Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a great honor for me to be able to address you today. Elsie gave you a list of some of the things I’ve done in my life, and just listening to it myself, I felt exhausted. But it is my fervent hope that I have not yet done even a third of what I will do before the game ends.
One of the bases of everything that I’ve been able to achieve and all the adventures that I have been honored to be involved in has been words and language. And I’m very grateful for the existence of the Chinese language and for the ability to operate in the no-man’s lands between English and Chinese which we all operate in. This is what we all do, we are all working in that interface. So it is a little scary to be before my peers, to be talking to people who I know are better than I am at translation. This is what you all do everyday. So, I’d like to say “(I am not worthy)”.
Let me just give you a little bit more information beyond what Elsie said. I was born in England, in Manchester, and my family moved to Australia when I was 12 years old, and I failed university in Australia. Failure is the best thing that can happen to you. Without failure, you will get nothing and you will succeed at nothing. So what I urge you all to do is to embrace failure.
The result of my failure was that I was able to come here to HK, and I would not be here today if I had not failed university. It was a key moment in my life. When I came to HK, I as a long-haired kid, 20 years old, and I had a breakfast meeting at the Mandarin Hotel with my mentor who was going to get me a job at Cathy Pacific. I was sitting in the lobby waiting for him, and on the table, underneath the glass on the table, was a list of regulations for the Hotel and they were in English and in Chinese and they were numbered. The English, of course, I could read. That was one, two, three. And I looked across at the Chinese and that was 1 … 2! … 3!! I can read Chinese!!! It was a crossroads in my life. One, two, three. I could read it. It was extraordinary. And it was a direct road from that moment to me standing here. Because I became immediately, totally enamored of the concept of the writing system that was based on something other than an alphabet. The little words, the little characters. Each one with a different meaning and it doesn’t matter how you pronounce it. In Cantonese, it’s one pronunciation. In Shanghainese, it’s another pronunciation. In Mandarin, Fujianese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean. All of these languages use these little characters. And each one of them provides a means of conveying a little capsule of meaning, regardless of the pronunciation. And I was absolutely bowled over by that concept. 1, 2, 3 (in Cantonese) but in my head, on that day of course, it wasn’t 1, 2, 3 (in Cantonese). It was just the meaning behind the sound, behind the words. In my head it was just the meaning of one, and two and three.
In those days in 1973, of course, China was closed and Taiwan was closed too. And the national Chinese language of restaurants around the world was Cantonese. So I learned Cantonese. As anybody here who has learned a language knows, there are basically two drivers to learning a language. One is sex and the other one is money. That’s it. That’s why people learn languages.
So I learned Cantonese and I threw myself into the world of Hong Kong at a time when Hong Kong was at the most vital, growing, thrusting stage in its existence, the 1970s. There was one six month period where I did not use a knife and fork. I was thinking and dreaming in Cantonese. People told me that I was talking in my sleep in Cantonese. It was a very, very intense experience, learning this language. Again, because of failure that I was coming off, I was really intensely interested in doing something, of being successful at SOMEthing. And so learning Cantonese was it. Because of my interest in those little characters, I started to pick up the newspapers. This was in the first two weeks of my being in HK. I couldn’t speak or read any Chinese at all. But I used to go through the characters, go through the writing, looking for characters that were repeated regularly. The first thing I learned with Chinese was how to use a radical dictionary. That allows you to learn to read Chinese without being able to speak it. If you can look up a word using the radical index of a Chinese dictionary, you can read Chinese without speaking it. The ultimate proof of this is Joseph Needham, whose Chinese of course was just stellar amazing in terms of his reading. I was honored to meet him once. I spent an hour in the same room with him once in the Friendship Hotel in Beijing and heard a brief exchange between him and his interpreter which indicated to me that John Needham, the man who wrote Science and Civilization in China for Cambridge University Press, basically did not speak a word of Chinese. But he could read it, because he knew the meaning of all those characters.
So the dictionaries becomes the key to the learning of a language. You must choose a dictionary and establish very a close, an overly close, perhaps somewhat unnaturally close, relationship with that dictionary. You’ve got to spend many, many hours every day with this dictionary, endlessly flipping through it, looking up every single word. Every time you consult the dictionary, you learn one more word or phrase, and the dictionary becomes your absolute best friend. If you do this, have that kind of relationship with a dictionary, then you will definitely master the language.
So I got a job with the South China Morning Post as a little reporter. I was reading Chinese newspapers as much as I could. There was one wonderful moment when I was reading a Chinese newspaper in the newsroom of the South China Morning Post, and one of the Chinese reporters came up and took the newspaper away and said “That’s for Chinese people to read”! (laugh from the audience??). Oh yeah?
Anyway, I started to read, and I read and I read, and most of the Chinese characters I have read in my life, apart from street signs, have been newspapers. I was of course working as a journalist for many years in China, and I read the People’s Daily editorials every day for years and years. That is such a a tedious way to learn a language. But I also read some novels. I have actually not read many Chinese novels simply because it is a time-consuming business. But I read Ba Jin and Gu Long and a few other novelists I can’t remember anymore. But Jin Yong back in the 1970’s was already the author that everybody reads as a young Chinese person, in the same way that western kids today that read, read ?? John Grisham? I’m not sure what kids today read. The question is to what extent our young people are reading today, that is a question we’ll put aside because we could spend three days on the topic.
I started to read the Jin Yong books and I really enjoyed them. I moved to England in 1978, away from HK, And I started to translate Book&Sword as a way of improving my Chinese, of keeping my Chinese going. And I translated it, and translated it, page after page of this stuff. When I started I was looking up every other word in my dictionary. The dictionary I was using, by the way, was the Far Eastern Practical Chinese-English Dictionary of Liang Shiqiu, just a fabulous dictionary in my opinion. I used to look up ?? I don’t know??a very high proportion of words. But you know, one of the amazing things about language is the very high level of repetition. It doesn’t matter what kind of language you’re talking about. Whether you’re talking about historical texts from thousands of years ago that Joseph Needham was looking at, whether you are talking about newspaper Chinese, or newspaper English. Any writer is going to repeat himself eventually. There is a constant repetition of words and phrases and ideas and concepts. So if you use, as I did, a dictionary to check the meaning of what is going on here on this page, eventually, when you have done that a few times, a few hundred time, a few thousand times ?? by the time you get to page 150, you are seeing repetition. So that’s basically how I learned to read Chinese. Looking words up in the dictionary, going back, looking for repetition, building the vocabulary from there. So for me, Book&Sword was not the work of a professional translator. It was the work of a poor student struggling to come to grips with a language. By the last page of Book&Sword, of course, my Chinese was pretty damn good. And better then than it is today. But it was a learning process for me.
It’s always a learning process. Translation, you never stop learning. And that is one of the reasons why it is such a wonderful profession, because it allows you an opportunity to learn things, to reach out to every area of life, every area of human knowledge impacts on your work, on your lives as translators.
So the topic here is Translation: the intersection of art and science. I had better get round to that at some point, I guess.
For me, the whole point about translation is accuracy, and I hope that is reflected to some extent in Book and Sword. I run a translation company in Shanghai called SinoMedia Translation. We have about 13 full time translators and 50 part-time translators who are of course all working full time for law firms and accountancy firms, sitting in their little cubicles. Their bosses think they are working for their law firms and accountancy firms, but what they are really doing is freelance assignments for SinoMedia Translation. I have no particular view on the morality of this! You know, whatever works.
We have three principles of translation at SinoMedia. The three principles are: you’re not allowed to add, you’re not allowed to leave out and you’re not allowed to guess. The aim of the whole process of training people in SM translation is to get them to totally understand those concepts, because, as I am sure anyone here who has taught translation will know, people instinctively put themselves into a translation. They insert their own ideas, their own preconceptions, their own views on what should be here, or what should NOT be here, in the way that they take the meaning through from the source to the target. You have to stop it. You have to remove yourself emotionally from that process. You have to be in an unemotional passive interface between the two worlds. If you are not passive in that way, then you will fail, because what you translate will not be a direct translation. There is another whole world of translation which is not direct translation. But that is more relevant to advertising copywriting than translation. What I do, what I am interested in, and what I think is relevant with these kung fu novels is direct translation of the meaning of the source language.
I do believe that it is possible to take a word or phrase and mirror it exactly into another language. And I think in translation you have to believe that that is possible. Otherwise, it is really hard, impossible, to do what we do well. You have to believe it is possible, that there is a meeting of minds between cultures. Chinese people, people from Europe and the States – two complete different cultures. But is it possible for us to talk together? The answer is in translation that we do. It comes down to every single word and phrase and every sentence. Is it possible to take a word or phrase in English and translate it meaning absolutely through into the other language? And vice versa. I believe very firmly that it is possible, and that is a fundamental principle in my life, I would say.
I’d like to read you the introduction from the SinoMedia translation handbook would give you the most concentrated view of this art and science thing that I’ve just been through.
Translation is both an art and a science. It requires a familiarity not only with the source and target languages, but also with the cultures and psychology underlying the languages. In terms of art: words are endlessly fascinating in the way they shift and change, grouping themselves in new ways, morphing through to different shades of meaning. Finding just the right word or phrase to reflect the meaning in the source language into the target language can be one of the most creative things that human beings do, and to do it well at speed is the equivalent of professional musical performance – worthy of a standing ovation. In terms of science: language is an interface, a tool to allow for the passage of ideas and information between two people. Chinese and English are fundamentally different languages in terms of both grammar and etymology. But it is to write a sentence in Chinese which reflects 100 percent the meaning and feel of the English sentence. And vice versa. Because that is our aim – totally mirrored meaning and feel. Note that the aim is not solely meaning. Feel is important too. And that takes us back to art, because while meaning can be objectively right or wrong, feel is inevitably subjective to some degree. To consistently get the right meaning and feel, a translator must be a lot more than just a walking dictionary. A good translator must be well-read, alert and interested in all things, because you just never know what reference will be relevant to the next article you work on. A good translator should be thinking about words and sentences on at least two levels – both the superficial meaning, and the underlying connotations.
So that’s all very inspirational, and it is aimed at the translators who come into SinoMedia, to make them feel, “wow, this is serious. Maybe ‘cha-bu-duo’ is not good enough.”
Book&Sword is for me a very important part of what I do with that particular part of my life – SinoMedia Translation – because this gives me street credibility with the translators. I am the guy who translated Book&Sword and they think “Waaaa!” So regardless of what the quality of the translation is, regardless of whether I could still do it or not, that has value to me in terms of running SinoMedia Translation.
In the past few years, I’ve been doing a lot of interpreting, a lot of basically simultaneous interpreting, and I am doing it at a very tricky and complex business level. As Elsie said, I work with Xinhua Finance, which is a company based here in Hong Kong that does business around the world, and is based to some extent on a relationship with Xinhua News Agency. In discussions between the CEO and senior people in Xinhua News Agency, other officials in the Chinese government and other players in China, I am almost always the interpreter. It is fascinating to be able to do that. There is only one way to become good at translating or interpreting and that is to do it all the time. Because I have had the opportunity to do that interpreting, I now feel that I understand how China works and how these people in China, how they think, better than in any other way I can think of. To be an interpreter is again, an honor and a privilege, because it provides such direct access right into the middle of a person’s brain. The same is true of translation. When you are translating something, you are trying to guess what is the meaning behind the word. It is the meaning that matters, not the words themselves. When you are translating or interpreting, for me it is as if there is a veil, a curtain. On this side of the curtain are the words, the superficial words. Behind the curtain is the meaning. What you have to do is to reach behind the curtain and grab the meaning. Don’t translate the words. Ignore the words. Translate the meaning behind the curtain. It’s the only way to do it, and if you do it, you’ll be able to achieve the goal that I mentioned before, that is, 100% accuracy. If you try to do it on the basis of words, you will fail. Because the words are not equivalent, there are words in Chinese for which there is no equivalent in English, But for the meanings behind the words, absolutely there are equivalents.
BOOK AND SWORD was a huge task. I started on the first word on the first page. I had no idea how long it was going to take me and I had no idea of what the issues were. I dealt with all sorts of problems along the way, such as the structure, the names of people. Do I translate the names into English or do I use Pinyin?
And I think this is a key question of translation of this fiction of this sort. Do you go for the meaning or do you go for the sound? So you have the “youyun” sword technique style. Do you go with “youyun” or with its meaning, “soft cloud”? Now, in my opinion, the key where possible is to go for the meaning, because you are trying to convey to the reader something of the flavor of the original. So “soft cloud” in that particular example makes a lot more sense than “youyun”. In fact, for a chinese person, the phrase has no more meaning than it does to a western reader. You have no idea about sword fighting techniques. So for your guys too, it is just a cool sounding phrase. I apologize to anyone out there who can actually use a sword, but for most of you, you know as much about swords and fighting as I do.
The structure of the novel was also something I thought about a hell of a lot, because it was very clear that the structure of this novel was very different from a western novel. I was always doing it in the hope that I could introduce this story to western readers, that western readers would find this interesting. And I was very struck by the fundamental difference between the structure of this story and what I was used to with a western novel. I haven’t read have enough Chinese to be able to go deeply into this. But I think there is a fundamental difference in structure between Chinese and western novels and also a difference in the degree of detail. Maybe it’s Chinese maybe it’s Jin Yong, but many of the characters within this novel and other Jin Yong novels, are by western standards, fairly superficial. There isn’t the depth to the characters or to some situations that you would find in a Western novel. A western author would typically spend more time developing the character, giving you a sense of who this person is, than Jin Yong will. Jin Yong will instead just move on, he would prefer to give you another sub-plot.
Another big problem for me was that there were no sex scenes. For a western reader, reading a novel, you expect something to happen out there in the desert. I mean, you’ve got The Fragrant Princess, and our hero Chen Jialuo. I mean Chen Jialuo, what the hell are you doing?! There is a problem here. I could see from the perspective of an ordinary western reader that it wouldn’t feel right. Something should be happening here that isn’t.
This relates partly to the cultural context. This a problem with any translated novel. The context of the times, the history, the relationships, the interchanges, the costumes, the image of the fighting scenes. You guys, you know it already. You can imagine this stuff. You understand the historical context of Qianlong ??. But a western reader doesn’t. So there is this huge problem, what to do. Do you explain it or don’t you.
Now, my approach was to simplify but not to add. I wanted to give people as direct and as pure a sense of what Jin Yong is all about as I could. I mean, Jin Yong is a popular novelist in the same way as John Grisham is incredibly popular today. They are adventure stories. It’s Tom Clancy. At its best, I think the right comparison is with the Lord of the Rings. I think Tolkein, and the breadth and the depth of the creation of an attractive and absorbing other world in the minds of the readers ?? I think Tolkein was very effective at that and Jinyong is as well. Tolkein was feeding off cultural instincts based in northern Europe. His world springs from the fantasies of northern Europe. Jin Yong does it with the fantasies of Chinese people, with YOUR fantasies. They both create a world which is fake, but which feels attractive and familiar. It feels like it has something to do with me and my background. And I wanted to give western readers a chance to explore “your minds” by giving them a pure of view of what Jinyong was saying and how he was saying it. I simplified some of the story. What was over there is probably about 80% of the story and I pulled out some sections which I felt could be taken out in order to simplify somewhat the story. This was possible, I think, because the way Jin Yong wrote this book was the same way that Charles Dickson used to write his books. He was writing every day to fill space in a newspaper. I don’t know quite how much thought he had in terms of the longer range story, as he was writing to the deadline and trying to get the last few words out because the paper is going to press in half an hour. But it did mean there were episodes that could be either left in or taken out, it didn’t matter. I was basing this on the edition of Book&Sword that was published on the early 1970’s. The edition that was published in 2002 is slightly different, but the basic story is the same.
Princess Fragrance, by the way, I completely fell in love with. I am sure I speak for every man in the room when I say that in the initial stages of the story, Princess Fragrance is wow. By the middle of the book, however, she is getting really boring. And everybody moves on in their minds, the male mind, through to Huo Qingtong who is ultimately a much more interesting person. I think this a useful lesson for life.
So, Chinese names were a real problem. Let me just mention a little bit more about that. Pinyin from the western perspective has the three problems: one is Q, another is X and the last one is Z. It is a huge problem in terms of people reading and remembering these names. The downfall of Zhao Ziyang from the perspective of western newspaper readers was a huge benefit, because they could never remember or pronounce his name anyway. Li Peng, who I am not supporting in any other way, I want to make this perfect clear to you, had a name at least that everybody could say. Hu Jintao as the head of the Chinese Communist Party? It’s a good PR move. Because there are no Xs, Qs or Zs. There was a hotel in Beijing called the Fuxing Hotel, and they had to change the name because many of the American guests were embarrassed.
This book for me, involves four decades. I started in 1970s, I finished in the 1980s. I signed a contract with the Oxford University Press in the 1990s, in 1997, and it was published in the naughties, in 2004. So it has spanned, this project, a fair portion of my life. It has generated, though, a enormous amount of very positive relationships and interchanges. Because when I tell people in China that I translated this novel, that I know Jin Yong, I cannot tell you how that makes people go “wow??” in China. It makes me, just little me, a super star in the eyes of anyone in China. It is such a manipulative technique in a business negotiation to mention that, right at the front.
I put part of the novel onto the Internet in the late 1990s, while waiting for publication and perhaps to sort of encourage Oxford University Press. The reaction was incredible. I have received over the years hundreds and hundreds of emails from people saying 1. thank you for translating it. And 2. when are you going to do another one, and can you please do Condor Heroes or whichever one they want. The interesting thing is the profile of the people who send me these messages. Ninety percent or more of the people who send me these emails are not foreigners, well, they are not white. They are yellow people like you who are born in the US, in Canada, Australia. They are people who have grown up in a Chinese environment, maybe their parents immigrated to Canada or the US when they were young. Maybe they have watched the TVB serials, they have seen the films. Maybe they can speak Chinese, Cantonese. But they can’t read. So because they cannot read, they are cut off from their base culture. A television show is great, but it doesn’t give you the same connection, the ability in your mind to be able to imagine the world in the story in the same way as a book does. So when these kids read this translation or any other translation of a similar book, it provides them with a way of making connection back to their roots to where they come from, to the culture underpinnings of their lives. For me, to translate this book, the thing that I have got out it most is not money because I doubt if I will ever make a cent of it and I don’t care. To see the reaction of these people to the book, the way that it opens up their lives, is a very, very fulfilling experience. And I’m hoping that through the publication of this book, more people of Chinese race living outside of the China world will be able to make contact back to where they came from. I think to do that, it needs to be paperback and it needs to be cheaper. But I’m not involved in the marketing of this.
I have no idea how this will sell and I have no idea of how many copies it is possible to sell of a book like this in this world at this time. But I do have a sense that it is more likely to sell somewhat more copies then would have been the case if it had been published in the 1980s or in the 1990s. When I was doing this book, China in terms of the world, the only culture reference point for the rest of the world, was Bruce Lee. That was it. There was nothing else except Enter the Dragon. You fast forward to 2005, you’ve got Heroes, you’ve got Kung Fu Hustle. You’ve got that wonderful movie of which they will soon release the sequel to be called Crouching Elephant, Hidden Duck.
The Asian cultural, the Chinese cultural influences now have a significant impact on global culture. You see it in the Matrix for instance. That was one of the most important movies of the past ten years in terms of of its impact on the youth of the West. Everybody watched Matrix 1 and thought it was just mind blowing. Everybody saw 2 and thought it was just okay. By 3, people were thinking, not so great. But the point of the Matrix is that the underlying feel they were aiming for was fundamentally Asia and China. Keannu Reeves was chosen for the role in my opinion because there is an implicit indirect sense that there is something Asian about this guy. He looks sort of cool Shanghainese. He would look in a traditional Chinese gown with a white scarf. I think there is other ways in which China is increasingly beginning to impact not only on the economy of the world, through exports, through outsourcing, through all the ways in which China is increasingly impacting on the economy, on the life of every individual on the face of the planet. But there is a culture element which is just in the early stages. Within 5-10 years, China is going to have an impact on global culture that Japan was unable to have. It is just beginning, and these novels are one very small, and I mean REALLY small, way in which that connection between Chinese culture and global culture is being created and expanded. Once that door, once the channel is open, there is going to be flood of Chinese creativity that is going to come out of it. It is going to roar out of China, out into the world. Movies, music, models, actors, singers, you name it. The idea of beauty, of physical beauty, female beauty is changing; 10 years ago, 20 years ago, it was the classic busty, blonde Swedish girl. Increasingly, it is not. The Asian idea, the China doll, long black hair etc, is increasingly an element of what is considered to be standard average beauty around the world. This is just one more small way in which China is becoming a major influence on the world.
So, there is a mission here. I am on a mission. It is a bit like the Blues Brothers. It’s a mission from God. My mission is to help create and enhance that interface – I take this very seriously, I want to understand that – between the West and China, and there is a way that every translator in this room is helping to do that. To help understanding on both sides of this huge mental divide. I don’t understand how Chinese people think. You don’t understand how Western people think. But through translation we get closer than we would otherwise get. I can never understand how you really think, because your background, your whole life is not my life, and you will never understand where I come from, you will never understand what I’m thinking about completely. But because you speak English, because you are trying everyday through your work to try to understand what these idiots are trying to say, what do they mean, you are getting closer and closer to that nirvanic point where we reach total ?? world ?? understanding.
Elsie: Any questions now?
Q: Is there any feedback from English speaking readers?
A: Yeah, yes there is. Let me just grab the computer and read you the one I got this morning. The answer to that question is that people who don’t like the book are not to going to tell you, they don’t bother, right? And of course, Chinese people buy the book simply to criticize: “Look, he got it wrong. Look, haha, he didn’t understand that phrase!” But there is a constant stream of emails. I had three or four since the publication of the book. Again, very positive, “Thank you very much, etc etc”. The one I’m going to read you is particularly nice. The reason why people like it is again the same reason I mentioned before. They are able, through the book, to get a sense of something that, for them, is fundamentally alien. That’s really amazing, I think. The ability to provide somebody with a window into a culture other than their own. That’s pretty amazing. This message: Mr Earnshaw, I just finished reading your translation of the Book and Sword by Louis Cha. I’ve been a fan of martial stories in the movies it has been thrill to experience the seminal Wuxia novels now that they are finally be translated into English. I may not ever have the experience of reading these novels in their original language. But I am thrilled that they are being brought to life English readers by such talented hand of yours. You manage to capture every aspect of the story from the broad epic scope to the intense blow by blow kung fu to the heartbreaking romanticism. Thank you from a satisfied reader. (applause from the audience??) Of course, he has no idea because he has not read the original.
A: American. He lives in New York.
Q: Chinese origin?
A: No, Jeff Coleman.
Q: I heard that you had written a book for tourists??
A: Ah?? yes. I published a book called On Your Own in China in 1983. But don’t write it down because it is completely useless. Because China has changed a little bit since 1983. SinoMedia published a book just last month, called China Business Guide which will be available in bookshops this week. I was the editor in chief of it. I wrote some sections of it. I wrote the history section, for instance. China Business Guide is a red and yellow cover and there is masses of information about where to go what to do in the Mainland??
Q: Where can I find it the tourist book?
A: On Amazon. Go to Amazon and there are copies available, used books. Amazon.com has change the whole way which books operate. You can find any book up there, you may have to pay, it will take a while to arrive, but you’ll find it.
Q: Actually the title of this speech is: Translation is an Art and Science. How did you get into that space? What are the examples? How did you treat those jargons, the martial jargons or anything relate to science?
A: I see it in terms of the science of translation and the art of translation which I was talking about earlier. I think it is not about real science.. This is related to ?? I feel really interested, as you have probably noticed, in the concept of translation. So what I’m talking about is art and science within that context.
Q: How can you grasp the martial arts jargon? You can’t find it in a dictionary??
A: No, you can’t. You have to do it purely on the basis of, first of all, “???in Cantonese?”-? means soft, ?-cloud, ok, ??? soft cloud, there you go!
Q: Do you really understand the deeper meaning of it??
A: Can you say that you really understand the deeper meaning of that phrase?
Q: No, just now you said that we have to translate the deep meaning and you said you learn Chinese from the dictionaries and you know??.
A: And from friends and others around ?? I used many advisors. Jin Yong was one of them. He was very good to answer questions that I had as I went along. But I asked every body what does this mean, what does that mean? You have to ask lots of questions??. Yeah.. that’s the way to do it.
Q: Any reviews published for your book?
A: No, not yet. But the South Morning Post, the Wall Street Journal, That’s Beijing have all agreed to do reviews based on absolutely shameless manipulation of my relationships with all these people. (audience laughed??)
Q: OUP should get someone to write on for you.
A: I’m sure they are making every effort to do so.
Q: Which character do you like best?
A: Which character? Well, I think they all have interesting points . ??I didn’t know, I don’t really relate to the macho-ness of some of the extreme kung fu heroes. I tend to go for the scholar type of character in terms of my identification. So in Book&Sword, I guess Yu Yutong would be my guy.
Q: Could you tell us what did you found most difficult in your translation? And how did you solve the problem?
A: The most difficult part was the fighting scenes. Because in my head, I couldn’t imagine what was happening in the way that you guys could imagine it. So for me, it was really tricky. And the way I did was to translate it one word a time, literally one character at a time. And then go back and ask people, just everybody around me, “does this make sense, is this what he means, what is this, you know??you just go through that process. There is no easy way of doing it. At the time, in Hong Kong in the 1970s, before I did the translation, I’d been working on film dubbing. We were doing the Shaw Brothers kung fu flicks. We did Shooting-star-butterfly-sword and many others. I was writing the English dialogue. As the result of that, we watched loop after loop, millions of loops of fighting. So I think that was probably of some use to me in terms of being able to imagine, to visualize what is going on here.
Q: Did you now find it difficult to match the pace of actual fighting between the descriptions of every move ?? and the pace of the story??
A: I think there are sort of cultural blockages like that where the way you praise a sentence in Chinese will not be necessarily be natural in English, maybe there are too many adjectives, maybe there is just too much going on in that sentence. But I think overall, if you take the sentence, say in that book, translate it as directly as you can, the meaning of it, every element of the meaning into English, you’ll probably find a way of putting it together. It’s like a mathematic challenge, like a puzzle to find the way to write the sentence in English which has all the various elements in there. There are going to be times when you can’t, when the sentence is completely lopsided and overly weighted with descriptive elements, in which case some of the words get ditched over the side.
Q: A question related to this one, just now you mentioned TVB shows, TVB adaptations of Jin Yong’s novels. Were these helpful in your translation?
A: I have watched some, but not many. Most of them were done well after I did the translation because I finished translating it in about 1984, the first version. I did a couple of drafts. I went through and rewrote it a bit after that. But most of these television adaptations, 72 episodes of Condor Heroes etc, all came afterwards. So it was not an element of use to me. PlusI wasn’t in HK when I was translating this, I was in London, in Beijing. 1979 was a key year. I broke the back of this thing in 1979. During the day, I was at Democracy Wall, translating Big Character Posters for Reuters, and at night I was translating Book&Sword. It was an interesting balance to life, I have to tell you.
Q (John Minford): In thinking about all the things that you said, there is one question that I’d like to you to answer. It strikes me that Jin Yong’s strength and weakness is that he can write very plausible Chinese prose without making the slightest effort ?? To a large extent his success with Chinese readers is that, like some people say, they would go to a theater to watch Tom Hanks read out a telephone directory simply because they like watching Tom Hanks. Some people, Chinese readers would say they would buy a Jin Yong novel because they just like to hear his voice. And he could write about anything and get away with it. And he is very successful businessman who writes, and is a popular writer who is in sense posing as a serious writer. I would like to suggest that the fundamental problem for a translator is that his success of the novelist depends entirely his gift of the gab, you know, he’s got a way of telling a story, he could be describing the MTR stopping in Causeway Bay??and he could probably keep on writing about it for about it two months in Ming Pao, and people would still buy the paper because he is writing it. Translating is really hard work. And my experience with that huge long novel Lu Ding Ji is that the initial magic wears off very quickly when you start to translate it because so much of that magic resides in the surface. He is a superb performer, a superb entertainer, in his idiom, which is popular vernacular fiction. He has basically stolen from everything from Water Margin, down to the late Qing and early republican martial arts novelists. And he is superb at marketing his gifts. So long as he perceived himself is a popular entertainer which he did in the early years, and he wrote about himself, “I am just an entertainer, don’t ever think think that I’m a serious novelist”. That I think is the truth. I think the real problem for translators is that translation is not an editor’s task. You can’t churn out translations. I mean it probably takes ten times as long to translate Book&Sword than it took him to write it, certainly it took ten times as long with Lu Ding Ji, because you just cannot improvise. As a translator, you do feel obliged to stick to the original. But if you stick to the original, you end up so often looking at a kind of empty space. because the very essence of the magic has immediately evaporated. Whereas with a work of great literature like Dream of the Red Chamber, where every moment spent is time well spent, and that effort finds its reward in the depth of the work which comes across in translation. The real problem is at the end of day, to make it work, and both you and me have had to do this, although you seem to be denying it, at the end of the day, you have to perform. If you (the translator) don’t perform, it won’t work. And Jin Yong himself hates to see that happen. Because he is the only magician in this enterprise, and he would actually prefer the translations to fail, because that would then prove that the only magic resides in his own Midas touch with the pen. I think that’s a profoundly interesting situation and I would like to hear you what your view is??
A: Well, a very eloquent statement of position, John. I would say that there is no crime in being a popular novelist. I think Mr Cha has a gift for writing absorbing interesting stories that make you want to turn the page to see what happens next. And I think he does it with a writing fluency which is rarely matched, certainly in popular literature. There is a depth to his Chinese which maybe does not compare with the best writers of literature in Chinese, but in terms of popular writing as I understand it, it is in the better end of the scale. In terms of his impact, the impact of the stories and of the characters that he has created, he has had an incredibly deep impact on Chinese culture, and I think he should be applauded for that. How he views his work, is it literature, how would he respond to the points you are making here, I really don’t know. I don’t know whether he would want to put himself on a pedestal somewhere above popular writing ?? I don’t how he would feel, for instance, about a comparison between himself and John Grisham. But for me, John Grisham writes rip-roaring stories in a very fluent English style. Nobody would accuse John Grisham of writing literature. He just likes moving on the next book, He is writing the next story in his head as he is finishing the one he is doing now. I think Louis Cha was doing the same thing. So has he been successful as a popular novelist? Yes. You can see that from the impact from the stories he created, regardless of the derivation, the source of the ideas of those stories, they have had a n incredible impact on Chinese people. To the extent that he stole the ideas from Shui Hu or wherever, he has managed to revive stories which for younger Chinese people, ideas, concepts, characters, a way of life, a way of thinking, even it is entirely true, which was in danger, during the 1970s of falling away completely. He deserves some credit for that.
Q: And for a translator?
A: For a translator, I think any translator should be basically responding to what is on the page. So if I’m translating a popular novelist, I want to translate it in a way that will translate into popular writing. I think Oxford University Press has produced four wonderful volumes, the quality is extraordinary. But in my opinion, based on my feedback from the market, the right way to do this would have been to take all Jin Yong’s novels and just translate them production line wise. Just get the stories out there. Because what is really interesting about these books is the stories. So just push them out. You can improve the translation later. In answer your question then, I think the translation is not as important as the story. Our job, my job, I felt, was to be able to let readers in English experience the flow of the story.
Q: I think you mentioned Dickens just now. Dickens was a journalistic writer. He stretched the stories for as long as he could. He probably regarded himself as a major contributor to the literature of English, but we think so.
A: To answer that question, I would ask how long will people be reading these stories, or maybe watching them. How long will these stories survive in the Chinese world. My guess is that in twenty years, fifty years from now, people will still watching Condor Heroes. And I would consider that to be a measure of success. What will be the context of those stories? Charles Dickens is today a sort of literature that is forced down the throats of school children. Will that be the way in which Jin Yong is consumed by the Chinese students of fifty or a 100 years from now. I really don’t know. My guess, and it is only a guess, is that Jin Yong, those two words, are still going to be found in book shops across China. Or electronic book malls on the Internet.