Translation Notes · 08/28/2014

A Tabby-cat's Tale

Our Translation Notes series invites literary translators to describe the process of bringing a recent book into English. In this installment, Nicky Harman writes about translating A Tabby-cat’s Tale by Han Dong (Frisch & Co).

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Mention Han Dong in China to anyone over the age of fifty and they’ll remember him as a 1980s rebel poet and poetry magazine editor. While the influence of poetry still shows in his fiction, he is now chiefly known as a writer of novels, essays and screenplays. He has had short stories published in English translation, and his first full-length novel, Banished! A Novel, appeared in English and was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize, in 2008.

I have wanted to see Han Dong’s novellas in English translation for years. I knew Han Dong thought they were amongst his best work, and recently asked him why. He said:

I have always felt that the novella length suited me best. My stories start slowly and I like to build them up into a sort of ‘complex simplicity’. By that, I mean using simple language and elements to weave together into something more complex. If I can put it like this, my stories read very simply, but the more you read, the more complex they seem. The material, the [narrative] elements are as simple as I can make them, but I manage them, construct them, weave them together, juxtapose them, entwine and layer them… [personal communication, my translation]

Still, it wasn’t easy to find a publisher. I once tried, as an exercise, to shorten A Tabby-cat’s Tale to a length more acceptable to a western literary magazine. It simply went flat. I ditched my attempt without even submitting it, and went back to the current, full, version. The moral of the story is: have faith in your author! And, of course, in publishers. At the London Book Fair in 2014, I met EJ of Frisch & Co, and we struck a deal to translate three of these novellas into English.

Han Dong enlivens his “simple” stories of (mostly) ordinary folk — but who is ever really ordinary? — with tongue-in-cheek humour. He’s a master of register, mixing the sublime and the ridiculous, the elegant and the crude, for comic effect. That, in itself, should not make him more difficult to translate. After all, the translator has a great range of monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon and elegant Latin-based compounds at their disposal. But actually, I find it’s surprisingly hard to get the same balance in English; there’s a temptation to pitch the register too high. As I go through different drafts, I usually revise it “downwards”, almost never “upwards”. (Here’s a chance to plug the role of a good editor: mine suggested using contractions throughout — ‘didn’t’ instead of ‘did not’ — and the story reads more naturally, as a result.)

Han Dong’s humour relies on irony rather than on punchlines to raise a laugh. Take, for instance, the narrator in A Tabby-cat’s Tale pondering his deteriorating relationship with his girlfriend:

It seemed to belittle [Xulu], by reducing [her] …to the level of a cat. Of course, putting Tabby on an equal footing with my girlfriend made his status rise commensurately. This was not a nice thing to put into words. If my life hadn’t been so unutterably dull, I wouldn’t have sunk so low as to amuse myself by comparing my girlfriend to a cat.

There are parts of this story where the apparently banal acquires almost poetic qualities. I tried endless different versions of those paragraphs… In the one that follows, we are on the rooftop of the apartment building where the incontinent, flea-ridden Tabby-cat has been banished, and the tricky part (to translate) comes right at the end: I have given, first, a translation that is as close to the original as is possible with a language as different as Chinese. Then, the translation I ended up with after many attempts to work and re-work the sentence. My aim (in case you’re in any doubt) was to retain all the elements of the narrative while capturing the spirit of the writing and producing something that emulated its style.

One day I went up with my brother and Tabby came over to us. My brother put the food down and reached out to stroke him all the way down his back, bringing away soft, fine, dusty grey fur which slipped from his fingers like soap bubbles. I watched the balls of fur rolling far away over the roof. As my brother smoothed the cat’s fur, we talked. Our conversation had nothing to do with Tabby, and my brother didn’t even look at him, he just rubbed the fingers of his right hand together from time to time, to rid them of the fur that stuck to them, and then went back to his stroking. Tabby was intent on gulping down his dinner, his neck craned over the saucer. Gradually the sun sank in the west and the golden rays of dusk touched our faces, before they too disappeared and darkness fell. My brother was talking about some mutual friend who’d given up her job for love and moved from the northeast to Nanjing, where she’d had a son. Now the son was grown up and in the first year of university, and his parents had divorced. The woman had gone back to the northeast on her own. It was a sad story, I agreed, and I kept nodding as he told it. But what did it have to do with Tabby? Nothing.

The Chinese then continues:

的确,一切都是不相干的:花花的进食和秋天的掉毛,我哥哥的信息与他手上的动作,我的倾听以及思考。同时一切又都是一致的、情景交融的、相互感染和中和的,它们统一于秋天的某一个傍晚出现在这楼顶上的特殊光照。

The closest possible rendition of the original would go something like this:

Actually, none of these things had anything to do with each other: Tabby’s eating and autumnal moult, my brother’s news and the movements of his hand, my attentive listening and thoughts. At the same time, everything was consistent, the circumstances blended, mutually influenced and neutralized each other [and] they were integrated with a certain evening special light that appeared/appears on this rooftop in autumn.

This is what I ended up with:

None of these things had anything to do with each other: Tabby’s dinner and his autumnal moult, my brother’s news and his rhythmic strokes, my earnest attention… and yet they were melded together. Each element of the scene impinged on and balanced the others. And in turn, they were all of a piece with the evening light that bathed the rooftop.

The words “in autumn” were dropped from the final version at the editor’s suggestion, because it is a repetition. Chinese is much more tolerant of repetition or near-repetition than English.

Han Dong is not the first to create something poignant and elegiac out of the banal. Someone in an online forum on Han Dong’s fiction drew my attention to a review of Milan Kundera’s Testaments Betrayed. Kundera is describing a scene from Janacek’s opera The Cunning Little Vixen: “…in a forest inn, a gamekeeper, a village schoolmaster, and innkeeper’s wife are gossiping…. The conversation is completely banal… but the orchestra is full of a nearly unbearable yearning, so that the scene becomes one of the most beautiful elegies ever written on the transience of time.” 1 Milan Kundera, incidentally, is a writer Han Dong has read and admires.

Not all of Han Dong’s stories are as light-hearted as A Tabby-cat’s Tale. The next one to appear with Frisch and Co, Gu Jieming: A Life, (spring 2015) will be much darker. The narrator remembers his childhood friend, the Gu Jieming of the title, whose tragedy is that he’s cut out to be a revolutionary hero in a society that no longer needs martyrs. Increasingly a misfit, he is drawn into a downward spiral that takes him, inexorably, to the execution ground. The climax of the story, described in Han Dong’s laconic language, is truly moving.

1. Quoted in Robert T Jones’ review of Testaments Betrayed, last accessed July 12, 2014.

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Han Dong was born in 1961 in Nanjing, China. His parents were banished to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, taking him with them. When the Cultural Revolution ended, he studied philosophy at Shandong University, graduating in 1982. Han Dong has been a major player on the modern Chinese literary scene since the 1990s, and his first novel Banished! (2003) was translated into English in 2009.

Nicky Harman lives in the UK. She taught on the MSc in Translation at Imperial College until 2011 and now translates full-time from Chinese. She focusses on fiction, poetry and occasionally literary non-fiction, by authors such as Chen Xiwo, Han Dong, Hong Ying, Dorothy Tse, Xinran, Yan Geling and Zhang Ling. She is a regular contributor to the literary magazines Chutzpah and Words Without Borders, and also organizes translation-focused events, mentors new translators and was one of the judges for the Harvill Secker Young Translators Prize 2012.