Yan Lianke Talks About Literature and Translation

Interview with Chinese writer Yan Lianke.
The interview was conducted by Meng Mei. Y stands for Yan Lianke and M for Meng Mei.

M: Thank you for accepting this interview, Yan Lianke. I admire and respect you for two reasons: you are extremely sensitive and pay great attention to the way we live today. Besides you are also deeply human and brave in the way you write.

Y: I am not sure the word brave is the best to define myself, but most writers do not write the way I do, and yet all I have achieved amounts to very little. If we compare Chinese and Russian literature, the difference is as striking as the one between night and day. Let’s not talk about art, courage or responsibility; let’s not mention those words. I often say we are not worthy of the art of the past; we do not honor our own responsibilities.

M: We at Yi Yi focus on literary translation from foreign languages to Chinese. What I want to discuss with you is how you, as a writer, look at literature and translation. In this case, of course we are talking about translation from Chinese to foreign languages. Your books have been translated into many languages around the world. I would really like to know how you consider your own books and the foreign readers of your books? In the past when I used to translate Kundera, I had a number of face-to-face exchanges with him, he has his own theory about translation, and he also pays particular attention to how his readers read him. I remember very clearly one of his sentences in which he said: what matters is not how many books have been printed but rather how many readers understand and appreciate you. As I recall, he attaches a huge importance to the quality of the translation.

Y: Kundera belongs to writers who are dead serious about translation. But for Chinese writers, as far as I am concerned, there is no such option, there is no way to know how your novel was actually translated. Whether you judge the translation good or bad, you have to rely on the reaction of the reader. You have to try and see if you can communicate with them by relying on tacit understanding. If they discuss the book coldly, you can tell certain things have not been transmitted, if they are enthusiastic then you know your novel has made it through, if they get too excited, you can tell there is something wrong with the translation, the translator has overdone it. In China we don’t have writers like Kundera who can rectify and correct the translations of their own books. That’s because we don’t have Chinese writers who can write in English or in French.

In the past thirty years, we had a large number of books translated from foreign languages into Chinese. There was a sort of overdose of catching up with the world; as a result Chinese authors understand world literature more than in any other countries. It also created a generation of writers with a highly developed sensitivity, because if you read foreign literature without speaking any foreign language you need to rely on extreme sensitivity to grasp the new elements of world literature. Once we read Kundera’s humor, we realized the humor of Qian Zhongshu (*Qian Zhongshu, 1910-1998, a major Chinese novelist) is very limited in comparison. Only Kundera qualifies as a master of humor. Such understanding does not come from one sentence but from the sensitivity of a writer. For example let’s take Vargas Llosa’s books. One of his earlier books is Captain Pantoja and the Special Service (in Spanish Pantaleón y las visitadoras). Spanish people consider it to be an extremely funny and good text. But for us who read from the Chinese version we barely feel its humor or beauty, that’s not even remotely possible. The only way we can appreciate the book is through its story and its entire composition. To me this illustrates the challenges Chinese writers face when dealing with literature in translation.

To go back to your question, I can only communicate with my foreign readers once they have read my books, then I can observe their reactions. This transcends texts and words. When the reader tells you that your language is very good, it is very clear to me that this means I have come across a good translator. And it is very possible that this language is no longer your language but a language jointly created by you and the translator. If we take for example my novel Shou Huo (Translated in English as Lenin’s Kisses) – it seems French readers consider its language very good, yet my novel is full of regional expressions. French readers told me they didn’t know such words existed, so the words they read have been created together by the autor and the translator. These are not the words of me, Yan Lianke.

M: I consider that the language of an author holds a very important and subtle place in his novel, because language is the framework of a novel. Are you saying that when you discussed your novel with French readers, language disappeared or was altered?

Y: In fact, yes, and I don’t really have a choice. I think that any Chinese writer puts all his hopes in finding a good translator. To be fair, my novel Ding Zhuang Meng (Translated in English as The Dream of Ding Village), was considered to be good enough, the English translation is well regarded. Readers tell me the language is good. But in its French version, I have not heard such comments. People tell me it is a good novel, but when they discuss its characters, the story, no one ever mentions language. This is when you realize what your novel has lost in that different setting.

M: That’s too bad!

Y: It is. If people in France talk about the beauty of the language of your novel, then you know that the translation of your book has turned into a French novel. If you come across two good translators you can consider yourself to be lucky as a Chinese writer. Particularly for me, who doesn’t speak a word of any foreign language, who has never studied any language. No matter if I am translated into 20 or even 30 languages, it is all a question of chance. For example Shou Huo’s reception in the US and in the UK was extremely good, it was beyond what we had ever imagined. Everybody talks in details about the language of the novel. I think this is what happens when you encounter a good translator. And sometimes you just don’t make this encounter.

M: A good translation is essential for a reader to understand a book. Otherwise a reader cannot appreciate a novel in its full dimension. If a reader does not pay attention to the words, he can understand a novel only from the composition of the story, but he cannot appreciate the structure, the subtlety, the depth and the style of the story since all of this is embedded in the words. If the words are not good the reader is unable to appreciate the beauty of literature.

Y: True. Let’s take the example of France, where three of your books have been translated and yet no one talks to you about the language of your books, obviously you don’t understand what is happening. Until a fifty-year-old journalist tells you that after reading your novel, she still hasn’t been convinced by your language. This journalist read the translations of Shou Huo and Si Shu (Translated into English as Four Books) by Sylvie Gentil. And before this no one ever spoke about the language of any of the three novels. But there is still something one can do well: if as a writer you cannot be in control of your fate, then at least you have to make sure that your writing meets the highest artistic standards. Because in the process of translation, something of your writing will be lost.

M: That is a terrible ordeal!

Y: Otherwise you can forget about having foreign readers. We all read foreign literature, and it is only after you have taken in your hands some texts, read a few pages that you realize you just can’t keep reading it. Yet those texts have a lot of readers in their country of origin, so does it mean that those foreign readers are not in their right mind? Certainly not. The reason is that the book lost something as a result of the translation. And it did not survive that loss. (M: this is a brilliant way to describe this process). I indeed have high expectations as a writer, so it is a terrible ordeal. We can say that certain literary works lack beautiful language, for example Kafka’s novels. From the point of view of Chinese people who expect language to be poetic, Kafka’s novels lack poetic quality, they are simply very dry.

For example if we take his novel The Metamorphosis, we can remove a paragraph and that wouldn’t affect much the overall art of this novel. Despite this novel being short, we continue to read it paragraph by paragraph, because Kafka wrote a great novel, so no matter how much we remove from it, how much we peel it, in the end the soul still remains. That’s why I say that Chinese writers complain about Sinologists who complain about translators way too much. In fact we need to recognize that when we translate foreign literature we really loose a lot. But foreign literature keeps us reading without ever stopping. How come Chinese literature cannot have the same effect?

There is a book that is quite interesting which came out in two different Chinese translations. One is called Weixiao de Shenling, the other was given the title of Weixiao Zhi Shen (In English: The God of Small Things). Since I don’t speak any foreign language, one day I decided to read both versions side by side. I compared the two translations from page one to page five. What amazed me was that there wasn’t a single sentence that didn’t carry the same meaning, yet none of the translations used the same words. Basically over five pages two translators were able to deliver the same meaning without ever using the same words. I was stunned for quite some time. Then I understood: you shouldn’t expect the translator to reach the quality you hope to achieve; instead you have to make sure your writing is good enough. In other words, a Chinese writer should not expect much from his translator. You simply don’t have this option; you are not in a condition to do so. Thus perhaps such is the fate of your novel.

M : Can you speak more about your relationship with translators ?

Y : I always say that translating Shou Huo is rather difficult, but whether it is with Sylvie Gentil or with the English translator, there wasn’t much communication. We are very good friends with Sylvie Gentil; at the very end of the translation process, she sent me an email saying that towards the end of the novel there were many names of plants she didn’t know. I told her these are names of plants I invented. After that she had no more questions.

M: Well, everyone has a different personal experience of translation. For example, as I was translating Kundera, when faced with a sentence, I imagined how Kundera would articulate this sentence, or I imagined Kundera standing in front of me and started wondering which tone he would use to utter this sentence. Or for example what he would expect from this sentence. Because Kundera puts high expectation on each word. For example when I was translating The Art of the Novel for Hong Kong Oxford Press he requested that in the section called Keywords (In the French original this section is called Soixante et onze mots) I explain my understanding of dozens of such keywords. Then he said that he had never been to China, and that he does respect Chinese readers, and yet wonders if they could really grasp such or such term given the difference in cultural background. Perhaps the same term can have many different meanings, so can the reader understand it fully? Back then it was very difficult for me to answer, I said I couldn’t tell what would be each reader’s reaction after reading the word. Then he said, OK, let’s do this: in order to avoid confusion, can we remove in the Chinese edition the terms you think would be difficult for a Chinese reader to understand?

Y: This means this writer has very high expectations about his own words. But we as Chinese writers can have no such expectations. I think you did what you could, and no matter how the translation went, after the translation came out your own book can stand on its own and that’s already quite good overall.

M: As a translator I have to thank you for what you just said, you are indeed very tolerant of translators. When I answered Kundera’s request I suggested leaving the original words next to the translation while translating those keywords, so that later the reader could refer to the French original while reading and grasping the meaning of those terms. I really hope that translators who come after us can do a better job than we did, otherwise it would be too tragic for literature. I hope that readers can open a space for their own reading and understanding as a result of juxtaposing the original. Only this way can we have generation after generation of translators becoming better at what they do.

Y: Since we are talking about different versions of translations, have you read the Unbearable Lightness of Being by Professor Xu Jun that came out after the version made by Han Shaogong (*Han Shaogong, born in 1953 is a leading modern Chinese writer who co-edited Kundera’s novel translation in the late 1980s with Han Gang) ?

M: I haven’t, all the books by Kundera I read are in French. Let me give you an example about translation: the translation by Fu Lei of Romain Rolland’s novel Jean-Christophe is a classic. When I read a novel I pay great attention to the first sentence. For example, One Hundred Years of Solitude starts like this: Many years later. The novel Jean-Christophe starts in the Chinese version with those four characters Jiang Sheng Hao Dang (Literally: ‘the sound of the river is vast and mighty’, while the French original is Le grondement du fleuve monte derrière la maison http://beq.ebooksgratuits.com/classiques/Rolland_Jean_Christophe_01.pdf and was translated by Gilbert Cannan as From behind the house rises the murmuring of the river. http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/7979/pg7979.html ) In Chinese: the vast and might sound of the river. If one reads the original it says literally that ‘the river roars’. This way the feeling, the rhythm, the atmosphere are all very different. You know, what Romain Rolland represents in French literature is very different from how Chinese readers relate to Jean-Christophe.

Y: I didn’t know that. What you said about the first sentence in a translation is very important. This reminds me that when my book Si Shu was being translated, Sylvie Gentil discussed its first sentence with me for about two hours. I agree with you that the first sentence in a novel is indeed very important.

M: I heard one of my artist friends talk about the way the beginning of a novel can impact people emotionally. Both him and his daughter love the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. He read the book several decades before his daughter, and decades later his daughter shared with him how she came to love this book, and she recited the first sentence of the book. After listening to my friend I felt very moved. I find Fu Lei’s translation of Jean Christophe as ‘the vast and majestic sound of the river’ to be a classic example, it sets the atmosphere of the whole novel, and has influenced so many generations of Chinese readers, it’s beautiful. I agree with what you just said about the subtlety of words. In a translation, the first words, the first sentence literally jumps to the eyes, they set the whole atmosphere.

Y: I also want to say that in a way what literature in translation has given us thanks to translation in terms in innovation is more important to what ever creativity brought to us through traditional literature. Without literature in translation, we couldn’t know anything about the world. World literature is the result of literature produced in every country. Whatever knowledge we have about Russian, French or Japanese literature, we owe it to translation. We Chinese writers could wolf down in the 1980s so much world literature thanks to what? Thanks to translation.

M: And later?

Y: We always say that a good translation is a faithful one.

M: Faithfulness: for us translators, the real question according to me is whether the faithfulness of literary translation applies more to the reader or more to the writer. For example, I think that Kundera’s words can be translated in a way to remain closer to the reader in order to touch the reader emotionally. Yet on the other hand, I find that as a reader, what touches me the most is precisely his attitude of remaining true to himself: how in his words he remains concise, determined, calm and collected, how he does not accept shortcuts or flattery.

Y: I understand, faithfulness tells you that you cannot change the style, just like a big tree: language is its main body, you cannot change it. The language of a tree is made of a trunk and of its leaves; you cannot simply reduce it to its leaves, which would be the end of it. In fact, in a way, the leaves determine the way the trunk will grow. Because the leaves are such, the trunk can grow this way. They cannot be talked about in a separate way. I hope that in an acceptable way, expressiveness and elegance can be maintained. For example, as we started talking, I mentioned Vargas Llosa’s book, I really couldn’t continue to read it. I really couldn’t endure such language. (M: besides Vargas Llosa is a writer who pays so particular attention to words and is uncompromising about language). So many Spanish readers told me that Vargas Llosa’s language is so beautiful. Last year this writer came to China and we met, so I took his book but I honestly couldn’t read the second paragraph in the Chinese translation. As you summoned up your courage to read it, you discover his characters, the story, the structure all are good from whatever angle, and indeed it is the language that is problematic; it is the language of the Chinese translation that prevents further reading. Such language will let our reader be mislead. In such context, I hope the translator can paint those leaves slightly more decently while not affecting the structure of the trunk. For example my novel Shou Huo is full of local colloquialisms. To be honest even for many Chinese people they are not easy to understand. How do you expect a foreign translator to deliver, this is not realistic and not possible technically speaking. So I am asking, is it possible to achieve a language that remains expressive and elegant without affecting the style? Just as you mentioned the example of the vast and majestic voice of the river, the minute you hear those words you feel an emotion, and transform the text into a long-standing classic. I still hope to meet such a translator.

M: Such a writer’s expectation towards a translator is in fact very demanding for a translator. Because once you have understood the original text, you enter your own language to explore, in fact you enter unchartered waters. The writer cannot follow you because this is no longer his language. And the reader can only wait for you on the side. At this stage you are completely alone. For example sometimes the original language reaches a state of purity, simplicity and dryness, and you feel that in your mother language, in Chinese, such way of expressing thing is nearly impossible, at that moment you need to think how to break through, how to find a solution, how to find a very thin line to allow the reader to follow. That’s very difficult.

Y : As a writer what I request from a translator is that his understanding of the novel is greater than his understanding of the language. If you can express the richness and complexity of the novel with one more or one less word, I think that doesn’t really matter. If I am your reader, of course I hope that from the very beginning of the novel you use beautiful language. But as a writer, if you pay too much attention to the language, perhaps you might overlook very subtle and very important things in the novel.

M: What you say is very inspiring for me. Because right now I am translating a novel. This book talks about a man discovering the world. The language of the book is very difficult and I often feel lost. What you said today is very important because today, as I was looking at my computer in the morning, every time I couldn’t translate something, I couldn’t go beyond those words, I would abandon it, and read again the novel, to allow the vigor of the novel, the current to drive me …it helped me to suddenly realize some things could come out of the conscious or the subconscious just like running water.

Y: What you describe here is very important, you need to have a very solid grasp of the characters, of the story, once you have that understanding, the understanding you have for each word or what you understand too little or too much, is in fact not so important. What is more important is that, to refer to psychology, when a writer is writing, he indulges in the soul of a person, he does not think about one word extra or less, bad or good.

M: Translation is not a form of original creation, but what you just said makes me feel more relaxed. Because when translation enter the plot, an extra word or a world less, where to place a word is no longer so important.

Y: Indeed, not so important. When I write a scene, when I write shaking with my whole body, when I indulge, I absolutely am not thinking about which word is or which one is missing. No need to focus on each specific word. Let’s look again at Kafka’s Process. Why do I say many places lack style? Does a writer still have the strength to think about this? A writer really penetrates the soul of a person, and the soul of that character carries him further, at this point he has no time to think about anything else. So I think that as long as translation is concerned, maybe what matters most is to enter the soul of the writer, the soul of the novel. At that point you might discover that the sentences used by the writer are not so accurate, and if it is so, there is nothing wrong in helping him to embellish slightly. Then in the end you adjust your words, but when you do that, you see that in the moments of the greatest excitement, you won’t find any typo. When you read your text for the last time, you see what is good and what is not, but you can be confident that the part best written has no typos.

About Yan Lianke

Yan Lianke (in Chinese 阎连科) was born in Henan, a province that is central to his inspiration. He graduated in political science and later in literature and decided to devote his life to literature. In China he has been awarded some of the top literary prizes including the Lu Xun Literature Award and the Lao She Literature Award.


Fiction available in English

Serve the People
Dream of Ding Village
Lenin’s Kisses