On “The Man with the Knife”

By Nicky Harman

When I met Susan Harris at the London Book Fair this year, she told me WWB was planning a non-Scandi crime issue. Would I like to look for a Chinese crime short story? she asked. I hesitated… contemporary Chinese writers hardly ever do crime. It just isn’t a popular genre. But changes happen fast in China. Back home, I looked through my collection of literary mags and realized that the latest edition of Ou Ning’s Chutzpah Magazine was actually on crime. And there was Sun Yisheng with “The shades who periscope through flowers to the sky,” a wonderfully dark story about a crime — or is it two? — set in a world where fantasy lurks and chaos looms. Problem solved, then? Well, not quite. Sun’s story was, I already knew, too long. Chinese short stories tend to work out at around 6,000-7,000 English words in translation, rarely the 2,000-4,000 translated word length that magazines like. Then, “Periscope” is not your average crime story. The narrative is alternately realistic and surreal, and forces of social disintegration are hinted at but not made explicit. There were some allusions to a cult film that I had to ask Sun to explain to me. Last, but not least, Sun did not, at the time, know me from Adam (Eve?). To the best of my knowledge, this was his first experience of being translated. He is a “post-’90s” generation writer, one of the authors that Ou Ning delightfully calls  “new blood” and that his  magazine has done a lot to promote. Having cuts made by people you have never met might dismay any Chinese writers: not much editing goes on in literary publishing in China, unless it is to placate the censors. Luckily, Sun participated enthusiastically in the editorial process, answered emails assiduously and made creative suggestions himself. As we went along, I found myself playing a bigger role than I normally do, explaining, for example, why it seemed important to retain the multiple references to light and the sun. (That was an interesting exercise for me. I usually stick to translating and hope the words will speak for themselves.) In short, it took quite a lot of work, in addition to the actual translation, to get this story from a Chinese lit mag to the version you can read in this issue of WWB. But I emerged feeling hugely rewarded, grateful to both WWB and Sun for trusting me and trusting the process, and proud of having played a part in getting “Periscope” out there to WWB’s readers.

For the November 2012 issue, on Chinese banned writers, I translated a story by Chen Xiwo, “The Man with the Knife.” Chen is an outspoken writer, highly critical of the Chinese authorities. Some of his books have been banned in China but, in fact, as he explains, this story just managed to avoid falling foul of the censors. (I felt a little sorry not to have the chance to add something about the political tightrope Chen walks in his life as a writer in China, but I accept that WWB stories stand or fall on their own, literary, merits.)

This story makes a coercive sexual relationship into a metaphor for political repression, as much of Chen’s work does. At the same time, “The Man” works because it succeeds in convincing us that a woman is first threatened with rape, then agrees to sex in order to further her career, and finally gains the upper hand by humiliating the man, who is then driven to mutilate himself with the knife. There are subtle interactions between the man and the woman as the balance of power shifts back and forth during the evening. Does she lead him on? Could she have backed out? 

There were no issues with length, as Chen had already shortened “The Man” for me. The narrative was also relatively straightforward, with few specific, cultural references. Instead, there were other challenges. The original Chinese is persuasively, emotionally truthful. The translation has to be similarly persuasive. I have always found emotional language difficult to translate from Chinese, especially because it often involves subtle body language and dialogue in which as much is left unsaid as is actually said. (Perhaps we need a Hammy Emotion in Fiction Prize to keep company with the Bad Sex in Fiction Prize!) Strangely, I find I can’t give any specific examples from “The Man” to illustrate this. It seems to be not a question of which individual words to choose in English, more of how to create an overall impression. 

And then there are the physical interactions. These are complicated, even before we get to the sex scene. When the story opens, the woman is sitting, then she is sprawled on top of him, then she pulls free and is kneeling on the floor. He grabs her and she is on her back on top of him. They appear to arm-wrestle. … I almost felt like acting out the movements with a partner to make sure I had understood them right. 

And now for a translator’s confession. In Chen’s story, the knife is both a real kitchen knife, and a metaphor for penis-power. The man is finally driven to castrate himself and the last line reads, literally, “his knife hung from the knife.” I felt the repetition that works in Chinese simply sounded too obvious in English, and so lacked the necessary impact. After all, a punchline has to punch. Readers, I confess, I changed the last line to: “It hung from the knife.”

These are two very different stories. One deals with sexual politics and is deeply unsettling; the other is vividly imaginative, combining realistic narrative with rich hints of fantasy.  Their authors, too, could hardly be more different: one is a highly politicized , mature writer, the other is just starting his career, and is from the newest “literary generation” in China. What unites them, however, is a commitment to their art. They share a determination to render the complex and shifting realities of life in China by creating stories that stir their readers’ imagination. I hope WWB readers will appreciate them as much as I do.


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