In this new series of interviews with children's book translators, translators explain just what goes into their work. The first interview is with Helen Wang.
A client once asked the famous translator Ros Schwartz how much it would cost to "type this in English." But anyone who speaks another language, or has simply compared two versions of the same text translated by two different people, knows that a translation is a creation, just like the original text. In this interview children's book translator, Helen Wang explains what is involved.
Helen Wang's award-winning translation of Cao Wenxuan's Bronze and Sunflower from Chinese now exists in paperback, hardcover, and audio form.
|Illustration by Meilo So|
Q. How did you become interested in Chinese?
Helen Wang (HW): At school, I had applied to university and received a conditional offer at my first choice, SOAS. Everyone relaxed, I got the required grades, all was set. I knew from reading the Compendium that if you studied archaeology or art history of Europe, you had to have a relevant foreign language. As the starting date loomed, I thought I should do a language first, and picked Chinese. I wasn't ready to go to university, and all but quit in the first term. My daughter will start university this year, and she is so much readier than I was!
|The Chinese cover of Bronze and Sunflower|
Q. How did you become a translator?
HW: My first published translations were in the early 1990s. I translated a few short stories and essays, but there was no payment, and, crucially, no feedback. Then I was busy working, doing a PhD, raising children... Twenty years later, when my children were in their teens and I had more time, I started translating again. I met Nicky Harman, who was translating Chinese fiction, and discovered that there was a thriving and friendly translation community. It makes such a difference to have a translation buddy to bounce ideas around with.
Q. What made you want to translate for children?
HW: Nicky and I started the China Fiction Book Club - initially a book club that met regularly for two or three years, then a twitter account (@cfbcuk). Nicky told me that a publisher was looking to translate two children's books from China. I contacted the commissioning editor, who said they were asking for short sample translations (unpaid) from which they would choose six people to submit longer sample translations (paid), from which they would choose one translator to translate the whole book into English. I thought I would give it a try and see how far I could go. I never expected to be offered the whole book!
The publisher was planning to launch eight different-language editions of the book at the London Book Fair in 2012: in English, and in seven other languages translated from my English translation. That book was Jackal and Wolf, by Shen Shixi, otherwise known as China's King of Animal Stories, published by Egmont UK. I realised while translating that book how much I'd learned from reading with my own children when they were little. I used to let them choose which books they wanted to read, and if they were in a foreign language, then I'd translate as I read.
Q. How did this translation "find" you?
HW: Anna Holmwood, who has just translated Legend of the Condor—A Hero Born by Jin Yong ("China's Tolkien"), knew I had translated Jackal and Wolf, and kindly recommended me to Walker Books when they were looking for a translator for Bronze and Sunflower.
But there was no sky, just a seething mass of screeching locusts blocking out the early-morning light. The rising sun was like a large round pancake covered in black sesame seeds.Q. The translation reads as if it was written in English—beautiful work. How long did it take you?
Thank you for your kind words. Walker Books sent me a copy of the book in late June or early July 2013. It was published in the UK at the beginning of April 2015, and in the US by Candlewick in March 2017. Walker Books hadn't published a book from Chinese before, and they didn't have anyone in the company who could read Chinese (but they had read the French translation of Bronze and Sunflower).
I suggested that I translate the first chapter very directly (what some people call a literal translation), that the editor edit it, and that I follow her style of editing when translating the second chapter, and so on until we found the right balance. This also enabled us to establish a working relationship at that early stage. I did the translation, sent it in, a few months later the editor sent it back to me marked up and I went through the edits.
Then the editor and I met in person, and went through all of the highlighted areas. Doing that in person is much easier than doing it remotely over time. You can make most of the decisions there and then, and agree to work on anything that's really tricky. The editing process is very important for any publication, and while it's my translation, I really appreciate the care that Walker Books (and, subsequently, Candlewick, for the US edition) put into the editing.
Q. How did you go about translating the book?
HW: In the summer of 2013, I was staying at my mum's. She was ill and my sister was there too. Walker Books sent the Chinese novel to me there. I'd disappear and read a chapter at a time, then rejoin my mum and sister and tell them what had happened. At that stage, I wasn't sure how it would work in English. When I started translating, what happened was still there and strong, but the humanity came to the fore.
Q. Do you think Chinese is harder to translate into English than say, French, because the language and culture are further from English than a European language would be?
HW: When I started translating again about ten years ago, I went to an evening course in French translation at City Lit in London (there wasn't a Chinese one). Translating one piece a week meant that you were constantly moving on to the next piece. It was liberating to be able to experiment in that way and to see how other people translated. In Chinese, as in French, sometimes a text will lend itself to an almost word-for-word translation, and other times that approach doesn't work at all.
But language isn't the only concern. Cultural knowledge is important too. For example, if an English person reads that Amelie ate a croissant in Avignon, the chances are that they will have come across the girl's name Amelie before, that they have eaten a croissant, and that they have at least heard of Avignon. There will be some resonance. Whereas if they read that Li Jingrui ate a guokui in Zigong (something I was translating last month!), can the translator assume the reader will know that Li Jingrui is a contemporary female writer, that a guokui is a savoury snack, and that Zigong is a city in Sichuan famous for dinosaurs, salt wells and the eponymous lantern festival (and, being in Sichuan, spicy food)? If not, the translator (and editor) must decide whether to leave it as it is, however sterile, or, write in a way that will prompt at least some familiarity and response.
Q. Were there any specific difficulties caused by Chinese?
HW: You can almost always find a way to translate something from one language to another, although it might feel cumbersome at times. Often when translating, you have to put your brain into a different gear—for example, if something positive in the original text translates most accurately in the negative. And you can spend ages trying to work out whether a perfect turn of phrase has been newly created, or borrowed from classical literature.
Q: What were the hardest parts to translate?
HW: There's a little song in Bronze and Sunflower which took ages to translate. It's the one about the woman and the little girl, with their different hairstyles, swapping places. The original Chinese is loaded with detail, but is also like a nursery rhyme. I couldn't fit all the detail into similarly light rhyme in English, and in the end, I decided to go for the light rhyme and compromise on the detail. Our two dogs enjoyed extra long walks at that time, as I kept repeating things over and over in my head until they began to fall into place!
Q. What kind of sources do you use when you don't understand what something means? (Or were there any words you didn't understand at first?)
HW: Online dictionaries, internet, Google images, YouTube, and if I can't work it out by myself, I'll try to think of a human who might be able to help.
Q. Did you find Chinese names hard to translate?
HW: I don't usually like to translate Chinese names, but it's meaningful to translate Bronze and Sunflower. The other names aren't translated.
Q. Have you received any letters from children about the book?
HW: No, but the Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing has received reviews of the book by children. Stephanie Gou wrote about her very personal response to Bronze and Sunflower, and how it helped her understand her parents better.
Q. What do you hope to translate next, if anything?
HW: I've been working on another novel, Dragonfly Eyes, by Cao Wenxuan, which should be published in autumn 2019 (again by Walker Books and Candlewick).
Helen Wang is an English sinologist and award-winning translator. She works as curator of East Asian Money at the British Museum in London. She has also published a number of literary translations from Chinese.
Chinese Books for Young Readers website and
Pictures: Translation keyboard button from Max Pixel