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Joyce Lee reviews a lively discussion about translating cultures by Cristina Rivera Garza and Nicky Harman

 ‘Translating Cultures’ is one of the programmes of the Hong Kong Literary Festival 2019. Supported by the Consulate General of Mexico in Hong Kong, it took place in the evening of the 6th of November 2019. Readers, writers, translators, and poets gathered at the cosy JC Studio Theatre of the Fringe Club, a brick and stucco building that has witnessed the historical changes of Hong Kong. The historical location is the epitome of how cultures have been continuously translated in the former colonial city.

Arthur Leung, Cristina Rivera Garza, and Nicky Harman in conversation

‘Translating Cultures’ featured Cristina Rivera Garza, one of the most prolific Mexican writers who has published literary works in both English and Spanish, and Nicky Harman, co-chair of the Translators Association, who has translated fiction, literary non-fiction and poetry by authors including Chen Xiwo, Han Dong, and Yan Geling. Hong Kong translator and poet Arthur Leung, who has translated poetry by Leung Ping Kwan and Bei Dao, moderated the session. It was an intriguing evening exploring the translation of oneself and cultures based on readers’ reception.

To be a capable translator, one should first acquire proficiency in different languages. Harman shared her very first encounter with Chinese-English translation as a university student at Leeds in the 1960s when China was experiencing the Cultural Revolution. Although she was not able to visit China at that time, she still fell in love with the language; learning a new language was like ‘opening a window’ to her, and she became determined to be a translator but not a novelist.

Different from Harman who learnt a foreign language in an environment familiar to her, Rivera Garza grew up in the northeast of Mexico near the border with the United States. Since then, she has become highly aware of the existence of borders one experiences physically in daily life: Stepping in and out of a place, one just cannot stop asking himself or herself seemingly simple yet highly complicated philosophical and existential questions: ‘Who am I? Where am I from? Where am I going?’ Rivera Garza felt the irresistible, instinctive urge to translate this way of positioning and presenting reality in writing. As an aspiring writer who took a leap of faith, she moved to the United States in her 20s to explore the organic and intimate nature of languages as systems of knowledge.

Cristina Rivera Garza and Nicky Harman

Although it is publicly acknowledged that translators work independently, both agreed that translation can best be collaborative practice involving translators and writers, prompted by the thought-provoking question about the translatability of culturally specific terms including slang and colloquial expressions posed by Leung. Harman believed that translating colloquial expressions and dialects was not a tough challenge, but giving the character the voice was. When translating the work of Yan Geling, she had to translate the recurring swear word ‘po niang’ (wench), but she could not find an appropriate equivalent in modern English. The author then called her and asked, ‘where’s all the swearing?’ A close author-translator relationship does help translators to critically reflect on their translation strategies and decision-making process.

What Rivera Garza found incredibly difficult translating was poetry, as sometimes it is untranslatable. As a translator, she was not looking for harmony but disagreement – to Rivera Garza, translation should be a radical experience of embracing oneself as someone else, making the process extremely energetic and fun. A notable example is her novel La cresta de Ilión (The Iliac Crest, translated by Sarah Booker). She did not realise it was a suspenseful psychological horror story until the English translation received strong response from readers. It demonstrates that collaboration between writers and readers makes multiple interpretations of the text possible.

The advice offered by the pair at the end of the discussion was eminently practical: Don’t give up the day job (though Harman did not follow the advice herself!). Find a short story you like and try translating a shorter piece. Publish it online to get feedback, as it can help you gain confidence and more importantly, get your name known. Once you are better known, find a good editor to provide feedback on the first draft. It is incredibly important to understand the editing process and more importantly, the business of book publishing.

A clear understanding of the publishing business also symbolises that writers and translators should never underestimate active readers’ capability and willingness to accept new and foreign expressions – Harman gave the example of Shifu (master) which she directly transcribed throughout her translation of Yan Ge’s The Chilli Bean Paste Clan. The session left the audience with more room for thought about the continuity and plurality of the action of translating cultures involving writers, translators, and readers.


Joyce Lee works as a lecturer at the Hang Seng University of Hong Kong and she holds an MSc in Comparative Literature from the University of Edinburgh.

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