Translating – The Pains and Pleasures

Apr 23, 2010

“It is easier to be a pig farmer than a literary translator.” Still, Berlin Fang ruminates on the art and beauty of translation.

That’s where literary translation comes in. When we do literary translation, we get royalties, typically in the neighborhood of 60 RMB (10 US dollars) per thousand words nowadays in China. As you can imagine, it is hard to become Bill Gates or Warren Buffet this way. Things are not better elsewhere. You don’t see people waiting in long lines and jostling and fighting and bribing to become translators. Most Chinese books were translated first into French, not English. One of the Chinese-English translators at Paper-republic (a Chinese translators’ web site) explains that France has a better welfare system in which a translator can afford to spend 5-10 months working on a book. The worst that could happen to a translator is that he or she lives on unemployment benefits. That’s what you call a love of arts and humanities.

So I said that was good. I just managed to reduce my income by at least 9 times and I got myself something much more nerve-breaking to do. As you can probably imagine, literary translation is much harder than commercial translation. In the case of commercial translation, the only person you have to please is the boss or whoever contracts you. In literary translation you get readers and critics everywhere. The rewards just don’t measure up to the effort and intellect required for the work.

In literary translation you get readers and critics everywhere. The rewards just don’t measure up to the effort and intellect required for the work.

In the beginning I couldn’t get it. I complain about it sometimes. I remember I once wrote a rant about the translator’s royalties in a blog post called “It is easier to be a pig farmer than a literary translator.” Somehow I caught the attention of one of the leading translation scholars in China and he left a comment in my blog, prefacing it with a statement that it was the first comment he ever made on the Internet. In those days, the Internet seemed to be a shameful place filled with junkies. He must have felt very strongly about the subject to go to this length. He wrote: Mr. Fang, don’t you think that it is rewarding to be having a dialogue with literary masters in the world? That is an “Aha!” moment for me. He changed my perspective in the way I look at literary translation. We are not talking about making money here. We are talking about engaging in conversations with masters. I may have felt this way myself, but sometimes you want to hear it being verbalized to attach importance to it, to “anchor” that kind of importance, so to speak.

Now, the money problem aside, literary translation is different in the sense that it is an art, not a drill. It is an art in the sense that painting is an art, when an artist is painting a model sitting on a bench, or an apple on a plate. It is an art in the sense photography is an art, when you try to take a beautiful or striking moment you see and you share it with somebody else. It is an art in the sense calligraphy is an art, when you spend years trying to perfect a way of representation.

Translation may seem to be an art of imitation, but they are judged by very similar criteria to those a writer is judged by. Eventually, people expect to read works of literature through the translation. Anything short of that will disgrace the translator. Few people blame the writer, but they blame the translator, and they are very creative with their sarcasm. Recently I heard that China has an Award called “Award for Translation that Sucks”.

I am not dying to be nominated.




People judge translation harshly possibly because it is more difficult to pass judgment on writing. It is easier to zoom in on a sentence and pass a judgment and thereby making yourself look smart. If the translator has an awkward sentence in the middle of a paragraph, it sticks out like a sore thumb. If the translation is good, translators disappear into the text. Good translators are the invisible men and women of the literary world. If translators are conspicuous, taking the center of the stage, the translation has very probably failed. You can be sure that the critics will say nasty things. It is like what people sometimes say about plumbers. If they do a good job, nobody notices. If they mess up one thing, then there is (beep) everywhere. In a way, translators are measured by how transparent they are, and how quiet critics are.

Translation is an art of equivalence. Chinese thinker and translator Yan Fu, proposed three criteria that are still used today in judging translation: faithfulness, smoot

hness, and elegance. In most cases, I acknowledge the validity of such criteria, but sometimes they are irrelevant. For instance, if there is a character who does not speak proper English in the story, how do we make his speech elegant, I mean the Shakespearean kind of elegance? Can a translator translate a dialogue in “The Dumb Waiter” (by Harold Pinter) the way he or she would translate a dialogue from “King Lear” or “Macbeth”? Probably not. Why would someone translate a sailor’s talk in a bar into elegant, grammatically correct Chinese that Lin Yutang or Lao She might be speaking?

It gets really difficult when the author makes use of a particular kind of vernacular. For instance, how do we render dialogues in southern English, with all the “y’all”s, and long drawls? It is sometimes impossible. The Chinese language, or any other target language, has an altogether different linguistic landscape that does not map American English region by region. People in Southern China speak many local dialects, most of which I don’t speak. Even if I do, I wouldn’t use it as many readers would find it hard to follow. So it is only possible to render it into a more generic

dialect that deviates only slightly from the Mandarin, so that most people will understand. For instance, we could probably get away with using Northeastern Chinese for Southern English. People may call that geographic disorientation. I call that dynamic equivalence. Even with such treatment, the mapping is only an approximation. Otherwise Google could do it much better than we humans could.