The Transparent Translator: Cindy Carter on “Dream of Ding Village”

Here’s my interview with Cindy Carter, Chinese-to-English translator of Dream of Ding Village:

Bruce Humes: You studied Japanese and lived in Japan for several years before moving to Beijing. Has your knowledge of Japanese, the people and/or the language been useful to you in mastering Chinese? What made you willing to leave Japan to pursue your writing career in China?

Cindy Carter: Japan was the path that led me to China. These days, it probably makes better sense to do one’s studies the other way around, but back in the 1980s, Japan was the economic powerhouse, the modern miracle, and China was just an afterthought, the slow cousin, an object of fascination for classicists and linguists. . .certainly not the most obvious starting point for anyone wanting to understand the rubric of 20th century geopolitics or economic development in Asia. For every nascent Sinologist, there seemed to be a dozen budding specialists in Korean or Japanese contemporary history, politics or economics, and I was one of the latter. I did consider adding Chinese to a minor in Japanese and majors in Economics and Political Science, but decided it was more than I could handle and still manage to graduate in 4 years. I’ve been kicking myself in the arse for that lack of foresight ever since.

So, after studying Japanese for 7 years, I showed up in Beijing with a visual lexicon of about 4,000 characters, a few well-worn Chinese textbook phrases (courtesy of a 10-week Mandarin course in Osaka, in which I was the only non-Japanese student, and the dimmest bulb by far), and about 40,000 RMB ($5000, at the time) saved up from 3 years of working in Japan. Within a week of my arrival in Beijing, I had sorted out an Internet connection, a student visa, a shared dorm room and enrolment at a small satellite campus of Capital Normal University (where 90% of my classmates were Japanese or Korean), and had explored five different districts of the city by bus, just by navigating the signs.  My grammar sucked, my tones were abysmal, but boy oh boy, was I crushing those simplified characters. Two semesters and nine months later, I’d spent all my cash, was living in an outer fourth-ring road squat with a rocker from Shandong, and was reading Wang Shuo’s fiction, Gu Cheng’s poetry and Cui Jian’s lyrics with reasonable confidence. After a glorious yaogun summer and a 14-month stint working at the Los Angeles office of the Export-Import Bank of Japan, I returned to Beijing in late 1998 to pursue writing and translation full-time.

Sadly, Japanese doesn’t play much of a direct role in my work these days, although it certainly eased my transition into Chinese. When I first began studying Chinese, I didn’t have to learn the written language from scratch, as most western students do, mastering the stroke order and radicals; all I had to do was figure out how the traditional-form characters (used in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere, to varying degrees) corresponded to the simplified forms used on the Chinese mainland.

Ethnic ChinaLit: You obviously don’t shy away from politically sensitive topics or artists. For example, Dream of Ding Village author Yan Lianke wrote Serve the People (为人民服务) which—while much appreciated in France, for instance—has still not been published in China, and even one of his latest works, Four Books (四书), was launched in Taiwan rather than the mainland; you translated “A Translation between Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaodong”; and you did the sub-titling for Karamay, the documentary on the 1994 blaze in Xinjiang that killed hundreds, a documentary that is still banned in China.  Do you specifically seek out such touchy assignments, and if so, why?  As a resident of Beijing—easily China’s most “political” city—have you been asked out “for a chat over tea” by the security apparatus?

Carter: I don’t make a point of searching out politically controversial books or films, but it does seem that many of the translation projects I’ve worked on fall into that category. I think this says less about my political beliefs and inclinations – or even those of the artists – than it does about the bizarrely narrow official definition of what is acceptable and what is transgressive (or “sensitive”, in the current parlance) in mainland China today. The qualities I look for in a work – and in the individuals I work with – are authenticity, honesty, originality and artistic integrity. I know it sounds disingenuous or even reductive, but for me, it really is that simple. You just know whether a work is good or not, whether it rings true or false, whether it has the power to connect with something deeper and fundamentally human. I don’t translate fiction by Yan Lianke, or poetry by Yu Jian, or films by Wang Bing, or projects by Ai Weiwei because their work is controversial, but because it is timeless: decades from now, we will still be reading their books, watching their films, viewing their art, and exploring new facets of what they created in this “here and now” (此时此地).

As for being invited “for a chat over tea” by the powers-that-be, I’ve never had that experience. I’m a very low-key, somewhat reclusive person who spends most of her days at home in front of a computer, just doing the work of translation. Can’t imagine the PSB would have much to say to (or about) me. There have been a few weird incidents over the years, mostly early in my translation career: the guy at the rock concert who wanted to talk politics and was obviously a plainclothes policeman (shiny leather shoes are a dead giveaway), or the three men who claimed to be starting an English school and wanted to meet with me to discuss curriculum development, then spent the entire meeting asking (in English) about my translation work and whether I was interested in “dissident literature”. Although I never heard from those three again, and suspect that instead of opening an English school they just returned to the office and dutifully filed boring reports to their superiors, I remember them fondly: rather than get into a sleek black Audi with three strange men in black leather jackets and shoes (again with the dead-giveaway footwear and apparel!) I convinced them to trek with me through a raging snowstorm for about three quarters of a mile, to what was definitely not the nearest or most convenient café. Sheer cussedness on my part, because I desperately needed a job and resented them for wasting my time.

Ethnic ChinaLit: In my estimation, you are a creative writer and a poet, not just a “translator.” As you rendered Dream of Ding Village, how were you able to channel that creativity into the task? Which parts or aspects afforded you the most freedom to do so?

Carter: I’ve heard it said that writers make the worst translators, but I’ve never understood the logic in that. As long as one can set aside one’s own authorial ego and truly inhabit the work of another writer, the experience of having written fiction and poetry can only improve the quality of one’s translation. Crafting fictional characters, imbuing them with distinct voices and opinions, and allowing them to exist independently of their author is not very different from immersing oneself in the world of another author and crafting a voice for him or her in translation.

The task is more straightforward if you’re translating a mature, confident author with a distinctive style and voice. The most difficult translations I’ve done were for younger or less confident authors whose styles were still in flux, who were still assimilating various influences and struggling to define their own voices. But a novelist like Yan Lianke makes it easy, because he gives his translators so much depth – and so many useful stylistic cues – to work with. There are elegant, metrically-satisfying passages that lull the reader into a false sense of security, followed by short, spiky sentences or jarring turns of phrase that pull you up short, and force you to reassess what is actually being said; there are cadences and codas, repetitions and transpositions, symmetry and asymmetry, all used to great effect; there are dozens of different characters, each with a unique voice, temperament, and point of view; there is wisdom and poetry and satire and childlike earnestness—so much, so very much, for a translator to work with.

I particularly enjoyed translating the folk songs sung by Ma Xianglin in the first and third chapters (“With sword in hand / Xue Rengui marched west… / His men and mounts withstood the test… / Through hamlets, villages and towns / They felled a mighty army / And struck their enemies down”), the sobering funeral couplets in the first chapter (“The moon has sunk, the stars are dim, the family home is dark / but there is hope that come tomorrow, the sun will shine again”) and the hysterically funny “7 School Rules” (in volume 4, chapter 2) posted by the two young men who blackmail Grandpa Ding Shuiyang into stepping down from his caretaker position at the school where HIV-positive villagers have taken refuge.

I had a great time translating Jia Genzhu and Ding Yuejin’s glorious jumble of bad grammar, misappropriated legalese, crude invective and impossible-to-enforce sanctions:

3. Jia Genzhu and Ding Yuejin will be in charge of distributing coffins donated by the government, whenever we get them. Anyone who doesn’t follow orders will not receive a coffin, plus we will tell the whole village to go fuck that person’s ancestors and curse their descendants.

 4. No one is allowed to embezzle school property or take it for their personal use without the express permission of Jia Genzhu or Ding Yuejin. Thieves and embezzlers will die a horrible death and their graves will be plundered.

 6. Extra-marital sex, hanky-panky and lewd behavior will not be tolerated in the school. Anyone caught engaging in immoral acts or corrupting public values will be marched around the village with a sign around their neck and a tall paper hat…

 7. Anyone who disagrees or does not comply with the above regulations will be cursed for life, have nightmares about dying and pass the fever to all their family, friends and relatives. Plus, he or she will be sent home immediately and never allowed back into the school…

In every translation, certain literary and aesthetic challenges arise. In Dream of Ding Village, the biggest challenge was reconciling several distinct narrative voices. Ding Qiang, the ostensible narrator of the novel, is a 12-year-old boy poisoned by the villagers in retaliation for his father’s activities as a blood merchant, but his is not a consistent narrative voice à la Huck Finn or Holden Caulfield, nor was it designed to be. In passages referring to the boy’s family, home and school life, his burial and posthumous marriage (arranged by his politically-ambitious father) to the daughter of a high-ranking Communist Party official, we hear Ding Qiang’s precocious adolescent voice loud and clear. But in the chapter openings and expository passages, the narrative is classic Yan Lianke, the stripped-down authorial voice we have come to know so well in his two decades of fiction. Then there are the lengthy dream sequences that detail the phantasms of the boy’s grandfather, Ding Shuiyang, and feature much more elaborate and poetic language.

Although I didn’t find the different narrative styles off-putting in the original Chinese, the moment I began translating the novel into English, I realized that narrative voice was going to be an issue. I even toyed around for a week or two, trying to enhance the consistency of the narrative by grafting Ding Qiang’s youthful voice onto passages where it didn’t belong, but in the end, I decided that the original text simply didn’t warrant this approach; I would have been veering dangerously close to rewriting, and vastly overstepping my mandate as a translator. The narrative style in the English translation, as published, is a fairly good representation of the narrative style in the original Chinese. Two English-language reviewers have pointed out the inconsistency of the narrative voice as a flaw in the novel, and I would – rather reluctantly – agree. That said, I have yet to hear of a Chinese reader or critic who identified the divergent narrative styles as a weakness. Perhaps there is a greater tolerance for this in Chinese (as there is a greater tolerance for repetition, for example), or perhaps Chinese and western readers simply have different expectations about narrative consistency and the fluidity with which a writer is allowed to toggle between different narrative voices…this would make a great topic for a panel discussion, by the way.

Ethnic ChinaLit: Tell us about your “translating routine” for Dream of Ding Village. Did you tend to simply begin by translating straight from the text without reference to dictionaries, or did you do a certain amount of research first? Did you employ a native Chinese speaker to proof your text? When you had trouble interpreting a given passage, to whom—or what—did you turn for help?

Carter: I’d been following Yan Lianke’s work for many years, was familiar with his style and use of Henan dialect, and had already read Dream of Ding Village and done some translation excerpts, so I began the process by spending 3-4 weeks doing a close rereading of the novel, marking up the text and taking careful notes. Then I spent several days looking over and revising my (rather outdated) translation of the opening chapter, and went on from there. At that point, I already knew which passages would be the most challenging or require the most time, so I was mentally prepared.

Naturally, I had a lot of questions. I use a variety of resources to look up unfamiliar or uncertain words and phrases: printed dictionaries (Chinese-Chinese, Chinese-English), online dictionaries, online and CD-ROM translation software, search engines, and websites in mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. During the course of the translation, I consulted about a dozen people – readers, writers, translators, literary critics and friends – on questions of grammar, style, dialect, history, minute physical detail, etc. Sometimes I just wanted someone to discuss the novel with, a fellow reader who could give me a different perspective on the book. I hired two Chinese friends (one author and one translator) at 50 RMB per hour to help me dissect the grammar and structure of a number of complex or otherwise problematic passages.

I also had about 8 meetings, 30 hours in all, with Yan Lianke to discuss questions of authorial intent and so on. . .things only he could answer. He was very generous with his time, infinitely patient with my questions, and his wife makes the best noodles on the planet. My neighborhood tailor, who grew up in rural Henan, even contributed some useful sketches of the clothes worn by characters in the novel. I didn’t have a native Chinese speaker proofread my text, and actually never considered doing that: I think that with literary translation, it is important to cast one’s net wide, and not rely too heavily on the opinion of a single individual. In the end, I bear responsibility for the accuracy, fluidity and readability of the translation, and the best way to live up to that responsibility is to consult with as many people as possible, keep an open mind, and craft a translation that transcends subjectivity (my own subjectivity, and that of others).

A few other notes about the process of translation:

Language: Since Dream of Ding Village was written in Chinese, nearly all of the conversations I had about it were in Chinese (with the exception of a few conversations with American or British translators). This was particularly important when speaking directly with the author, because in the wording of Yan Lianke’s answers, he provided me with many verbal and linguistic cues that would prove useful in my translation. Just hearing him describe the process of writing certain passages, the choices he had mulled over and discarded, helped me to better understand and communicate his final choices.

Time frame: I estimate that I spent approximately 2,500 hours, or ten months of full-time work, translating and polishing the manuscript of Dream of Ding Village. That works out to about a page a day, which is more or less what I had anticipated. But from beginning to end – from the day I signed the contract in early December 2007 to the day (November 17, 2009) I turned in the manuscript to the publisher – the entire process lasted 23 months, mainly because of financial constraints. It took 4 months to receive the initial disbursement from the publisher, and that money lasted for about 5 months. After that, I worked in bursts, borrowing money or taking on other film and art translations to help finance the translation of the novel. During those periods when I was working on other projects, I missed Dream of Ding Village and longed to get back to it.

Finances: I was paid 10,500 British pounds (minus VAT and a 15% fee for my agent) for the translation of the novel. Of this, about 40% came in 2008 while I was translating the book; 30% arrived in early 2010, a few months after the submission of the manuscript; and the final 30% was paid after publication, in summer of 2011. Later, I did a rough accounting and estimated that I earned about 35 RMB (3.5 British pounds) per hour of work on the book. By the time I had submitted the manuscript, I was 120,000 RMB (12,000 pounds) in debt, so in May of 2010, I took a full-time job as an in-house translator and editor at a non-profit arts center in Beijing. It meant taking a step back from literary translation, but in the 20 months I worked there, I was able to pay back most of the debt, and have now returned to translating fiction, poetry and indie film full-time.

Postscript: The next project I’m considering is an even longer, more challenging and more underfunded novel.  It’s a brilliant work of fiction by one of my favorite Chinese authors, but the financial obstacles terrify me. For this reason, I recently moved out of Beijing and into a neighboring province, thus reducing my rent by over 80% and living expenses by more than half. A lot of Chinese writers, indie filmmakers, artists and musicians live in this area, and we’re all here for the same reason: it’s the only way we can afford to keep working at our art, and still maintain proximity to Beijing, well on its way to becoming one of the most expensive cities in Asia. I think living out here will allow me to continue translating fiction, poetry and film for at least another 5-6 years, at which point I might need to find a gig with health insurance.

Ethnic ChinaLit: In terms of sheer output, your better-known literary translations—Village of Stone by Guo Xiaolu and now Dream of Ding Village—are dwarfed by the number of films you’ve sub-titled.  How many have you worked on, and which films/directors left the greatest impression on you?

Carter: As of 2012, my translation count is up to 50+ indie films, 50+ poems and stories, 2 novels, 4 rock albums, and literally hundreds of art-related essays, interviews and curatorial texts. Most of the art-related translations resulted from a recent full-time job doing in-house translation at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA), a non-profit arts centre in Beijing’s 798 Art District, where I learned more about art in 20 months than I had in the previous 20 years.

But that was a long-winded answer to your relatively straightforward question. Here are some highlights from the film years, with the English titles, director names and year of translation (not necessarily the year of production or film release):

Paper Airplane (Dir: Zhao Liang, 2001)

Gritty early DV-generation documentary about heroin and the Chinese rock scene. The first film I ever subtitled, and I did it for free. Over a dozen years later, Zhao Liang and I have worked on 4 films together and he is one of China’s most prolific and respected indie directors. He recently completed Petition, his decade-long labor of love documentary project.

West of Tracks (Dir: Wang Bing, 2002-3)

This massively ambitious 9-hour, 3-part opus about life in China’s rust belt changed the landscape of Chinese documentary film. Wang Bing spent 5 or 6 years of his life planning, filming, editing and perfecting this film; I spent 4 months, off and on, translating it. Everyone who worked on West of Tracks – from director and producers, to video techs and subtitle editors and translators, to those unnamed and intrepid individuals who volunteered their services or equipment for a few hours or days or weeks – poured their souls into the film, and it shows. Wang Bing and I have done five or six other projects since, and hopefully will continue to work together. If anyone in the world of Chinese indie film deserves the designation of “auteur”, it is Wang Bing. (Though in the world of mainstream Chinese film, the greatest auteur is Jiang Wen, hands down.)

Before the Flood (Dir: Yan Yu and Li Yifan, 2004)

A sprawling documentary about the demolition and relocation of an ancient village in the path of the Three Gorges Dam Project, Before the Flood touches on a number of issues (property rights, community, local politics, religious revival in China, etc.) that would inform the work of these directors for years to come.

Fairytale (Prod: Ai Weiwei, 16 directors, 2007)

This was the first truly collaborative film translation of my career, and it was an education in itself. Looking back, it’s hard to say what stands out the most—being part of a project that brought 1001 Chinese citizens to the Kassel Documenta in Germany, and dispatched 16 directors all over China and Europe to capture the personal stories of those 1001 individuals; working with Ai Weiwei for the first time; trying to helm the translation of a film that shrank from 20 to 14 to 9 hours (chosen from among hundreds of hours of footage) in the course of one summer, and ended in an “artistic parting of the ways” between producer and supervising director; or being able to hire and work with some of the translators (Eric Abrahamsen, Brendan O’Kane, Joel Martinson, Jim Weldon, and Alice Wang) I had known for years but had never had the chance to work with closely. This was right about the time that the Paper Republic website was going online, and although we had known each other socially before this intensive project, none of us had much insight into the process or prowess of our colleagues, the group of translators that would later form the core of the “Paper Republic crew”.

WE: Creatures of Politics, Voices of Conscience (Dir: Huang Wenhai, 2008)

One might logically inquire what sort of cajones are required to direct and produce a documentary film about three generations of Chinese political reformers and civil-rights activists, then schedule it for release just before the opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. I can only think of one Chinese filmmaker with the testicular and spiritual fortitude it requires, and that man is Huang Wenhai. You’d never know it to look at him: Wenhai is a practicing Buddhist, soft-spoken and mellow in the extreme, the kind of person you’d expect to find meditating on a mountaintop, not lugging camera equipment around to underground dormitories, home-based churches, or the site of the infamous 1959 Party Plenum in Lushan. And yet there he was, recording some of the most incisive dialogue in the history of Chinese film. With limited release abroad and virtually no release (but for a few furtive screenings) in mainland China, this documentary is still damn-near invisible, but I hope that at some point, it will be seen and remembered, because there is quite literally nothing like it. Many of the subjects who appear in the film (several have died of old age in the intervening years) are old-school cadres, survivors of the Long March, former high-ranking members of the Propaganda Department or Xinhua News Service who dared, in their retirement, to speak out in support of constitutional government, rule of law, and respect for individual liberties. But optimists and reformists beware: this is not a feel-good film. In the end, what stands out most is the complete disorganization and disconnect between three generations of patriotic and well-meaning individuals who can agree that reform is essential, but can’t seem to get on the same page about the specifics.

Timber Gang, Survival Song, Bachelor Mountain (Dir: Yu Guangyi, 2004, 2007 & 2010)

You can’t talk about the current state of Chinese manhood without referencing Yu Guangyi’s Changbaishan Sanbuqu (White Mountain Trilogy), about the inhabitants of the remote national forests of north-eastern China. It’s not all about the menfolk, of course, but in these northern climes, where women are a scarce commodity, the gender-gap colours every aspect of society. I translated the last two films of the trilogy, and we’re still looking for an investor for finance the retranslation and subtitling of the first part (Timber Gang).

Ethnic ChinaLit: According to an English-language review of the French edition of Dream of Ding Village by Sebastian Veg:

 Yan [Lianke] highlights that his use of fiction is a way of toning down a reality that is in some ways inconceivably frightening. He has deliberately left out stories reported to him about collecting blood in plastic soy sauce or vinegar bags, and washing out the used bags in a pool that eventually turned red. He also chose to leave aside his first fictional idea of an imaginary country linked to the rest of the world by a blood pipeline through which local officials export blood to achieve the country’s rise to the rank of world power. These cuts should not be seen as mere self-censorship (at least not as purely political self-censorship), but also to reflect a preoccupation with finding an adequate form for what remains an untellable reality, a form that is both helpful to understanding the objective situation and true to the subjective experience of the villagers themselves. Here lies the originality of the book, which despite fantastic elements and overtones, never resorts to the sensationalism that characterizes some of China’s contemporary fiction, most notably Yu Hua’s recent novel Brothers.

Two questions for you: 1) Which version of the Chinese text did you translate, i.e., the one published in 2006 and subsequently banned, the version that has since been legally published in China, or a third version? And 2) Do you feel that this alleged disinclination to “sensationalism” makes the novel more readable and potentially more powerful to the English-language reader? 

Carter: I translated from the text published in 2006 by Shanghai Art and Literature Press (上海文艺出版社) in an initial print run of 150,000 copies (according to the front page of the book). It was never allowed to go to a second printing. I purchased the book – before it was banned, obviously – at Sanlian Bookstore in Wangfujing, Beijing, near the National Museum of Art. I also had access to a digital version that was nearly identical to the print version, but for some annoying typos. (The typos aren’t due to Yan Lianke, by the way. He continues to write his manuscripts by hand, and has other people type them up.) The digital version contained too many typos to work from directly, but it was useful for doing global searches, locating certain words and phrases, and so on. I haven’t heard about a subsequent version being published legally in China…are you sure about that?

Veg’s comments are perceptive. I do think that if Yan Lianke had gone with his original idea – that is, writing a work of non-fiction on the subject of blood-selling and AIDS in Henan – we would have a much less compelling and timeless story. It isn’t the minute details of the blood trade in the late 1980s, or tales of official corruption, or descriptions of suffering and disease that make Dream of Ding Village so extraordinary; it is the characters themselves, their interactions and passions and rivalries, that bring the book to life. Had Yan Lianke focused on the broader social, political and economic environment, had he enumerated the causes, ramifications and details of the real-world blood trade, he wouldn’t have been able to delve so deeply into the human psyche. We, as readers, wouldn’t have this bittersweet love story between two young people rejected by their spouses and dying of AIDS, or the Ding family feud that ends in shocking murder and unexpected redemption. We would have no insight into the misplaced rage that drives a group of villagers to poison a 12-year-old boy, or the fear and insecurity that causes otherwise decent people to turn petty, to bicker and steal from one another, even as they are months away from their own deaths. Nor would we have such pathos and humor and humanity—qualities that distinguish all of Yan Lianke’s finest fiction.

So yeah, I guess we have the Chinese censors to thank for taking what might have been merely an informative and socially-conscious work of non-fiction and elevating it to the level of true greatness. That, plus winning scads of new readers for Yan Lianke, cementing his reputation as an author, and ensuring that his work will be translated and read for decades to come. Good work, GAPP.

Victor Hugo, in Les Misérables, says it far better than I ever could:

Despots make their contributions to thinkers. Speech in chains is terrible speech. The writer doubles and triples his style when silence is imposed by a master over the people. From this silence springs a certain mysterious fullness that filters and congeals into brass in the thoughts. Compression in history produces concision in the historian. The granite solidity of some celebrated prose is only a condensation produced by the tyrant.

Tyranny constrains the writer to shortenings of diameter that are increases of force. The Ciceronian period, hardly sufficient on Verres, would lose its edge on Caligula. Less breadth in the phrase, more intensity in the blow. Tacitus thinks with his arm drawn back. [end interview]

2 thoughts on “The Transparent Translator: Cindy Carter on “Dream of Ding Village”

  1. Dear Mr. Humes, I’m a Ph.D. student in Translation Studies at the University of Auckland, and my research project is about subtitling from Chinese into English. Professor Minako O’Hagan and Professor Paul Clark are my supervisors. In my research, I need to interview Chinese-English subtitlers, and found that Cindy Carter was invited to subtitle a popular Chinese film Personal Trailor (2013) directed by Feng Xiaogang. I’ve contacted Ms. Carter via the website of Paper Republic, but unfortunately, I have not received her respond yet. If convenient, could you please tell me how I can get in touch with Ms. Carter for research purposes?


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