The Kite Runner /《追风筝的人》:
An Afghan Childhood Re-packaged
for the Middle Kingdom
It was an intriguing sentence alluding to censorship in the translator’s post-script that initially piqued my curiosity:
“There are certain places in the original text [of Kite Runner] which are incompatible with Chinese sensitivities. Measuring his words ever so carefully, the translator has polished the copy while maintaining the original meaning.” (My translation)
Now what could there possibly be in a childhood story of friendship, betrayal and a belated but moving coming-of-age, set in Afghanistan — country hardly figuring on China’s world map — that would ruffle “Chinese sensitivities,” I wondered?
I inquired by e-mail, and the very courteous, frank and highly efficient translator, Mr. Li Jihong (李继宏), kindly told me the answers and much more (see Q & A in full, below).
Indeed, official Chinese censorship has altered The Kite Runner (追风筝的人) (2) in some rather odd ways, and I detail them here. But much more significant in shaping the reading experience for the Chinese audience is the translator’s strong preference for what translation scholars dub “domestication.”
Ever wonder what happens to a best-seller in the West when it crosses into Chinese territory? Read on!
Tweaking Afghan History
The General Administration of Press and Publication of the People’s Republic of China, affectionately known to publishers, journalists and writers as the GAPP, insists that publishers modify or delete various types of politically incorrect content prior to publication. Or else.
Li Jihong informed me that there were several short sections of copy that were massaged after he had completed his own, faithful translation. So what has been added, deleted or changed by the China publisher?
First, a few examples, with words
crossed out in the English original to indicate what has been deleted from the translated Chinese text:
“Not that it was a mystery; everyone knew the[y]
communists had no class. They came from poor families with no name. The same dogs who weren’t fit to lick my shoes before the Shorawi [Afghan term for the Soviets] came were now ordering me at gunpoint, Parchamiflag on their lapels, making their little point about the fall of the bourgeoisie and acting like they were the ones with class.” (3)
In the published Chinese version above, “the communists” and “Parchami” have been deleted and both replaced by the term “new government.” Parchami refers to a wing of the pro-Soviet People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. Thus the Chinese reader is reading a critique of a “new government” which “despises people with money,” not of Soviet-backed communists who are equated with canines.
“The flea market was where you sipped green tea with almond kochas, and learned whose daughter had broken off an engagement and run off with her American boyfriend, who used to be Parchami–communist–in Kabul, and who had bought a house with under-the-table money while still on welfare. Tea, Politics and Scandal, the ingredients of an Afghan Sunday at the flea market.” (5)
The otherwise accurate published Chinese version above deletes the reference to “who used to be Parchami — communist — in Kabul.” It’s not clear to me exactly why; perhaps to expunge any references to communists in the failed Kabul regime. Or because the draft Chinese translation (provided to me) was ambiguous, implying that it was a “Parchami” who had “bought a house with under-the-table money while still on welfare” in the US. A decidedly bad image for a communist, even a former one.
And there is a reference to the hush-hush events of June 4, 1989, which has been airbrushed out of the Chinese version:
“That was the year that the cold war ended, the year the Berlin wall came down. It was the year of Tiananmen Square. In the midst of it all, Afghanistan was forgotten.” (7)
At 28 (!), Li Jihong has an impressive list of ten Chinese-to-English literary translations to his name, including Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus (维纳斯的诞生), and Margaret Atwood’s The Tent (当半个神不容易). His translation of Kite Runner has reportedly been re-printed 17 times and over 400,000 copies have been sold in mainland China.
Undeniably, this translation of Kite Runner has been undertaken by a recognized talent, and commercially speaking, it has been very successful.
But how much of Hosseini’s Afghanistan has been recreated for the Chinese reader? And how did the translator achieve this result?
To answer those questions, we need first to take a look at the original work in English. Khaled Hosseini grew up in Afghanistan and experienced the pre-Soviet era there before emigrating to the United States, with time spent in Teheran and Paris as well. Despite the fact that his mother tongue is Dari, a form of Farsi which is an official language in Afghanistan, he insisted on writing Kite Runner in English.
But anyone who has read the novel knows that is peppered with foreign words. By my count, over 125 italicized foreign words, or about one every three pages, some repeated like a mantra throughout the novel. Not speaking Dari or any Central Asian or Middle Eastern tongue (basic Turkish aside), I am no expert on the etymology of most of these words, although I assume most are widely heard in Afghanistan where several languages are spoken, including Pashto and Dari. But many of them are clearly Arabic, particularly those relating to Muslim greetings such as “Inshallah,” or religious terms such as “Qiyamat.”
The majority of the foreign words Hosseini italicized in his original fall into one of these categories:
- Afghan cuisine (naan, pakora, Qabuli palaw, tandoor)
- Everyday vocabulary (baba, balay, jaroo, madar)
- Occupation/war (Mujahedin, Shorawi, rafiq, spasseba)
- Quintessential Afghan traits/culture (laaf, namoos, Buzkashi, chapandaz)
- Islam (Mashallah, Inshallah, Koran ayat, Namaz, Zakat)
To my mind, much of the magic of Kite Runner lies in the author’s use of these magical words/phrases to conjure up the Afghanistan of his childhood. I am confident that Khaled Hosseini knew exactly what he was doing by inserting these words in the text, and choosing to repeat certain ones — Inshallah (God willing), Mashallah (Praise God), Salaam alaykum (Peace be unto you), Tashakor (Thank you), and Shorawi (the Soviets) — at various points in the novel.
Hosseini tends to cite the Afghan word first, transliterating it using English letters, followed immediately by its meaning in English. This allows the reader to get a taste of the local lingua, while ensuring a seamless read. For example:
“’Inshallah,’ I echoed, though the ‘God willing’ qualifier didn’t sound as sincere coming from my lips.” (9)
“’Tashakor.’ Thank you.” (10)
“He told us one day that Islam considered drinking a terrible sin; those who drank would answer for their sin on Qiyamat, Judgement Day.” (11)
As the book goes on, however, “definitions” are not given again and the occasional new word appears without such a clear explanation. But meaning is generally clear from the context, and thereby the author has conveniently equipped the reader with a key to decoding scenes which, it should not be forgotten, occur in a foreign land.
Translating Hosseini’s Afghanistan
Li Jihong’s approach to the more exotic aspects of the original is very down to earth:
- Almost no use of English words or letters in the Chinese text itself
- Few instances of transliteration, i.e., using Chinese characters to represent the sounds of Afghan words
- Using easily understood phrases in Chinese to describe/paraphrase, rather than transliterate or translate non-English terms literally
- Footnotes at page-bottom: Place names, Afghan history, references to Islamic practices with English terms where relevant.
I asked him why he took this approach. His reply shows that he knows precisely whom he is targeting, and consciously shaped his translation to meet their perceived needs:
“I believe that one cannot simultaneously take everyone into consideration. In translating this book, there were a minority of Muslim potential readers and a majority of potential readers who are ignorant of Islamic culture — and I chose to target the latter. There are those who consider that transliterating some of these foreign terms, including “Inshallah” or ‘Salaam alaykum,’ would endow the Chinese version of the book with a certain ‘exotic flavor’ [异国风情]. But I hold the view that such a way of thinking is quite comical, because the book’s very content defines it as alien to the Chinese reader. There is no need to create obstacles to a smooth read just in order to highlight a so-called ‘exotic flavor.'” (excerpted from Q&A, below)
Commercially speaking, this approach works. It is one that many translators in China today agree with, and one that many Chinese readers appreciate too. But it is also a hotly debated approach — in the West —because the end result can be an overly “domesticated” translation which reads like a fluent original written right here in China, and not in a foreign land.
In his seminal work on the history of translation, The Translator’s Invisibility, Lawrence Venuti cites Schleiermacher’s lecture in 1813, arguing that there are only two methods of translation:
“Either the translator leaves the author in peace, as much as possible, and moves the reader towards him; or he leaves the reader in peace, as much as possible, and moves the author towards him.” (12)
Simply put, the translator who “moves the reader” does so by foreignizing the text, i.e., calling attention to the differences between “us” and “them.” Peppering a text with foreign words is one obvious way of doing so. On the other hand, the translator who “moves the author” towards the reader often does so by domesticating the text, i.e., by rendering it more familiar.
Afghan Words, Afghan Soul
In my opinion, by inserting 125+ non-English words in italics into his original, Hosseini clearly intended to highlight the difference between “us” (English speakers worldwide) and “them” (Afghanis in their own “watan,” or homeland).
So, how are these colorful Afghan terms rendered in Li Jihong’s version of Kite Runner? It should be noted that the majority are fairly accurately translated in a way that allows the reader to easily grasp the central idea, and move on quickly. This makes for what is known as a “fluent” read and is a hallmark of his translation.
But on the whole, Li Jihong tends to avoid the approach used by Hosseini when he wrote Kite Runner. Rather than citing the foreign term using English letters or transliterating it into Chinese, the translator uses easily grasped – even run-of-the-mill spoken Chinese – to convey quintessentially Afghan traits and customs. At times, the result is so mundane that one wonders if the reader might not get the impression that Afghan life, or at least the speech of its inhabitants, is rather similar to “ours,” i.e., we Chinese. In this sense, the reading experience of the Chinese audience is bound to be rather different than that of the English audience originally targeted by Hosseini.
In translating this story about Afghanistan and its Muslim traditions, Li Jihong is not working in a total vacuum. For example, there are books available to the general public that delve into the family lives and religious practices of China’s own Muslim population touching on some of the same traditions one sees in Kite Runner.
One is Funeral of a Muslim (穆斯林的葬礼) (13), a popular novel about several generations of a Muslim Hui family in Beijing authored by the Hui female writer Huo Da. It has reportedly sold more than one million copies in mainland China, and won the prestigious Mao Dun Literary Award. The book is rich in detail about the history of Islam in China, which dates back to the 7th century and the arrival of Muslims in Chang’an. Muslim customs such as the namaz prayers (five times daily) are described in highly readable, fluent Mandarin, but she also provides standard Chinese transliterations of those terms, which are familiar to many Muslims in China too.
I have also taken some time to compare Li Jihong’s treatment of Afghan terms with the way some of them have been rendered by Ms. Li Jing-Yi (李静宜), the translator of 追风筝的孩子 (14), the traditional Chinese version of Kite Runner available in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Below, I point out some of the renderings of Afghan terms that typify Li Jihong’s preference for “domestication”:
Salaam alaykum or “peace be unto you” is an Arabic greeting used throughout the world – and among Muslim believers such as the Hui and Uighurs in China – on a daily basis. It appears throughout Kite Runner, sometimes shortened to salaam.
The significance of this greeting is explained in Funeral of a Muslim (my translation):
“This is a mutual blessing offered when Muslims meet one another. It expresses the fact that Muslims possess shared descent and faith. This is a shared expression among the world’s Muslims; no matter which corner of the land or the seas to which they travel, they can use this familiar sound to find their brothers and sisters.” (15)
Funeral of a Muslim uses a fully Chinese transliteration for this phrase, 按赛俩目而来坤.
Li Jihong’s version, 你好 (16), the standard Mandarin “ni hao” greeting among Chinese, ignores the phrase’s origins and worldwide usage among Muslim believers.
An interjection used frequently throughout the Muslim world and Kite Runner, it can be translated as “Praise be to Allah.”
Li Jihong’s version, 我的天啦 (“My God!” or “Gosh!” p33) (17), makes no reference to Allah, and replaces it instead with a popular Chinese exclamation, which no longer has religious connotations.
Means “Thank you” in Dari.
Li Jihong’s version, 谢谢 (xie xie) (18) gives no hint that the original text was in an Afghan tongue.
Buzkashi (19) is Afghanistan’s national sport and passion, something like polo but revolving around temporary possession of . . . a sheep’s head. A chapandaz is a highly skilled horseman who competes in buzkashi and is often supported by a rich patron.
Li Jihong’s translation describes buzkashi (比武竞赛) and chapandaz (技艺精熟的骑士) (20), but doesn’t use any specialized terms to do so. It’s a bit like describing Japanese sumo wrestling . . . without using the word “sumo.” Nor is there a footnote to explain that buzkashi – referred to in dictionaries and noted on the web as 马背叼羊 — is Afghanistan’s national sport.
Means “nation” or “homeland” in Arabic. “If he [Hassan] was even alive, that is – the Shorawi [Soviets], may they rot in hell for what they did to our watan, killed so many of our young men.” (21)
Li Jihong’s version, 我们祖国 (p199) (22), is not incorrect. But the original isn’t “nation” or “homeland” in English; it’s an Arab word used by Afghans to express an almost sacred concept at a time when their people, traditionally Muslim, were fighting to free themselves from control by the Soviet Union, an officially atheist nation. For the Afghan, watan likely has religious connotations that are absent from this translation.
To many in the West this head-to-toe garment has become a symbol of the oppression of women in Afghanistan, particularly under the Taliban. The Arabic word “burka” appears at least three times in Kite Runner, and Li Jihong renders it as “a long gown” (长袍 or “chang pao”) (23). Chang pao is a term for a traditional Chinese long gown or garment and does not imply any sort of covering for the head.
Li Jing-Yi’s version for readers in Taiwan and Hong Kong, on the other hand, transliterates the sounds for burka (布卡) (24), and provides a footnote explaining that the garment extends from the head to the foot, with a single opening to facilitate breathing and sight.
And now: The Transparent China Translator Interview
Below is my interview with Mr. Li Jihong (李继宏), translator of the simplified Chinese character version of Kite Runner (追风筝的人). Questions posed by me, Bruce Humes, are in bolded italics.
How did you master English? Which authors do you most enjoy translating, and why?
I began learning English when I was 12, but before 1995 I studied it just to get by on my exams. I had no genuine interest in the language. That year I spent 8 Chinese yuan to buy a pirated copy of The Bridges of Madison
County in a bookstore in Chaozhou City. This novel changed my attitude towards English. I began reading 21st Century, an English-language newspaper aimed at middle-schoolers. Since I was raised and educated in the countryside, this was the sole reading matter in English I could get my hands on, my grammar textbook excepted.
In September 1999, I began my studies in the Department of Sociology at Sun Yat-Sen University. During my four years there, I read over one hundred English-language books, mainly works on philosophy, sociology and anthropology, and a handful of novels. But I browsed all the English-language sociology-related magazines – several hundreds of issues – available in the department’s library, including the “American Journal of Sociology,” “American Sociological Review,” “Social Forces” and “British Sociology.” As part of drafting my thesis during this period, I tried my hand at translating portions of certain articles into Chinese.
In June 2003, I joined Shanghai’s Oriental Morning Post as a reporter. Besides conducting interview and writing news for the culture department, I also translated news about international cultural affairs. For example, I remember when the British poet Benjamin Zephaniah refused an offer of knighthood from Queen Elizabeth, I translated his open letter into Chinese and ran it in the newspaper. In November of that year I was sent to cover the presentation of the Nobel Prize in Stockholm. At the time I bought a few novels by the Nobel Prize winner John Coetzee, and it was those novels in particular which truly piqued my interest in English-language literature. Even today Coetzee remains one of my two favorite English-language authors, along with Vladimir Nabokov.
In June 2004 when Oriental Morning Post and American Express jointly launched the Chinese edition of “Travel and Leisure,” I was assigned to interview and translate for the new publication. It was then that a friend recommended me to Horizon Media Company Ltd to translate Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus. I passed their translation test and won the contract.
Since my Chinese version of The Birth of Venus (维纳斯的诞生) was published in May 2005, I have completed eight translated works published in mainland China and Taiwan, and another two will be published shortly. To me, translation is a job I do to earn a living, so whether the author be Clive Cussler, Khaled Hosseini, Margaret Atwood or John Coetzee, is of little concern. If you insist that I reveal whose works I prefer, I’d say it was a pleasure to translate The Tent by Atwood, and Slow Man by Coetzee too. The former because it gave me a lot of inspiration, and the latter due to its very unique style which reminds one of ancient Chinese painting or poetry. Very concise, yet chock-full of imagery.
How much time have you spent outside China? Did you study abroad?
Two weeks. One in Stockholm, one in Singapore, both on business. I’ve never studied outside China.
How did you win the contract to translate Kite Runner into Chinese?
After The Birth of Venus was published, Horizon Media hosted a seminar and I heard that some attendees qualified my translation as “not bad.” So when Horizon Media bought the rights to “Kite Runner” at year-end 2005, they asked me if I wanted to do it. Since I had leafed through the novel while in the airport at Singapore – and liked what I saw – I agreed to translate it.
Tell us how you went about translating Kite Runner. What were the main steps? Did you have an opportunity to make comments/suggestions after it was edited?
I received a sample copy of Kite Runner in December 2005, and took advantage of the holidays during New Year’s Day and the Lunar New Year to complete the translation. This took ten days, and I spent another two days polishing the translation and adding footnotes. As I was busy with other work, after I handed it over I did not expressly request to see the edited manuscript again. But except for several place names and several references to the communist party (see introduction, above), the published version was essentially the same as the manuscript I drafted. As far as I know, editors at publishing houses in mainland China do not actively contact the translator to see the edited manuscript. Of course, I would now request that the editor obtain my permission before altering my translation.
Did you contact the author, Khaled Hosseini, during the translation project?
No, since the book was fairly straightforward. The whole translation process only took 10+ days. I didn’t run into any major problems, and before it might have occurred to me to contact him, the translation was done.
How many people worked on the copy before it was actually printed? Did the editors know English? What was each person’s role?
I served as the Content Director at Horizon Media from September 2006 to August 2007. Based on my experience, the translation manuscript should have been seen by four people prior to publication: the Copy Editor, Literary Division Editing Director, General Manager and the Chinese Proofreader. The Copy Editor knows English and is responsible for ensuring that there are no grammar errors or Chinese copy that departs from the meaning of the original. Based on the draft checked by the Copy Editor, the Editing Director makes suggestions for further revisions, if necessary. The General Manager must guarantee that the manuscript contains no content violating the law or the party’s propaganda regulations. The Proofreader ensures there are no Chinese typos.
Did you do any on-site research or reading to better understand the recent history of Afghanistan before translating?
Before undertaking the translation I didn’t consciously familiarize myself with recent Afghan history. But as I consulted background materials during the process, I came to possess a modicum of knowledge about this historical period.
Did you or the publisher request a Muslim, or an Islamic expert, to review the portions of the translation relating to Islam?
I certainly did not, and as far as I know, neither did the publisher.
Did you provide the footnotes, or were they added by the editor?
All the footnotes were added by me. If I thought any particular word or sentence might pose an obstacle to the reader, then I footnoted it.
The footnotes excepted, the entire translated text appears in Chinese characters. This means that English letters were not used to render any of the foreign words which the original text ran in italics. Was this your choice, or did the editor insist on using only Chinese?
This was my choice.
I’m interested in how you decided to translate the Afghan phrases and words – several dozen used by the author in the book, with their roots in Arabic, Persian, Turkish – that pepper the original. Which of these terms were the most difficult to translate, and why?
Personally, I didn’t find most of these terms from The Kite Runner very hard to translate. Strictly speaking, however, there are certain ones which are untranslatable. Among those in the list at the web site above, “Allah” is rendered as “God” (Allah-u-akbar, “God is great”). I don’t consider this a very accurate translation, because due to different religious doctrines and histories, the meanings of “Allah” to Muslims in the Middle East, and “God” to Protestants in America, are quite dissimilar. In fact, the word “God” has different implications for a Protestant, a Catholic or a Jew. But this is also a decent translation, because the typical reader certainly does not need to understand these subtle differences; the general meaning will do.
In some cases, you rendered phrases widely used among Muslims worldwide in ways that mask their origins. For instance, the greeting “Salaam alaykum” (often rendered as “peace be unto you”) is translated as “你好”, a standard greeting among Chinese speakers, and “Inshallah” (“If Allah wills”) as “我的天”, a common exclamation among non-Muslim Chinese. Even Muslims native to China, such as the Hui and Uighurs, regularly greet other believers with “Asalaam aleikum.” Why did you take such an approach?
I believe that one cannot simultaneously take everyone into consideration. In translating this book, there were a minority of Muslim potential readers and a majority of potential readers who are ignorant of Islamic culture – and I chose to target the latter. There are those who consider that transliterating some of these foreign terms, including “Inshallah” or “Salaam alaykum,” would endow the Chinese version of the book with a certain “exotic flavor” (异国风情). But I hold the view that such a way of thinking is quite comical, because the book’s very content defines it as alien to the Chinese reader. There is no need to create obstacles to a smooth read just in order to highlight a so-called “exotic flavor.”
In the post-script to the book, you wrote: “There are certain places in the original text which are incompatible with Chinese sensitivities. Measuring his words ever so carefully, the translator has polished the copy while maintaining the original meaning.” (“原书个别不合国情的地方，译者酌情在措词上加以改动，意思仍一概如旧”) (1). In an earlier e-mail message, you made it clear that you faithfully translated the text in full, but changes – deleting or altering unflattering references to the Soviet-backed communist party – were later made to your translated text by an editor. Since the alterations were made on the publisher’s side, and not by you, why did you feel the need to explain – or apologize – for such changes?
Prior to translating Kite Runner, I worked for two years at a newspaper and a magazine publishing house. I was aware that, as per Chinese law, the sentences touching on the communist party would unquestionably be cut or altered. The reason I wrote this sentence in my post-script was precisely to alert the uninformed reader. You could say that this was a veiled protest on my part.
In your opinion, why are several references to the Soviet-backed communist government in Kabul censored, while the male-on-male rape scene — a disturbing one which has upset movie-goers in Afghanistan — has been translated as is?
In China, Political Correctness (政治正确) is the utmost concern. The original text’s description of the Afghan Communist Party could easily bring to mind earlier actions of the Chinese Communist Party. The publishing house feared that if the translation were published unaltered, the authorities might see it as a form of innuendo. As for the rape scene, this touches on issues of morality and decency. But contemporary Chinese society – be it the government or the people – takes a relatively tolerant view of such a fictional scene. [end main text]
- p361, “追风筝的人” translated by 李继宏. Published by 世纪出版集团 上海人民出版社 (2006)
- Simplified Chinese character version of “The Kite Runner” as detailed in 1 above.
- p260, “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, paperback published by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc (2007)
- p272-3, “追风筝的人”
- p128, “The Kite Runner”
- p134, “追风筝的人”
- p169, “The Kite Runner”
- p178, “追风筝的人”
- p54, “The Kite Runner”
- p43, “The Kite Runner”
- p15, “The Kite Runner”
- p19, “The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation” by Lawrence Venuti, published by Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press (2004)
- “穆斯林的葬礼” by 霍达, published by 北京出版社出版集团公司 北京大学十月文艺出版社 (2008)
- “追风筝的孩子”, translated by 李静宜 and published by 木马文化事业股份有限公司 (2006)
- p11, “穆斯林的葬礼”
- p45, “追风筝的人”
- p33, “追风筝的人”
- p46 “追风筝的人”
- p19-20, “The Kite Runner”
- p20. “追风筝的人”
- p189, “The Kite Runner”
- p199, “追风筝的人”
- p204, “追风筝的人”
- p205 and 209, “追风筝的孩子”
- p243, “The Kite Runner”
- p255, “追风筝的人”
- p259, “追风筝的孩子”