Nicky Harman on translating Chinese literature

By JIANG HONG / 10-14-2021 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

As a winner of the 2020 Special Book Award of China, Nicky Harman is a renowned British translator of Chinese literary works. She was Co-Chair of the Translators Association (Society of Authors) 2014–2017. Photo: PROVIDED TO CSST

British translator Nicky Harman has been associated with Chinese culture for more than half a century since she read about the Silk Road when she was a teenager. At the end of the 1960s, at the suggestion of an uncle, she chose to study Chinese at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom. Today, she has been committed to translating Chinese literature for about 20 years. She has translated nearly 40 works by contemporary Chinese writers, including Jia Pingwa, Yan Geling, Han Dong, and Zhang Ling. In a recent interview, Nicky Harman shared her experiences and insights in translating Chinese literature.

CSST: What in particular drew you to translating contemporary Chinese literature?
Harman: After I graduated from university, I worked in many different jobs, but none of them had anything to do with either Chinese or translation. Then in about 1998, I met Henry Zhao, who was then a professor at SOAS London University, and he asked me to translate Hong Ying’s latest novel, K. Zhao was a good mentor. He reviewed each chapter as I translated it, but he gave me freedom of movement, as it were, and I learnt a huge amount. Marion Boyars published this as K: The Art of Love (2002), and that started my translation career.
Translating can be a lonely business, but I have been lucky to be able to hook up with other Chinese-to-English translators who are now my friends and colleagues. Primarily, this has happened through Paper Republic. Paper Republic was then a blog and database resource for Chinese-to-English translators. It is now a registered non-profit organization, with a mission to promote Chinese literature in English translation, and to support its translators.
CSST: Have you got any plans to move beyond contemporary literature? 
Harman: I would love to translate some of the Chinese classics but I don’t have the qualifications. I wish I did. They can really appeal to Western readers, still, in this day and age. Julia Lovell, for instance, has recently done a marvellous new version of Journey to the West (Penguin Classics, 2020). 
Julia Lovell’s new translation is about a quarter of the length of the original. “The novel zings with physical and verbal humour,” she writes, and the translation certainly does. Here is what Lovell says about the translation process: 
“Literary translators have two responsibilities: to the original text and to readers of the target language. Whichever languages translators work between, satisfying both constituencies can be difficult, but when working between two literary cultures as remote chronologically and geographically as sixteenth-century China and the twenty-first-century Anglophone world, the challenges are redoubtable. Sometimes, a translator has to sacrifice technical, linguistic fidelity to be true to the overall tone of a text.” 
She very modestly says nothing about one of the biggest challenges of translating this work: getting the humour into English. But believe me, she succeeds magnificently. I sat reading it on a London bus, chuckling out loud. 
Classical genres, even when written by contemporary authors, can appeal in translation too, for instance, wuxia [martial arts] fiction. Recently, several of Jin Yong [Louis Cha]’s wuxia novels have come out in English, starting with A Hero Born, translated by Anna Holmwood. The novel and its excellent translation have had rave reviews in The New Yorker, which talks of the author’s “story-telling verve” and the translator’s “deft maneuvering” amongst other appreciative epithets, The Guardian newspaper, and other mainstream review pages that are normally hard for translated fiction to reach. 
A novel, translated or not, normally relies for its success on clever promotion, also a live, personable author to give it lift-off and help bring it to readers. Actually, when the first translation came out, Jin Yong was already too frail to do live interviews, so there was no chance to see or hear him in person. But the translator can do a lot to give the book a human face. For instance, Holmwood has written entertainingly about the challenges of translating martial arts fiction into English. In any case, sometimes the magic happens anyway, and a translation that sells well serves as an inspiration to all of us translators. It’s what makes our jobs worth doing.
CSST: Given the huge language differences and also cultural differences and barriers, how do you overcome these challenges when translating Chinese literature into English? 
Harman: There are several issues here. We could sum them up as (1) translating text which describes cultural differences and (2) finding a convincing voice for your protagonist in the English translation, crossing the cultural divide.
As far as the first issue goes, I am a firm believer that readers can and do learn about new things. Many cultural and historical references hardly need to be described anymore, because the readers know roughly what they are: the “Cultural Revolution,” the One-Child Policy, the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, the significance of colors, for example, red for weddings, white for funerals. 
Of course, the readers of the translation are unlikely to “receive” exactly the same image in their minds as Chinese readers, and will only know about certain things in outline, but in the context of the novel, this may be quite sufficient. Where it’s important to provide more detail for the Western readers, that can be done too, in a number of ways, for instance, an author’s or a translator’s foreword.
Sometimes words can pose a problem because no exact equivalent exists in translation. This happens a lot with writers who draw their inspiration from their local surroundings and society, for instance, Jia Pingwa. The description of topographical features can be challenging to translate e.g. several different words for hills in the loess plateau, and none of them are really hills in the way we would understand them. Agricultural tools! In Shaanxi Opera we have four different ways of describing millstones or stone rollers, for grinding wheat or making soybean milk. Of course, many of these words would not be familiar to Chinese readers from other parts of China either.
Getting the voice in English for the novel’s protagonists is perhaps a bigger problem for the translator and involves cultural issues in a broad sense. In Jia Pingwa’s novel Happy Dreams, our hero, Happy Liu [Gaoxing is his given name, which means “happy” in English], is a male migrant worker, a sort of Charlie Chaplin figure, who cusses with his cronies from the first page to the last. Jia sets his stories in Shaanxi Province in northwest China, and they are full of rough and rude Shaanxi dialect. When I translated them, the chat had to be as full of vulgarities as the original Chinese. Life among the poor in a Chinese city or village, is life in the raw. The translator cannot be too polite either.
So I had to find a convincing voice for Happy Liu in English. This is a process that happens with all translations, and pinning down how one does it is difficult, but it is especially important when the novel consists of, literally, one man’s voice. Happy Liu is the first-person narrator, and most of the book is either interior monologue, or dialogue with his migrant worker friends. Imagine translating a story entirely related by a Glasgow cab driver, into any other language. To get a natural voice for him was a most interesting challenge. 
A further difficulty was the fact that my British English slang for Happy Liu had to be Americanized for the American publisher. I felt a bit hamstrung sometimes, I felt I was translating twice from Chinese to British English and from British to American English. 
In Jia Pingwa’s novel Broken Wings, the author himself describes how difficult he found it to get the heroine Butterfly’s voice. Butterfly has been kidnapped from the nearest city and taken to a remote village somewhere in northwest China to be the wife of a farmer called Bright Black. When the book opens, she’s being held captive in a cave until the family are sure she won’t run away. 
I was full of admiration for Jia Pingwa, a middle-aged male writer, for bringing Butterfly to life and giving her a voice that sounds entirely natural. This is the way he describes it in his Afterword to Broken Wings
“When I began to write, it was not me writing, I was giving a voice to poor kidnapped Butterfly. She has finished lower middle school, so she has a bit of education, and social aspirations. She likes to sprinkle her speech with traditional sayings, she sounds like she knows everything – and nothing at all. As she chatters on artlessly, who is she talking to? To me? To the world around her? The word for novel in Chinese is literally, ‘small talk’ and this story is a very small talk, but it’s not me talking, it’s Butterfly.”  
Quite a challenge for Mr. Jia. He makes it sound like an act of ventriloquism. And that’s how I like to think of a character’s dialogue too, when I am translating an important character in a novel.
Then there is the issue of dialect. Even Chinese readers find the use of dialect in Jia Pingwa’s novels difficult. But here I would like to quote Dylan Levi King, who translated Shaanxi Opera (forthcoming 2023), with me. Dylan writes: “I think when people think of a novel written in dialect—if they aren’t sure what that really means in Chinese—they’re imagining something like Irvine Welsh writing in Scots dialect or Roddy Doyle, Mark Twain, James Joyce, or something like written Cantonese, wildly different from a text in standard Chinese, unreadable unless you speak the dialect. However, the spoken dialect of the Shaanxi region might not be mutually intelligible with Mandarin, but they are essentially written in the same language. 
Jia himself has said: “Of course we’ll write in dialect, but we have to do so in a way that allows people from other places to be able to understand it.” 
Jia himself often explains local dialect in the text. Other words are easy enough to guess from context. It’s not so much that it’s difficult to understand the text but difficult to put the linguistic quirks of the original into English. And Dylan quotes another translator and admirer of Jia Pingwa, Nick Stember: “I don’t worry that my Chinese isn’t good enough but that my English isn’t good enough.”
CSST: Despite linguistic and cultural differences, literature can often touch upon common concerns that transcend the boundaries of time, space, and culture, and arouse the resonance of readers from different backgrounds.
Harman: Ultimately, I think one should not exaggerate the cultural differences in Chinese literature. After all, we are all human, we all live in society and have families. In Mexico, where Jia Pingwa’s novel Broken Wings came out in Spanish, one reviewer was struck by similarities in the conflict between archaic and modern societies in China and in Mexico. This review comes from La Jornada Semanal: “This novel is notable for … the skill with which [the author] unravels the threads of customs that cause the archaic and the modern to clash. ….We would do well, when reading this book, to remember that there are many similarities between our lives and that of a young girl, shut away in the Far East, and not to forget, also, that in our country there are many women who have been kidnapped or ‘disappeared.’” [Harman’s translation]