Transparent Translator Series: Bruce Humes and his “Shanghai Baby” (上海宝贝)

Banned in China, Shanghai Baby (上海宝贝) captured the interest of publishers in the West, and I was commissioned by Simon & Schuster to translate the novel, which was published in 2001. Perhaps because my version became a best-seller in Hong Kong and Singapore, and the Chinese original was later translated into several languages including French, German, Italian and Japanese, over the years several people have interviewed me about the translation process. What follows below is my favorite among those interviews. This interview originally appeared at a web site run by Johnny Katchoolik, an indie musician whose works can be found here.

However, of late it seems no longer to be online. So I have copied it here (minus just the introduction and my picture, but without any other editing).

Questions by Fang Fang are in bolded italics, followed by my answers (Bruce Humes) in normal typeface.

How long have you been living in China?

I arrived via Taipei in 1978 and have worked in various parts of China since, save five years or so spent intermittently in the States. Have based myself in several cities during that time—Shanghai, Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Taipei—but travel very frequently, particularly in Shandong, Shanghai, Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong.  

What brought you to China initially?

Intense interest in two rather different areas: A desire to master classical Chinese so that I could read Daoist writings in the original, and curiosity about socialism in action.

At what point did you decide to make China your permanent home?

The late 1990s. I perceived China largely as a HKer might in the 1980s, fearful of Big Brother and shocked by a general lack of “order” in the society at large. Not surprising, given that I lived in HK throughout the 1980s when the locals and the British colonial administration were viscerally hostile to the “Chinese up north,” and of course I was brought up in the US during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and “Communist” China were demonized.

Please describe your experience when you first arrived in China. What was it like being an American in China back then? Was it a big culture shock?

My first two experiences in China occurred in 1981. My father treated me to a tour of Beijing, Shanghai, Guilin and Guangzhou, and not long after I began working as a hotel training manager in Beijing.

The tour consisted of 20+ Australians and Europeans, including a handful of overseas Chinese who didn’t know Mandarin. We were paying top dollar and everyone was incredulous at the surly service meted out to us. I was in the awkward position of interpreting for everyone, and thus incurred the wrath of innumerable Chinese restaurant staff, etc. I recall our first day in Shanghai taking breakfast at the venerable “lao Jinjiang” hotel, a famous venue in the French Concession back in the 1930s. There were two tables, one serving Chinese food, the other serving western. I sat down at the Chinese table, and so my father joined me. Via me, he ordered coffee. If you want coffee, snapped the waiter, sit at that table over there. This was the beginning of a long, tiresome cultural lesson. Many Chinese see things in terms of Us vs. You, Chinese vs. Western, and one must constantly choose between the two.

Hired to get 500 hotel staff into shape for the upcoming soft opening, I wrote an inspiring if humorous speech for my staff and flew to Beijing. Where was my speech? It’s in my head, I replied, well aware that he would expect to review (read: censor) it. I thought the Party Secretary was going to experience heart failure right then and there! He then went on stage and gave me a glowing introduction. We were fortunate to have an American Training Department Manager, he explained, thanks to the Communist Party and its (brand-new) policy of working with our American “friends.” After the speech, which was very well received (they couldn’t believe I gave it all in Mandarin without a script), I made a point of asking our joint venture partner Party Secretary: If one day relations between America and China are not so good, can I still come to work?

In a word, having first lived in Taiwan and Hong Kong and already speaking, reading and writing Mandarin, there was little “culture shock” in terms of communications or eating, etc. But I found that having come from America was then, and is still today, somewhat “problematic.” Back in the 1980s, you were treated simultaneously as a class enemy (openly followed by police) and an object of envy (you live in a rich and free society); while today, China suffers from a different sort of “American complex.” In particular, Beijingers compare everything about their society and living conditions to those in America, and they are absolutely dedicated to ensuring that in the near future, those comparisons will find America, not Beijing, lacking. The logic goes like this: Every Beijinger needs a private car in today’s modern times. If every Beijinger trades in his bike for a car and locals choke to death on car-generated smog, well, so be it!

Thus for me perhaps the most intense sense of “culture shock” is that of being treated as 100% American by almost everyone in China. It never seems to occur to them that I might not want to eat a Big Mac, don’t agree with the US government’s decision to invade Iraq, or don’t really go home and watch American TV all night.

What has been the hardest thing about living in China?

Being treated like a visitor, day in, day out, even by some I consider good friends. My earlier marriage to a Chinese, my fluency in Mandarin, my residency exceeding 20 years—even many who are aware of these facts still assume that when I don’t answer the phone, I must have gone “home” to the US. Permanently. The fact that I feel at home here in China is a difficult concept to convey.

Do you consider yourself American or Chinese?

I consider myself a “westerner.” I feel distant from American society, and perhaps more at home with Europeans. Part of this is due to my early studies of French and German (learned from my mother at home), and my university studies in Paris. But this is irrelevant to the great majority of Chinese I meet. Based on my race (Caucasian), almost all immediately assume that I am American, speak English, teach English for a living, thoroughly love my country and support its foreign policy, and eat Chinese food only to be polite. Even after several contacts and having heard my almost flawless Mandarin, most casual acquaintances continue to believe most of the above about me…no matter what I say or do.    

Do your Chinese friends and neighbors still consider you as a “laowai”? Or do you feel that you have completely assimilated into the Chinese culture?

I am considered a typical “laowai” by those who don’t know me, but occasionally complimented as “half-Chinese” by those closer to me. I live, work and dream in Chinese, but have made no real attempt to be “assimilated.” I don’t see the point. I just want to be me.

How often do you come back to the US?

Almost never nowadays. My last stay was in 2000. If I were to leave China, I would be much more likely to go to Japan, Turkey or the EU. I don’t feel at home in the US, although there are many things about the culture that I like, and I love the access to nature.  Laws and attitudes since 9/11 would probably make me feel even less welcome.

What is one thing that you miss most about the American life?

The respect for one’s privacy.

How many dialects of Chinese do you speak?

Fluent Mandarin, basic Cantonese.

Besides English and Chinese, which other languages do you speak?

Beginning in the 1970s and right through to 2006, I have often arranged to study the local language for 1-2 months in many countries, including cities such as Paris, St Petersburg, Istanbul, Kyoto and Taipei. In terms of fluency, my English, Mandarin and French are solid; Spanish, German and Japanese are functional for travel or reading the occasional short passage; and the others, including Russian and Turkish, are only good enough to read out place names on a map!

How did you learn Chinese? Was it mostly self-taught?

I studied Chinese at the U of Penn in Philadelphia for 2.5 years, and was already—seems odd but true—a fluent speaker upon graduation. I learned how to read fluently in Taiwan (1 year), and then used Chinese for research and interviews first as an immigration advisor in the States, and for several years running about the mainland and Taiwan, covering the burgeoning IT industry. By the late 1990s I had mastered writing Chinese on a computer (self-taught), and during 2004-7 have become a public speaker, hosting 100+ export management seminars throughout China.

What’s the most difficult thing about translating Chinese to English?

Writing down in English what I experience when I read in Chinese. There is a huge experiential gap, and bridging this gap is made harder by the fact that I—like many Chinese-to-English translators—long ago abandoned life in an English-speaking society for one where Chinese is dominant. It has been said that no translator is perfectly bilingual. You are by nature either closer to the source language or the target language. When translating Shanghai Baby I often found it easier to “experience” than to “re-create.”

Have you ever translated literary works from English to Chinese? Is this more difficult than the other way around?

Wouldn’t bother. Translating literature into one’s second language is a waste of time; your “target” language should be your mother language, or the product will be very mediocre. It may be accurate, but it will be lacking in terms of rhythm, register and the things that make for a seamless read.

You have worked on quite a wide range of projects over the years, including training, editorials, and consulting. What has been your most enjoyable project so far?

Launching the Chinese magazine now known as “Chief Executive China,” which is China’s leading management magazine and web site. At the time, there was incredibly intense interest in Western management methods, and it was an honor to have the chance to design and launch a magazine targeting the real needs of “emerging” managers in the PRC.

Now, among the many translations and literary projects you did, the most notable one is the translation of Shanghai Baby by Wei Hui, a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller. I presume that you read it in Chinese when it first came out in 2000, right? Before I ask more specific questions, what’s your overall opinion of the book? 

The book is at best a mediocre piece of fiction that, despite its lack of depth and flat characters, has played an important role in the history of Chinese contemporary writing. It was one of the first, and certainly the best known, attempts to capture a naughty snapshot of the sexual revolution in post-Cultural-Revolutionary, urban China. 

I wrote an essay to accompany an excerpt from the book when it was marketed in the States, entitled The Shanghai Baby Phenomenon. Authoress Wei Hui herself and her lifestyle were at the eye of the hurricane. The book was marketed in China as “semi-autobiographical,” and everyone was talking about her rather than the book itself: How could she write so openly about sex with a foreigner? Did she herself have an affair with a German sex-machine? Wasn’t she ashamed of pulling down her knickers for the world to see? The Chinese original was banned not long after it was published, but several thousands of netizens continued to debate the value of the book and the morality of her lifestyle for many months thereafter.

Your interest in interviewing me, her translator, seven years after her book was published (!), is itself evidence of the endurance of the controversy engendered by Wei Hui and her Shanghai Baby. That does not, of course, make the book a good read or prove it has any lasting literary merit…    

Would you please comment a bit on the major differences in how this book was received by these categories of readers/critics: 1) Western world vs. Chinese and 2) male vs. female?

 Good question!

It may be hard for English speakers in the West to imagine, but in China this book generated a lot of very heated discussion. Hard, I say, because most people outside China see the sex as mediocre, and the love triangle more as a literary prop than as a frontal attack on morality or a swipe at Chinese masculinity.

The China critics panned Shanghai Baby outright and labeled Wei Hui as just one of those pretty “chick-lit” authors using the “lower half of her body to write.” Interestingly, as I recall most of them spent as much ink decrying her lifestyle as the content of the book which, admittedly, was marketed as “semi-autobiographical.”

It was never perfectly clear why the book was banned, but the publisher was forbidden to publish or sell any more copies not long after it was launched. I never asked Wei Hui why she believed the book was banned. But one story I heard—I have no idea if this is true!—was that she had flown to Chengdu to promote the book, and was captured by a TV camera at the airport in a low-cut dress. The camera zoomed in on her ample cleavage, at which point she (is said to have) said: “I think every guy should have his very own Shanghai Baby!” Apparently this got back to Beijing, Wei Hui was condemned for promoting an immoral lifestyle, and her book was simultaneously banned in China.

The reaction among netizens was very heated indeed, and between 2000-2002 several thousands of messages were left on BBSs nationwide. It was striking how different the viewpoints, depending on the sex of the writer: Women were generally positive about the book, while many men took to something akin to ranting about it. In short, many men trashed the book, the writer’s lifestyle and went so far as to see Wei Hui’s depiction of Tian Tian, Nikki’s impotent boyfriend, as an insult to the Chinese Male.

How well the book sold in China is unknown, but due to the controversy, banned copies and easily available online access even today, many people between 20 and 35 have at least a passing knowledge of the book.

Readers in the West, such as those commenting on, have been much less kind. Many find the sex scenes inferior to what one can get in a run-of-the-mill erotic Western novel, and judge the characters and storyline flat. But many also enjoy the book for what it communicates about Shanghai: Modern, fun-loving, brand-conscious, sex-on-demand. Not everyone believes it, but it is a “new line” compared to the more conservative picture of China under the Communist Party painted previously. 

For me personally, the significance of Shanghai Baby was early on best grasped by Zha Jianying, who holds an M.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia U. In an insightful book review which appeared in Chinese in 2000, and which I translated as Analyzing Wei Hui and Mian Mian: Hollywood Ice Cream and Shanghai Lollipop (unfortunately, neither the original nor my translation are online any more), she points out that:

The two males in Shanghai Baby are also thought-provoking. The Chinese male’s sexual impotence, which Zhang Xian-Liang (note: author of Half of Man is Woman) put down to political repression, has metamorphosed here into the result of pressure generated by money. Aren’t the sexual hang-ups of Tian Tian, the main male character, rooted in money? On the one hand he is incapable of banishing the shadow of his father’s death (he suspects his mother killed him for his wealth), yet on the other he lives off the cash which she sends him from abroad. The third party in this triangular love relationship is a symbol of money and things foreign: Mark, the top executive at a German firm in Shanghai — that man with “devilish blue eyes”, “that frighteningly large organ,” and “exceptional business results in China” — is juxtaposed with the juvenile, weak and impotent Tian Tian. Sex, power, money and self-confidence are all concentrated in this one Westerner called Mark. In the face of such an overwhelming competitor, Tian Tian is only capable of self-destruction. Pitiful Chinese men. And women.

Given the overwhelming amount of female-centricity and sexuality in this book, did it pose any unique challenges for you to translate? Or do you think being male actually gives you the advantage of being more objective than a female translator?

I don’t understand the thinking behind the idea that a woman would translate a woman’s writing better, although this is a very popular idea. In fact, one reason I almost didn’t get the Shanghai Baby translation project was that I was raised as a male, not a female.

From my perspective, the ability to “get into” and deeply experience the world described in a given book is capital; this, plus strong writing skills in the target language are the things I would seek in a translator. I frankly don’t see that these abilities have much to do with sex…or race…or age per se. Translators need rich lives—imagined and real—upon which to draw for understanding and for creativity!  

I find Wei Hui’s juxtaposition of an impotent Chinese man, Tian Tian, with the highly idealized, albeit heavily stereotyped, virile German man, Mark, quite peculiar. Such comparison seems to totally demean Chinese manhood; it’s almost like a jab right in the balls. Aren’t Chinese men outraged by such a comparison? (I never understood why Viagra wasn’t mentioned in this book.)

Yes, I think some Chinese men were deeply insulted, and this was very evident in 2000-2001 when the book was hotly debated online. Since 2000, I have spoken with perhaps 50 Chinese men about this book. Unlike women readers, they almost always ask me: “Do you know Wei Hui? Did she have sex with foreign men?”

As a Western man living in China, do you ever feel that you are being subjected to the same stereotype like the Mark character in the book? What’s your reaction to such a portrayal of “laowai” in the book?

I saw it as a silly stereotype, manipulated by the authoress to her own ends, and laughed it off. But later I saw that many Chinese men were really insulted, which surprised me.

What is the process of translating like? Is it a collaborative effort with the author, where you actively discuss the nuances of words and debate about the semantics? Or is it more of a solitary process involving just you and the pages?

There are solitary aspects to it, but in an ideal world, the literary translator needs and seeks input from others. I hired several other people to help me get it “right.” The basic steps:

1) Read the entire novel twice;

2) Each morning, read one chapter and underlined all problematic words/phrases.

3) Checked for meanings first in all-Chinese dictionary, and sometimes in Chinese-English dictionary;

4) Had a native Chinese read the chapter aloud to me, which immediately resolved some of the original questions I had, because some of my original questions had been due to incorrect reading on my part;

5) Spent most of one day doing a draft translation. Occasionally looked up words in dictionary, but mostly just wrote down whatever came to me, to be reviewed later.

6) Next day, reviewed the problem areas (10-15 per chapter). If necessary, sent e-mail to authoress asking her input.

7) Finished draft and sent to couple (she Shanghainese, he American) for proofing and polishing. Their approach: She rarely looked at my English. A professional conference interpreter, she preferred to do a running interpretation of the original, with her English-speaking husband noting differences between her version and mine on his computer. He would then discuss these areas with her, and having checked both versions against the Chinese original again, then change the English accordingly. This worked well because he was younger than I and less fluent in Chinese, and thus a better writer of contemporary English, particularly conversational English.

8) Made final changes after noting input from author and proofers.

9) Submitted final copy to publisher in the UK.

How long did it take you to translate Shanghai Baby?

About three months.

After working on this project, did you learn anything new about the Chinese female or about females in general that you did not know previously? If so, could you share a few things that you have learned in the process?

No. My experience of Chinese females is already much richer than the two-dimensional portraits that dominate in the book.

Do you think this book heralded certain changes or trends that people take for granted nowadays in China? Besides being a pure reflection of the Chinese youth at the time, how much of an impact did this book have on the youth culture?

The book was hardly a trend-setter among youth, but it did set a precedent for female writers: It’s now kosher for women to write about sex as they experience it, or as they imagine it, from the woman’s point of view. Wei Hui was criticized for doing this because this was previously the male’s domain, but those days are now arguably behind us.  

If this book were published today, do you think it would receive the same amount of attention as it did back then? Or has such sexual opening become commonplace in China nowadays?

Casual sex, i.e., sex outside marriage for pleasure’s sake, has long been commonplace in China, and now, gradually, writing about it is becoming more or less commonplace. What remains touchy, however, is the fact that Nikki’s mind-numbing orgasms were, uh, (not) Made-in-China.  

What’s your opinion of Wei Hui’s Marrying Buddha? I haven’t read it, but has the main character, Nikki, changed very much in the sequel?

Haven’t read it.

Are Wei Hui’s depictions of the Shanghai nightlife and the lifestyle of the disenchanted youth still relevant today? I mean, if I were to go to Luna Café and YY Club this weekend, will the scenes be more or less straight out of the book?

Can’t say. I live in Shenzhen which is an entirely different kettle of fish. I don’t see Nikki as “disenchanted” though; a fair amount of female urban professionals live somewhat like her, i.e., getting high occasionally and clubbing when they can, but first and foremost, always keen to do whatever is necessary to be a “success.”   

How have all the publicity and the popularity of this book affected or changed you?

The book’s notoriety has certainly changed my life. It has helped keep the English version in print, keeping my name in the spotlight and thus helping me to win new contracts translating other fiction.

Critiques of the book—and criticisms of me for translating such “trash”, some very rude and made to my face—have forced me to ponder the question: What is my responsibility as the translator of a literary work? This may sound like an academic question, but Salman Rushdie’s Japanese translator was murdered, and more recently Iraqi interpreters for the US military have been threatened and killed as well. Scholars in the field of translation studies point out that literary translation is a chosen behavior, and the translator is an important link in a larger system, which also includes the “patron” (e.g., the publisher) and the audience (the reader). Partly as a result of such criticisms, my own view of my role has changed. When Chinese angrily tell me Shanghai Baby is a potentially damaging misrepresentation of China to readers abroad, I am no longer likely to simply respond “Don’t blame me, I’m just the translator!”, because that’s an attempt to evade responsibility for the role I have played.  

China back then versus the China of today: which one do you like better? Why?

Today’s China. I enjoy seeing young people increasingly able to earn enough money to make their own dreams come true. Their parents were forced to give their time, energy and lives to an empty dream—a socialist China that never did and never will exist. They felt bitter about that, and understandably so!

Are you currently translating any books?

Have done excerpts from fiction by several authors over the last year: Xiao Hong-Chi (insight into murky world of China finance), Mu Zi-Mei (Cantonese sex blogger), and works by two authors writing about growing up in Beijing, Chun Shu and Feng Tang.

If you were to write a book, which language would you write it in—Chinese or English? Why?

Two different languages, two different audiences. I would be most likely to write a book in Chinese about how I, a foreigner, perceive and experience my life in China. I would dictate rather than “write” it. Too much of what is published in China is “written” to be “read” by intellectuals. I would prefer a style something closer to informal conversation.

Such a book could be very readable, because I—like many foreigners—pay relatively little note of what Chinese say about China. Instead, I watch what they do. The gap between the two can be very big, but that gap is glossed over by the Chinese themselves. I see the gap, and can point it out with good-natured humor because, after all, I speak the language, and I am very lucky and happy to be right here, right now, watching the world’s most populous society transmogrify at an incredible speed.  

Do you think you will ever write a book accounting your experiences in China?

Maybe. Several publishers have expressed interest, but if I wrote the book in my head, it might not be publishable in today’s China. Many friends have literally begged me to put pen to paper, because they can’t believe how riveting some of my tales are when heard over a beer or two. 

But I am sensitive to the fact that some of the things that have happened to me reflect badly on China, and at times, Chinese listeners are angered by them. For example, I was mugged and robbed in Shenzhen one night in 2000. By the end of it, I was lying on the ground, bleeding profusely and unconscious. My skull was slightly fractured and badly cut, three of my ribs were broken, my left lung was punctured, and my right hand cut through to the bone in the palm area. When I was taken to hospital, my head was stitched up to stop the bleeding, but my right hand—the tendons were severed—was left unattended for 3-4 hours. I lay in the hallway, my hand untreated and uncovered. Today, seven years later, I cannot bend three of the fingers on my right hand. Quite why I was treated like this is unclear: Was it because I had no ID? Because I was unconscious? Or, more likely, because I had “neglected” to bring money with me to pay for the operation?

A dear friend from Xi’an apologized for the delay in treating my hand, sitting at my bedside the next day: “Bruce, we’ve treated you like a guest for all these years. Last night, we treated you like one of our own.”

I don’t mean that any book I would write would focus on the “negative.” My life here has been fascinating and often times quite beautiful. But if and when I do write something, I must feel free to say what I wish to say. I don’t wish to offend, but self-censorship doesn’t make for good copy! 

What do you enjoy doing when you are not working?

A mixture of listening to music, reading, check out news online, sports and the (very) occasional date. Exercise is key, because too much time spent at the computer means real pain for me. I’ve suffered from whiplash twice, and of course, I must vigorously exercise my right hand to avoid stiffness. I tend to read fiction, anthropology and history in English or French, along with the occasional Chinese novel. I’m reading Muslim Funeral by Huo Da, a Hui female writer who writes about the lives of several generations of Chinese Muslims living in Beijing. The Hui are an ethnic minority, descendants of the first converts to Islam back in the Tang Dynasty. And I am studying Turkish, in the hopethat one day I can do further research on the history of translation between Chinese and Turkish.

What’s your favorite city in China?

Not sure I have a favorite city. But I enjoy the people—warm-hearted, earthy—and cuisine of Sichuan enormously. Just got back from Kashgar in Xinjiang and liked the Uighur very much too. 

Will you be in Beijing for the Olympic Games?

No. I don’t enjoy the kind of patriotic hysteria engendered by the games, be it in Russia, America or China. Too chauvinistic.

Merci beaucoup! [end]

4 thoughts on “Transparent Translator Series: Bruce Humes and his “Shanghai Baby” (上海宝贝)

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