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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Greatest Women in Translation: Nicky Harman

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Welcome back to our interview series!

This month, I had the pleasure of e-meeting and getting to know a bit more about our first Chinese translator, Nicky Harman, nominated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

Nicky Harman

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1. Your latest translated book is Happy Dreams, by Jia Pingwa, one of China’s most celebrated writers. What is it about?

It’s about a pair of migrant workers from a remote village outside Xi’an in China, who come to the big city to make their fortune. Happy Liu and his fellow-villager Wufu find a semi-derelict building to live in and settle into life as trash collectors. We follow them through a series of tragi-comic adventures, but when Happy falls in love, things get more serious: the woman, a prostitute in one of Xi’an’s ‘hair and beauty salons’, is arrested by the Vice Squad and sent to a rehabilitation centre; Happy and Wufu get work on a building site to earn the money to bail her out; Wufu dies and Happy tries to take his corpse back to their village, because the folk belief is that when the body is not returned for burial in his or her home village, the soul will never rest in peace. (This is not a plot-spoiler, the scene actually opens the novel.) Despite the grimness (being a trash-collector in China really is getting down and dirty), this novel is a joy to read. What makes it for me is the character of the eponymous Happy, an unlikely hero who is, by turns, pretentious (he is always ready with an aphorism or a homily), engaging, obnoxious, honest, devious, foul-mouthed and tender (to his best friend and to his lover). Think Charlie Chaplin, Chinese-style. I’m grateful to Amazon Crossing for taking a punt on this novel because, although Jia Pingwa is one of China’s most important living writers, his novels are hard to translate (full of dialect), so have not made much impact in the West. His writing is wonderful but many of his novels are set in the remote countryside where Jia himself grew up, and are long and complex, which is a combination hard to sell to publishers who can’t read the original.

2. I guess the differences between American and British English can be compared to the differences between Brazilian and European Portuguese. I only translate into my native language, Brazilian Portuguese, and don’t dare venturing into the European one. How about you? Being British, do you translate into American English? If so, do you find it difficult?

You’ve absolutely put your finger on a key issue for me as a translator. I write British English, especially if it’s slang dialogue. That’s another reason why I’m grateful to Amazon Crossing – for having faith in me, and for giving me an editor who was sensitive enough to make useful suggestions when I had no idea how to make my British-sounding slang acceptable to American readers. That said, I feel a little sad that Happy Liu could never be ‘chuffed’, but always had to be ‘delighted’, or ‘satisfied’ or something similar. I think the characters’ voices come from deep inside me, as the translator, in fact, I imagine them as coming from my belly, and it’s difficult to restrain the tendency to use certain words when they seem to fit so perfectly the ‘voice’ as one hears it. But every translation is a process of negotiation and compromise, and my feeling, from readers’ reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, is that our combined efforts paid off.

3. Your next translation, due out in May 2018 is Our Story: A Memoir of Love and Life in China, by Rao Pingru. What was special about its translation?

I signed the contract, opened my working document to start the translation…and my heart sank! This author is extremely well-educated and the book is sprinkled with quotes from classical Chinese poetry, as well as references to history, to his Confucian-style upbringing (he’s now in his 90s), and to folk customs and local food. To say nothing of his war-time career, which required me to get a grip on military terminology. But within a few pages, I was entranced – Rao Pingru has the rare gift of telling his life story as if you and he were sitting in his living room and you were the only listener there. This is the only book I’ve ever done (and I’ve translated some pretty gut-wrenching stuff) where every time I arrived at the final pages as I went through first draft, successive drafts, and edits, I got a lump in my throat. He wrote it in grief after his beloved wife died, but it is full of affection and humour. The book is gorgeous to look at too, because Rao is a painter and there are colour illustrations on every page.

4. And you have another novel translation out in May, The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, by Yan Ge?

Yes, that’s a record for me, two book-length translations out in the same month! I actually finished translating The Chilli Bean Paste Clan three years ago, but the route to publication was somewhat tortuous. (Hats off to Roh-Suan Tung, of Balestier Press, who took it on, and has given it a gorgeous cover too.) It’s completely unlike any other novel I’ve translated: a family drama that manages to be both warm and funny, barbed and irreverent, and highly profane. The novel is set in a (fictional) small Sichuan town in twenty-first century China, where Gran’s impending eightieth birthday celebrations are the trigger for growing tensions between the family’s middle-aged siblings. Events take an unexpected turn on the day itself, when secrets from everyone’s past are revealed, including that of the matriarch herself. Yan Ge started writing young adult fiction in her teens and is a well-established and prize-winning author. The Chilli Bean Paste Clan [《我们家》, My Family, in Chinese] was her first excursion into adult fiction, and it is an extraordinarily clever one. The challenges here for me were to express the family bonds and animosities with sufficient subtlety, and the dialect (again!), which Yan Ge herself says is highly local to the small town in which she grew up. In both these areas, she was extremely helpful in explaining things to me. I hope the book does well, because it’s hugely enjoyable. A sort of very wicked Chinese Jane Austen-style story.

5. I think you are our first Chinese translator interviewee! 😊 Why did you choose Chinese as your working language?

There was no contest, really. I do read and speak various European languages, but so do many other excellent translators, much better than me. My degree was in modern Chinese but for many years I let it drop and did other work and lived a completely different life. Then in the late 1980s, I came back to it and re-learnt it. A Chilean translator friend of mine suggested I should try translating because, he maintained, ‘There must be lots of work out there.’ That proved a little over-optimistic and my career as a translator started slowly. But I was instantly hooked on literary translation and I still am.

6. What are the challenges of translating from Chinese into English?

One huge challenge is that you are recreating in idiomatic English a text which in grammar and syntax is just about as far from English as it could possibly be. So the operative term here is ‘recreate’. But at the same time, you have to reproduce exactly what the author is saying as well as being sensitive to how s/he is saying it and the effect s/he is trying to achieve, all the usual considerations of literary translation from any language. So your English has to be extremely good. There’s no way you can follow the source language sentence word for word, you have to make something new, but it has to be an accurate and faithful representation of the original. Of course this applies to translation from any East Asian language, like Japanese, Korean and so on, because they’re all so different from English.

Then, of course, China is a big country and there’s a lot to learn with every book you translate. I think everything I’ve mentioned above just about sums it up: dialogue must sound natural, many writers use dialect, which you have to understand and find a way to express in English, and there are cultural and historical references which are instantly recognisable to the Chinese reader, but which are opaque to many western readers without some sort of a gloss. (Do not mention the word ‘footnote’! These are anathema to most editors nowadays.) Not that I’m complaining at all. I absolutely love this work.

7. What are you most proud of having achieved in your translating career?

My work on Paper-Republic.org is one thing. After all, the work doesn’t end when the translation is finished. I’m passionate about getting readers interested in Chinese fiction and luckily, among Chinese-to-English translators, I’m not alone in that: for the last ten years, I have been part of a core of volunteers on Paper Republic, which works to facilitate both literary and publishing connections between China and the rest of the world. We run online and offline events and publications aimed at raising the profile of Chinese literature among readers, students, editors and journalists. For readers, we provide complete short stories (in our ‘Read Paper Republic’ project) and novel excerpts, as well as public events with opportunities for reading and discussion. For students, translators, and educators, we provide translation-focused educational materials, and facilitate translation-related events and training. The Paper Republic website is also home to an extensive database of Chinese literature and its translation, helping visitors gain an overview of Chinese literature, and its various translations into English. In short, in many ways we have become an effective bridge between Chinese writers and their writing on the one hand, and English-language readers on the other.

With regard to my own translations, I often get involved in promotional work, especially when the author doesn’t speak English. I write blogs, do book launches, and talk at literary festivals. I absolutely love this aspect of translating too, I mean, who would want to sit in front of the computer all day every day, going boggle-eyed over even the best-written book? Not me, I need to get out and about too.

I also feel hugely privileged that I have been able to introduce such a wide variety of Chinese authors in English, and some have become personal friends, which is an added bonus. One area that we all need to work on, however, is a greater focus on Chinese women writers. I tallied up the gender balance in my translations, and it’s about even. But in our annual rollcall of translations from Chinese on Paper Republic, there is a preponderance of male authors, reflecting, one has to assume, men’s greater visibility in the literary world both east and west. Out of the 110 winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, only 13 have been women. Only a fifth of winners of China’s prestigious Mao Dun Prize have been women, which is a bit dismal because there are so many good female writers in China.

8. What’s the best way of learning more about Chinese fiction, for people who don’t know where to start?

Well, we run the Read Paper Republic project I mentioned above specifically for readers wanting to dip a toe in the waters of Chinese fiction. We began by publishing a complete short story (or essay or poem) every Thursday for a year. We have since added a couple more series of short stories and will continue to do so on an occasional basis. They are all still online – just click on the Read Paper Republic heading or logo on our home page. Of course, we’re not the only people posting Chinese short fiction online: Asymptote Journal and Words Without Borders post excellent work from Chinese, as well as other languages. If you want something longer and meatier, well, a visit to your local bookstore should produce a good novel. Or try googling for helpful lists such as the one produced by TimeOut Beijing, TheCultureTrip and The Wall Street Journal. I recently made up a list myself, for London’s China Exchange festival.  Interestingly, some of the same books and authors turn up on all four lists, which I think indicates growing recognition and appreciation of Chinese literature among English-language readers worldwide. And of course, those lists are only the tip of the iceberg. There is much, much more out there. For instance, if you like scifi, then you are in for a treat, it’s one genre where Chinese writers have made a big impact. For instance, Liu Cixin, winner of the Galaxy Award and the Hugo Award, has half-a-dozen books in translation; and a number of Hao Jingfang’s short stories and novellas are available online in English. And martial arts, a great Chinese genre which hitherto has hardly been translated, has a gem just out in English, A Hero Born, by the inimitable and much-loved Jin Yong, (MacLehose Press, translated by Anna Holmwood). Dig in and enjoy!

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

Anna Holmwood.