The Translator Relay: John Balcom

By John Balcom

Our “Translator Relay” series features a new interview each month. This month's translator will choose the next interviewee, adding a different, sixth question. Shelley Frisch passed the baton to John Balcom, an award-winning translator of Chinese literature, philosophy, and children’s books who teaches in the Graduate School of Translation, Interpretation and Language Education at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, a graduate school of Middlebury College. Recent publications include Stone Cell by Lo Fu (Zephyr 2012) and Trees without Wind by Li Rui (Columbia University Press 2012). His translation of Huang Fan’s Zero won the 2012 Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Award. He lives in Monterey, California.
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What is your connection to the language(s) you translate from and/or the place(s) where the books you translate are written?

I began studying Chinese over 30 years ago, after first earning a BA in history. I eventually went on to obtain a PhD in Chinese and comparative literature. I’ve lived and worked in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, and Taipei. My first translations from the Chinese were published three years after I started Chinese and I haven’t looked back since. I would say the lion’s share of my work has involved the translation of poetry and fiction from Taiwan, and now a bit of fiction from mainland China, mostly by Shanxi writers.

Can you give us an example of an “untranslatable” word or phrase, and tell us how you brought it into English?

Everything is translatable, I believe; but it’s an issue of simultaneously trying to achieve maximum fidelity and maximum readability. For the Chinese>English translator, reception is one of the biggest problems—the lack of context for the readership of a translation can really be an issue. Much contemporary Chinese fiction is tied to recent history, which isn’t all that well understood by a general western audience. Even genre fiction, such as martial arts fiction, for example, which has a centuries-long tradition in China and its own conventions, is an unknown quantity for the average western reader. Translating dialect and some of the formal features of the language, particularly those of the classical language, also pose problems. The meaning of dialect can be translated, so the reader knows what is said, but not necessarily how it is said. Some of the formal features of Chinese just don’t come across in English. Classical poetry is a good example. Quatrains (five- or seven- word jueju) from the Tang dynasty, for instance, are challenging. The terseness of the originals (twenty to twenty-eight characters to a poem) and the internal and end rhyme make them difficult to adequately reproduce in English, where they tend to sprawl in translation.

Do you have any translating rituals?

I wish I had more time to translate. I do most of my work during the winter and summer breaks, because during the academic year I am normally just too busy and have only about two days a week when I can really focus on translation, though I’m usually able to snatch an hour or two here and there other days. In the summer months I can devote 8-12 hours a day to a translation. My wife Yingtsih is also a translator, and we spend a lot of time discussing one another's work.

Do you have a metaphor you use to explain the translation process and the role of the translator in bringing a piece from one language into another?

I don’t think there is a perfect metaphor. Perhaps advanced or exotic horticulture? Translating a literary work can be seen as similar to what a horticulturist does by taking a rare plant out of its natural environment and bringing it to life and making grow and blossom in a foreign one. This requires a lot of work and creating the appropriate conditions for the plant to not only survive, but also to thrive. (I’m an avid gardener, as you might have guessed).

Tell us about a current, or future, translation project that you’re excited about.

To be frank, I have so many interesting projects. I’m really excited about a project I am just finishing, which is the poet Yang Mu’s volume of autobiographical sketches titled Qilai qianshu (The former book of Mt. Qilai). I have worked closely with my wife Yingtsih on this one. Yang Mu recently won the Newman Prize. The book is really special to me. It is by a poet whom I really admire. In the book Yang Mu weaves his own development as a poet together with some of the most sensitive and subtle writing about contemporary Taiwan history that I have read. The intense interiority of the text goes hand in hand with detailed descriptions of the natural environment, creating a rich and dense prose style. It's one of the most demanding texts I have ever attempted, and I've had to bring all my knowledge of Taiwan to bear in this translation. I’m also working on a volume of poetry by the Taiwanese poet Hsiang Yang and an unusual fantasy novel by the young Bunun writer Neqou Soqluman titled The Legend of Tongku Saveq in which Bunun myth and legend meet Lord of the Rings. This summer I will be working on a modernist novel by Lee Yu.

Shelley Frisch's Q: How do the challenges you face in translating poetry differ from those in translating prose?

What I like about translating poetry is that the often brief text allows for focus. You can keep the entire poem in your head and work on it, fiddling with the words and syntax, the structure and the wordplay. This is perfect during the academic year – I can work on a translation when I walk to and from the office in the morning and the afternoon. Classical poetry, as I alluded to earlier, is challenging in the extreme; modern poetry, which is what I have translated a good deal of over the years, is much more doable. Modern and contemporary Chinese poetry is generally free verse written in the vernacular, which makes for happier results in English. Short stories and essays are also good during the academic year – I find that if I have to put such texts aside, I can usually pick up where I left off without much trouble. Translating a novel, however, requires stamina, momentum, and uninterrupted focus, which is hard to maintain when I’m teaching. I find it a bit harder to reconnect with a longer text if I have to put it aside for any length of time.


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