The art of translating

Updated: 2012-05-04 10:48

By David Bartram (China Daily)

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With demand for Chinese literature growing in the English speaking world, translators have rarely been so in demand.

The art of translating

One of the most acclaimed translators from Chinese to English is Julia Lovell, who has translated Chinese authors including Lu Xun, Han Shaogong and Zhu Wen for Western audiences.

"I think the secret behind a good translation is that there is no single secret. I think the crucial thing is for the translator to be as widely read as possible in the literature of the target language," Lovell says.

"The greatest challenge in translating is not the technical act of working out what the Chinese means in English, but reproducing the life, the vitality and the tone of the voice in an English equivalent or idiom that sounds natural and fluent."

There is also a balance to be struck between fidelity to the original and creating a piece of literature in a new language that will have appeal.

"In my opinion, a good translation has to be a work of literary value in its own right in the English language," says Eric Abrahamsen, who is currently translating Wang Xiaofang's Notes of a Civil Servant and has previously been awarded grants to translate works by Wang Xiaobo and Xu Zechen.

"If you are translating a novel, then the point of the novel is to enjoy it as a work of art. I think the quality of the English is very important.

"I think the fact that there is no common background between English and Chinese makes it such a challenge. There are no common idioms or grammatical patterns. The language and the culture express things very differently, so it really is a big gap between the two languages."

For such a challenging profession, a common complaint is that translators are often undervalued. While the number of professional translators between Chinese and English has grown substantially in recent years, it is struggling to keep up with demand for new titles.

"I think the key issue to attract top quality people and to enable them to spend quality time on translation is to pay them more," Lovell says. "I think in general the translator is a slightly undervalued figure in the UK.

"When reading a translation people imagine too easily that they are accessing the original. They forget that without a good translation, a work of foreign literature is not going to work at all in English and that the role of the translator is incredibly important."

Of course, good translators can only be the product of good Chinese language learning. Abrahamsen hopes that the increase in the number of people studying Chinese will eventually trickle down into translating.

Chris Paterson, a publishing consultant, suggests that one way to tempt more into the industry is by acknowledging translators in more relevant ways.

"It might be a good idea to involve them in the royalties of a book as well, as opposed to just paying them a flat fee for their work. The skill has to have a higher premium."