Finding the right words
Carlos Rojas, professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies, has translated to English numerous works of award-winning Chinese novelist Yan Lianke. His latest translation is of the 2013 novel The Explosion Chronicles; here, Rojas explains the various considerations that go into the process of translation.
Many people assume that the biggest challenge for a translator lies in transposing meaning from one language to another. This is technically not true. The biggest struggle actually lies in capturing, in the translation, shifts in language and linguistic register within the original text. This was particularly true of the short stories in Ng Kim Chew’s Slow Boat to China, which were originally written in Chinese, but also feature many words and phrases in English, Japanese, Malay, various Chinese dialects, and even ancient Chinese oracle bone script. In translating the stories into English, I employed a variety of different practices (including using transliteration, different fonts, and even copying-and-pasting script from the original text) in an attempt to replicate the multilingual and heteroglossic feel of the works.
I also encountered a similar challenge in translating Yan Lianke’s Lenin’s Kisses. The original Chinese text is supplemented with a large number of endnotes in which the author offers definitions for various words and phrases used in the work (particularly for vocabulary that is specific to a geographic region or historical period). In my own translation of the novel, I coined English words and phrases that contained a similar combination of familiarity and unfamiliarity as the Chinese terms Yan Lianke used in the original work.
For instance, the very first line of the novel contains the word shouhuo (which is also the Chinese title of the novel) with an endnote that identifies shouhuo as a dialectal term used in Northwest Henan Province, and explains that it means “enjoyment, happiness, and passion, while carrying connotations of finding pleasure in discomfort, or making pleasure out of discomfort.” In my translation, I rendered this term into English as “livening”—a coinage that retains part of the semantic content of the Chinese binome (which could be rendered literally as “to receive life”), while at the same time being a variant of the verb “to live” that does not exist in standard English. I follow a similar practice throughout the rest of the novel, using ad hoc coinages to render Chinese vocabulary that the novel itself suggests will be unfamiliar to most Chinese readers.
In Yan Lianke’s The Four Books, the author similarly uses a considerable amount of local dialect, but does not signal its presence in the text as explicitly as he does in Lenin’s Kisses. I therefore did not go out of my way to signal its presence to English-language readers. The novel does, however, present a related challenge, in that the narrative alternates back and forth between four different texts, or “books,” each of which is written in a very different voice and linguistic register. One of these four “books” is written in a language that draws variously from the Bible (in Chinese translation), Chinese mythology, and contemporary Maoist discourse.
The challenge, accordingly, was to come up with an equivalent voice in English that retains these various connotations, and at the same time is clearly differentiated from the narrative voices used in each of the other three “books.” In particular, in translating the portions of the novel that trope on biblical discourse, I did not use the language of any specific English version of the Bible, but instead sought to capture, in English, some of the distinctive nuances of the ways in which biblical language is conventionally rendered in Chinese.
Finally, Yan Lianke’s The Explosion Chronicles is written in a language that reflects the influence of traditional historical chronicles on China’s past as well as hyperbolic Maoist and post-Maoist discourses on the nation’s future. The result is a peculiar mixture of realism and fantasy that Yan Lianke has dubbed “mythorealism,” and one of the challenges in translating the novel into English has been preserving the work’s delicate blend of parody and critique.
Class of 2020 Summer Reading: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
The idea of going to college to “change the world” can be a trite, even cynical, concept. But when it’s espoused by Bryan Stevenson, it carries a little more weight. Stevenson is the author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, the Duke Class of 2020 Summer Reading selection that details his work saving 125 men from the death penalty and overturning countless wrongful convictions through his Equal Justice Initiative.
As part of Orientation Week, Stevenson, in a presentation at the Durham Performing Arts Center, told students to explore injustice deeply, challenge conventional narratives, remain hopeful, and be willing to do uncomfortable things. “I’ve studied the history of the world,” he said, “and oppression has never been overcome when it’s convenient.”
The Duke Summer Reading Program briefly encountered controversy in 2015 when readers were confronted with graphic content in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. This year’s selection, along with Stevenson’s eloquent speech, clearly touched a chord with the audience, who delivered a standing ovation both upon his arrival and after the speech. When Stevenson finished, dozens rushed to the microphone for the opportunity to ask him questions or just share their thoughts. “I’m sorry. I didn’t read the book,” said one freshman, to some relieved laughter in the crowd. “But I cried three or four times as you were talking. I’ll start it when I get home tonight.”
The corporation can’t go to prison. This inherent restriction greatly complicates the punishment of corporate crime, an issue Samuel Buell, the Bernard M. Fishman Professor of law at Duke, explores in Capital Offenses: Business Crime and Punishment in America’s Corporate Age (W.W. Norton).
With a focus made for an election year, John D. Inazu ’97, J.D. ’00 explores the ways American factions can maintain “mutual respect and coexistence” in Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference (University of Chicago Press).
The latest effort from Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Anne Tyler ’61, Vinegar Girl (Hogarth), is a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew that sets the Bard’s tale in Baltimore and adapts the premise for a twenty-first-century audience.
Nathaniel Philbrick A.M. ’80 explores the striking relationship between one of America’s greatest heroes and one of its greatest traitors in Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution (Viking).
What's your nightstand reading, Orrin Pilkey?
The James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of geology and author of Retreat From a Rising Sea: Hard Choices in an Age of Climate Change (Columbia University Press) dives into some history:
I don’t read as much as I used to. When I had to go to work at Duke daily, I’d listen to a book on tape in the car. The drive was fifteen minutes normally, but sometimes I’d stretch it out to twenty minutes or a half-hour if I was on a good chapter.
I’m currently reading All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West by David Gessner. Abbey was the start of the radical environmentalist movement. I went out West at age nine or ten, and taking the train through the mountains was really something.
Abbey was kind of the same way: At age eighteen he left Indiana— which is pretty flat—to go out West. He wrote The Monkey Wrench Gang, a fiction book about blowing up dams in the West. Stegner was a bit more tame: He wrote the biography of John Wesley Powell, the first white man to go down the Grand Canyon, which was a daring thing to do in those days. Not only were Abbey and Stegner environmentalists, they were also really good writers, and they attracted a lot of readers. These guys weren’t involved, like I am, with the local county commissioners and the local political scene. But they set the stage for more localized environmentalism. Both of them recognized how fragile the West was, and they made it possible for us do something about it.