Q&A

Translating Reform Era Fiction

Kevin McGeary talks to the translator of Empires of Dust by Jiang Zilong

Set in the fictional village of Guojiadian, Jiang Zilong’s Empires of Dust is a seven-hundred page tome that chronicles the rise and fall of Guo Cunxian, who transforms from impoverished peasant to formidable businessman. Described by the South China Morning Post as being “as epic, grandiose, ambitious, complex and turbulent as China itself,” this is the tenth novel by Jiang, who is often described as the father of China’s ‘reform literature,’ literature dealing with the reform and opening period after 1978. I caught up with co-translator Christopher Payne to discuss the novel, and the work involved in rendering it into English.

Of all the characters, Guo Cunxian goes through the biggest trajectory, from rejecting the sexual advances of Sister Liu to habitually committing infidelity, from eking out a living making coffins to becoming powerful and corrupt. Does he represent both the heroic and reprehensible qualities that made China’s economic boom possible?

Guo has very humble roots. His family did not participate in the Communist revolution – so no Red history to claim as their own – nor did they join up with the Party to become cadres or other revolutionary workers after 1949. They were the quintessential poor peasant family.

Q&A

Writing Between Two Languages

An interview with Chinese novelist Xie Hong – Sun Jicheng

Ed: Xie Hong is an award-winning Chinese author and poet, currently living in Shenzhen. Originally from Guangzhou, he graduated from East China Normal University with an economics degree, then studied English at the Waikato Institute of Technology in New Zealand. He began writing poetry in 1985, but turned his attention to prose fiction in 1993. His first English novel, Mao’s Town, was published in 2018, recounting the effects of the Mao era on a small Chinese town as seen through the eyes of a small boy. His translator, Sun Jicheng, talked to Xie Hong (in Chinese) for us about his life and work.

Sun Jicheng: You are one of the few Chinese novelists who write in English. Why did you decide to write in English?

Xie Hong: It was mainly due to my English-speaking environment. After moving to New Zealand, I decided to study English again, which I had not used for many years. In addition, in 2014, translators such as [yourself] began to translate my short stories to English. Dr. Kong Ruicai, the critic, encouraged me to write in English. He said that there were examples of successful Chinese writers, such as Ha Jin, who did this. At first I thought it was a joke, but then I really tried it.

Q&A

The Ghosts Inside

Matilda Colarossi talks to Lindsay Wong, author of The Woo-Woo

Lindsey Wong’s memoir The Woo-Woo relates the journey from childhood to young adulthood of a first generation Chinese-Canadian and her “crazy” family. Crazy is a word that appears often in the text, but not in the sense we might use it, of mental health. For the Wong family, crazy means possession by the Woo-Woo ghosts: ancestors who can occupy any individual at any time, at the least sign of weakness.

So the Wongs must be strong, for the Woo-Woo – the source of evil, hallucinations, blemishes, outbursts, bad marks and suicide attempts – are always lying in wait. Everything that goes wrong in life is the fault of the Woo-Woo, and every member of the Wong family tries to run from the ghosts as best they can. They do so by camping out for days in a food court in the mall, or by going to the bathroom (were one is vulnerable) in groups. Or, like Lindsay, by going away to university.

The memoir begins with Lindsay suffering from an extreme case of vertigo while she is in college, far from home (and, she had hoped, the Woo-Woo). Her greatest fears seem to become reality, but she gets a surprise, and we start on a joy-ride that we wish would never stop. We laugh, cry and worry about Lindsay as she tries to integrate into a new world, but does not know how to leave the weight of old ghosts behind.

Q&A

Cab Talk

Brian Spivey interviews former NPR Shanghai correspondent Frank Langfitt

While working as NPR’s Shanghai correspondent from 2011 to 2016, Frank Langfitt observed that China was at a crossroads. The enormous economic growth of the previous three decades had yielded a more prosperous and worldly population, but had also led to stark inequality, rampant corruption, and a cooling economy. Langfitt wanted to understand what ordinary Chinese people thought and cared about during this inflection point. To find out, he drew on his prior experience as a taxi driver in Philadelphia, and drove people around Shanghai in exchange for conversation, for a series of radio stories.

The resulting book, The Shanghai Free Taxi, provides an in-depth, sensitive and informed look at what ordinary Chinese think several years into Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream.” I talked with him on the phone about why he decided to drive a taxi for free in Shanghai, the kinds of interesting people he met while doing so, and what those people think about the social and political changes they are living through.

Q&A

Translating Tibetan Literature

Kevin McGeary talks to Tsering Döndrup’s translator, Christopher Peacock

Christopher Peacock is a PhD candidate at Columbia University, and translator from the Tibetan of The Handsome Monk and Other Stories, a collection of fiction by Tsering Döndrup. Born in 1961 in Qinghai, a Tibetan area of China, Döndrup began writing in the early 1980s and has published many collections of short fiction and four full-length novels. His work has been translated into several languages, and he is the recipient of a number of Tibetan, Mongolian and nationwide literary prizes in China. I talked to Christopher Peacock about Döndrup’s work and the state of Tibetan literature.

How did you become involved with Tsering Döndrup and The Handsome Monk?    

Initially, because I was researching his short story ‘Ralo.’ I was aware that several Tibetan critics had compared it to Lu Xun’s ‘The True Story of Ah Q,’ and this fit very closely with my interest in Tibetan adaptations of Chinese literary discourse. I interviewed the author about the story, and later I translated it for my own use. As I read more of his work, I became interested in putting together a whole collection.