When my in-laws occasionally make the trip from rural China to visit us in Beijing, they find my behavior around the house an endless source of fascination. My brother-in-law once found the sight of a baked potato so entertaining that he posted a photo of me eating it on social media. One of the other exotic dishes I occasionally enjoy in their presence is a bowl of porridge (the Chinese version of porridge, zhou, is a watery congee made from rice), and sometimes I like to eat my porridge savory, with a pinch of salt and black pepper, and a generous handful of grated cheese. I remember my mother-in-law watching me preparing this breakfast in the kitchen one morning, an expression of mild curiosity on her face. “Hmm,” she said, thinking out loud. “So foreigners put cheese in their porridge.”
I can’t remember exactly when I discovered the joys of cheesy porridge. However, I’m fairly sure that I made an independent decision to combine these two delicious things, and did not draw inspiration from any community of cheesy porridge enthusiasts. While I’m surely not the first person to discover the concept, I do regard it as something closer to a personal predilection than the kind of shared cultural norm that my mother-in-law took it to be. (My sister’s reaction to the sight of me grating cheese into my porridge—a blend of horror, outrage, and disgust—bears out this theory.) But when you only have a small sample size of representatives from a different culture, how do you know which of their distinguishing traits are unique to them as individuals, and which they share with the people around them?
One of the first Chinese authors I translated was a young Beijing-based writer named Sun Yisheng (孙一圣). I was attracted to the claustrophobic intensity of the worlds he created, where violence is common but often curiously weightless, and cause and effect are seldom smoothly aligned. And to his densely clotted language, with its overworked precision and its strange, incantatory rhythms. One particular stylistic tendency I noticed in his writing was a quirk I’m going to call “embodied sound”: the metaphorical description of noises as though they were plastic, tangible presences, hovering in the air. In the opening of the story I translated, “The Flame,” for example, the sound of a ringing phone “stretch[es] out in the air, unbroken, like candied haws threaded on a skewer.” In another story, “Apery” (translated into English by Nicky Harman), the narrator’s decrepit father “calls, waving at me, his arm looking like it’s pulling down a call that hovers in midair, as if plucking a peach.” And again, in the same story: “Then a sudden hush, as the clamor of the crowds hung suspended in the air.”
I liked it. It made me think of synesthesia, of Kandinsky paintings and the speech bubbles and sound effects dotted across a comic-book panel. This, I decided, was an example of cheesy porridge: a distinctive hallmark of this particular writer’s style.
Except then I started to notice it elsewhere.
In The Stolen Bicycle, a novel by Taiwanese author Wu Ming-yi (吴明益), from a forthcoming translation by Darryl Sterk: “‘Teeeeaaaaaaa yo!’ you’d hear him call from far away, the vowel drawn out as long as a kite string let out all the way.” In Yang Lian’s (杨炼) Narrative Poem, from a forthcoming translation by Brian Holton: “close your eyes and hear birdsong string up a dotted line.” In Big Breasts and Wide Hips by Mo Yan (莫言), translated by Howard Goldblatt: “Sima Ting’s persistent shouts floated in the air, like a fly in pursuit of rotting meat, sticking first to the wall, then buzzing over to the donkey’s hide.” And in Give Me a Girl at Age Eighteen, the novel by Feng Tang (冯唐) I’ve recently translated:
After several minutes of staring at the teacher, I found the only thing I could focus on was his neat row of massive teeth. When a syllable rolled out from within like a gleaming dice, it plinked to the floor with a sound that conveyed no meaning.
I began to wonder whether this was cheesy porridge after all. Was it, in fact, a more common stylistic trope that I had somehow never noticed before? I asked Sun Yisheng whether this was a deliberate effect, and if so, whether he had drawn inspiration from any other writers. (Sun Yisheng is a fairly omnivorous reader, so I thought a Chinese or international influence were equally likely possibilities.) He told me he wasn’t aware of having been influenced by any individual writer, but it was definitely something he had consciously worked into his writing. In fact, he said, he was sensitive to the way it could potentially be a flaw: “I sometimes worried it felt a little forced, and I put a lot of effort into integrating these kinds of effects more subtly into my sentences.” He also encouraged me not to get too carried away with my porridge dichotomy. “From a writer’s perspective,” he said, “It’s hard to distinguish between those stylistic traits that belong to the individual and those that derive from a wider culture. It’s more complicated than that: a writer’s life, experience, culture and reading history all have an influence on the way they write.”
I completely agree with Sun Yisheng that it would be wrong to regard collective style and individual style as discrete categories. No author writes in complete isolation: he or she draws on and reacts against the writers they know in order to define their own distinctive voice. But I do think my distinction remains a useful one, and one that has practical consequences for the translator. Here’s an example of what I would call ordinary porridge: The weighting of Chinese grammar means that time markers (such as “yesterday” or “next week” or “when I have finished devouring this delicious bowl of cheesy porridge”) are almost invariably placed toward the beginning of the sentence (in front of the verb). This is not something I feel the need to preserve in my translations. In English, “yesterday, we bought some extra-mature cheddar” and “we bought some extra-mature cheddar yesterday” are equally sensible arrangements, and it doesn’t seem worth halving the potential rhythmic possibilities of my sentences for the sake of preserving a facet of the Chinese language that does not reflect a conscious choice on the part of the author. This is a choice on my part, and it reflects my own personal opinion on the ultimate purpose of the translations I am writing: that they should attempt to produce in the reader a feeling that somehow resembles the feelings a reader of the original text would experience. If a certain expression is jarring for the Chinese reader, it should be jarring for the English reader too, and if it doesn’t snag the attention of the Chinese reader—if it is ordinary porridge—it probably shouldn’t in translation.
In his essay “Writing without Style,” Tim Parks offers Henry Green as an example of the kind of writer whose distinctive style (characterized by features such as the absence of articles and a propulsive monosyllabic rhythm) tends to get lost in translation. While there are certainly some aspects of Sun Yisheng’s style that resist translation (the way he plays with traditional Chinese idioms, for example, tweaking them in unexpected ways, or coining his own new phrases that sound confusingly like archaisms), his embodied sound is relatively easy to render in English. The difficulty for the translator is thus a challenge of reading, not writing: of deciding which components of a writer’s style should be emphasized and which should be smoothed out. Parks suggests that “you can’t have a strong style without a community of readers able to recognize and appreciate its departure from the common usages they know”—and, before they can think about attempting to communicate that through their work, a translator has to be fairly confident of their place within that community.
I still don’t know for sure what kind of porridge Sun Yisheng’s embodied sound exemplifies. I asked Nicky Harman, who has translated numerous stories of his, what she thought. She suggested that while Sun Yisheng might be using the same technique as the other writers I’ve quoted, the way he employed it was different: the kind of metaphors he uses are more jarring and surreal than their more realistic comparisons. “It is not the fact that he is using sound imagery,” she says, “but how he does it that marks him out as different.” This makes sense to me—kite strings, flies, and tumbling dice are objects moving through air, like the way we conceptualize a sound, whereas a skewer of candied haws is not—and dovetails with Sun Yisheng’s own view of the matter.
Yet I’m still left with unanswered questions. Does embodied sound have something to do with qualities inherent to the Chinese language? Is it somehow rooted in the visuality of the characters and the fundamental bond between poetry and calligraphy, or perhaps the relatively restricted sound palette of Chinese (which only has 1,277 distinct syllable sounds—and only 400 when the tonal differences are discounted—compared to the 8,000 that English offers)? Or will I someday discover the technique is just as prevalent in English, and realize there’s nothing distinctively Chinese about it at all? I don’t know. But I do know I’ll be sure to pause and think of porridge the next time I’m tempted to make a generalization about a country’s literature on the basis of any one book.