The Millions

What Gets Lost in Translation Gets Transformed

1.
One day before I came to the residency in Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Gu Xiang, a young Chinese novelist, chatted with me in Shanghai:

Last week I came across two young men in the countryside. They were both migrant workers in a local factory. Standing on a bridge, they talked about how to get some fish from the stream below. As a young writer craving new stories, I hid myself behind a bush and eavesdropped on their conversation. They came up with quite a few plans, but all were rejected because of the various inconveniences they may cause. For example, they couldn’t fish because they didn’t have a fishing rod. After about three hours of scheming and observing, one man said to the other, well, let’s forget about the whole plan and go home. We can find some eatery to have some fish if we want to. The other man replied, sure, but I don’t think I crave fish. So they headed home. And I ended up with no story.

I told Gu what she just said could be developed into a typical Carverian story—a chronicle of blue-collar despair.  However, my response was not a tribute to the great American short story writer but quite the opposite. A boring piece without a real narrative: this formed all my impressions of contemporary American short fiction.

Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Richard Yates, and John Updike—the list can be prolonged endlessly—all read very similarly, if not the same, in Chinese translation, and even their different subject matter does not help. They seemed to speak in a unanimous voice about the similar, repetitive, and desperate contemporary American life.

Not until I reread these works in English and carefully compared the original texts with Chinese translations did I realize that translation plays a pivotal role in influencing readers’ understanding of these works. It is both interesting and sad to see how the so-called “translation style” has compressed these very different writers into one boring contemporary American voice.

The beauty of the language is always the first to go. Perhaps all of us have heard the saying “three moves equal one house fire.” Unfortunately, things can be even more dismal to those writers who build their style on symbols—a single move brings off a catastrophe. Take John Updike’s short story “Separating.” The story is about Richard, who struggles with how to break the news to his children of his separation from his wife. Updike employs at least two major natural images to lay clear Richard’s inner life—the wave and the mountain. Hearing his daughter’s harsh comment on the separation, Richard bursts into tears at the family party. Updike writes,

Richard’s crying, like a wave that has created and crashed, had become tumultuous; but it was overtopped by another tumult, for John, who had been so reserved, now grew larger and larger at the table.

Except for the challenge a and , and the stress on the word ), the image of the wave is even more tricky because it is linked somewhere later in the story: “They sat on the crest of the rise, shaking and warm from their tears but easier in their voices, and Richard tried to focus on the child’s sad year…” As we all know, in English does not only refer to the top of a wave but also the top line of a mountain or a hill. Therefore, the here connects with both the afore-mentioned image, “wave” and the later important image, “mountain,” which represents the psychological burden on Richard. When Richard’s wife tells him to deal with Dickie, their mature elder son, in person, Updike depicts Richard’s gloomy moment as “The mountain before him moved closer, moved within him; he was huge, momentous.” Then, after breaking the terrible news to Dickie, Updike says, “He felt immensely lighter, saying this. He had dumped the mountain on the boy.”

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