13 March 09 | Chad W. Post

Thanks to Literary Saloon for bringing this to our attention. Over at Paper Republic there’s an ongoing discussion of the recent New York Times review by Jess Row of Yu Hua’s Brothers.

It all starts when Bruce Humes raises a few questions about the review:

—-Does Jess Row know Chinese? This is never clarified, yet it is implied throughout that he does. (“reading Brothers in English can be a daunting, sometimes vexing and deeply confusing experience. Partly this has to do with the difficulty of finding an English equivalent for Yu Hua’s extremely direct and graphic Chinese.”) I would certainly like to know, because the ability to compare the two versions would offer a deeper understanding of the book, and empower the critic to offer an informed opinion about the quality of the translation. [. . .]

—-“Does this mean Brothers is untranslatable?” asks Row. It strikes me that there are an awful lot of weird or cutting-edge books out there that have been translated from the French or the Russian, etc. Why is it that when the book in question is Chinese, the first question that pops to mind is whether it can be meaningfully rendered in a European language? Just how “mysterious” is 21st century China to the West, and who is creating, or even manipulating, this perception? If the translation of Chinese literature were carried out by the superb translators and editors who brought Tolstoy and Proust and Kawabata into our lives, would China still seem so “mysterious”?

What ensues in the comments section is exactly what should occur more often in our culture. The responses—which you should really read, it’s a fascinating discussion of translation, how to review a translation, etc.—include a post from Eileen Chow (one of the translators of Brothers) and a reaction from Jess Row himself.

Expanding from an editorial decision to replace a reference to Lin Daiyu with the phrase “a sentimental heroine” the discussion broadens to cover how Chinese literature is presented and what readers/editors expect from a novel. According to Jess Row:

You write, “Are most readers looking for the familiar, or an affirmation of the reality they know, when they read a novel? And have we come to expect authors to “acknowledge” us when they spin a yarn about their own society?” That is exactly my point: I think, unfortunately, that Anglophone readers and editors do look for the familiar and avoid the unfamiliar or seemingly “obscure” (like, say, “Lin Daiyu”?), and that’s what limits the accessibility of this novel, no matter how well it’s translated.

I have to agree that editors and reviewers tend to underestimate readers. Changes like this are perplexing to me. I mean, we all know how to use the internet to get any minute piece of information we want. It took me all of 3 seconds to find the Wiki page explaining “Lin Daiyu”’ for anyone who isn’t familiar with the character. Maybe there are people out there who quit reading when they encounter a word/event/character they’re not already familiar with, but I’d like to think that number is declining. One of the pleasures of reading is encountering new ideas/words/historical contexts, which you can often figure out by the context, or a two second internet search on your iPhone.

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