Tag Archives: Yan Ge

Building Bridges interview series: Nicky Harman

Nicky Harman is a translator from Chinese. She is co-Chair of the Translators Association (Society of Authors), and closely involved with Paper Republic, an online publication initiative promoting Chinese writing in English translation. She taught on the MSc in Translation at Imperial College until 2011 and now translates full-time. On 31 October Nicky gave a fascinating talk at the Translating Women conference, in which she discussed an interview series she had carried out with Chinese women writers, focusing on the barriers they face within a literary system that disadvantages women and makes assumptions about what they must write about – you can see comments on this and other conference sessions on Twitter, under the hashtag #TWConf19.

How do you find new works in Chinese, and do you work more with pitches or commissions?

I wish I could say that I looked at all new work coming out very systematically, but I really only touch the tip of the iceberg. China is such a big country that I’ll probably get to the end of my professional life never having read things that I still want to read. As a professional translator, I like it when publishers come to me, when they’ve already chosen a book and have bought the rights. That’s been the case with the majority of the work I translate. The other way is networking: word of mouth, people recommending books… recently when I was in China I was asking women which women writers they liked. Having said that, pitching to publishers is quite difficult and time consuming. With Chinese there are a couple of different problems. One is that a lot of publishers don’t know much about Chinese writers so they don’t know what they’re looking at or for, and when they find it, they may not like it.

What in particular drew you to The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, by Yan Ge?

I loved the voice from the start. It was so natural and funny and rude and disrespectful, but also utterly unassuming and unpretentious. Yan Ge allowed the voice of this really bad man to just come through completely naturally. And I loved it: it was so accessible, so readable. I didn’t realise quite how interesting the language was until I started translating it; the dialect caused me some problems. Yan Ge and I started communicating after I finished the translation, but before the publisher had been found, and she pointed out that in a lot of areas in my translation of the dialect I either hadn’t got really into the meaning of that particular fruity expression or I’d misunderstood it. In one case, she said there were too many “fucks”, so I went through, and I counted that there were exactly the same number of fucks in the English plus two which were verbs because the verb “to fuck” in Chinese is different from the noun! But I took her point, and so we went through and started adding more colourful expressions. I really had to be creative, because English doesn’t have the same number of colourful expressions and obscenities.

Are there particular writers or genres in Chinese that are favoured by the regime?

That’s a really interesting question. The genre that has really worked from Chinese is sci fi. Second to that the Wu Xia, the martial arts fiction. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that they’re favoured though, because the atmosphere is so constrained and constricted in China. And that goes for the intellectual world, the literary world, the artistic world: the clamps have really come down. Xi Jinping has made China a very repressive place, and there’s also a fair amount of discussion about whether science fiction can be a route for writers to express their dissatisfaction with the regime. Martial arts fiction is unlikely to get on the wrong side of the regime. But there have been various sci fi works which have gone a little bit close to the edge; in particular, Hao Jingfang’s novella Folding Beijing is all about how Beijing turns into a collapsible three tier city, where by night and by day different layers come out. And by night it’s the migrant workers, cleaners, garbage collectors and so on who come out, and are not allowed to mix with the more well-to-do people who only come out during the day. So the very fact that she’s pointing out the class difference and the underworld in Beijing could be considered a bit risky.

There are beginnings of a move away from eurocentrism in translated literature – how have you perceived this over time, and how do you think we can foster this?

Looking at a list of the last 6-7 years, the main publishers who published from Chinese were either university presses, or one-man or one-woman bands. This is not necessarily a good thing; the tiny publishers can be great but also a bit precarious. I hope that mainstream independent publishers will take up books from Chinese. Some do, and then half your promotion is done because the readers will have heard of the publisher and so they’re more likely to go for the book. It’s all part of this strong feeling I have that literature translated from Chinese has got to become mainstream. It’s got to be something that readers pick up and read for enjoyment, otherwise we’ll be stuck with good books that have no readers, which is a tragedy. What’s the point of translating them if people don’t get to read them? I’m still learning, and I’ve reinvented myself as a part-time promoter of the books I’ve translated, but also with the work I do on Paper Republic, which is now registered as a charity in this country promoting Chinese literature in translation generally; there are about five of us all working together and we’re all translators in different parts of the world. But regular book reviews, it seems to me, are like hen’s teeth.

You’ve mentioned that there is a marked gender bias in Chinese literature; how does this affect who gets published and who gets translated?

There are many women authors in China. I don’t know whether there are more men than women, but I know who gets the prizes: it’s men who get the prizes. I looked at the Mao Dun Prize (a prize for novels in Chinese sponsored by the China Writers Association) over the last ten years, and found that a very small minority of the winners were female writers. And when we do our end-of-year statistics on Chinese writers translated into English, a great majority will be male writers translated into English and a small minority female writers. I think it’s much the same all over the world. I’m very wary about making generalizations about China because it’s such a big place, but I think women writers all acknowledge the fact that they have less visibility. There’s certainly a dominance of men amongst writers and publishers in China. And the publishers are the ones who will package someone’s book and try to sell the rights to western publishers for translation.

You work with a number of networks; can you tell us more about Paper Republic in particular, and the activities you undertake beyond (and behind) translation?

I’ve been involved with Paper Republic for the past ten years. It started off as a blog where translators could post their questions and write funny posts, and it has expanded to have a big database to link to other articles and to provide a resource not just for translators but also for readers and for anyone wanting to dip a toe into Chinese fiction and translation. We regard ourselves now as almost all outward facing; we’re looking outwards to the readers, doing promotional work of various kinds, educational work, and we’ve got big plans. It would be lovely if we could get money. But in the meantime, we’ve actually done an awful lot without any money at all, both by working as volunteers and by drawing on the goodwill of the translation community. A surprising number of translators from Chinese have a short story squirreled away that they’ve never had published or that they’d like to see published again, and so we’ve done a whole series of nearly 70 short stories which we’ve put out under the rubric “Read Paper Republic” over the last three years; that’s an ongoing project.

Do you think that China is under-represented in translated literature? And as far as you know is this common across European literatures, or is it an Anglo-American issue?

It’s a complicated question. There is a certain resistance in the English-language publishing industry. But is there something particular for Chinese which makes it hard to sell the rights of a Chinese novel into English? Chinese writing is very different, and one of the things I like about Yan Ge is that she isn’t that different, whereas a lot of Chinese writers do write very differently, which is to do with the history of literature. It’s partly that genres are different: novels can be very long, and in the last century there were a lot of very didactic novels (and that actually predates the Communist Party and the 1949 revolution). Then after that, Chairman Mao insisted that writers had to present a good picture to the world. When you translate a lot of Chinese novels you constantly come across things which refer to cultural or political phenomena. For example, if there’s a casual reference to the Cultural Revolution, you have to think about whether you’re going to gloss it, or just mention it and hope that the reader will understand. There are cultural things lurking under the surface. So there’s a whole cultural and political burden of information and the translator can deal with it, but it just makes more for the casual reader to take on board.

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan: author Yan Ge and translator Nicky Harman debate their novel and its anti-hero

Following on from last week’s review of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan (Balestier Press, 2018), I’m delighted to bring you this exclusive interview with author Yan Ge by translator Nicky Harman.

Set in a fictional town in West China, this is the story of the Duan-Xue family, owners of the lucrative chilli bean paste factory, and their formidable matriarch. As Gran’s eightieth birthday approaches, her middle-aged children get together to make preparations. Family secrets are revealed and long-time sibling rivalries flare up with renewed vigour. As her son Shengqiang (Dad) struggles unsuccessfully to juggle the demands of his mistress, his mother and his wife, the biggest surprises of all come from Gran herself…

Yan Ge and Nicky Harman, images from the authors

NH: I was introduced to your writing by Ou Ning, founder and editor of the influential Chinese-English avant-garde literary magazine, Chutzpah. At that time, 2011, you had submitted chapters 1 and 2 of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan to him, under the title ‘Dad’s Not Dead’, and I translated them. I was immediately impressed by the fresh, direct way you depicted these squabbling, middle-aged siblings and the foul-mouthed philandering Dad, a small-town businessman, who is its (anti)hero. The novel is very different from any of your previous writing, which is both more literary and has more fantasy elements. You’ve written that this shift of style and topic was a deliberate decision on your part and you’ve written very amusingly about your struggles:

‘It took me so long to find the voice of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, or the voice of Xue Shengqiang (Dad), because it was by no means my natural voice. … I wrote and rewrote the first chapter so many times and none of these worked. …So one day, in Durham (USA), I was on my way back home from the campus and I passed a petrol station. And there came my epiphany! I went in and purchased a pack of cigarettes (White Marlboro, I will never forget). With that I went back home, sat by my table, clumsily lit a cigarette and started to imagine Xue Shengqiang’s life. And that was when it came to me that he cursed a lot. So I wrote another version of the beginning of the story with a cigarette dangling between my lips and tears in my eyes (from the smoke). But it worked. It was his voice and I was very happy. So I actually smoked a lot when I was working on The Chilli Bean Paste Clan. Chain-smoking in the middle of the night. Typing and cursing along with Xue Shengqiang. Sure enough, after I finished the book I returned to being a non-smoker.’

You once said that when you re-read your novel a year or so later, you realised how angry you were when you wrote it. Can you say a bit more about that?

YG: I started writing the Chilli Bean Paste Clan when I was 26 and I had published several books. As a young woman, I struggled to survive in an industry that was more or less dominated by middle-aged men and I was constantly cringing at their behaviour. I suppose a lot of things I saw or experienced made me unsettled and in a sense, disorientated. And to write The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, especially to write it in a different country, was my way of ‘writing up’ or ‘writing back’ to the patriarchal world that I couldn’t really stomach. On the other hand, I was very conscious that a work of fiction should be a neutral ground and the writer’s personal feelings should not dominate the narrative. So one of the principles for the novel was that I should withdraw myself, in particular, my identity as a young woman. But I suppose I can’t really erase myself and my personal emotions, especially they are the things that propelled me to write this novel. So years later, when I reread it, I saw this very angry young woman behind the novel, and her muted anger permeates through the pages. It was both surprising and heartening.

NH: One thing I found most difficult to grasp as I translated the novel was the undercurrents in the relationships between the main family members: Dad and Gran, Mum and Gran (her mother-in-law), and Dad and his brother in particular. To put it simply, I failed to pick up on some of the hidden hostility. Some examples: In the first chapter, Mum and Dad are interrupted in bed by a phone call from Gran. Mum asks Dad: ‘你妈打电话来又什么事?’ My original version was a neutral: ‘What’s your mother on about now?’ You pointed out to me that she’s being deliberately offensive about the mother-in-law she detests, by referring to her as ‘your mother’ instead of ‘Mother’. (In the traditional Chinese family, the woman becomes part of her husband’s family, so his mother is her mother too.) After we talked about this, my translation became ‘What’s up with that mother of yours now?’

At the beginning of chapter 2, Dad is enjoying a few leisurely moments with a cigarette. His thoughts wander and we read that ‘他忍不住就要开始奶奶死了的事了’, literally, he can’t help thinking of Gran’s death. can be ‘want ‘ as well as ‘think’ but I simply couldn’t believe that he really wanted his mother to die so I glossed ‘think’ into the noun ‘anxieties’ (about her death). One of Dad’s redeeming features is that he’s actually a properly dutiful son and he doesn’t acknowledge his deeply-buried hostility to anyone, even himself, so it seemed logical to assume that his thoughts were anxious. However, after you and I discussed Dad’s conflicted attitude to his mother, I changed ‘think/thoughts’ to the more ambivalent ‘daydreams’. I think there’s something that’s culturally very Chinese about this subtlety of language. Do you agree?

YG: Yes I do. I remembered when I first left China and lived in the US, I found people shockingly straightforward and it really took me quite some time to adjust. In general I think Chinese language is more abstract compared with English, and this allows a fluidity in both the langue and the culture. To be obscure is almost a virtue in China. Especially in this case, in the love/hate relationship with his mother, Shengqiang (Dad) cannot say what he really feels and he cannot even admit it to himself.

NH: There have been quite different reactions to The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, centring on a certain moral ambivalence in the story. Some readers can forgive Dad for being a profligate womanizer, others can’t. For Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing Book Reviews, Kate Costello writes: ‘Yan Ge’s endearing if not entirely sympathetic characters grab you from the first page. Shengqiang (Dad) is delightfully dysfunctional from the very moment we lay eyes on him. He is a rare literary figure that manages to tear at our heartstrings even while we look down on his reprehensible behaviour and laugh at his vanity.’ While Amy Mathewson says: ‘…in this era of Trump and the #MeToo campaign, I found it difficult to laugh away the misadventures and foibles of Shengqiang. There is much awareness of the long-term effects of sexual harassment that has been highlighted recently and the treatment of the young hostesses by the older men during the drinking engagements made me cringe…’  Did you deliberately sit on the fence and avoid moral condemnation?

YG: Absolutely. I don’t think a good fiction writer should judge any of her characters. But at the same time I feel my stand was very clear. I remember we had a discussion when you were translating a particular scene (Dad going to a night club), and I expressed to you that the idea was to make the scene extreme and Dad’s behaviour revolting – and that was where I stand. I did not write the scene for the reader to appreciate or enjoy, I wrote it this way so the reader would be disgusted and see the absurdity in him and his world.

NH: You and I have talked and blogged quite a lot elsewhere about the challenges of translating Dad’s colourful obscenities, but here I’d like to say something about a different sort of challenge: how to translate the author’s hints without either giving the game away, or making the English so obscure that the reader is left bamboozled. Our novel is full of family secrets, hinted at throughout but only revealed at the end. We the readers have to guess what these secrets are, just as the protagonists in the story do. In the words of another translator, Natascha Bruce, ‘…the translator, somehow, has to be orientated enough not to spin things in ways [the author] doesn’t intend, and to notice the clues she’s laid for piecing things together.’ A key part of the denouement in The Chilli Bean Paste Clan are the commemorative couplets unveiled at Gran’s 80th birthday party, in which the calligrapher blows the whistle on Gran’s past life.

Here is the second line of the couplet in Chinese:

春娟百载,姜桂庭中迎灵龟。
May Spring Grace enjoy a hundred years, may the fragrant hall welcome the clever turtle.

Spring Grace is the name of the factory, and alludes to the personal name of its owner, Gran: 英娟, Brave Grace. The turtle is a common symbol of longevity in China, but in the famous erotic novel Plum in the Golden Vase, the clever turtle灵龟 refers to the hero’s penis, and the hinted-at appendage is getting a warm welcome! The allusion to one of China’s most famous classic novels defeated me and I omitted it on the grounds that it wouldn’t be recognisable to an English-language reader.

The lines are a sly reference to a secret from Gran’s past and they are intentionally obscure (the guests don’t understand the allusion, though Gran does and is mortified). They contain classical allusions and, dammit, the couplet has to rhyme! The challenge was to produce a rhyming couplet that hinted without telling. I ended up in English with this translation:

Long life to our distinguished Madame May
As we celebrate her eightieth birthday
Long life to the Mayflower Factory,
Where the fragrant vats embrace the stalk of longevity.

Wherein, in order to achieve a rhyme I was happy with, not just Gran but also the factory acquired completely different names. Having arrived at my translation of these four lines in the final pages (after an interesting discussion with you), I then had to go back to the beginning of the novel and re-name both the factory (making it the Mayflower Factory) and its owner (making her May and adding Madame in front for good measure).

One final question, you wrote this story, was it, eight years ago? Would you write it differently now? For example, because the cultural climate in Sichuan towns or in China has changed? Or because you feel differently as a writer and as a woman?

YG: Yes, it was eight years ago. (Where has the time gone?) Of course it’ll be very different if I write it now. For instance, I’ll not be that angry or maybe even angrier – who knows? The world I see is still puzzling and unsettling to me, and that is why I have to keep writing.

A dysfunctional Chinese dynasty: Yan Ge, The Chilli Bean Paste Clan

Translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman (Balestier Press, 2018)

This is the first of a double feature on the Translating Women blog: today I’m reviewing The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, published by Balestier Press, and next week I’ll be bringing you an exclusive interview between author Yan Ge and translator Nicky Harman.

Image from balestier.com

Set in a provincial village in China, The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is the tale of a family empire with the formidable Madame May at its head. As May’s 80th birthday approaches, her middle-aged children gather to prepare an unforgettable celebration, but find themselves caught up in old rivalries and new problems of the heart.

Meet Dad, the unlikely anti-hero of the story, and heir apparent to the family business, the Mayflower Chilli Bean Paste Factory. He has been working there since he was a teenager, initiated in the ways of stirring vats of fragrant bean paste by the grouchy shifu Chen. Dad’s older brother went off to university and never returned to the village, making a living now as an academic. His sister married a rather useless man, and Dad himself made a happy enough marriage, but that is not enough to keep him from having affairs because, after all, “a man always needed girls to screw.” When we meet Dad, he is embroiled with an artful young mistress named Jasmine. He has installed Jasmine in an apartment just above Gran’s (Gran is the aforementioned matriarch, Madame May, a woman “no one in this family has ever got the better of”), and you can imagine the misadventures that ensue with Dad’s much-feared and revered mother living on one floor and his pert-bottomed mistress just above.

Dad is an unremitting misogynist, for whom women are shrews, vixens, or turtledoves, whereas men – oh, heroic, misunderstood men! – are like the mighty Yangtse River. They are maligned and vilified, their urgent sexual needs not understood, their contribution to society absolute. His character is perhaps best summed up in this section, which combines both his sexual indiscretions and his world view:

“Dad gave her a couple of savage thrusts. He felt extremely aggrieved. It was hard just being human, let alone being a man. It was ever thus. He was one of the workhorses of this life, always needing to do the hard graft. He was fated to be the doormat, working himself to the bone to satisfy his mistress, and so give his old mother a good night’s sleep. Saints and sages were always lonely and misunderstood, always put upon, always working.”

Poor fellow.

And things only get worse for Dad when his lives and lies start to close in on one another after he faints mid-passion in Jasmine’s apartment. An inclination towards both sexual and gastronomical excess is taking its toll on his heart, and he ends up centre stage in a hospital bed, with the women in his life tending to him. Even though both his wife and his mistress are catering to his every need, he is still overcome with self-pity; he’s an unlikeable character alright, but one of this novel’s great achievements is to make you want to know what happens to him even though he is so repellent that you surely wouldn’t have minded too dearly if the heart attack he had in the throes of his passion with Jasmine had been fatal.

The main characters are all brilliantly developed: the brother who left the family and the village behind and is Dad’s main source of resentment has private sorrows of his own, and the moment when the two men realise that all their life they thought the other had everything while they were hard-done-by in comparison is achingly beautiful. At the centre of this revelation – though not present for it – is Gran, who loved her children by trying to make them respectable according to what she perceived as their own particular talents. So blinded by her own experience of being looked down on, she put the family reputation before the happiness of her children, thinking the latter would follow from the former. Gran’s misjudgement is heartbreaking not only because of the wasted years of her children, but also because of the sacrifice we learn she made herself in order to “keep up appearances”.

If the main character is Dad, and his mother is Gran, then you might wonder with good reason who the narrator, Xingxing, is, for she is never present at any of the scenes that she narrates. In fact, we learn very little about Xingxing apart from one vital revelation: she spends the entire period of the narrative in a psychiatric asylum. I was expecting there to be some explanation for how she came to be there, and for her character to be developed alongside the others, but there is no such disclosure. At first I was a little taken aback by this, and then realised that this is part of the originality of the novel: we think all the family secrets are being revealed to us, but they are not. If you should wonder how Xingxing manages to know so much about the family affairs and events that happened in her absence or before her birth, she tells us subtly yet repeatedly: comments such as “That son-of-a-bitch Zhong broke down. Tears poured down his face, Dad told me”, “Later she told me: ‘But this time he’d gone too far. It was a matter of principle’”, and “That may have been Dad’s view, but Mum had another take on it” reveal how Xingxing came to know so much, and at times she even deliberately reports on the extensive investigation she undertook to compile the family history: “To properly get to the bottom of all this, I needed to ask every one of the people involved, without missing anyone out.”

The relationships are what this book is built on: the squabbles between the middle-aged siblings, the rampant misogyny of Dad and his gang of boozing buddies, and the tensions between spouses and lovers are superb, with the dialogues being particularly well translated. Indeed, the colourful language in The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is one of the things that makes it so distinctive and so enjoyable. Harman conveys some of the linguistic idiosyncrasies of the Chinese (when Dad’s driver curses pedestrians, we are told that he “stuck his head out of the car window and shouted lengthy picturesque references to their ancestors”), as well as allowing some of its proverbs and sayings to come through in the English (I especially liked “you can’t fill a belly without belching”).

In amongst the comings and goings of the clan, we find comments on both history and modernity: Dad reflects on the overcrowded town that “everyone had more cash to spend and nothing to spend it on. They lived in this piddling little town, where walking from East Street to West Street only took fifteen minutes, yet every family insisted on getting a car, then spent their time weaving in and out of traffic jams in the clogged-up streets,” and Madame May opines that “The younger generation really had no idea how devastating it had been, decades ago, when she took her old father’s arm and led him out of the gates.” This is a family saga rooted in its place and time, and if the narrator is distanced from it all, then perhaps this reflects Yan’s own need, described in the foreword, to “move to the other side of the world to write about my hometown.”

This is a rollicking, engaging saga of a story: I enjoyed it from cover to cover, and I thoroughly recommend it. Come back next week to find out how Madame May and the Mayflower Chilli Bean Paste factory got their names, why The Chilli Bean Paste Clan was born out of Yan Ge’s anger, and how Nicky Harman translated a rhyming couplet imbued with classical allusions that reveals the biggest of all the family secrets to the reader, but not to the characters. You won’t want to miss this one!

Review copy of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan provided by Balestier Press