notes pierce through the wind in the treetops, undecipherable by human ears. It’s the difference between a jacket and a blazer. It’s the thin, high call of the waxwing, and the witchety-witch call of the yellow-rumped warbler, whose young form what are known as punk flocks, before drifting southward. Week-old punks, but not the punks I know, up here on the mountain. It’s the winter wren, whose loud voice carries above the rushing water, close to where it nests in winter. I saw very few of these birds with my own eyes, although Bill Johnston, the acclaimed translator and Bread Loaf faculty member, hands me his binoculars on the fourth day so I can see an eastern kingfisher dive-bombing a crow. Like translation, bird-watching demands close reading.

Later that day, in Johnston’s lecture on The Quest for a Voice, I think less about the role of the translator striving to capture the authorial voice, and more about those birds, traversing continents, flying in on the weather system, dropping onto Bread Loaf Mountain as if they are standing on the platform in a subway, waiting for a fast train, as one of the people on these walks remarked. I want to know where they are going and how they talk to each other.

We translators talk to each other a lot. We discuss the lure of language prisms. We critique translations from unfamiliar languages: Swedish, Korean, Arabic, Latin, and my own Hebrew, among other languages. We listen not just for meaning but for tone, pitch, rhythm, and texture. You cannot see it but you can hear it if you listen, and look, carefully.

In the middle of the week, we all walk over to Robert Frost’s farm for a long and delicious picnic. On the way, a translator friend and I take a detour to Frost’s cabin, where we peek through the windows. Turning to leave, we catch a yellow-striped ribbon snake slipping lazily through the grass. On the last day, I listen to Alison Hawthorne Deming talking about the importance of place in our writing and how everything comes down to animals, plants, and rocks. I understand how all these translate into feelings and rhythms, how the snake has its own unhurried language. Up here in the mountains of Vermont, there is time to learn other methods of communicative translation. For this, after all, is what translation is all about. It’s about migration to other worlds and other cultures, to the hidden lives of others.

The conference ends. The networking is over, the barn socials are over, the walks and readings too. My notebook is full of email addresses; my head is full of ideas. I’m still not sleeping properly, and rise early to take a final walk, this time on my own. I help myself to coffee and exit the Inn, crossing the road to the meadow where we went on the first day. I want to reenter the woods we visited and feel the soft, dense ground under my borrowed rain boots. I begin walking across the meadow and there it is, just ahead of me, a tiny bird with gray, black and white markings. It rises into the air, chirping like Morse code, and I lift up my head and follow with my eyes as it flies across the meadow and beyond. Finally, a red-eyed vireo.

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Translating Poetry: An Essay from Marginalia

(With today’s post, the LARB Blog continues featuring content from its new Channels Project. The LARB Channels — which include the websites AvidlyMarginalia and Boom — are a community of independent online magazines specializing in literary criticism, politics, science and culture, supported by the Los Angeles Review of Books. Today’s post comes from Marginalia, an international, open access review of literature and culture in the nexus of history, theology, and religion.)

Last week, Marginalia published this essay on the risks and rewards of translating poetry – we think it deserves a read. The essay, written by Rachel Tzvia Back, records the challenges of translating Tuvia Ruebner from Hebrew to English. Translating Ruebner is particularly compelling, Back notes, because of “the fact that Ruebner’s poetry and poetic sensibility occupied from the very beginning a place of being ‘always already in translation,’ a place of in-betweenness, doubleness and fragmentation.” Continue reading

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Censorship, Translation and the Chinese Market

“To me the choice was easy…I thought it was better to have 90 percent of the book available here than zero.”

Ezra Vogel, author of Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of Modern China, statement made during a Chinese book tour.

“As an academic who doesn’t write for a large publication, I’m always happy to have a readership that extends beyond the three people in my family.”

Rebecca Karl, author of Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World.

“I kept waiting for the other shoe to fall.”

Michael Meyer, author of The Last Days of Old Beijing.
[All quotes appeared in Andrew Jacobs, “Authors Accept Censors’ Rules to Sell in China,” New York Times, October 19, 2013.]

Here are some questions that students, friends, and people who introduce themselves to me after I’ve given a public talk on China often ask:

Are you sorry that none of the books you’ve written have come out in Chinese editions?

How much would you be willing to let Chinese publishers cut from your books, if told that allowing some things to get intentionally lost in translation was what it would take for these works to be sold on the mainland?

Would you balk at cutting a few sentences, be fine with deleting a whole chapter, or perhaps even be okay with trimming segments here and there throughout a book?

How strongly would you push back if asked for other sorts of changes, like allowing your book to have a dramatically different title in the Chinese edition?

I’ll likely get asked things like this more often now, thanks to Andrew Jacobs, whose recent article on the publication of Western works in mainland China has generated a lot of buzz. It’s no surprise that the article has caught the interest of China specialists. Many of us are fascinated by the challenge of sorting out what has and hasn’t changed about Chinese publishing and censorship in recent years. Jacobs draws attention to both novelties of the present (not long ago, books dealing even in part with sensitive issues simply would not be translated) as well as things that are holdovers from past times, such as the paranoia about protecting Party officials’ images that led to a reference to Deng dropping a dumpling being cut from Vogel’s book, and a text about a mayor and a mistress ending up one of the very few things excised from Meyer’s. And Jacobs focuses on three different sorts of members of our tribe: sociologist Vogel (whose Deng biography is selling briskly in China), historian Karl (whose book will likely be published soon by Hunan People’s Press), and journalist Meyer (whose book was retitled Zaihui, Lao Beijing, or “See You Again, Old Beijing,” in an effort, Jacobs writes, to make an often dismayed look at destruction seem a “nostalgic love letter”).

What is more notable is how much interest in the article there has been beyond specialist circles. On October 23, for example, the Guardian ran a follow-up article, “Author Bows to Chinese Censorship of his Deng Biography,” which zeroed in on Vogel’s relatively easy acceptance of modifying his work so that it could appear in China. The next day, “The Banal Reality of Censoring Books in China” appeared on the History News Network website. This article began with HNN editor David Walsh describing the battle Karl fought — and won — to keep Hunan People’s Press from going forward with their initial plan to present her book to Chinese readers as a straightforward biography of Mao, with an altered title to match.

Reading these three articles on censorship has made me appreciate anew a basic fact about the questions regarding translation, accommodation, censorship and so forth I sometimes get asked: at least for me, these queries usually cannot be answered as simply as people would like. And the same will be true now if I’m asked whether, like Vogel, I’ll be happy if “90 percent” of one my books can make its way into the Chinese market. It all depends, I’ll say, on which book we are talking about.

In the case of China’s Brave New World — and Other Tales for Global Times, which is comprised of separate though thematically connected essays, I was ready at one point to try to get a version published on the mainland that was only about 70% as long as the original, with several chapters that would clearly have created problems left out. (A friend found a publishing house that initially seemed ready to go forward with the book in that form, but then higher ups within it had second thoughts and the plans to bring out the translation were scrapped.)

With my first book, Student Protests in Twentieth-Century China: The View from Shanghai, which is mostly about pre-1949 events but has an “Epilogue” (perhaps making up 7% of the text) stressing parallels between those struggles and upheavals of the 1980s, on the other hand, I would view cutting out 10% as far too much. I would rather it not be published than come out sans that “Epilogue” and also stripped of passing comments in other chapters about the clear links and parallels between the “good,” in Chinese Communist Party eyes, protests that helped it rise to power and the “bad” ones that challenged its legitimacy in 1989.

Or, rather, I’d only consider going forward with a version like that if the press in question agreed to a condition I can’t imagine it would: marking each cut with an ellipsis to show that something in the original was no longer there, and putting a warning on the cover, like those you see when R rated movies are shown on an airplane, noting that the work has been modified for presentation in this particular setting. Without something like that done, I would worry that the book could too easily be read as supporting notions that I don’t agree with. For example, such cuts would eliminate the parallels I draw between protests of the 1940s, which were concerned in part with drawing attention to the flaws of the authoritarian and corrupt Nationalist Party government of that era, and those that erupted four decades later, which were concerned in part with drawing attention to the flaws of the authoritarian and corrupt Communist Party government of that time.

It might seem that at least one question mentioned at the start of this post would lend itself to a straightforward answer — the one about whether I’m frustrated that none of my books has come out in a Chinese edition yet. Of course, since I share Karl’s desire to be read broadly, I’d love to have all my books available in as many translations as possible, and since I write about China, reaching Chinese readers is particularly desirable. Still, this question needs clarification and contextualization, even though neither of the books just mentioned has been translated into simplified characters by a Chinese publisher, and the same goes for the other two books I’ve written, Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 and China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.

The most important thing to note is that there is a Chinese-language version out of China in the 21st Century, just not a simplified-character one. A complex-character translation of the book’s second edition, which I updated in collaboration with fellow LARB “China Blog” regular Maura Elizabeth Cunningham, was published this summer. It’s now readily available for sale in both Taiwan and Hong Kong, and some copies could already be making their way into the hands of readers in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, even if this edition can’t be sold in mainland bookstores. So, it’s not quite true that there are no “Chinese editions” of my works. It’s not even accurate to say none of them can be sold openly in the People’s Republic of China, since Hong Kong is now a part of that country, albeit one where distinctive rules on publishing apply — something demonstrated by such things as there being a Hong Kong translation of Vogel’s biography of Deng that I’ve been told includes passages snipped out of the mainland edition.

Finally, what about sticking to your guns on titles? I admire Karl’s determination not to have her Mao book, which is very different in aims and scope than a standard biography, recast to seem like it was just that. I can also see, though, why Meyer might have felt differently about The Last Days of Old Beijing becoming Zaihui, Lao Beijing. If you are interested in making a living as an author in the present era, there’s a need to pick your battles, and he also might well have felt that going along with the title change provided him more leverage in working to keep parts of the book’s content he cared about from being cut. Added to this, there’s a basic difference between Karl and Meyer’s past experiences with publication, since the former’s articles have most often been published in scholarly venues, the latter’s in magazines and newspapers. If you write for general interest rather than academic venues, you simply get used to having titles other than the ones you came up with placed above your work. In my relatively amphibious career, I try to keep this in mind, so I can roll with the punches when my articles for non-scholarly periodicals are retitled (though ones that seem to me to veer too far from my original meaning certainly annoy me) yet ready to push back if anyone tries to get me to give up on a title I like for something I’ve written for an academic journal.

As for books, I was so happy to see one of my books finally come out in a Chinese-language edition of some kind, that it didn’t bother me that I wasn’t even consulted about what China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know would be renamed. And just in case any Chinese publisher is reading this post, I’d like to make it clear that I’m open to having Global Shanghai, 1850-2010 retitled. It’s hardly a “nostalgic love letter” to the city that is its focus, but it does have a sense of old patterns returning in novel forms in the metropolis; so, especially if Meyer’s work sells as well as it should (it’s a really good book), I’d even be willing to consider Zaihui, Lao Shanghai. Hell, with a title like “See You Again, Old Shanghai,” someone might even bid for the movie rights.

* For more on the Chinese translations of The Last Days of Old Beijing — in the plural, since Taiwan and mainland editions have both come out — and the author’s experiences touring to promote these books in Asia, check out Michael Meyer’s “See You Again, Old Beijing,” an engaging and thoughtful memoir cum commentary published in SLATE. Also of interest are two “Letters to the Editor” inspired by Jacobs’s article that have appeared in the New York Times. One of these, from China specialist John Israel, recounts an interesting experience the author had with a sensitive issue of translation. The other is from the President of Ohio Wesleyan University, noting that Vogel “passed on all rights to income from mainland China sales” of his Deng biography to that school, his “alma mater.”  The proceeds are to be used to establish “a permanent endowment to support Ohio Wesleyan students engaged in international study, with a preference for research and travel involving East Asia.”