Actors and Literary Translators, the Great Imitators

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Shelly Bryant argues that literary translators need the same skills as actors who imitate the voices and mannerisms of others.

Last year, the world lost one of the greatest comedic geniuses of our times when Robin Williams passed away. While he will be remembered for many roles on television and in the movies, his earliest claim to fame was as a stand-up comedian. From those early days of his career, one of the main tools of his trade was the impression, and he was one of the best. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ed Sullivan, Groucho Marx, Robert De Niro, and Carol Channing were just a few of the celebrity impressions Williams employed in a single film, Aladdin. He captured the mannerisms and voice of each one convincingly, alerting his audiences immediately to whom he was depicting.

This same gift of imitating others’ voices and quirks comes to life on the page in the work of a gifted literary translator. The translator’s job is not to duplicate the words of an author in a second language – taking the ‘original’ and repackaging it in a ‘target language.’ Instead, the translator’s job is to mimic the voice and mannerisms observed in the source text and replay them in a different venue for another audience. The translator’s voice will be heard – just as we see Robin Williams even when it is unmistakable that he is mimicking John Wayne or Ronald Reagan – but it will be a faithful enough representation of the author’s voice that the personality of the source material will come to life, being foregrounded to the point that the translator is lost in the shadow of the author. This is why the same work will sound slightly different in the hands of different translators, though the original is recognizable in each rendering.

The trick to successful literary translation is similar to successful impression. One must latch onto some details of expression, voice, or gesture and magnify those, being aware that doing so requires the relinquishing of other details. It is not a duplication of the whole person, but imitating certain traits specific to her or him. Sometimes it was a gesture or mannerism, such as John Wayne’s distinctive walk, that Williams would hang his imitation on, but as often as not, it was the voice. Jack Nicholson, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and Walter Cronkite all became part of the repertoire on the strength of their very recognizable voices.

A similar skill can serve as the perfect foundation for a successful literary translation. The decision about what to latch onto and what to relinquish will vary from translator to translator, and that which is lost in the process will invite comments and criticism as soon as the work is published.

Sometimes, in order to make the impression recognizable, exaggeration of a point is required, and all exaggeration is necessarily a departure from the strictest literal translation. For instance, in my translation of Sheng Keyi’s Northern Girls, I knew as I read the book what I wanted the English version to sound like. It needed to bounce. It was crisp, sharp, cheeky, and extremely clever. When I started the translation, the first sentence of the book read, ‘她,就是钱小红,湖南的。’ The most literal translation of this is, She is Qian Xiaohong from Hunan (Province). My translation is, Her. Right there. That’s Qian Xiaohong, from Hunan Province. My version is more consistent with the voice of the novel as a whole, even if it is something of a ‘free’ approach to that first sentence.

On a larger scale, I had another decision to make early in translating Northern Girls. In the Chinese, there are no quotation marks to set off the dialogue. On the page, it all looks like free indirect speech, which often flows fluidly into more narrative portions, occasionally making it a little tricky to discern between dialogue and narrative, or between the narrator’s voice and a character’s thoughts, in an application of stream-of-consciousness techniques. In Chinese, this makes for a very fast-paced read, creating a lively text that is full of verve and sparkle. In English, the application of the same technique would slow the narrative down, as evidenced by much English-language stream-of-consciousness fiction. I made the choice from the beginning to forego the use of the technique, opting for an imitation of the voice, style, and personality over a duplication of the technique. Throughout my work on the translation of the novel, I tried to consistently apply this approach.

Another point to consider in translating from Chinese to English is that longer sentences and paragraphs are more the norm in Chinese. I often break a single Chinese sentence into two, or even several, English sentences. I have heard some translators suggest that sticking to the sentence and paragraph breaks – even the punctuation – of the original is part of the standard used to judge accuracy. (To be fair, I don’t think I’ve ever heard that from someone who works from Chinese to English.) The problem with this is that the same sentence breaks create a very different effect in English to that achieved in Chinese, which results in an imitation that seems to miss the mark of the voice or original personality of the piece. I prefer to be more faithful to the overall effect, even if it means sacrificing some details.

It might be argued that this approach fails in the strictest standards of accuracy. Rather than try to dispute that claim, I would reply that ‘strict accuracy’ is seldom an ideal that should be pursued in literary translation. Instead, I aim for faithfulness – a faithful rendering of the voice and character of the text – in an attempt to imitate the original’s effects on Chinese readers in an English-language readership, as opposed to a duplication of textual details. If a translation is too literal, it creates an odd mirroring that is like what you expect to find in a fun house; you might recognize the image, but you immediately know it is distorted.

Emphasizing imitation of voice in translation is not without its problems. I have seen my own preoccupation with imitation of voice create some problems or misunderstandings in the course of a project. In one instance, an author hired me directly to translate her work. When the final draft was complete, I received an email from her husband, a native English speaker, who wanted revisions done to capture what he considered to be the voice of the piece. He described it as upbeat, feisty, and fast-paced. This puzzled me, because my feel was that the text was slow, contemplative, and a little melancholy. I sought another opinion from a colleague, who agreed with my understanding and felt the voice I had employed was a good representation (or imitation) of the original. So, while the client and I were both focused on imitating the voice of the text, we were hearing different voices.

The matter was cleared up when I replied to the author’s husband, asking him to give me some examples from the text where he felt the voice was significantly different in English from the Chinese version. He wrote back to say, ‘I don’t read Chinese. This is just the impression I’ve got from my wife narrating the story to me.’ This was a somewhat unusual turn of events, with her spoken retelling of the story taking on a faster-paced, more frenzied tone than she employed in her writing. Her husband and I were each trying to mimic her voice, but she was not using the same voice when addressing each audience. The differences of opinion arose not only from the differences in the forms of the text presented to us, but in our respective relationships to that text. We were two very different audiences, and so the text morphed in our readings of it, resulting in almost polar opposite ideas about what the English version of the book should sound like.

When I thought more about this experience, it made perfect sense. The intended audience for a specific project always plays a key role in the approach to translation, a fact which creates space for many versions of the same work in translation. No single rendering can perfectly convey the original in the target language, translation by its nature being an inexact art, so multiple versions created for a variety of audiences and performed on numerous stages is the ideal. Sadly, it is an ideal that is rarely achieved, especially considering how inadequate the body of work we have available to us in translation is, even in the best of circumstances.
ShellyShelly Bryant  is the author of six volumes of poetry and a pair of travel guides for the cities of Suzhou and Shanghai. She has translated work from the Chinese for Penguin Books, Epigram Publishing, the National Library Board in Singapore, Giramondo Books, Rinchen Books and Griffith Review. Her translation of Sheng Keyi’s Northern Girls was long-listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012.