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translation, voice and gender

September 13, 2011

Often discussions on translation focus on whether a translation is literal  or idiomatic, formal equivalent or functional equivalent, as if this is the main feature in a translation. It is as if two literal translations would be alike, or two idiomatic translations would be alike.

So it is refreshing to read about the many different factors that have influenced the translation of Xinran’s work. While Xinran’s first book, The Good Women of China, came from her radio show, her later books draw on stories which she collected travelling in areas of China where the language was significantly different from her own, and required that she work with an intepreter to conduct her interviews. She would also record the interviews and craft them into finished narrative in Mandarin.

But this was not the end point for her. Xinran’s books are published in English. In fact, Xinran lives in England, and speaks English quite well. I heard her interviewed on the CBC recently. But she hires translators for her books; so that, of course, the translator is always translating into her own native language. The translators collaborate with Xinran, consulting with her when difficulties arise relating to unique customs or expressions. They have ongoing access to her, and she reads their translations as they work.

I find it interesting that Xinran does not work with only one translator at a time. She used two translators for Sky Burial and three translators for China Witness. It was not a matter of one translator not being knowledgeable or skilled, but a matter of comparing the translations and listening to the tone or voice. In fact, I found that Sky Burial was a beautifully written book, very emotive and quite a contrast to a book by a different author which I read in translation earlier this summer.

I should mention that having more than one translator was not her own intiative, but that her husband encouraged her to work with different translators to develop a translation that would translate her “voice,” and to work with a translator that would “feel her heart.”

In an interview published in Thinking Chinese Translation: a course in translation method, Xinran was asked,

“Would you have a man do your translation work or would you rather stay with women. because you feel that they cmpathise better?

Xinran responded,

“For me, getting a male translator? No way! The reason is that I believe, even if we try very hard to understand each other, physically and mentally we are completely different selves. If something is deep or beyond the words, you can feel that between women, and my Chinese mind and my poor English are not able to explain what it is. I got offers from seven publishers in the UK for my first book The Good Women of China. Some of them tried to give me a male team, as they thought that most female writers like male editors. I said to them, for my non-fiction books which are based on Chinese women, no. Random House got this book because they gave me a team which was all women, all the way from editor to publicity. I felt that they could understand what my book was about. That is something you cannot feel through words alone.”

Her emphatic response surprised me a bit. Is it because her books deal with the circumstances of women’s lives that she wants to work with women. The Good Women of China recounts many cases of sadness and abuse. Her recent book Message from an Unknown Chinese Mother is absolutely heart-rending, as it deals with situations in which mothers allowed their baby girls to be drowned or abandoned. Is it because this is such a gendered issue, not just from the heart of women, but because the babies also were female? Is it the subject matter which requires that the translator, like the author, and like the subjects of the book, be female?

Sky Burial is a love story, and while the main character is female, there is no sense of alienation between men and women. Both men and women in this book, are guided by passionate and enduring love, and demonstrate tenderness and care for each other. I would not think of this book as one which would require a female translator. It is a book which, in the tradition of many novels, seems to transcend gender, and be a product of an androgynous author. Xinran has given me a lot to think about.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 13, 2011 8:14 am

    What do you think of her statement: “Random House got this book because they gave me a team which was all women, all the way from editor to publicity. I felt that they could understand what my book was about.”

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 13, 2011 10:18 am

    Some might feel that this is the ghettoization of women’s literature, that women have to work in a group that is all women. But Xinran’s experience as a journalist is extensive – I don’t take what she says lightly. I think both views are valid. Sometimes women want to be entirely integrated with men in the production of art and literature, and sometimes they don’t. Both views are valid.


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