Like many of the works by Sheng Keyi that I’ve translated, this excerpt from Death Fugue deals with displacement. Often, the characters she depicts are plucked out of their homes and thrown into new environments that are simultaneously enticing and bewildering, and usually fraught with unexpected dangers. If that seems analogous to the whole translation process, that’s because it is.
For every translation project, finding the ideal balance between “faithfulness” and “readability” is tricky. There are always numerous ways to render any particular sentence, phrase, or even word. My first draft often reflects this dilemma, with large sections marked with brackets that set off a list of options for how I might translate any given phrase. When going from Chinese to English, the question of names is always one of the first of such obstacles to be addressed. In translating this excerpt from Death Fugue, I immediately determined that the main characters Mengliu and Juli’s names would be rendered in Hanyu pinyin (Chinese phonetics), but the two characters who are later mentioned only in passing appeared in my first draft as “[Hei Chun / Black Spring / ?]” and “[Bai Qiu / White Autumn / ?].” Many spots were similarly marked in the first draft, and I left most of them unsettled until I had passed the manuscript by a “beta reader,” a friend who is an excellent reader of both languages and does a quick accuracy-check before I carry on tidying up the English version of the story. My beta readers often offer input on the bracketed sections, and I count such help invaluable not only for the particular project at hand, but also for improving my own skills.
Even after my beta reader has helped address the first draft with the question of accuracy in mind, however, there are numerous decisions to be made. Some choices the translator faces have little to do with accuracy, but are more focused on how to take a metaphor and completely re-situate it. In the excerpt at hand, the clearest example of such a decision comes in the first paragraph. What I’ve translated “His legs […] felt fresh one minute, limp the next, and then perkier than ever the following” is not accurate, in the most literal sense. The original offers not three, but four, states of the legs, each in its turn: “a burst of numbness, a burst of crispness, a burst of sour, a burst of sweet.” It plays on the numb feeling, which can have associations with the flavor of Sichuanese cuisine, and the common use of “sour” (suan) in Mandarin to describe limbs that are sore, tired, or aching. The “crispness” and “sweet” feeling are not typical ways of describing physical sensations in Chinese, but are used for the contrasts in the original text here. It is fun, a little joke that would make any Chinese reader smile in passing as s/he reads, but perhaps without taking too much note of the brief game. Since “numb” is the only of those four terms that one might use in English to describe a feeling in the body, while losing all associations with food, direct translation in this instance would be awkward.
In order to address the problem, I experimented with numerous approaches, finally settling on “fresh” for its associations with flavors. I toyed with other food-related metaphors that could be combined with “fresh” and still seem to refer to the physical sensation in the limbs, but everything seemed to call too much attention to the wordplay, making it overshadow everything else going on in the sentence. This seemed to be “unfaithful” to the text in a way that was more a violation than an “inaccurate” translation is. In the end, I decided to sacrifice the humor in favor of a smooth read. Though I did so rather reluctantly (it was one of the last decisions I made before sending the final draft to my editor), I am confident that it was a good choice in the circumstance.
Sheng Keyi is a writer who uses such metaphors and wordplay freely. This always makes translating her work a challenge, and also a joy. There is no greater thrill in translation work than feeling like you’ve really captured the essence of the original. Sheng makes this work especially difficult, thanks to some very densely packed metaphors.
Of the works I’ve translated for Sheng Keyi, the excerpt from Death Fugue was the first that included extended selections of verse. Sheng has mentioned to me several times in conversation that she is glad I am a poet myself, as it gives her some added measure of confidence in my ability to translate her writing. Having translated her poetry, I now understand why she makes this observation. Usually, I find it more challenging to translate poetry than prose, but that is not necessarily the case with Sheng’s work. Though the second bit of verse in the excerpt was quite tough to translate (especially the final three lines), the earlier verse was not any more difficult to translate than the two paragraphs immediately preceding it. In those paragraphs, the metaphors move from fish to water to melodies to flowers and then on to chocolate ice cream before finally settling on the process of composing poetry. The verse, by contrast, follows a more linear progression, more or less firmly settled on images of hunger, only veering off from this topic for the final two lines.
In working with Sheng Keyi’s writing, I have taken real joy in developing a very intimate relationship with the words she has put onto the page. Lying unseen between the moment that these words are uprooted from Chinese and the instant they are replanted in the furrows of English, there is a brief time in which they are in transit, being transported from one patch of earth to the other. In that short span, I am fortunate enough to serve as the vehicle that transfers them from one garden to the other. I can only hope that I’ve watched over these words, nurtured them, and sheltered the delicate life they carry in a way that does justice to the effort Sheng Keyi put into bringing them into being in the first place.