As China’s fiction “exports” pick up, it will be interesting to watch which novels and themes win an Exit Permit to foreign lands, and how they are received there.
Take Wang Gang’s 《英格力士》, for instance. This semi-autobiographical novel set in Xinjiang during the Cultural Revolution was snapped up by Penguin, and rendered in English by Martin Merz and Jane Weizhen Pan as . . . English. See my Growing up Han in Fictional Xinjiang for a combined book review and interview with the translators. The novel has since also appeared in French (English) and Spanish (El profesor de inglés) .
I assume the purchase and publication of Wang Gang’s work was a market-driven decision by Penguin. But late last year, his novel was launched in Turkish at the Istanbul Book Fair. The driver in that instance may have been somewhat more political. It was one of just two Chinese novels that were translated into Turkish and published in time for the fair thanks to a joint project subsidized by Turkey and China. The other was a relatively unknown work by Tie Ning (How long is forever?), who happens to be favorably placed; she’s top honcho at the state-run China Writers Association.
Given that only a handful of contemporary Chinese novels have appeared in Turkish, I can’t help but ponder the symbolism of choosing a Xinjiang-born Han author’s novel as an introduction to 21st-century Chinese literature. The novel is set in Xinjiang, the home of some ten million Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking, traditionally Muslim people who have ancient ties with the Turkish. But the novel itself focuses almost exclusively on the Han community there; there are no Uyghur male characters in it.
Irony of ironies, Wang Gang’s novel was translated from the English-language English, not his Chinese original. The first casualty may have been the book’s title in Turkish that couldn’t be much more mundane: Ingilizce, the proper Turkish term for the English language. The original novel was entitled 英格力士, however, which is closer to a phonetic transcription of the word as you would find it in a dictionary, e.g., “ing-glish”, a more notable title that positions the word as alien to the speaker. As you can see from the Spanish and French titles above, Ingilizce is a more orthodox translation from the, uh, English.
At any rate, keen to see how a novel about the Cultural Revolution would be rendered in Turkish, I commissioned an English-to-Turkish literary translator here in Istanbul to review the Turkish book as well as comment on how it compares with the English rendition. The review—in English—follows below. Here’s her Turkish review Çin Edebiyatından Kültür Devrimine Ergen Gözüyle Bakış: Wang Gang’ın İngilizce Romanı .
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Wang Gang’s Ingilizce:
Intriguing Look at the Cultural Revolution
for Turkish Readers
Chinese original: Wang Gang (英格力士、王刚著)
Turkish translator: Nil Demir
Book reviewer: Ayşe Ünal Ersönmez
Consumers of fiction in the West may be familiar with works set in China’s Cultural Revolution, but for the Turkish reader Wang Gang’s English—or Ingilizce in the Turkish rendition—this novel opens the door on a bizarre new world where an experiment in social engineering has gone badly wrong.
Ingilizce is a coming-of-age novel narrated from the point of view of Love Liu, a Han Chinese boy who grows up in Urumqi in northwest China’s Xinjiang. Like adolescents everywhere, he struggles with the problems of how to interpret the world of grown-ups and the opposite sex, but he has an additional burden: his childhood takes place during the chaotic Cultural Revolution (1965-75). This mass movement intrudes forcefully into all aspects of personal and social life, and is arguably as much of a protagonist as Love Liu.
The country is experiencing a storm of destruction of traditional and capitalist cultural elements, but Love Liu’s school enjoys the arrival of a new English instructor, Second Prize Wang. He’s a charismatic teacher who wears scented cold cream, speaks “standard Linguaphone English,” appreciates capitalist Anglo-Saxon art, behaves like a Gentleman, believes in God, and prefers his Chinese-English dictionary to The Little Red Book—in short, the antithesis of the politically correct values of the period.
His two star students are Love Liu and Sunrise Huang. The latter is also Love Liu’s neighbor and the object of his early sexual fantasies, and soon they both begin to idolize their new teacher.
During this period when the Chinese leadership was obsessed with the military threat posed by capitalist America and the revisionist Soviet Union, Love Liu’s parents, both architects, are involved in highly sensitive military projects. His father is working on the design and construction of a research center for developing and testing a hydrogen bomb outside Urumqi, while his mother is designing an air-raid shelter in the city proper.
They are deeply grateful to have such prestigious assignments at a time when intellectuals were treated as class enemies, and inevitably end up neglecting their son. Left to his own devices when he badly needs affection and guidance, Love Liu chooses Second Prize Wang as his role model. Sunrise Huang also becomes infatuated with their charming English teacher, and the two compete keenly for his attentions.
The mastery of the author lies in the submission of the emotional and mental language of the novel to the convincingly adolescent first-person narrative voice of Love Liu, despite the pressure created by the political tensions. The novel is written in a chronological time sequence and simple language that features conversation rather than detailed description, and this approach produces a deep and unsettling atmosphere in which Love Liu’s crisis of puberty, his first steps toward male sexuality and larger questions of self-identity unfold compellingly.
The fact that the novel is set in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region should not mislead the reader: the novel does not touch upon the ethnic and religious conflicts in this land where the Han and Turkic peoples such as the Uyghur—who speak a language closely related to Turkish—co-exist uneasily. Obviously, this could have made an interesting motif for a Turkish readership, but the political and social problems are portrayed exclusively through a Han Chinese lens.
That said, there is a symbolic if distant approach to Uyghur identity reflected through random mentions of mosques and mournful Uyghur folk songs. The sole Uyghur character in the story is Ahjitai, the heavenly blond beauty of half-Uyghur, half-Han extraction, and the object of intense desire on the part of both Love Liu and his teacher Second Prize Wang.
Author Wang Gang clearly has negative views on the Cultural Revolution and Mao, and admires things Western. But Ingilizce offers the Turkish reader an opportunity to witness the recent history of China through literature rather than assessing it in terms of ideology. If one considers that the advantage of literature over history lies in the ability to voice the depths of the human soul, then particularly those readers who are keen to contemplate how Communism was applied in the 20th century will find a new and intriguing realm here.
Ingilizce also provides its Turkish readership with fresh reflections on the recent history of a foreign country where phenomena often discussed of late in Turkey—such as heavy-handed leadership and “social engineering”—in the sense of Atatürk’s secular reforms and Prime Minister Erdoğan’s pro-Islamic agenda—once reached extremes.
The title page of the Turkish Ingilizce does not specify whether it was translated from the original Chinese, but Altaic Storytelling’s host Bruce Humes spoke with the publisher who confirmed it is a “re-translation” based on the English-language version by Martin Merz and Jane Weizhen Pan.
I did have the chance to compare a portion of the English text against the Turkish version, and in my opinion translator Nil Demir has managed to transfer the plain and dialogue-based source text into the target language in a fluent and rich manner. The translator has done a good job of creating an independent literary text in Turkish that features natural-sounding dialogues, a result that involved enlivening the language through idiomatic use of Turkish.
Unfortunately, spelling and punctuation errors pepper the text. In particular, it was annoying to this reader to find that the Turkish conjunction “de” was repeatedly treated as a suffix rather than written separately as required.
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