Chinese Writers Association’s Literary Translators’ Symposium

I stumbled across this page while looking for Chinese writers to pitch. The symposium (in its 3rd year) was held this summer in Beijing and featured a lot of amazing literary translators. I recognized a few names, Nicky Harman among them. The esteemed and experienced translators talked about the challenges in translating Chinese novels into other languages. One thing that struck me was how there were no native Chinese translators present, is it because publishers assume the translator has to be native in the target language to be good? This is something that will hopefully change, not just because there are great translators out there whose native language is not English, such as Ken Liu [personal site], and Yunqin Yang [Amazon link]. Even though native speakers for the target language are obviously talented in their native language, their comprehension of the source text could be more limited than native speakers of the source language. Ultimately, there is space for translators of all language advantages, in an ideal world, there should be a translator team for every book. Anyway, the translators gave great speeches about their experiences and lessons, which are transcribed in Chinese on the site. I particularly liked Mark Leenhouts’ speech, he’s a Chinese to Dutch translator who recently completed the Chinese masterpiece, Fortress Besieged 【围城】, by the legendary Chinese writer Qian Zhongshu. He emphasized how difficult it is to get across historical and cultural context, the challenge with idioms and proverbs, and narrative differences. He said more translation is required to make translated fiction seem more familiar to readers, less alien, and hopefully attract them into a new world of reading.

Language Needs to Change to Survive

Online Chinese has evolved a lot in the last few years, some might even say the language has “degraded” due to people’s tendency to abbreviate and modify for convenience and clever puns. I know I often get frustrated at how much the impeccable and classical style of traditional Chinese has been simplified to suit the online world’s need for speed and teenagers’ text-messaging temperaments.

Yesterday, while reading the memoir by highly-admired translation scholar Ji Xianlin (季羡林), I had a change of heart. He wrote of learning Tokharoi (吐火罗语) from an aging mentor, and what a honor it was, as the language was only known to a few people even back then. Mr. Ji is now 99 years old, should he pass away, would the language be lost along with him?

I had to google the name to even know which continent Tokharoi was from. Saddened by how Wikipedia calls it “extinct,” I’m reminded of how it’s much better to have a language that changes (however horrifyingly to language conservationists) and thrives, than to have a language fall into beautiful but frozen obscurity.