Greatest Women in Translation: Anna Holmwood

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series!

Our interviewee today is Anna Holmwood, Chinese and Swedish literary translator.

Anna Holmwood

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1. According to The Guardian, Jin Yong is the world’s biggest kung fu fantasy writer, enjoying huge popularity in the Chinese-speaking world and being among the 10 bestselling authors. However, his name is barely known to the rest of the world “due to the complexity of the world he has created and the puzzle that has posed for translators.” As the translator of one of his books, what is this complexity and the puzzle about?

There are many reasons why Jin Yong’s work has not been published by a trade publisher in English before (and barely in any other language either, for that matter). Jin Yong first stories were published in his Hong Kong newspaper in serial form in the 1950s, but due to the political upheavals of the time, he only became a household name in China and Taiwan in the 1980s and 1990s. Contact between the Chinese-speaking world and the west only really started to pick up in intensity in the 1990s, and in terms of deeper understanding, I think we are really only at the beginning of what will turn out to be a big shift in world culture as we start to understand Asia better and they take their place at the centre of the world stage. Jin Yong’s stories are grounded in a particularly Chinese genre that dates back several hundred years, but he was also someone who modernised martial arts fiction and made it relevant again. His significance to contemporary writers of kung fu novels cannot be understated. As no martial arts fiction has been translated by a trade publisher in English, editors are understandably a bit unsure – will it sell? Will readers connect? But it makes sense to start with the master, if anyone can make martial arts fiction popular in the west, surely it has to be Jin Yong?

2. In this same article mentioned in question 1, you say that you don’t explain everything in the book because you believe “readers like a bit of a challenge.” That’s a tough decision to make – whether to provide more contextual and cultural information to the reader or not through footnotes or any other sort of side note to the original. How did you come to this decision?

Reading is no fun if it’s too easy! But indeed, you have to maintain a balance between provoking a reader’s interest and losing them completely due to incomprehensibility. In the case of Jin Yong, the broad sweep of the story, the emotional worlds of the characters, the moral framework behind their actions: all these things translate very easily in my opinion. The parts that are more difficult are mostly in the detail, the elements of Chinese medicine or historical references that are perfectly obvious to a Chinese reader. And yet, it is my opinion that an English reader doesn’t need to understand everything on the same level as his/her Chinese counterpart. I would rather that a translation inspires a reader to explore something further than sacrifices the energy and flow in order to make every detail plain.

3. The first volume of Jin Yong’s most popular trilogy, A Hero Born, was translated by yourself (taking you five years). The other two volumes are being translated by different translators. How was this experience of sharing a series of books with other translators?

Actually, I am working with one other translator only, Gigi Chang. I will work on the odd numbers, she’s doing the even numbers. It’s been great to have her on board – she started working on book two just after I finished and handed in book 1 to our editors. We’ve been able to bounce around ideas and she was someone for me to bounce ideas around with during the editing process, so I can’t imagine not having her with me on this journey now. We are in daily contact, despite living on opposite sides of the world. It’s been very important for us to find a way to work together that gives each translator the freedom to work in their own way, but to come together to create a joint voice for Jin Yong in English. This is no small task! But I feel very lucky to have found someone with whom I work so well together.

4. You have been recently appointed Foreign Rights Manager at DKW Agency. What exactly does this role entail?

I am in charge of selling translation rights for our authors, which means, selling into all territories apart from English-speaking ones. This means meeting and talking with editors from all around the world and finding out what books are popular in their markets, what kinds of stories they think resonate with their readers and what excites them personally. It’s a brilliant counterpoint to doing all the detailed work of translating, it’s the best way to get a “bigger picture” of what happens when a book travels across languages.

5. Besides translating from Chinese, you also translate from Swedish. And I must say this article on your translation The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled From India to Europe for Love, by Per J. Andersson, captivated me. It must have been a real joy to translate it. Could you tell us a bit more about it?

I loved translating this. PK’s story is incredibly inspiring, and I know from having had contact with him during the translation process, he is as humble and committed to living a life founded on love and acceptance as he comes across in Per’s book. It made for a nice change to Chinese martial arts. It’s that balance between different projects and languages that makes my job fun.

6. What are the differences between translating from Chinese and from Swedish in terms of difficulties or even joys?

I learned Swedish as a child because my mother is Swedish. As such, the ways I came to speak Mandarin and Swedish could not be different – one was from immersion only, I have barely any formal education in Swedish. The other I studied as an adult, alongside courses in the history, economy, politics and of course literature of China. When I first started out, the difference was perhaps more pronounced. I found dialogue in Swedish came very naturally, I understood things by tone and instinct in a way that I didn’t in Mandarin. I have since married and had a child “in Chinese” however, so the intellectual/emotional distinction no longer feels so strong. Now that I live and work in Sweden, I can feel the two languages converge.

There is, of course, a huge difference in terms of literary culture. Swedish fiction has greater and deeper connections to English writing, the underlying grammar and values are far more similar, so translating between these two is like crossing a stream, where Chinese to English translation requires a long-distance ferry-ride across a wide ocean. I think we underestimate how culturally specific our notions of “good writing” really are, and as such, translating between European languages rarely challenges readers at the level of what is fiction, how do we structure a story. There are many cases of Chinese genres that do not have simple equivalents. Crime writing, poetry, essays: these look very different in Chinese. This presents translators and editors with a far bigger challenge than I think the industry is prepared to recognise. And similarly, many types of writing that are popular in the west don’t work in China, for example.

7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.

I’d like to nominate Rosalind Harvey for the next interview!

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