Footnotes Like Skyscrapers

"I want translations with copious footnotes, footnotes reaching up like skyscrapers to the top of this or that page so as to leave only the gleam of one textual line between commentary and eternity." So says Nabokov with regard to translating Pushkin.1 Skyscrapers indeed! Judging by the translated fiction on the market, most publishers appear to prefer such notes kept at a minimum.

One can divide the rarefied world of translation theory roughly into two camps: those who are faithful to the readers, and those who are faithful to the writers. The former advocate fluency as a reliable gauge of reasonable translation while the latter advocate literalness as the only sign of fidelity to the original texts–Nabokov is of this latter camp. He absolutely detests "readability" and "smoothness." Instead, to him the only true translation is "literal translation": "The clumsiest literal translation is a thousand times more useful than the prettiest paraphrase." Since any literary text worth its salt is packed with cultural, historical references, following the same imperative of fidelity, footnotes are necessary to supplement the literal translation. Here is Nabokov again, giving us a glimpse of hope in the fantastic image of the ideal translation: "It is possible to describe in a series of footnotes the modulations and rhymes of the text as well as all its associations and other special features."

I find myself rather split on this issue. Many years ago I was entranced by Pushkin, whom I read in Chinese translation. I recall lovingly hand-copying many of his poems into my notepad and carrying it around with me. I cannot say that I would have loved him as much had I first read him in Nabokov's ideal rendition, with one line of Pushkin's verse accompanied by a page of "notes rising up like skyscrapers." Now that I occasionally dabble in translation, I find myself with a strong urge to add footnotes maybe not as copious as Nabokov advises but still numerous enough to impede a smooth reading experience, but without which I feel I am being irresponsible to the authors, and still worse, cheating the readers of the richness of the original, which should have been their proper due.

Some say a good story should be like an iceberg, one-eighth visible, the rest submerged. Naturally the power of the story largely depends on the submerged part. Readers of the story in the original language may picture the submerged iceberg like a jagged tooth of a shark while readers of the translation may picture it as a rounded hull of a ship. Nabokov's notes are no doubt meant to carry the weight of the seven-eighths of the iceberg, giving detailed accounts of "the modulations, associations, special features." But is it the job of the translator to be like some superhuman diver, making visible what is originally submerged?

Or perhaps a translator is a bit like a Chinese restaurant owner, who finds himself serving mostly a non-Chinese clientele: should I assume my diners have unadventurous palates and always serve them the familiar "chow mein" and "kung-pao chicken"? Or should I assume that everybody is a potential epicurean and serve up complex flavors from regions and with ingredients that they would not have heard of? How do I transmit to my diners, in the famed dish of "Westlake Carp Braised in Vinegar," the flute on the causeway and lingering scent of the lotus flowers just above the water?

To give a couple of examples from the current collection, and perhaps a glimpse of what makes up the submerged iceberg as I see it.

The short story "Little Girl Lost" by Sheng Keyi is set in the city of Guangzhou, formerly Canton. To say "formerly Canton" is to introduce a piece of the city history already, a booming metropolis on the southern coast of China, a commercial port that had traded with the Portuguese since the early sixteenth century and then became a treaty port well known to the West after the time of the Opium War of 1842. "Little Girl Lost" is a contemporary story of innocence and experience set against the background of the city's long history of business and trade. The protagonist Dong Putao learns of the arcane knowledge of the ancient "Thirteen Trades" from her client, at the moment when she herself was about to engage in another ancient trade, that of sex work. What propels her into this position is the aftermath of China's current economic growth, one effect of which is the mass layoff of workers from formerly state-owned factories. Thus the story is framed by an overlay of distant history and the immediate present, the urgency of one young woman's problems made more poignant in a vividly realized urban landscape dense with historical landmarks.

"Level A" presents another story in the same city of Guangzhou. The protagonist, A-Gump, is a forty-year-old woman with the mental capabilities of a child, leading a painfully stagnant life as she tends to parked cars in the daytime and loves a dead movie star at night. The urban fabric is woven in part by the prominent presence of the Cantonese, a dialect unintelligible to speakers of Mandarin Chinese. Now, professional linguists would call Cantonese a related but different language from Mandarin, much as French is a related but different language from Italian. In the Chinese case, there are two complicating factors. The government's policy to push Mandarin as the standard language is longstanding, a policy that makes other languages like Cantonese firmly "dialects," which is to say, sub-standard, minor. The other complicating factor is that the written Chinese language is usually understood to represent all these dialects. In "Level A," however, the author Huang Yongmei makes a conscious effort to force the orality of Cantonese into written form, especially in the monologues of the protagonist, who barely has a grip on the margin of a marginalized world. What is inevitably lost in translation, in addition to the sense of linguistic diversity of the original, is the effect produced by the distinctly minor, nonstandardized Cantonese, and the powerful sense of A-Gump's barely articulated longings.

So, what is the submerged seven-eighths of the iceberg made of? The above two stories illustrate that it can be partly made up of historical knowledge, and partly made up of linguistic particularity. In another short story in this collection, "Sticky Rice Cake and Running," it is made up of both. Here, a peasant-athlete recalls a piece of her childhood memory, when she accompanied her pregnant mother, who was running away from enforced abortion. Familiar as we are with the protests of human rights groups against the Chinese government's one-child policy, we are surprised to meet the brother of the pregnant woman, who argues for abortion on the grounds of traditional Confucian ethics combined with an odd sort of feminism. As background, the pregnant woman already had three daughters, and her decision to keep her fourth pregnancy was in the hope of having a son. Here is brother to pregnant sister:

"What's wrong with having daughters only? Before our mom died, who did good things for her? Who was most filial? Wasn't it you? I was off giving lectures to barefoot doctors and I went to the county hospital to learn from Lei Feng. When Mom died, I wasn't even there. You took care of Mom for over half a year, so can't you see? Raising a son who's not filial means he'll just mess around. A daughter is actually the precious one. A daughter is the only one who can care for the elderly."

So, the brother's logic is that his sister's longing for a son was itself a devaluation of her daughters. He argues for their value through the Confucian ethics of filial devotion, i.e., daughters are better because they actually take care of aging parents. The historical references in his speech are footnoted in the translation, giving further cultural density to his own self-criticism–his "messing around" in this case was doing what was deemed politically correct at the time, namely participating in the government's champions. Similarly, his argument against his sister's pregnancy is partly a support of the government's one-child policy but partly a deeply human recognition of his own lack of responsibility toward his mother, and a recognition of his sister's role as the chief caregiver. Perhaps most striking for a western reader, this man's argument for abortion is based on a very different premise from either the position of "pro-life" or that of "pro-choice" familiar to us. The short story thus presents an ambiguous take on abortion, giving it the complexity of a real human problem rather than a principled stance for or against the government policy.

This angle is made particularly effective through the wide range of linguistic registers. The brother in his speech of persuasion, for example, speaks partly in rhyme, which reflects the government's powerful propaganda machine at work, a mass movement to persuade pregnant women to abort that puts rhyming words into the mouths of peasants. To further the comic effect, when the husband of the pregnant woman decided that she should run away, he spoke in distinctly heroic terms found in 1950s Communist war movies: "You withdraw and I'll cover!" This high rhetoric is thoroughly deflated soon after: "Later, I heard that my narrow-minded dad, because he didn't get a son, wept for over an hour by the river at the village's edge. Afterward, he jumped into the river. Because the river water was too shallow, no matter how many times he jumped in he couldn't kill himself." That these sloganeering characters are portrayed with full humanity and worthy of our sympathy demonstrates the literary power of the author. What my "skyscraper" of a note means to demonstrate, because it is lost in translation, is how much recent history is echoed through the folk rhymes and Party slogans, for it is through these odd registers that we sense the humor and pathos in the lives of these characters.

It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that every word is itself a package of history, histories of culture, languages, and politics. Translation is unlikely to convey fully all these packages of history, whether through the most literal rendition or by way of copious footnotes. And yet, unless we are ready to settle for total insularity and say that only people who share their visions of the seven-eighths of the iceberg, only people who fully share all the packages (ontologically impossible), then each reader must be allowed to have his/her own iceberg. In the end, my Pushkin is probably very far away from Nabokov's Pushkin and possibly much impoverished without the many notes. But I am still glad to have known mine, for otherwise my life would have been much impoverished.

1"Problems in Translation: Onegin in English." Partisan Review 22, no. 4 (1955): 512.

Copyright 2008 by Hu Ying. All rights reserved.