Translating Chinese Literature: Cross-Cultural Communication
  ·  2022-06-14  ·   Source: NO.24 JUNE 16, 2022
Huang Youyi
Chinese literary works have become an important window for foreigners to understand Chinese culture. In bridging the gap, translators, as messengers of cultural exchanges between China and foreign countries, play an important role. A senior translator and interpreter, Huang Youyi has witnessed and experienced extraordinary changes in China’s translation industry over the past four decades and continues to serve as a leading figure in this profession. In an interview with China Pictorial on April 15, Huang, Executive Vice President of the Translators Association of China and former Vice President of the International Federation of Translators, shared his observations of the changes and developments in the field of Chinese literature translation. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow:

China Pictorial: What changes have you witnessed in the industry over the past four decades? 

Huang Youyi: The translation industry has undergone extraordinary changes in terms of participants, related technology, as well as working methods and ideas. We now have more and more professional translators and interpreters. A big change is that previously, translators mainly focused on translating foreign languages into Chinese, but now translating Chinese into foreign languages has become equally important.

More crucially, our concept of translation has changed. We used to do word-for-word translation, rarely considering whether the content would resonate with foreign audiences. For example, we used to translate xin zhongguo directly to "New China," but later on we realized that even foreigners living in China did not get its accurate meaning. So the next time this particular Chinese term appeared in a text, we translated it to "the People's Republic of China founded in 1949" to help foreigners correctly understand what it means.

We can see obvious differences, and even gaps, between different cultures, highlighted by literature translation. What role do you think a translator plays in managing these disparities?

I think translation is a cross-cultural effort, bridging different cultures. Without knowledge of both cultures, a translator simply cannot work well—not even if they are proficient in both languages. A translator must think along cross-cultural lines. Cao Xueqin, the great Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) author of the classic novel Dream of the Red Chamber, made the character Granny Liu speak like an illiterate rural lady. To render her speech into English, therefore, the translator must abandon the language he has learned in the classroom and adopt the kind of lingo an uneducated American woman at the lowest end of the social spectrum might use.

Literature translation involves the direct dialogue between different cultures, testing the translators' skills in both source and targeted languages as well as their understanding of both cultures. Only strong competence in both aspects can empower a translator to convey the cultural connotations hidden in words.

Chinese literature rose from a history of 5,000 years, largely of Confucian tradition, and is based on a linguistic culture in which a single Chinese character can represent a story of its own. This is vastly different from European and American literature based on the Latin linguistic tradition. The differences in the two cultural traditions are so great that translation is rarely an easy task.

In Chinese literature, terms for addressing one's relatives are determined by which side they come from—the matrilineal or the patrilineal one. In English, the word "uncle" means someone who can come from either side, and "brother" can be either younger or older than the person in question. When translating foreign literature into Chinese, translators feel obliged to find out exactly who the person is in order to apply the right Chinese characters.

Likewise, in Chinese to English translation, it is customary for the translators to try their best to indicate clearly whether the character in the story is an elder brother or a younger brother, or whether the man is from the father's side or the mother's side.

In Chinese literary works, uncles from different sides are often assigned different functions and influences in the family. Their roles in the stories carry distinctive cultural traditions and clarify which side they come from. Consequently, the family roots of an uncle character in a Chinese story should be crystal clear. A term to address someone is of crucial importance to cross-cultural communication. 

When Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012, judge Goran Malmqvist said Chinese literature should have gone global a long time ago, but there are still too few works translated into foreign languages. In your opinion, what are the main difficulties in translating Chinese literature? 

The difficulties are complex. Translators commonly agree that you shouldn't translate from your mother tongue into a foreign language. But not too many foreigners can read Chinese, and Sinologists come few and far between. To deliver Chinese literature in other languages, alongside the ability to understand the literature itself, a translator needs knowledge about Chinese philosophy, history, religion, art, ethnic culture, folk customs and dialects.

So many of China's historical events are cited in the nation's literature. For instance, consider the An-Shi Uprising. The translator will have to determine that An refers to An Lushan while Shi means Shi Siming. Next, the translator will have to think hard about how to explain who these two guys were and why they rebelled against which emperor to foreign readers who do not know much about the history of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). It's more difficult for the translator to figure out a way to best explain an event of such profound historical meaning contained in merely four Chinese characters.

Chinese literature involves far greater differences in terms of ways of thinking, cultural background and language structure. Some core components of Eastern culture, such as qi, lack any sort of corresponding concept in Western culture. Some positive statements in one culture sound completely derogatory in another cultural context. For example, the dragon is sacred in Chinese culture, but in a Western context it often represents evil.

Compared to China's global role in the fields of economics, diplomacy and politics, its cultural influence is disproportionate. I once asked a leading Chinese scholar of American literature whether any major American authors had not been introduced to China and whether any major U.S. literary works had not yet reached Chinese readers. The answer was no.

A country that does as much publishing as the United States, still only publishes about 10 translations of Chinese literature every year, while American works published in China can reach more than 100, an obvious asymmetry.

Because so few Sinologists can translate Chinese literature, many Chinese experts undertake the work of translating Chinese literature into foreign languages. What do you think of this status quo? 

Yes, because of the scarcity of Sinologists, many Chinese translators have to do the work of translating Chinese literature into foreign languages. Thanks to their hard work, many Chinese literary works are now available to foreign readers.

Nowadays, the situation around literature translation is fundamentally changing. More and more foreign translators are engaged in translating literary works by Chinese writers. Works by foreign translators now far exceed those by Chinese translators. Chinese writers like Mo Yan and Yu Hua both have literary agents abroad and dedicated translators for different languages.

Even when Chinese translators are involved, they are often paired with foreign translators. The Four Great Classical Novels of China were all translated into English by native speakers from either the U.S. or the UK, but all the foreign translators, with due respect for their superb understanding of Chinese culture, history, philosophy and literature, received assistance from senior Chinese translators and editors.

According to my experience, since the translation of literature is a cross-cultural effort, the very act of translation should be a cross-cultural endeavor. Cooperation between Chinese and foreign translators and editors not only enables the translation process to run smoothly, but also presents an opportunity for both sides to learn from each other and share their unique understandings of different cultures and languages.

How do you view current trends in Chinese literature translation? 

Chinese literature translation will happen in more languages and more diverse forms of products. Previously, we often cared whether a certain book had an English version or whether it was published in Europe. But now, more books are expected to be translated not only into the common languages stipulated by the UN, but also into non-universal languages such as Thai, Korean, Bulgarian, what have you, to fill a gap in Chinese literature in those countries.

In terms of form, there used to be more printed books, but now products are more diversified, including film and television, short videos, and online literature. In particular, the literary atmosphere created by online reading better suits the digital age and has won popularity among young people while exposing more overseas readers to Chinese literature.

In recent years, the government and publishing bodies have introduced various measures, such as setting up publishing funds, to support Chinese literature in interacting with foreign readers. As China develops through further opening up and more copyright cooperation with foreign publishing organizations, more Chinese literary works are expected to be translated and published globally.

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

Comments to yanwei@cicgamericas.com 

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