Thursday, 16 May 2013

This novel is absurd and unreal… oh wait! It’s set in Mexico

Crime fiction is a genre of literature that it’s full with cultural references, we all know that, but what happens when these cultural references, that in the source culture sound normal and natural, sound completely absurd and impossible in the target culture?

One of the things that differentiate a crime fiction novel from one country to the other is how the crime is handled. Let’s take Mexico for example. Mexico is a country in which the police cannot be trusted. They are corrupt and even worse than the criminals themselves. In the majority of Mexican crime fiction novels, even though the main detective is part of the police force, policemen are there to make the investigation more complicated. They do it either by not wanting to work or by trying to talk the detective out of the case. This behaviour is completely normal for the Mexican reader but it might be very strange for an external reader.

To look at this more closely let’s look at an example from Martin Solares’ novel: The Black Minutes. (2006). This novel contains a vast quantity of cultural aspects that would be seen as strange for other cultures. There is one in particular that could cause so. At one point in the novel the main detective gets into a fistfight with one of his colleagues because he is doing some research on a closed case. The co-worker does not want the main detective to find out more about what happened many years ago, because he solved the case by blaming an innocent man of the crime. The problem is not that the co-worker put an innocent man in jail and he is afraid of others finding out. If the other policeman found out nothing will really happen because the Mexican police is just focus on blaming someone no matter whether that person is guilty or not. The real problem is that that co-worker received a big amount of money for putting that person in jail and he does not want to lose the money (because In Mexico in order to make the police “work” the government needs to promise them extra money to keep them motivated). The main detective is looking into this case because he is working on a murder that could be related.  What could look as absurd for others would be the reaction of both detectives. Instead of handling the problem as civilized people they start a fistfight in the middle of the office. Everyone, including the chief of the police, is watching the fight without doing anything to try to stop it. The fight concludes with the main detective running out of the office with a broken leg while the other policeman tells him to get out of it or otherwise he won’t live for long.

Fist fighting and the lack of formality are completely normal to the Mexican reader. In Mexico the police forces are uneducated; therefore they use street Spanish and have no sense of respect.

All these cultural differences could cause a misunderstanding to the reader in other culture. He/She might consider the novel to be silly, and we as translators have the responsibility to produce a target text that would be received with a similar impact as the source text has.


Andrea González Garza translates from English to Latin American Spanish. She is currently doing an M.A in Literary Translation in the University of East Anglia. You can contact here:

Thursday, 9 May 2013

The Translator’s Observation

Writers/translators or the relationship between translating and writing is something that really interests me. This semester, I had the opportunity to explore it in my Case Studies essay on ‘hard-boiled fiction’. Even writing this blog post, I’m still thinking, in the same way as a detective about how to write my essay. I still have time – today is the 15th of April, the deadline is the 24th of April and my case is not yet solved.


In April 2013, I came across news of Murakami’s new novel on the internet. The book is called 色彩を持たない多崎つくると、彼の巡礼の年shikisai wo motanai tasaki tsukuru to kare no junrei no toshi [Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage] by Haruki Murakami. His previous novel, 1Q84, which was based on   George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, achieved record sales that rivalled well as his other novel, Norwegian Wood. Since the publisher announced the release of the new novel, Japanese readers have been desperate to read it; needless to say, that includes me. Murakami is one of the most popular writers in Japan. He is also one of the few world-famous Japanese writers – I think it’s generally agreed that he is the best Japanese writers outside Japan.


Murakami is also known as a translator: he translates mainly American literature into Japanese including novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, Raymond Carver, Tim O'Brien and J. D. Salinger. According to Rubin (2012: 103), Murakami has learnt a lot about writing fiction and fiction itself through the process of translation. As Steiner states, ‘[i]n a very specific way, the translator “re-experiences” the evolution of language itself, the ambivalence of the relationship between language and world, between “languages” and “worlds”’(1998: 246). Presumably, translation has enhanced his writing.


Several years ago, Murakami published his first translation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. It can be said that Murakami’s fiction had long been influenced by Chandler, as he is said that he has been a fan since his teens. Indeed, Murakami made use of the word ‘hard-boiled’ style for one of his books Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, a fiction constituted by detective pop narrative. Moreover, Murakami described the narrative structure of one of his novels, Wild Sheep Chase as being deeply influenced by Chandler (see Rubin 2012: 81). However, the most important thing Murakami has learnt form Chandler is, I think, a perspective or an; in other word, he sees the world in the same way that Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe sees it, with an objective level gaze. I see evidence of this not only in his fiction but also in his translations.


Thinking about the translation of The Long Goodbye, there are two Japanese versions in Japan: one by Murakami in 2007 and another by Shimizu in 1958. The significant difference between the two translations is their strategies for translating. In Shimizu’s version, I found many parts of the source text are omitted by the translator. On the other hand, in Murakami’s translation he makes his translation much more complete.  (Therefore, Murakami’s translation comes to be longer than Shimizu’s.) Murakami’s strategy is close to a ‘literal translation.’: in other words, Murakami is more faithful to the original text – he serves the original writer (Murakami and Shibata 2000: 20). He tried to disappear listening the Chandler’s original voice and attempting to see the world through his eyes.


To me, Murakami seems a little like Marlowe himself, a detective, a cool observer.



Hiromitsu Koiso translates from English into Japanese. His literary interests include world literature, exophony and translation as a creative form of text making. Contact:

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Chinese Children's Literature

China has lots of stories. There are all sorts of fantastic tales, about monsters, warriors, ghosts and heroes. It's got the one about the naughty Monkey, who goes on a great journey and fights all the time. It's got the one about the cowherd who falls in love with a goddess. There's a festival in China that celebrates their love. There's the one about a lady who lives forever on the moon, with a rabbit and a lumberjack who can't chop down the cinnamon tree. The stories capture the imagination of children across China.  I remember wanting to read about them when I was at school. But these are old stories. They're really more like folk-tales. You can read them in English, some I did, but they aren't so much translated into English as being written as an English 'version'. There are lots of new ones in China that are popular with children too, but what I want to know is whether or not they can be read in English. Can they excite children who read English in the same way?


Over the last few months I have been investigating translated children's literature from mainland China. It hasn't been easy. I know that there is a lot of it in mainland China; the four classics (三国演义-San Guo Yan Yi,水浒传-Shui Hu Zhuan,西游记-Xi You Ji,红楼梦-Hong Lou Meng) all have numerous children's versions and picture books, readily available in book shops, supermarkets and street markets. Writers such as  Bing Xin, Zhang Tianyi, Sun Youjun, Sheng Ye, Zheng Yuanjie, Zhou Rui and many more besides are familiar names in China as children's literature writers. There is also a wealth of online Chinese literature aimed at young adults; if you look them up on you will find they are added regularly, and there are plenty of sites that you can find through Baidu (百度一下您就知道). The problem is – an this could be because I haven't looked in the right place – that I can't find much of it in English translation (I think only Sun Youjian has some of his works translated and published that you can find on Amazon...).


One  children's story that I have found from mainland China and translated into English is in a collection of Ye Shengtao's works. It's perhaps pertinent to note that Ye is  one of the founders of children's literature in China, or 童话-tonghua, which up until the 1920s did not exist. Children read literature before this, of course, but they read the same literature as adults. Tonghua came about when China was trying to adapt to new ideas from foreign countries. The notion that children were different from, and had different needs to, adults was one of these ideas (for more on this see Dr Ho Laino's essay 'Children's Literature -Then and Now, 1997). This idea seems to have stuck, as there are lots of stories and books published in China, in Chinese, with children in mind. But what I want to know is why does it seem like hardly any of it, if any at all, has been translated for children in English?


I've been looking to the translation of Ye's '稻草人’ - Dao Cao Ren – to find out more, as it is arguably his most famous children's story. The translation by Ying Yishi was published in 1987. I've got to admit, the story is an odd one for a children's story, and I'm not sure it's the most likeable one I've ever read. I don't think that as a child (spoiler alert) that I'd like to have read about a girl who gets sold by her alcoholic father and commits suicide, and about a sweet old lady whose husband and son have died tragically, who's lost her money and whose crops are destroyed. Even the helpful scarecrow of the story can do nothing, and in despair drops down in the dirt of the field. It's a bleak tale, and the translation doesn't sugar-coat it.


But the translation is interesting. It captures the tone of the original, that of a children's tale, very well. The issue that I have with it is that it was put into a collection with Ye's adult literature – How Mr Pan Weathered the Storm. Its publication like this suggests to me that the translation was more about preserving Chinese 'Literature' in English than about translating a Chinese children's story for children to read. The translation also omits a religious reference from the original, which is perhaps politically motivated, and the scarecrow talks of how he wants to cook up something nutritious, which is translated in a way that would not sound very delicious to a child in English (grub guts and gruel anyone?). I get the impression that although the original was written with children in mind at the time, its translation in 1987 did not share this aim.


Because of its  content, it seems like an odd story to translate for children. But why is it one of the only Chinese children's stories in English translation? Julia Lovell, in her article last February for Prospect magazine, noted that anglophone publishers were generally only interested in publishing something which incites controversy -'either sex or politics; and ideally both'. It could be that these publishers think this way because it is what readers want; sex and politics. I've been exploring translating children's literature in terms of Gideon Toury's norms theory, and perhaps such desires are the stronger literary norms in anglophone cultures.  Maybe chinese literature, and even more so for its sub-genres, is marginalised in English. If this is the case, then I see very little hope for literature which is both 'Chinese' and 'children's literature' being translated into English and published.


I am, however, willing to think otherwise. There might be a cornicopia of children's literature translated into English out there, and perhaps I just haven't come across it yet. If so, I would love to hear about it and I would love to read some of it. I hope that there is lots out there, and that there is lots more on the way. The sheer size of the country suggests that China has all sorts of interesting people with interesting things to say, and with all sorts of interesting ways of saying them. I know that China has lots of stories to tell, and lots of children's stories that can capture the imagination, and I want to read more of them.


Thomas Newell translates from Chinese into English, and is currently a studying for an MA in Literary Translation at the UEA as well as an interning for Arc Publications. Contact