Monday, 19 August 2013

Literary and Non-Literary Translation: Studying Translation and a Little Work Experience

One of the best things about the UEA's MA in Literary Translation course, and there are many good things about it, is actually what's not on the course. What I mean is that the lecturers on the course and the staff at the university work very hard, and are very helpful, when it comes to getting students involved in translation related activities outside of class. Internships at the BCLT, the BCLT Summer School, a publishing internship, translation editing workshops in a coffee shop, public lectures with award winning translators, attending conferences, attending the London Book Fair, an award ceremony, talks on comic-book translation in a pub and going to professional networking events are just some of the activites and schemes that have been on offer. It was at the last one – a networking event encouraging UEA students to think about using their language skills in their futures – that I met representatives of a Norwich based data capture company. I then ended up working for them on an interesting translation project for a supermarket in China. I want to say a few things about it here because it's made me think a bit about what do you do as a 'Literary Translator', and what's the difference between translating Literature, and something like a brand of toothbrushes?

So, first of all, what do you as a 'Literary Translator'? Well, I don't feel that I can answer this with any great authority as I'm not published, but it's still an interesting question for me, as it's something I want to pursue. I get the impression that, from a fascinating talk from the Translators in Residence at the Free Word Centre during the LBF, literary translators do a lot. A surprising amount, actually. They teach, write articles, organise games, take part in 'Translation Slams', edit, travel, translate words and, of course, translate literature. In this past year it's been wonderful to see so many literary translators, including teachers at the UEA and translators in London, being involved in different projects linked to their communities. It seems like a major part of literary translation is actually using language skills, critical thinking and decision making skills to work in other areas and fields of study. My experience of working outside of literary translation has been with this company in Norwich. The job involved translating and writing product descriptions for 'everyday' items. In fact, it was more like everyday items in China; some of the names for such items had never been translated into English, and many of the items are rarely seen in the UK. I was challenged by having to translate such words casually appearing on packaging as 阿胶, 牛皮糖, 蛇胆 and 灌肠,  (a quick google translate will let you know why these words might be problematic, and give you a few giggles too!) Being faced with such oddities made me realise that decision making and arguing your case are important parts of being a translator – arguments of whether 牛皮糖 should be 'Chewy Sweets' or 'Leather Sugar' went on for a while – and I think that literary translators develop such skills and apply them to many parts of their working life. I also feel that studying translation has better equipped me with such skills (although I do have room to improve and will keep trying to do so).

Having looked back at a few of my translation problems outside of literary translation has made me think about the difference between literary and non-literary translation. In terms of translating Chinese to English, and this may be true of many other languages including translating from French and Spanish, I don't think there's much difference in the actual process, but there is a difference in the product. Chinese works so differently to English that translating it involves changing almost everything; adding articles, reorganizing sentences, deleting measure words, deciding on tenses and so on. These processes were pretty much the same between my prose translations and the translations for the supermarket. With the supermarket translations, however, the translations had to fit the company's strict guidelines; limited character numbers, information order, use of particular measure words and so on. I've found that with literary translation there is a stronger emphasis on the feel and the style of a text. A lot of the work of other Chinese to English translators, such as Howard Goldblatt, have a distinctive literary feel, and I would also argue, the style of the translator. For example, some Chinese to English translators like to use pinyin to translate the story's characters' names, whilst others prefer to translate the meanings of the names. Goldblatt's translation of Su Tong's Rice() included characters like Old Six and Five Dragons, and I think that the decision to do this give the text a particular style, which allowed the translator to put themselves into the text. The freedom to make such decisions about influencing the style of a translated text is at least sometimes the difference between literary and non-literary translation. At least it was in my experience, although this might not be the case in other types of non-literary translation, as there are a lot of types of text out there that need translating. The main thing is that the process of making decisions about changing the text is in many ways the same, even if the product of the translation is not.

Now I'm wondering why I'm talking about non-literary translation on a literary translation blog. Well, I want to say literary and non-literary translation are both very close; literary translators often work on non-literary translation, and they do lots of things to engage people with literature outside of their own work. The UEA's Literary Translation course is well integrated with other areas of translation, and it's given me the opportunity to experience professional non-literary translation. The experience has given me an awareness of some of the skills I have gained on the course, and has taught me a bit about the relationship between literary and non-literary translation. I think both areas work well together, and I'm glad to have had the chance to take part in both (even if just a little). I also think that one of the possible benefits of translators doing so much outside of their 'work', is that this might not only raise awareness of translators and what they do, but also an awareness of foreign literature.

I just want to say something (and feel it important as someone interested in Chinese to English translation) about contemporary Chinese literature. Brendan O'Kane, a great translator of Chinese and blogger, said in a recent interview that 'The more we can do to demystify it [China], through journalism or writing or documentaries, or through Pathlight to introduce people to the idea that there are young Chinese writers working through the same issues that they are – to get people used to the idea that China’s just a place like any other, and not that special. I think that’s a very worthwhile thing to work towards' ( 2013:np). I agree with pursuing a 'demystified' view of China and its literature. I think that the brilliant work of translators to intergrate their work with other projects and fields of study can all help with this pursuit. China and Chinese are, for many people I know, still both a far off place and a mysterious language. The problem with such a distance in people's minds is that it can lead to misunderstandings. Working towards clarity can often be, in my opinion, for the best. I hope that brilliant work coming from Chinese to English translators, through routes such as Pathlight, keep up, and that the English language readership will become more and more familiar with great writers such as Qian Zhongshu (钱钟书), Bing Xin (冰心), Bei Dao (北岛), Can Xue, (残雪), Jin Yong (金庸), Yu Hua (余华), Zhang Yueran (张悦然), Liu Cixin (刘慈欣), Ling Chen (凌晨), and many, many, many, more.

Now, unlike Brendan O'Kane who is leaving China, I'm soon going to be off to China to keep reading up on (and perhaps even try my hand at translating) some of the new talent emerging from China.


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

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