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.