As a Festival that celebrates international literature, many of the titles we present on stage derive from original works in languages other than English. We spoke to translator and author Michael Berry about the role of the translator, the most challenging book he’s translated and more.
There has been a lot of discussion in recent years, especially on social media, with regards to the role of the translator in the telling of a story. We posed this question to Berry and for him, the answer has and still is evolving.
MB: I think my view of translation has changed over time, and continues to evolve. But at its core, the role of the translator is to serve as bridge between cultures and languages. One of the most important roles I play as a translator is internalizing the prose of the author and rendering it into English in a way that best captures the style, voice, and uniqueness of the original work.
Part of that process is about letting yourself go—it isn’t about your voice or your style, but instead allowing yourself to be a vehicle that allows the author’s voice to break through the sometimes seemingly insurmountable rift of languages and cultures.
What would most readers be surprised to know about translation?
MB: I think a lot of people think of translation as a work-for-word exchange; almost mechanical in nature. However, there is a lot more that goes into the art of translation; it is (or at least can be, in the right hands) a very delicate process involving endless choices, subtle decisions involving tone and feeling, and often a lot of creativity and inventiveness.
This is especially true of Chinese where, unlike many western languages that share common linguistic roots, there are often not clear cut equivalents for many terms and concepts. So a big part of my process involves a level of internalization, fully taking in the original text, and then asking myself, how would someone convey that content in fluent English prose, leaving as much of the style, voice, and subtle connotations of the original intact.
Michael Berry’s most recent translation project is Remains of Life by Taiwanese author Wu He. Written as an ongoing stream of consciousness with no paragraph or chapter breaks, it’s truly an experiment in form. So how did Berry approach translating this story?
MB: Remains of Life was, hands down, the single most challenging book I have ever translated in the course of my 20 plus years as a literary translator. The novel pushes the boundaries on nearly every level – content, form, syntax, and even vocabulary. It was as if the only way for the author to capture and convey the horrific nature of the history being discussed was to contort the nature of language itself.
The translation process also presented numerous conundrums to me as a translator: for instance, what Romanization system to use for Indigenous names? To what degree is it the translator’s job to make highly contorted prose more “legible” for English readers? Ultimately, I decided against half measures – the book presents great challenges for native Chinese readers and I wanted English readers to confront those same challenges. So I tried to make portions of the prose that appear “nonsensical” in Chinese just as “nonsensical” in English, fully aware that some readers might think it was simply a “bad translation.” Because of the myriad challenges the book presented, it also became an extremely slow process, with many stops and starts over the course of more than a decade.
How does a translator pick their projects? Is it based on the genre or the author or both?
MB: None of the novels I have translated have been “works for hire,” instead, I have selected each and every one of them based on a fairly simple principal. It really comes down to whether or not a novel “speaks to you.” When you translate a book, you end up living with that text for a period of months or even years, so you need to feel a deep resonance, a connection.
I also try to select literary works that could be described as “contemporary classics” – I want to translate novels that will hopefully stand the test of time and really have an impact on readers.
Lastly, we asked Berry to offer recommendations on more translated titles to add to our bookshelves.
MB: As a specialist in Chinese-language literature, I’ll start with a few of my favorite contemporary Chinese novels: Silver City by Li Rui and The Republic of Wine by Mo Yan, are both incredible novels translated with great mastery by Howard Goldblatt.
My favorite writer of the Republican period is Shen Congwen, a lyrical writer who has been criminally overlooked internationally. It is said that Shen was a hair away from being awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature in the late 1980s, but his passing made that an impossibility – the Nobel Prize is not awarded posthumously. Several of Shen’s short stories and novellas are available in translations by Jeffery C. Kinkley, such as Border Town and Imperfect Paradise.
One of my favorite contemporary writers is the prolific novelist Yan Lianke, who was awarded the Kafka Prize in 2014 and has been a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. His last several novels – Lenin’s Kisses, The Four Books, The Explosion Chronicles, The Years, Months, Days, and The Day the Sun Died – have all been expertly translated by Carlos Rojas. His work reveals a magical universe of satire, violence, humor, and tragedy that digs deep into some of the most disturbing historical scars of 20th century China.
As for literature from Taiwan, I would recommend Columbia University Press’ excellent book series “Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan,” which includes major works from writers like Li Yongping and Huang Chunming (both translated by Goldblatt), Ng Kim Chew (translated by Rojas), and many others.
And from Hong Kong, I would recommend the work of Dung Kai-Cheung, a complex and challenging writer whose most recent translation (by Yau Wai-ping) is the The History of the Adventures of Vivi and Vera: Written by Dung Kai-cheung under the Inspiration of the Ancient Chinese Treatise Celestial Creations and the Works of Man.
We recommend adding translated stories to your reading diet. They’ll help open your eyes to the myriad of ways to tell a story.
Michael Berry is Professor of Contemporary Chinese Cultural Studies at UCLA. He is the author of four books on Chinese cinema, including Speaking in Images: Interviews With Contemporary Chinese Filmmakers (2006) and A History of Pain: Trauma in Modern Chinese Literature and Film (2008). He has served as a film consultant and a juror for numerous film festivals, including the Golden Horse (Taiwan) and the Fresh Wave (Hong Kong). He is also the translator of several novels, including Wild Kids (2000), Nanjing 1937: A Love Story (2002), To Live (2004), The Song of Everlasting Sorrow (2008) and, most recently, Remains of Life (2017). This author is supported by the Taipei Cultural Centre in New York.