In 2021, Mike Fu and Jenna Tang worked together through the Emerging Translator Mentorship Program of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA), with a focus on prose from Taiwan. Fu had published his English translation of Stories of the Sahara by the late Taiwanese writer Sanmao with Bloomsbury the previous year, while Tang, a translator of both Chinese and Spanish, had recently received her MFA in creative writing from The New School and helped found the ALTA BIPOC Caucus. In this conversation,Tang and Fu discuss their mentorship process, the challenges of translating trauma, and the state of Taiwanese literature in English translation.
Jenna Tang (JT): Hi Mike! I’m so happy that we got to be mentor and mentee this year through the ALTA program. To start, why don’t we talk about our experience with the mentorship itself? We spent nine months together, editing my translation sample of Fang Si-Chi’s First Love Paradise, a 2017 novel by Lin Yi-han about sexual violence, the identity of survivors, and a sense of belonging. We also worked on many other shorter pieces by the same author.
Mike Fu (MF): Yes, it was a pleasure working with you this year, Jenna, and finally getting to meet at the ALTA conference in Tucson. We had lots of wonderful dialogue this year about your specific project, but also Chinese-English translation more generally. What drew you to Lin’s writing in the first place?
JT: I first heard about this book when I was studying in France, where I kept up with Taiwanese literary news and was looking for new books to read once I returned from abroad. I picked up Fang Si-Chi in a bookstore near my home in Zhongli and started reading that same night. This book brought me back to a lot of stories I’ve heard from other girls my age––it makes me angry, angry about the repression of survivors’ stories, and at the realization of how many times I crossed paths with predators during my upbringing. This novel conveys so much about the experience of Taiwanese girlhood and womanhood, and led to the growth of the #MeToo movement in Taiwan. I was especially drawn to its emotional language. A year after first reading it, I started working on a sample translation. What about you, Mike?
MF: I’d heard about this novel and Lin’s untimely passing quite a few years ago, but this is the first time I sat down to actually read it. Suffice to say, there were so many moments in the text that I found beautiful and chilling at once. I remember I kept on adding notes in our Google Docs on passages that particularly impressed or disquieted me.
JT: I agree. Translating trauma, suffering, and violence is definitely a heavy matter. Should we talk about how we navigated our way through Lin’s book, and also, Mike, would you like to speak a little bit more about how you approached translating Sanmao’s Stories of the Sahara?
MF: Lin and Sanmao both have reputations that precede them, as talented women writers from Taiwan who sadly took their own lives. There isn’t a lot of overt violence in Stories of the Sahara, but some stories are cloaked in a certain somberness, especially when Sanmao reflects on social injustices or even her own emotional fragility. Just like with Lin’s text, I think our role as translators is to approach these difficult or dark passages with great respect and care, and to apprehend the raw emotion behind the language so that we can do our best to convey its power in English.
“My relationship with Chinese has been complicated for many reasons.”
JT: I keep wondering as I translate this sample and works from other authors: What are the questions we might need to consider when it comes to translating narratives that are products of harm, or could be considered harmful themselves, and that oftentimes include sensitive language such as abusive thoughts and deep vulnerability? To me, it’s not just about understanding the author’s work, but also the big topics, the social movements that cross borders. Sometimes we might naturally be inclined to reduce the volume of the words in translation, perhaps to minimize this pain, but ultimately what’s most important is to connect ourselves emotionally with the stories. Sometimes, bringing out the strangeness and the darkness can underscore the significance of the work. What are your thoughts on this, Mike?
MF: I work from a place of deep respect for the author and her lived experience, whether or not that experience is embedded in her writing. As you mentioned, Jenna, I think it’s important to contextualize the writing in the current events of its day and infuse this atmosphere, however we can, into the labor of translation. The world of the past, whether in 1976 or 2017, is fundamentally different from today’s pandemic era, for example. Literature is a natural barometer for the key issues of its time.
JT: Another question I have for you concerns how we work with Chinese metaphors and expressions, as well as chengyu (Chinese idiomatic expressions that are typically four characters), especially when they are packed with multiple layers of meaning or even literary allusions. I remember we both did lots of research and had lengthy discussions about some of the expressions in Fang Si-Chi, like “方求白時嫌雪黑” (When looking for pure white, even the snow is too black) and “曹衣帶水，吳帶當風” (You’re like Cao Zhongda with the tight garments, and I’m Wu Daozi with the floaty clothes).
MF: Yeah, this can be a doozy. For me, it’s really important to consider the author’s style and tone when translating chengyu into English. Lin and Sanmao are both erudite writers with a deep education in classical Chinese literature, but Lin’s writing, in particular, foregrounds this knowledge through her diction, wordplay, and deeply interior narrative subjectivity. For that reason, I thought it would be important for us to try to unpack these idioms a bit more rigorously, or even add a gloss from time to time. This cultural literacy is critical to not just the writer, but also the worldview of her teenage protagonists, who are precocious students from an elite socioeconomic class; these girls are absolutely immersed in chengyu and other forms of elevated diction through their cram school and private lessons. For a writer like Sanmao, on the other hand, the idioms are more utilitarian for the most part: they serve a plot that tends to privilege the exterior world of the Sahara (or whichever faraway locale she finds herself in). They convey something about her persona, to be sure. But she uses them judiciously—with great panache but, dare I say, less complexity than Lin.
JT: I really enjoy our conversations about translation and languages. Speaking of which, can we talk about our journeys with the various languages we have encountered in our studies and in life? We have so many commonalities.
MF: Indeed, both you and I seem to have a shared passion for languages. I love that you work with Spanish, Chinese, and English. As for me, Mandarin is my mother tongue and first language, specifically a country drawl called Huangpihua, which is closest to the Wuhan dialect, but a bit twangier. This is the only thing I spoke until age four, when my parents enforced standard Mandarin on me so I’d sound more “proper.” We lived in Denmark for a spell, where I learned zero Danish but enjoyed frolicking at the preschool. I learned English through an ESL class when we moved to New Jersey, and this subsequently became my dominant language. I’ve always felt funny about the term “native speaker,” though I do identify as such with English.
“Taiwanese voices are still considerably underrepresented in the English-speaking world.”
I began studying French in middle school and took four years of it in high school. My high school French teacher was more interested in socializing with us students than teaching, so I got exemplary grades and learned absolutely nothing. I took a placement test when I went to college and had to start from scratch! After fulfilling my college language requirement, I felt compelled to continue studying French as it dovetailed with my major in film production in many ways. I ended up studying in Paris for a semester as well, and tacked on a double-major in French before I completed my undergraduate degree.
My relationship with Chinese has been complicated for many reasons, which I recounted at length to Malaysian writer Emily Ding for her newsletter The Great Affair. I started learning Japanese in my early thirties. With a few years under my belt, I’m still at a lower-intermediate level. I find Japanese to be bogglingly tough, to be honest, but also quite fascinating for all its cognates with and neologisms from Chinese and English, among other languages.
MF: How about you, Jenna? I recall you also have had some colorful experiences in the realm of language learning.
JT: I love hearing stories about your language journey. I grew up trying to speak Hakka to my paternal family, because they barely ever used Mandarin Chinese at home. As a kid, I used to confuse Hakka and Taiwanese Hokkien so much. Mandarin Chinese is my native tongue, and my parents sent me to bilingual kindergarten and after-school classes to learn English beginning when I was five.
German was another language I began learning early on. In high school, I was very interested in learning a new language, despite the stress of the entrance exam. My initial intention was to sign up for French or Spanish classes, but they were both full, and skipping that registration meant learning no languages at all, so I picked German. Thanks to my German teacher at the time, who was extremely organized and patient, I was able to speak German during my one-month stay in Berlin and could easily get around.
In college, I originally wanted to major in Spanish, but again, my entrance exam scores, national rankings, and other reasons led me to French instead. I spent four years learning the language and doing lots of language exchanges, and I eventually spent a year in France, studying translation at Université Lumière Lyon 2.
“Community is the most important part of my life as a writer and translator. ”
I picked up Colombian Spanish when I was in a relationship. That was a year before I came to America. I taught myself grammar and worked on my writing skills in cram school in an effort to communicate with my partner and his friends all in Spanish. After I moved to New York, I was able to travel extensively in Latin America, having read so much in Spanish by then that the language was already part of my life––even now, it is a language of home to me.
MF: That’s beautiful. I also randomly took two semesters of Spanish while living in New York but can’t speak a lick of it now. I do know what you mean about the intimacy of language, though, and the warm and fuzzy associations that we may associate with a particular language because of relationships. Although I enjoy learning languages, I’m certainly no savant. English is the one and only language I feel fully comfortable in, truth be told. I have different aptitudes and deficiencies in all the rest, including Chinese. After watching all of Call My Agent! on Netflix recently, though, I have an urge to brush up on my French!
JT: Should we talk about how Taiwanese literature in translation stands in the English-speaking literary world? What have we observed as literary translators?
MF: There are a great number of Taiwanese writers in English translation nowadays, from a wide range of eras and genres. The government also supports this work through Books from Taiwan and other grants and initiatives. It would be wonderful to see more translations of works by indigenous writers, members of the LGBTQ community, and other underrepresented voices in general.
JT: Yes, I totally agree. In July, there was a translation folio at Asian American Writers’ Workshop called “Queer Time”, bringing attention to a lot of queer authors from Taiwan. To this day, Taiwanese voices are still considerably underrepresented in the English-speaking world, and I really do encourage those who are interested to take a closer look at 博客來 and Eslite Bookstore, which are the biggest online bookstores in Taiwan.
MF: Jenna, I know you’re active in a number of translation organizations, including ALTA’s BIPOC Literary Translators Caucus. What does community mean to you, both in digital spaces and in your daily life as a New York-based Taiwanese writer and translator?
JT: That’s a very good question. I’d say community is the most important part of my life as a writer and translator. The BIPOC Literary Translators Caucus has played a significant role alongside my mentorship. I love that we get to work together and that some Caucus members generously share resources and opportunities with the group. Like most translators, I work remotely, but it’s great to gather online or occasionally meet in-person to hang out—it really does make me feel more productive and less alone.
JT: Since ALTA’s 2022 Emerging Translators’ Mentorship will be starting soon, is there any advice we’d like to share for those who are about to embark on the mentorship program?
MF: It’s a serious time commitment for both parties, but also a great channel for dialogue on craft and an opportunity to nerd out on the tiniest details of language. I think our pacing worked really well, so I’d recommend doing that right away: breaking down a large and potentially intimidating project into smaller digestible segments that you can tackle month by month. I also learned a lot as a mentor in this program and have been inspired to pursue a few new projects of my own.
JT: I totally agree with you. I also found it very rewarding to have a project ready so that as we started the program, we were able to just delve straight into it.
JT: Last but not least, what translated works have you been reading recently, Mike?
MF: In the past months, I’ve read Edogawa Rampo’s Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, translated by James B. Harris, and Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-joo, translated by Jamie Chang. Over the summer, I greatly enjoyed Patia Yasin’s translation of Taipei People by Bai Xianyong. These stories mostly take place in the 1960s and portray the lives of mainland exiles in Taiwan. Such colorful characters and beautifully written stories, vividly rendered by the translator. I was awestruck.
JT: I recently watched a Netflix TV series called 一把青 (A Touch of Green) based on one of the short stories in Taipei People! As for me, I’ve been reading a lot of fiction from Korea, such as Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung and Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park, both translated by Anton Hur. I’m currently reading Lemon by Kwon Yeo-sun, translated by Janet Hong. There’s something about stories with strangeness that really catches my attention. That’s what I love about translation––having translators who bring literature from so many languages and different parts of the world to new readers, so we get to read real international literature.