A hard sell in translation but worth the effort

13:43, July 19, 2010      

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When Michael Berry made up his mind to translate Wang Anyi's seminal work, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow, he never imagined that at the end of the day he would have to resort to hard sell, as the book - awarded, televised, staged and generally accepted as a contemporary classic and an insightful account of 20th-century China - was a huge commercial hit.

Wang gave Berry - an American academic specializing in Chinese cultural studies and the translator of works by literary heavyweights Yu Hua, Ye Zhaoyan and Chang Ta-chun - a free hand to chop and change the original in the translated version.

In between writing his doctoral dissertation on the representation of trauma in modern Chinese literature and film, and completing another book of interviews with the finest Chinese filmmakers, from Zhang Yimou to Jia Zhangke, Berry toiled away relentlessly with his co-translator Susan Chan Egan for more than two years at translating what is, unequivocally, Wang's most challenging book from a translator's perspective in terms of form, syntactical arrangement and lack of direct speech.

And then came the shocker. No major American commercial publishing house was willing to touch it.

The first 40-odd pages of evocative descriptions and psychoanalytical musings during which the author introduces the principal elements in the novel - the Shanghai alley (nongtang), gossip, the young lady's bedchamber, pigeons, and finally Wang Qiyao, the heroine - as if these were the dramatis personae of the show that was about to begin, put off some American publishers, as did the apparent lack of action.

One of them even suggested a restructuring of the book and renaming it Shanghai Baby, probably hoping that the success of books such as Shanghai Baby, Shanghai Girls and Shanghai Princess would rub off on this one.

"In the end we managed to bring out the book without cuts, in a form that's very close to the original," says Berry, visibly happy and vindicated, during a recent visit to Beijing. "And being published by Columbia University Press means the book is never going to go out of circulation."

He did take a few liberties by punctuating the run-on lines and introducing quotation marks to ease the journey of the reader unfamiliar with Chinese syntax. The idea was to maintain an "equivalent effect" between the parent and translated text, to "maintain the integrity of the original in its fully realized form in English".

Translating Song of Everlasting Sorrow was not an option for Berry. He spent months mulling over the consequences of taking up a task that was going to drain him physically and intellectually, but the power of Wang's narrative voice kept haunting him. "This was a masterpiece and I had to translate it," he says.

"The book is a very important vision of contemporary China through three very distinct periods in China's history - the pre-liberation era of the 1940s, the socialist Shanghai in the 60s and finally the reform era in the early-mid 80s. At the same time this is an anti-historical narrative in which everyday histories of Shanghai involving gossip, fashion, archaeological reconstruction... replace the macro history," Berry says.

He was also charmed by the dovetailing of the "beautiful, evocative, essayistic passages" with the detailing of the "vicissitudes of everyday Shanghai".

"That juxtaposition is quite powerful," Berry says, still enchanted by Wang's remarkable control over her panoramic work.

Source: China Daily(By Chitralekha Basu)


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