More Light — translation as performance art

This latest addition to The Wairarapa Talks is an interview that John Minford, co-founder of our Academy, gave to a programme called ‘Ear to Asia’. The audio recording of the interview is available here, and a transcript is given below. Subheadings have been added.


For other Wairarapa Talks on the subject of translation, see ‘The Lineage of Light’ series, also by John Minford:

— The Editor, China Heritage


Welcome to Ear to Asia where we talk with researchers who focus on the region, with its diverse peoples, societies and histories. Ear to Asia is a podcast from Asia Institute, the Asia research specialists at the University of Melbourne. In this episode: Translation as Performance Art.

Literary translation plays a vital role in disseminating artistic and popular writing across the language divide. Yet, for many readers, the tremendous and nuanced effort that goes into it is all but lost in the background, and that’s particularly the case the better the translator is at their craft.

While some of us may be tempted to think of translation in terms of bilingual dictionaries, much of the best translation depends on the translator’s skill in communicating things like pace, register and intensity, components of literature that you can’t simply copy out of the Oxford English Dictionary. And, as for the cultural peculiarities and differences expressed in foreign language literature, Google isn’t much help. It really takes a talented translator to bring these less tangible features to life in English.

Our guest on this episode is Professor John Minford, a specialist in translating Chinese literature, both classic and contemporary, into English. John joins us to talk about the practice of translation and how to train others in the art, and he shares with us the challenges and triumphs of rendering classic Chinese texts for contemporary Western readers. John Minford is primarily known for his translations of Chinese classics such as The Dream of the Red Chamber and The Art of War, as well as their reading companion guides.

In November 2016, he was awarded the Inaugural Medal for Excellence in Translation by the Australian Academy of Humanities for his translation of I Ching. John has taught translation in mainland China, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. He’s currently overseeing a postgraduate program in Chinese translation at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute.

— Clement Paligaru

Translation as Performance Art

CLEMENT PALIGARU: Now, firstly, you liken translation to performance art. What do you mean by that?

JOHN MINFORD: Well, I think the nearest comparison would be to the art of playing the piano, for example. I don’t mean performance art in the sort of trendy happenings kind of installation art sense. I mean in the traditional sense. I think the translator is a performer. The translator is an interpreter and, like a pianist, they’re working from a script. A pianist works from, say, Chopin’s score of a nocturne and has to balance very carefully his obligations to the composer and to his audience and to himself.

So a translator, likewise, has to interpret a text. But in so doing, has also to bring it alive. Translations are sometimes called the second life of a work. For that work to come to life again the translator really does have to perform in that sense. They have to infuse the work with their own life blood, and that is the real challenge of translation.

CP: Well, the Argentinean author, Jorge Luis Borges, once wrote the original — and I quote here — the original is unfaithful to the translation. Do you think that translated works should be regarded as cultural works in themselves?

JM: Absolutely, yes. I mean one of my favourite experiences in translating was the work of a contemporary Chinese poet resident in Hong Kong, P.K. Liang 梁秉鈞. We used to meet quite often in a bar and talk about the way I translated his poetry. On one occasion he just said: John, I think you’ve got this one wrong, but I prefer yours, so I’m going to go back and change my original. And for me, that was a wonderful expression of the equality between author and translator.

Of course, as you said in your introduction, translators, to a certain extent, have to be self-effacing. They should just disappear. But they don’t totally disappear because they become joint authors, in a sense.

CP: Now, people who fall in love with a book translated from another language often become attached to that version, and reading a different translation of the same original may lead to feelings of disappointment. What does this say about the role and responsibility of translators?

JM: Oh my goodness, a great deal, of course. I mean, for example, I think there is an infinite range of possible translations of any work. And I don’t think one should ever get, as you say, hung up on one particular translation. One’s bound to have one’s own favourites. I mean if you take the wonderful masterpiece by Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu, I mean there was a superb translation of that done while Proust was still alive by Scott Moncrieff.

And nowadays there are new ones coming out. There’s at least two more translations, and I personally am very attached to the old one, but I can also see the virtues of the new ones. One can love a book. One can love a translation. But one should always keep one’s mind open as to the possibility of further variations on that theme. I don’t think there will ever be a definitive translation of anything.

A Lifetime of Language

CP: And on this journey though, this journey to translate, what do you think are the main challenges that translators of any language face?

JM: Well, clearly, I mean there’s the nuts and bolts. You have to study a language. You never stop studying the language that you’re translating from. I’ve been studying Chinese for fifty years now, and I’m still a student of the Chinese language because it’s infinitely complex and has a history of 2500, and so on. I will never know enough.

But I think what is often neglected, both in the practice of translation and in the teaching of translation, is that one also needs to be constantly developing one’s skills in one’s own mother tongue. I think a lot of the failures in translating from Chinese are due to that. They’re due to the fact that people think they just have to learn Chinese and the rest will come naturally.

Actually, that’s not the case. One really has to work very, very hard to cultivate one’s own ability to express oneself in one’s mother tongue. And I spend over half of my time working on that dimension, which is trying to learn how to write English. After all these years it’s a very hard job. And that’s why there are so few great writers and so many mediocre ones, and even more bad ones, because it’s a very hard business learning to express yourself well in your own language.

And so, I encourage my students. One of the things I always say to them is, first of all, when you sit down in the morning to translate, the first thing to do is not to translate, because if you just go automatically into translation mode you will actually miss out on some of the most helpful and creative elements in your own language. So don’t just sit down with your bilingual dictionaries and thing right, I’m now going to translate. Maybe go for a walk or read a chapter of a novel or play with your dog or something like that to get you into a more creative frame of mind. I think that’s very important.

CP: John, how much is this about the need to balance faithfulness to the original with the need for readability?

JM: It’s always the dilemma. I mean the Chinese are constantly discussing this dilemma, this quandary that you have to be both faithful and readable and reader friendly. I think the very best translations actually are both because it’s like the French: none of the faithful women are beautiful and none of the beautiful women are faithful. If you’re really faithful you will be really beautiful, you will be really readable, you will reach a point where, actually, that dilemma no longer exists. I can think of some of the supreme examples of translation from the Chinese that reach a point where that no longer exists. They’re both faithful and readable.

CP: There’s another aspect of this, isn’t there though? It’s about relatability, because they’re concepts in one language which may not just easily translate to another language. How much work, how much effort do you put into that area?

JM: Oh, a lot, especially working from the Chinese because it’s a very different culture. For example, in the novel that you mentioned — The Dream of the Red Chamber, which we call The Story of the Stone — there’s an awful lot of inserted material which is there to help the reader understand Chinese culture, basically. It’s normally called an incorporated footnote. It’s just stuff that you put in in order to help the reader be more comfortable in an alien cultural environment. And it has to be done with a light hand, quite subtly, so that the reader isn’t aware that they’re being educated, but you have to do it.

The xiūyǎng 修養 of the Translator

CP: So then what makes for a competent — or even an excellent — translator?

JM: I think that it’s very, very complex. I’m constantly refining my own ideas of how to train translators. I think that’s what you’re asking. I have to say I’m not a theorist. I don’t actually find books on translation theory to be helpful to translators. They’re very interesting in their own right but, for me, as a translator, it’s never been helpful, and I don’t use it to train translators.

I think what we have to do with translators — actually, it’s a very old Chinese expression, which is xiūyǎng 修養, which means the person. That involves a constant opening of the mind to cultural possibilities, the willingness to experience ever more rich things around one. If you’re translating a French novel, I think — for example, I would encourage my students to explore the wonderful varieties of French wine, for example, because I’ve lived in France for seven years and I know that for every French person that is an absolutely integral part of their cultural. So I always like to encourage my students to develop this aspect of their learning of their cultivation. It’s rather old fashioned, nowadays you’re supposed to just put them straight on to Google, but I don’t do that. I think it’s an all-round development that can take a very long time, involving extensive reading, extensive cultural exploration and extensive inner exploration of one’s own mind as well, because that’s where it all happens. That is the kind of alchemical cauldron in which translation takes place.

CP: What sort of person would it take though, because this calls upon a lot of things, doesn’t it? You’ve got to bring something to this as well, so what sort of person does this take?

JM: Well, that goes to the heart of the problem really because I think translators are very strange kinds of people because they live in twin worlds. They’re constantly moving between one world and another. They’re constantly playing with language. So I think, on one level, translators have to be the kinds of people who are able to do that. I can tell almost straight away if someone’s like that or not. They’re quite rare, to be honest.

Of course, one can achieve a certain degree of competence — that’s a different matter — but an actual high quality creative literary translator is a very rare object. And it’s largely down to the fact that they have to have, on the one hand, an extraordinary versatility of mind, an extraordinary aptitude for language, and also an ability to balance this exact thing we’re talking about, this freedom and this slavery. It’s a very, very rare thing to find, and I’ve only known a very few in my lifetime, I have to say.

The Literary and the Digital

CP: So let’s go back to something that you are actually excited about yourself, and that is Chinese. You translate from Chinese, but also classical Chinese. For those of us who aren’t familiar with either, what are the differences between the two?

JM: Well, first of all, I think classical Chinese is a misnomer. It’s probably better to call it literary Chinese. Classical implies that it’s a dead language, that it’s like Latin or something, and nobody uses it anymore. In actual fact, literary Chinese is alive and well. It’s not the spoken language, but it is a kind of heightened level of language used in many contexts; even, for example, China’s political leaders will scatter a few classical allusions into their speeches to give a veneer of culture and so on. Often they get them wrong, in fact.

A lot of leading people in Chinese public life will spend a lot of time trying to learn classical expressions and allusions to classical literature and so on. It is a unique culture in the sense that the Chinese of today can still read the poetry written 2500 years ago in what you’ve just called ‘classical Chinese’. It’s exactly the same ideograms, the same characters, that are used today. It’s just that the literary language is far more concise. It uses far less syntax.

You can just put simple words together side by side, without verbs, without prepositions, without pronouns, and then you’ve got a sentence in classical Chinese. And that’s what all Chinese poetry was written in right up until about one hundred years ago. It is the language in which the entire corpus of traditional Chinese literature was written. And not to learn it is a terrible shortcoming in anyone’s education in Chinese.

And I was recently in Venice. It was a thing at the Department of Chinese at the university there. I was very pleased to find out that they make everybody do two years of classical Chinese as part of their curriculum. Even if they want to go off and be business people they still have to do two years of classical Chinese. They might be one of the last universities left in the world that does that, but it’s so important because that knowledge of the literary language is what really gives depth to your knowledge of the modern spoken language.

CP: John, the advent of digital technologies over the last few decades has surely had an effect on the way translators work. Can you tell us about that?

JM: Well, I mean some people are confirmed believers in the use of a mass of digital tools to help in the art of translation. One can certainly gather a lot of information. And one of the things that’s really been transformed in the past twenty years, in relation to Chinese, is that Chinese is now a very easy language to digitise. They’ve created huge amounts of material online. The whole of Chinese literature is available online, which means that if you come across a phrase and you wonder where it’s from, all you have to do is to type it in to your computer and it’ll tell you that it’s from such-and-such a person in such-and-such an age. I found that useful.

I don’t, however, find other digital tools particularly useful for the kind of work I do, which is, of course, literature. I don’t think the same is true of translating legal documents or translating immigration affidavits, things like that. I think a certain degree of literacy with the Chinese inputting methods and how to access these extraordinary banks of information which are there now in Chinese Online — that’s handy — I don’t deny that, but it cannot ever replace what I’ve been talking about: the basic need for a translator to have their own built-in knowledge of all of these depths of Chinese culture and of their own culture and so on. This can never be replaced by Mr Google, I’m afraid.

Dissident as Translator

CP: That does bring us to translation of literary works in China itself. To what extent does the political play a role in what gets translated for domestic readers, and how it’s translated?

JM: Well that’s a very interesting question. I’ve recently been in China and met a number of translators. Of course, the current atmosphere in China is extremely repressive. The kind of censorship that’s come in in the last few years is almost unprecedented since the Cultural Revolution. This applies primarily to creative writing, or journalism, or stuff that has your name on it. You write X, Y, Z, and then you sign it John Minford, and that’s you.

But, you see, it’s a very interesting phenomenon, because if you’re translating, you’re off the hook because all you have to say is I’m just translating. That was George Orwell. Yes, but I’m just a translator. So translators — they operate in an interesting in-between world where they can explore ideas which are often extremely subversive, and yet they’re not really endangering themselves because they’re just the translator. Don’t shoot the pianist kind of thing.

And I met, for example, in the lift at Shanghai University I met a lady who was translating the poetry of Rimbaud, the French poet, which is very extreme poetry. It’s about the dérangement des sens, so I mean it really is the kind of poetry you wouldn’t probably want to give to a good upright believer in Communism.

I said to this lady doesn’t it worry you at all that you’re translating Rimbaud? She said not at all. There was a little bit of a wink as she said that, because I realised the kind of game she was playing. She’s hiding behind the veil of translation. It’s a very, very, very popular profession now, translation in China, because people are now able to earn royalties, which they weren’t able to do before, so it’s a free marketplace.

One of the gentlemen I got to know in China on this last trip is the translator of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, which is a huge best seller. It’s already sold over ten million copies, and he’s making a fortune out of it. And people are very drawn to this as a way of life. It’s a surprisingly free territory that they can inhabit. It is a very attractive space for young Chinese people today.

To Know the Place for the First Time

CP: So there seems to be demand for it, and high demand for it, but, generally speaking, what sells well? How does that impact what translators choose to translate?

JM: I don’t think, in that respect, China’s any different from anywhere else in the world. What sells well is Harry Potter, and many of the Chinese translations of Harry Potter are extremely free and involve episodes that were never there in the original at all, taking place in China and places like that. And they’ve always done that. I mean translation has been an obsession really of the Chinese for at least one-hundred years. I think, in that respect, it’s what sells well is what appeals to the popular imagination.

So for example, Dan Brown, stuff like that, popular fiction sells very well. Also self-help books, you know, are very popular in China. I think the single most interesting thing I found on my recent trip to China was that my talks — which were extremely well attended — I ended up having conversations with young people in which they said we’re able, through your translations into English of the Chinese classics, to read our own classics in English. And we can understand them much better in English than we do in the Chinese. So there you’ve got a very interesting phenomenon of young Chinese people who studied English at school reading their own classics, which they have trouble reading, in English. That gives me rather a funny sense of responsibility within the Chinese context.

CP: What’s the supply and demand situation there? Chinese to English, compared to English to Chinese translators? What’s the state of play there?

JM: Most of it is into Chinese because that’s their mother tongue. However, with China, as with certain other languages, there is an unfulfilled demand for translating out of Chinese into English because, quite simply, there aren’t enough English speaking people who know good Chinese. It’s a very, very small supply, so the Chinese fill that vacuum. And therefore, a lot of young Chinese today are training with a view to translating out of Chinese into English. And there are certain limitations on what they could achieve with that because they’re not translating into their mother tongue.

And often they’ll work in collaboration with a foreigner, which is one way round it. There’s a huge demand for translating material into English out of Chinese, and there’s just a minute supply of people who are prepared to spend five, six, seven, eight years studying Chinese in order to be competent to do that. So in the meantime the Chinese are filling that space.

CP: Someone once asked a question of Gregory Rabassa, who translated One Hundred Years of Solitude. Perhaps the most famous book by the celebrated Colombian author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Rabassa was asked if he knew enough Spanish to do it, and he replied — and I quote here — you ask me the wrong question. The real question is do I know enough English? Is that something a seasoned translator like you asks yourself every time?

JM: All the time. It’s every day, every day. What I’m really up against is the inadequacy of my English. I know that. I’ve known that from the very beginning. And that’s why you have to do both. You have to keep exploring — in Rabassa’s case, Spanish and South American culture — but you also have to work and work and work at your own English. And that’s what I have to really convince my students of that as well because it’s so often completely ignored. They just think that oh, it’s your mother tongue, fine, you don’t need to work on it. But, actually, you do. And every undertaking that I’ve begun in translation has required different levels of training in my own language. If I’m translating poetry, then I need to read more and more poetry. If I’m translating fiction, and so on and so forth. If it’s the I Ching, of course, there’s a huge range of things I have to read in order to try to find an idiom in my own language that will work for translating that particular book.

CP: It sounds like you’ve had quite a journey. What got you interested in the first place in getting into translation as a life’s work?

JM: I think it began when I was at school, because I went to a very old fashioned school, and we did Latin and Greek all the time. I had a teacher who was a wonderfully inspiring teacher, and he made us translate all the time. And I just got a taste for it. I just enjoyed it. I can’t really explain it. I just am happy when I’m sitting down translating, you know. I originally wanted to be a pianist, but that didn’t work out for various reasons. And in a sense, this is just the second best to being a pianist. When I sit down and I get into the swing of translating, I’m a happy person.