Yearly Archives: 2007

The Karen S. Kingsbury Interview

Karen S. Kingsbury is the translator of Love in a Fallen City by Eileen Chang.

1. How did you discover the work of Eileen Chang?

I first encountered Chang during my graduate studies in Comparative Literature. I was reading modern Chinese fiction, sometimes in the original but often in translation, and keeping an eye out for works that would appeal to English-language readers. Reading in Chinese was still very difficult for me, and “Love in a Fallen City” was the first piece of modern Chinese literature that really grabbed me. I stumbled through the story, pulled along by the sheer power of the drama, the fantasy, and the ironic undercutting. I soon became so convinced that Chang’s stories should be translated that I had a hard time concocting and completing the scholarly argumentation needed for a dissertation—translating her work seemed so much more urgent and useful.

2. Why were you interested in bringing Chang’s writing to a wider audience? What in particular about this book do you think is worth bringing to English-language readers?

I think that Chang is a world-class talent, the sort of writer who ought be known to every reader who aspires to cosmopolitanism. Some aspects of her significance don’t easily lend themselves to translation: her implication in and reflection of mid-20th century Chinese history, for instance; and her distinctive style in Chinese, the way she turns a phrase, or plays on a word. But the human content of her work—the psychological insights, the sensory richness, and the overall philosophy of life—all of this does translate quite well and is very much worth translating because it is subtle and deep, and offers English-language readers surprisingly easy access to large swathes of Chinese culture and sensibility.

I might add that I don’t personally subscribe to all of the views that she exhibits in her work—perhaps because I’ve been more fortunate than she, in terms of familial and personal relationships. But I’ve learned a great deal from studying her lush and yet dispassionate storytelling; it has taught me the value and use of emotional detachment, confirmed my view of money’s inexorable influence, and helped me understand a bit more about egotism, suffering, and desire. Having benefited so greatly, I simply assume that other English-language readers would benefit too, if they had the opportunity to see the world as she’s described it.

3. Is there anything about Chang’s writing that you think is difficult to translate into English?

Most of the difficulties are not peculiar to Chang alone; they are the usual problems encountered by Chinese-to-English translators. Chinese names are a headache because they look silly and quaint if we translate them, but are largely incomprehensible if we merely romanize (i.e., put them into the English alphabet, which is what we usually do). Kinship terms are also a problem. Members of an extended family, at least in the traditional households that Chang describes, rarely use each other’s given names, and a great deal of subtlety is conveyed through the kinship relation through which the family members define one another. But there’s a limit to how often we can use terms like “Sister, Brother, Cousin” in English, and a much smaller number of relationships that we view as familial. (These problems often coincide: for instance, what is the appropriate English form of address if you are an unmarried younger sister speaking to your older brother’s secondary wife, i.e. concubine?) Then there are the contrasts between fairly obscure dialect words, classical phrases, and plain, pure daily vernacular: it is very difficult to convey those distinctions in another language. But the most difficult items are always the allusions and puns, especially if they are used ironically or as part of witty repartee. In cases like that, I spend an inordinate amount of time searching for something that will replicate the experience for the English-language reader, and usually have to give up anyway.

4. In translating, do you tend more toward trying to make the reader forget that this isn’t the original, or toward trying to actively remind the reader that the book is from a different language?

I simply try to cram into the translation every bit of nuance and feeling that I found in the original, and let the rest take care of itself. I used to be a bit of a “slave to syntax,” trying to replicate Chinese phrasing, but Edwin Frank, my editor at NYRB, helped me look beyond the trees and thereby bring the forest into clearer focus. In the end, I have no doubt but that the situations described in an Eileen Chang story will be sufficiently removed from the daily life situations of my likely readers that they will always remain aware that this is foreign literature in translation.

5. Can a translation be as good as the original?

Yes, in theory (and sometimes in practice too); it can even be better than the original, depending on the criteria you are using. It’s not all that different from the way in which a movie can be as “good” as the story on which it is based. If the failure rate seems high, that is because the factors required for success—time, adequate preparation, and cosmic luck—are hard to come by.

6. Can you explain further? What concept or model of translation are you implying here?

Linguistic translation is not mechanical transfer, like the transposition of a melody from one key to another. It is instead interpretation, which means that a particular, subjective mind is moving artistic material from one medium to another. From the perspective of the target-language audience (in this case, English-language readers), a translator is like a pianist who reads sheet music that, for the audience, is indecipherable, and changes those written marks into an aural performance that they can appreciate and begin, at least, to understand. Their understanding will of course be very much influenced by the pianist’s understanding of the score, especially in those passages that are especially ambiguous or difficult. From the perspective of the translator, however, literary translation is a bit like taking a piece of prose fiction, mentally projecting it as a film, then turning that cinematic material into a written story again—this time in entirely new words, of course.

These two analogies appeal to me because written Chinese probably looks, to most English-language readers, a bit like a musical score—a busy sequence of squiggles and dots; and because cinematic references and highly visualized scenes are ever-present in Eileen Chang’s work. But further consideration shows that these analogies are complementary, not parallel, and that this complementarity is worth exploring. The cinematic analogy works because literary texts are usually loaded with visual and aural imagery: we can think of this material as existing “inside” the text. The musical analogy works because even a silent reader voices a text internally, and thus hears some set of phonic qualities which usually have a considerable, though subtle influence on whether or not the literary experience is “good” or not. This phonic experience is largely, though not entirely “outside” the text. Thus, a literary translator has to go “inside” the original text, grab all those images and ideas and whatnot, then come back out and set up another “external” linguistic structure that that can contain and convey that material while still sounding good. And the goal, of course, is to not only “sound good,” but to sound somehow similar to, or at least analogous to, the original.

Working along these various fronts at once, the literary translator is trying to create a whole “world” that sounds, looks, and means in ways that are somehow equivalent to the original. But because of the different cultural contexts (the readers’ worlds) that frame these fictional worlds, a translation will always be qualitatively different from the original. It will make different references, and readers will therefore draw different inferences—not radically different, we hope, from the inferences drawn by the readers of the original text, but still always subtly inflected in a different direction, due to the “displacement” from one cultural/linguistic medium to another.

7. And lastly, do you think it’s important to read works in translation? What part of your own reading do works in translation make up?

Reading in translation is not merely important—it’s essential, once one grasps the fact that there are social worlds on this planet that don’t operate in English. What’s important is recognizing how much of what we read is translated, and developing some awareness of the mediations implicit in those texts (I’m thinking of course of the Bible, but also the many works in translation that are used in introductory college courses in the humanities.)

I personally have only two usable reading languages, so what little I know of the literatures of Latin America, Continental Europe including Russia, non-Anglophone Africa and the Middle East, and non-Chinese East Asia (except for some Indian and Southeast Asian novels written in English) comes to me through translation. And a considerable extent of my reading about China is through translation. Overall, as a percentage of my lifetime fiction-reading, I’d guess that translations comprise 30-40%. As a way to see the world, it’s quite cheap, convenient, eco-friendly, and Fair- Trade-like.


I see that the March issue of Boldtype is now online. Check out my very enthusiastic review of Wizard of the Crow.

And I’ll say it one more time: read this book. Just plain excellent.


NYTBR does good. Some good.


I dunno, maybe the Bloggies are a bigger deal that I realized, but I find it difficult to get too worked up over blog awards. (But then again, I can hardly rouse proper indignation for the Booker et al., so maybe I’m the wrong person to ask.)

Nevertheless, in this post on the Bloggies’s indifference toward the litblogosphere, I think Max makes a very apropos remark:

I have come to believe, and I hope people agree with me, that book blogging is more than just a hobby. I say this not in a self-promotional or self-aggrandizing way (so many others are better book bloggers than I), but looking at how the public discourse about books has changed over the last few years.

You know, there was a point where I would have blanched at any thought of a litblog being more than just a hobby. But I think that time has passed. With many litbloggers sharing litjournal and newspaper space with recognized authors and critics (and, lately, vice versa), with at least one actually founding a small press, when it’s become clear to me that the collective voice of the litblogosphere is actually having an impact on literary culture (especially in regards to certain indie publishers and book page editors), when even Sam Tanenhaus is getting the litblogosphere shoved in his face (dismissive as he still may be), I’m beginning to feel like this is more than a hobby. I could go on–interviews with high-profile authors (often a heck of a lot more interesting than what you’ll find printed on dead trees), legit review coverage of underappreciated new books, actual reportage. I do really feel like over the past year or so there’s been a change, and, dare I say, I think the litblogosphere may have acquired a genuine voice that’s promoted the cause of literture.

Classical Music Not Dead

Well, well, well. Alex Ross:

More on that 22.5% bump
in classical record sales: reports from insiders suggest that the rise
is not, in fact, due to crossover fare (Il Divo, André Rieu, the
Dowland-howling Sting) but to the real thing (Mozart, Beethoven, Louis
Andriessen). All categories of classical music are selling briskly on
online stores such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and ArkivMusic as well as on iTunes and other MP3 outlets. There’s a good article by Symphony‘s Jayson Greene on the phenomenon, with reference to the Long Tail
effect. Everyone seems to agree that the uptick has come about because
the Internet has made the music more readily available, and also more
readily comprehensible. You no longer need to skulk through the doors
of a sepulchral room at Tower Records (RIP) and paw through fifty
Beethoven Fifths to find what you like. Online there are snappy
reviews, lists of recommended starter recordings, and, most important,
sound samples so you can try out any disc (not just a few
featured releases) before you buy. The whole business is demystified.
I’m proud to say I more or less predicted this in 2004, when I wrote that the iPod was going to break down classical stereotypes.

Three From the Guardian

The way things have been going lately, I should just program Typepad to do an automatic post to the newest Guardian Review every week. At least three articles are definitely worthy of your attention this week:

Shakespeare’s sonnets, for the first time ever, are being set to music.

Turning to the Shakespeare sonnets feels very satisfying, a natural progression both from other musical work on sonnets and from other settings of poetry. The sonnets interconnect and cross-refer in endlessly fascinating ways. Two that I chose contain quite specific musical references, which I have followed. Sonnet 128 refers to the act of playing the virginals, which suggested both instrumental colour (I combined the solo piano and cimbalom to give a quasi-"antique" sound) and musical imagery (I used some decorative figures in the Fitzwilliam Book of Virginals), and I added a postlude in the form of a baroque keyboard arioso. Sonnet 102 alludes to the song of the nightingale ("Philomel"), so here I replace the bass clarinet, whose dark sonority is present in most parts of the work, with the higher B-flat instrument in its upper register to give floating obligato lines, along with the electric guitar played with an E-bow. The dramatic opening of sonnet 123 ("No! Time thou shalt not boast …"), which I placed second in my sequence, has a strong affinity with the third Synge translation, especially in its sense of declamation (" … and I crying out: Ohone, when will I see that day breaking that will be my first day with herself in Paradise?").

Also, Coetzee on Hugo Claus (apparently from a forthcoming collection of criticism) and The Uses of Literacy re-evaluated after 50 years.

Secret Workings of the NYTBR Revealed!

Well, not quite that thrilling, but there is some useful info here.

The part I find most interesting is that the Book Review "winnows down" from 1,000 books per week. I don’t know how common this is, but I submit that if a large amount of the time of you and your assistant editors is spent tossing out books you’re not interested in reviewing, then you’re losing out on time that could be well spent making the Book Review a better product.

Again, for all I know this is SOP at all major papers nationwide, but it would seem that they could find a better way to pick books, or at least a better way to get rid of the books they don’t want to review.

Also, I’ve really got to say, if they actually do run through 1,000 titles per week, it’s amazing how few substantially interesting books make it to their pages.

The Top Top Ten

coverJ. Peder Zane’s new book The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, is an interesting little item. Of course, we’ve all had our fill of top ten lists to the point that it’s socially inept to express too much enthusiasm for them any more. (Sven Birkerts, for example, in his introductory essay: "ranked lists of writers or books are my Achilles heel.") All too often they just tell us what we already know, and even though Birkerts tries valiantly to take away something, truth be told, I don’t think the aggregated Top Top Ten List presented here sheds too much light.

But, I also don’t think the Top Top Ten is the point of this book. For me, the fun is in seeing everything that squeezed its way in. For instance, Zane gave his 125 writers 10 picks, but somehow David Mitchell was allowed to add a "wild card": Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner, which he says is a book "that I badly want to be read more." I’m intrigued. A novel that the author of Cloud Atlas agrees isn’t all that weighty but that he still wants to be read. Why? It’s worth tracking a copy down.

Or how about Alan Furst bending the rules to include Rebecca West’s mammoth study of Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon? (He files it under "works of nonfiction that should be read as fiction.") Something about his insistence that this book be included makes it carry more weight with me than the novels he ranks higher.

I’m also curious about Emma Donoghue’s #10, Ulverton by Adam Thorpe: (How can’t you love a title like Ulverton?) "The fictional town of Ulverton–and the English language itself–are central characters of his debut novel in which a dozen different voices detail 300 years in the life of an English village."

The more I look through this book, the more I’m drawn to all the oddballs that just made their way in. Yes, of course I know such-and-such writer thinks Anna Karenina is the greatest thing ever, but what’s that, Madison Smartt Bell has a previously unacknowledged liking for something called The Conference of the Birds? Interesting.

On another level, I’ll admit to finding not a little pleasure in picking various writers’ brains via their favorite books. For instance, who would have guessed the uber-macho Norman Mailer would put Pride and Prejudice at #5? Of course, his 1-4 picks are four Russian novels that you can probably guess, but credit to Mailer for giving John Dos Passos’s under-read U.S.A. trilogy the #6 spot. The guy’s not all bad.

Alas, J-Franz doesn’t give us any Maileresque surprises but instead confirms his milquetoast reputation with a completely predictable list. Paul Auster’s list is similarly pedestrian, but coming from Auster the books somehow feel weightier. I think it has something to do with the love of literature he speaks through his books. After reading his novels I feel like I can understand why Moby-Dick, Don Quixote, and The Scarlet Letter show up. (But where’s "Fanshawe"?) Likewise, Julian Barnes giving us Madame Bovary as his favorite is nothing if not predictable, but after reading Flaubert’s Parrot, I know exactly why he so exalts it. (But what’s with Don Juan as his #2?)

Arthur Philips scores some points for putting Life A User’s Manual at #2, and giving a fine appreciation. One quote:

The first miracle: A novel built from a strictly limited construction–the description of one single moment in a Paris apartment building–blossoms into an encyclopedia of stories and life spanning centuries, the globe, the history of literature. The second miracle: A moving, humane novel composed of implausible, even impossible parts.


I’ve got to say, though, I’m a little disappointed in DFW for turning in what appears to be a joke list. If he didn’t want to participate he could have just said so (or is Fear of Flying really his fifth favorite book of all time?).

Likewise, I’m disappointed that Gravity’s Rainbow managed to appear on nobody’s list whatsoever. V. just made it with one 9-spot (thank you T.C. Boyle). Likewise, one 9-ball for Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (maybe after another 10 years). (Credit to Zane for putting both GR and Wind-Up Bird on his list.) But big props to Lydia Millet for giving J.R. her number one pick. Gilbert Sorrentino’s Red the Fiend also makes her list, and of that book she writes:

In brutal simplicity, with recourse to uniquely effective listing devices, the precise and beautiful prose lays bare the excruciating particularities of Red’s pain and shame and makes palpably real his journey from, if not innocence, at least relative neutrality toward craftiness and deft manipulation.

This, more than anything else I’ve read, makes me want to read Millet.

Although I’m naturally skeptical of all "top ten"–type enterprises, I’ve got to say that this book has won me over. It’s proven to be pretty interesting, and I think it will prove to be a pretty good source of recommendations–especially if I keep my eye on the bottom of the lists.

If you’re looking for an online education but are worried about the cost of school books you can always consider college grants.

The Following Story

A teacher of Dutch–well, if you wanted to draw a cartoon of the type, you could take him as your model.
Teaching children the language they were already hearing in the echo chamber of the womb long before they
were born, and stunting the natural growth of that language with tedious drivel about ordinal numbers, double possessives,
split infinitives, predicate nouns, and prepositional phrases is bad enough, but to look like an underdone cutlet and
pontificate about poetry, that’s too much. And not only did he lay down the law about poetry, he wrote it too. Every
few years he would spawn yet another anemic assembly of messages from the lukewarm provinces of his soul: toothless lines,
strings of words casting aimlessly about on the page. If they ever happened to brush against a single line of Horace,
they would disintegrate without a trace.

LATBR Revolutions?

Who knew the atypical format of Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions would prove so popular that the LA Times woud adapt it for its book review section?

LA Observed reports that drastic change is in store for the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Top brass is planning to take the stand-alone Sunday Book Review section and fold it in with a new opinion section that will appear in Saturday papers. Even more preposterous, the plan is to print this new section so that the reader will have to flip the section 180 degrees around to read each side of the foldout: with one section devoted to books and the other section devoted to op-ed pieces.

Seriously, though, if true, this would have to be one of the more questionable design decisions undertaken in recent LAT history. Not to mention, this would be a harsh blow to a book review section that, under recent new leadership, was fast becoming one of my personal favorites.

Unfortunately, this kind of news is becoming all too common. It seems like everywhere I look these days, newspapers are having their book sections cut. I’ve said it once, and I’m saying it again: Bloggers! Fill the gap!

The Latin American Mixtape

5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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