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The Story of a Story

  • By Nicky Harman
  • 16th July 2015
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Translator Nicky Harman takes us on a fascinating step-by-step visual journey, explaining how a Chinese short story makes it from a very foreign language and culture into English, and to the western reader.

On July 4th 2015, an author, a translator ,and an editor were invited by Writing Chinese (White Rose East Asia Centre, Leeds University) and Leeds Writers Circle, to discuss how a Chinese short story makes it from a very foreign language and culture into English, and to the western reader.

The story – January: Bridges – was number 3 in the Read Paper Republic series of 52 free-to-view translated short stories, which will appear every Thursday for a year, starting June 2015.

Dorothy Tse’s January: Bridges is one of a cycle of thirteen stories with the title ‘Monthly Matters’. You can read them as fantasy, as allegories, or as prose-poems. Deliciously surreal (don’t expect to find the streets of Tse’s native Hong Kong here, or any other real-world locations), they take place in an extraordinary dream world. Dorothy’s writing is lyrical, wicked, peopled with bizarre characters, and sometimes disturbing (several stories, including Bridges, have undertones of incest).

Slide depicting translation process

As a translator, how do you start to make sense of surreal stories? Dorothy and I exchanged a few emails where I clarified a few things in my mind. Was it mother or mothers, bridge or bridges? Did she have any particular broken bridge in mind? In Chinese, singular and plural are often inferred rather than specified, and Dorothy pointed out that authors deliberately play with this ambiguity. I see her point, but I also know that the translator has to have some idea of the image in the author’s head before s/he can recreate that ambiguity. In the first screenshot below Dorothy tells me that the bridges here are a metaphor for non-communication (my query in blue, her response in black).

This instantly makes sense of the island images as well as the bridges of the title.

Slide depicting translation process

And again, in this next screenshot, Dorothy explains what the sister is wearing on her head…and I learn a new word, ‘cosplay’!

Slide depicting translation process

Enter the editor. Good editors, irrespective of whether they read the original language, are the translator’s best friend, pinpointing inconsistencies and infelicities, and making the translator revisit those bits of the translation that just don’t quite work. So in this screenshot, we see my email exchange with Dave Haysom on the knotty problem of what the father was doing to bridge the gap between cities (his query in turquoise, my response in blue):

Puzzled? Intrigued? Read the whole story here.

The literary event in Leeds at which Dorothy, Dave and I discussed the business of translating and editing January: Bridges was one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever been invited to participate in. It was a privilege to hear Dorothy talk about her writing, its context and her symbolism — I certainly came to a new appreciation of her writing. Last but not least, we had a lively, engaged audience, who put us on the spot with some challenging questions. You can watch a recording of the event below.

Of the entire cycle of thirteen stories in ‘Monthly Matters’, two award-winning translations of February: Chickens (inspired, Dorothy says, by the bloody poultry culls which accompanied the SARS epidemic of 2003) will appear in Structo magazine, autumn, 2015. March, April and May’s stories appear in the short story collection Snow and Shadow, (Muse, 2014). Dorothy plans a bilingual edition of the complete story cycle soon.

Dorothy Tse’s … stories will force you to experience life in ways you’ve never imagined. While often outlandish, the stories make perfect sense on a metaphysical level. Her paragraphs are paintings that transport you to bizarre places …. You don’t necessarily want to become a part of these worlds, but you do recognize the truth in them. Christine Palau’s review: Why This Book Should Win the Best Translated Book Award – Snow and Shadow.

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