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Veterans see ethics lost in translation
(China Daily)
Updated: 2004-11-12 10:27

"Translation is an enterprise demanding a heart that could abide loneliness." This is a refrain constantly heard in the Fifth Session of the Council Meeting of Translators' Association of China (TAC), held in Beijing from November 4 to 7.

"The nature of a translator's work requires us to render a message and disappear," said Betty Cohen, president of the International Federation of Translators who honoured the conference with her participation. "We are so accustomed to disappear that we forget how indispensable we are."

It is estimated that since the 1990s about 30 per cent of the books published each year in China are introduced from abroad. But while the translated books are jostling with each other on bookstores' shelves, their translators appear to be increasingly remote from the public focus.

As a result, the TAC's decision to hold a ceremony to pay homage to 41 translators with long and outstanding literary translation career during the council meeting, held once every five years, is considered as one of the much-needed steps to hopefully secure the profession from public indifference.

Prominent translators

Literary translators have enjoyed high prominence through a long period in the 20th century of China.

Some brilliant translators have been adored and revered as fervently as those of the most renowned Chinese writers. Their names are famous brands inseparably connected with the works translated by them, such as in the cases of Tolstoy translated by Cao Ying (1923-), Shakespeare by Zhu Shenghao (1912-44), Pushkin by Ge Baoquan (1903-2000), Romain Rolland and Balzac by Fu Lei (1908-66), Hans Christian Anderson by Ye Junjian (1914-99), and ancient Greek drama by Luo Niansheng (1904-90).

Before China adopted its opening-up policies in 1978, many Western classics, especially those by Romantic and Realist writers, had been systematically introduced into China by prestigious publishers such as People's Literature Publishing House and Shanghai Translation Publishing House.

These books have acted as significant alternative mental nourishment for generations of Chinese youths. Even during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), when almost all Western literature was banned in China, there was always underground circulations of translated Western classics, secured from closed libraries or confiscated private collections.

The clandestine reading of Western novels among youngsters during that time, depicted in "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" written by Dai Sijie, was actually an experience constantly accounted by Chinese writers who lived their young prime time through the era.

Almost behind each of these widely read and loved Western classics, there was a translator's name shining. Several of them, now the most senior members of Chinese translators, are among the guests to accept the association's reverence.

The most striking name among the list is certainly Yang Jiang. The widow of the awesome literary and scholarly genius Qian Zhongshu (1910-98) is in her own right a distinguished stylist, writer and translator. At the age of 93, Yang is now the most senior and renowned Chinese translator still active.

Her translation of "Plato's Phaedo," published in 2000, is deemed as an exemplary text that embodies the three traditional criteria for translation in China: xin, da, ya, or precision, fluency, and elegance.

"Poetry is what gets lost in translation." That is the belief of Robert Frost whose distrust to translation has been ceaselessly echoed by writers. But for most of the translators present at the ceremony, the elusive nature of literature presents a happy challenge.

"The more a translator wants to grasp and represent the essence of the original text, the more he finds it recedes from him. But the struggle is exactly where the pleasure of the game dwells," said Wen Jieruo, who in the early 1990s took five years translating "Ulysses" with her husband, the famous writer and translator Xiao Qian (1910-99).

All 41 translators present are now above the age of 70 and boast several decades of translation experience. Most of them were professors or researchers working with universities or institutes. Some were editors of influential publishing houses. Their translation works are based upon long time of cultural study and writing practice.

There is certainly truth in the remark by Xu Jun, a middle-aged French-Chinese translator and vice-president of the School of Foreign Languages of Nanjing University: "One can be an acclaimed writer in his 20s, but cannot be an acclaimed translator until he is in his 50s."

Under pressure

While the senior translators' achievements were celebrated, the TAC had to answer the ever-growing wave of allegations that the quality of current literary translation is sliding.

Xu Jun is among a small number of people who hold a different view.

"There have of course emerged a lot of badly-botched translations, but we have found many books of high quality. And the absolute number of good books produced in the recent decade, I believe, is larger than any earlier periods," said Xu, whose painstakingly retranslation of Milan Kundera's "Unbearable Lightness of Being." Published last year, it triggered controversial criticism, because of his different rendition of some crucial ideas in the novel, compared with the previous and well-accepted version done by famous writer Han Shaogong.

But there is no denying that the rapidly commercialized publication industry has disturbed the accustomed working habit and rhythm of Chinese literary translators.

While their predecessors took years translating a Western canon, translators nowadays are asked to finish a commission in months, sometimes weeks.

"Usually we process a book in four or five months, including the time spent on purchasing copyright, translating, proofreading and printing," said Sun Feng, a managing director of Nanjing-based Yilin Publishing House, one of the major Chinese publishers for translated books.

"And new bestsellers would allow us still less time," added Sun. "Sometimes we have to hire three or four translators to work on a book at the same time."

Three months after "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" was published in English, its Chinese version was out. But still many impatient Harry Potter fans complained that they had been held waiting too long.

The much-accelerated speed of the publication industry has inevitably put the quality at stake.

"Literary translation demands the investment of large amount of time in doing background research, checking sources, and polishing the rhetoric," said Huang Jishu, influential dramatist and sociologist. "But now in order to meet the pressing deadline many translators have to assume a slapdash manner."

Another factor that thwart translators to perfect their art is the comparatively low and indiscriminate payment offered. In most cases, the remuneration paid by publishers ranges from 50 to 70 yuan (US$6-8.5) for 1,000 Chinese words - a ready money for those who botch a book in typing speed, but unworthy of the labour taken by serious translators.

New challenges

After almost all Western classics have been translated and retranslated, sometimes for up to 10 times, the younger generation of Chinese translators are turning to deal with books distinctive of the contemporary age.

And here they are confronted with new challenges.

"Modern-day translators have to be on the constant look-out to update their knowledge of the burgeoning new conceptions and cultural phenomena, and to catch up with the bombardment of new jargons and slang," said Lin Benchun, translator and professor of Fujian Normal University.

"More than 70 years ago, a Chinese translator literally interpreted the 'milky way' across sky and was thereafter held to ridicule," continued Lin. "Now translation is becoming a more risky business for making ridiculous mistakes."

Such mistakes sometimes could be very annoying and might incite fierce backlashes.

A recent instance is Yilin Publishing House's translation of "The Lord of the Rings." The edition was severely panned by some Tolkien fans, who even called for a boycott against the Yilin edition in several Chinese fantasy websites.

"The translators appear to lack the basic notion of Tolkien's Middle-Earth," contended some fans in the discussion zones of the websites. "As a result, they distort Tolkien's intent and make his 'secondary world' hard to access."

Some of the fans posted articles meticulously listing the mistakes made in the books. Yilin editors have connected with the fans and expressed willingness to publish a revised version.

Owing to the unprecedented open communication between China and the outside world, Chinese readers are more than ever well informed of Western culture, and the number of people bilingual in China has increased dramatically. As a result, today's readers are more capable of smelling out the misinterpretations.

"The readers' supervision is playing a more and more important role in the publication link," said Ma Ai'nong. Along with her twin sister Ma Aixing, the 40-year-old editor of People's Literature Publishing House (PLPH) has undertaken most of the translation work of four of the five published volumes of "Harry Potter."

The Mas' rendition of "Harry Potter" has also met with strong challenges from readers. More than two months before the PLPH's paper edition was out, several Harry Potter fans started to translate "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" and update it in Internet in a progress of about 10,000 Chinese words a day.

They stopped after they had translated about two thirds of the story, as a response to PLPH's worry that their work might be used by pirates.

"We just meant it to be a translation competition with the PLPH," explained the eight Internet translators in an interview with the newspaper Beijing Youth Daily.

The translation by these young challengers is surprisingly well done. They have been very loyal to the original text and excelled in using expressions close to idiomatic teenage language.

But in spite of the challenge, the Mas' translation is widely acknowledged as a more sophisticated and adept representation of J K Rowlling's surrealist magical world.

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