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 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.