I translated Amos Oz

Interview with Zhong Zhiqing, who translates from Hebrew to Chinese and is the main translator of Amos Oz. She lives in Beijing.
The interview was conducted by Meng Mei.

How did you become involved with the language(s) and culture(s) you translate from?

I have to say the way I got involved with Hebrew literature is a matter of sheer luck. In October 1994, a Professor from a Tel Aviv University brought a delegation to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and signed an agreement with Ru Xin, who back then was the executive vice-president to develop academic exchanges. At that time, I was working as an editor at the Foreign Language department of the world literature section. I have a background in Chinese and Eastern literature, so my supervisor recommended me to participate in the preparation of this program. Quite unexpectedly, the head of the Tel Aviv University History and East Asia department selected me; I flew by myself to a completely unknown country – Israel – in October 1995. At Tel Aviv University I was helping to teach classical Chinese at the East Asia department while studying Hebrew language and literature.

My Israeli friends told me that Hebrew is the only language that can be used to talk to God but I sighed that this God is far to remote for us, Chinese people. I remember very clearly how I was studying at Ulpan – the Institute for Hebrew Language – together with freshly arrived immigrants and how we started from the alphabet, the basic words to simple sentences and syntax, learning the language like babies. After five hours of classes, we would start a new lesson, so every day we had to challenge the limits of our capacity to memorize things.

When I was studying contemporary Hebrew literature at the Foreign Students Center, I watched the movie My Michael based on Amos Oz’s novel and I was very touched by the way the main female protagonist sings and sighs at the beginning of the movie. In 1996 I decided to try to read a novel in Hebrew, so of course I choose My Michael, and decided to try to translate it into Chinese. This gave me an opportunity to get to know one of the most influential Hebrew language authors, Amos Oz, and to start the publication of his work through various publishing houses in China. This was also the start of a great collaboration and friendship.

Do you have a definition of literary translation or a theory of literary translation you are close to?

When I started to translate, I only had a hazy notion about the technique of translation, but I do think there is a theory of translation to follow. When I was younger, my family introduced me to a professional translator who recommended I should read The Technique of Translation by Qian Gechuan. Now I have many years of experience as a translator, and I feel deeply that an important factor in deciding whether a translation is successful or not is determined by two things: how deep you know the foreign culture and how well you know your own language. Fidelity in translation is a rather ideal state in the world of translation, but that is difficult to achieve. I myself rather practice literal translation.

Do you have advice for young translators on how to improve skills of literary translation?

When I started translating, Andrew Plaks, a renown sinologist who was my research director for my PhD, told me: in translation what is the most difficult is not language but culture. I have remembered this for my entire life and this is my message to younger translators.

This is an ongoing debate but do you think a literary translation should be closer to the original text or closer to the reader in the language of the translation?

I believe it should be closer to the language of the original. That’s the only way to make sure the translation has style, it’s the only way to convey the spirit of the content being translated. Moreover, using foreign words or expressions as a reference is a good way to enrich your native language. But you need to take into account the habits of Chinese readers in formulating words and to polish your translation accordingly.

If you are translating an author who is alive, do you contact him/her and if so what is your experience?

Yes because the author is a mirror of the book. Understanding his way of speaking makes the translation work much easier. In the process of translation you can imagine the tone or manner of speech of the author, so when you translate the words are the words of the author and not your words.

Do you have any translation rituals?

I have a tendency to translate the book and the type of literature I am most familiar with. Most of the time I remain faithful to the original and for the sentences that require changes I ask for the author’s opinion.

Besides literary translation, do you have another job? If so, what is it?

Besides translation, I research Hebrew literature; comparative literature (Chinese and Hebrew literature) and I direct PhD students in their research.

What is your greatest pleasure and displeasure in the process of translation?

Translation is a form of dialogue with famous and ordinary people. It allows you to see the spirituality of a person, to understand his or her culture, his or her soul; it allows you to laugh with that person, or share sorrow. It will never make you feel lonely.

If the people who read my translations don’t understand translation, don’t understand literature or are not even interested in literature. This is a total failure in communication.

Why does literary translation matter?

Translation is a way to travel across cultures. It is a bridge of communication between the culture of one’s native language and a foreign culture. What one can grasp in a lifetime is limited by language and by time, so with the help of books in translation we can understand what we strive to understand.

Can you share with us your own thoughts about translation?

Translation is the art of regret. It is a difficult art but it can also fill people with happiness. Translation is an art that allows one to immerse himself in the process, and sometimes to forget oneself. To be able to recommend a good writer to a good reader is a form of happiness.

About Zhong Zhiqing

Zhong is a researcher at the Foreign Literature Research Center of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. She obtained her Master degree in Chinese language from Beijing Normal University in 1991 and that same year started working at the Foreign Literature Research Center of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. In 2005 she obtained her PhD at Ben Gurion University in Israel, becoming the first Chinese scholar to graduate in Hebrew literature. She also invited as a visiting scholar to Tel Aviv University, the British Academy and Harvard. She has written and published about and translated extensively on Hebrew literature in China.