by Stefan Kielbasiewicz
Not long ago I was able to attend the New Writing from East Asia event in Leeds on the Saturday of July 4th. It was the final day of the Writing Chinese Symposium and the culmination of the the ‘Writing Chinese: Authors, Authority and Authorship’ project, based at the White Rose East Asia Centre in Leeds.
I originally came across the event through Georgina Norie over at English PEN. Since Leeds does not have a student PEN, and York is the next closest one, she wondered whether I would be available to go as representative of York PEN. It was a matter of great personal interest to me – I’d just completed a year of Chinese Level 1 LFA and have always been interested in translation as a possible career – so needless to say, I jumped at the chance.
As you may be already aware, English PEN is a huge patron of translation. On the translation homepage the quote “Literature knows no frontiers” is displayed from the PEN Charter. The Writer’s In Translation Programme also has three main grant awards for publishers and translators called PEN Promotes, PEN Translates and PEN Samples – and they feature the very best of the award winners in an online collection called the World Bookshelf. If you’re serious about translating in the UK – English PEN wants you.
However, this event was affiliated with the Free Word Centre in London as opposed to English PEN, which does a lot of similar work in contributing to translators and publishers. The event also served the purpose of launching Read Paper Republic, an online journal devoted to publishing the best translated writing from East Asia once a week. It’s a project started by Paper Republic, which is a collective of writers and translators of Chinese fiction.
The event began at around 11am and took place in the beautiful building of the Northern Ballet, where children in ballet uniforms and parents all crowded in the main lobby. Away from all that, on the fifth floor, there was some time to mingle with everyone over coffee and browse the book-stand before going in to listen to the first speaker, Jeremy Tiang, a translator based in New York, who read from a short story he had recently written. It was set in a restaurant and told in second-person from a mother’s perspective. The mother had survived The Great Leap Forward and was speaking to her daughter, who studies in the UK and wasn’t eating enough. Naturally, the conversation centred heavily around food, and about the horrors endured during The Great Leap Forward. Interestingly, Tiang explored this phrase in his QA afterwards, stating he thought it was used too loosely in Western media and advertising, when in fact for Chinese people it contains quite traumatic connotations.
The next speaker was James Shea, an American poet based in Hong Kong and an Assistant Professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University. His poetry blew me away in both its form and delivery, so much so that I bought his book that was being sold on the stand: The Lost Novel. What was new and interesting about his poetry was its obliqueness, a quality he mentioned as a sort of disclaimer before he started reading, but which I thought was quite fascinating. A lot of his poems preoccupied themselves with different perspectives being transplanted over each other, as well as the logic and order of events, and the inactivity of everyday life. More curious was his appropriation of Chinese couplets and quatrains in his poetry, which were stylistically refreshing and came off naturally in his reading.
The next speaker was the Chinese writer Murong Xuecun, one of China’s first internet-based writers and a prominent social critic, notorious for his defence of freedom of expression. He achieved widespread fame with Leave Me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu which was first published online and then in print. This event gave us a taste of his new book, a thriller about corrupt lawyers in China. Murong wasn’t fluent in English, so during the QA there was a translator to translate into Mandarin for him, and a translator to translate back into English. One of the first questions asked was about how much of what had been written was true. Murong replied that about 90% of it was. He said he went to university to study law and decided not to go through with it in the end, but retained many of his friends who are now lawyers, and it is these stories and sensibilities that inspired the novel. When asked about the reception of the book, he replied that lawyers in China were angry about the reception they were getting. As the book was also a humorous one, I asked a question about whether humour is necessary to successfully transcend censorship and mount any kind of social criticism. His reply was something quite obvious but something I had never expected: by necessity, when referring to sensitive political issues in China one must always refer to them in a roundabout way. So for example if one is referring directly to China in a negative way, one wouldn’t say China but “a country west of North Korea”. Or if one wants to make a reference to when the Tiananmen massacre took place, they would say “a year after June 4th, 1989”, or something similar. The point is: having to refer to sensitive issues in roundabout ways like these is in itself a humorous process that makes use of comic incongruity; the State’s censorship is ironically the creator of the opportunities for it to be mocked.
After those three speakers there was a free dim sum lunch on the balcony overlooking Leeds. I don’t remember any of the names of what I tried, but it was all delicious. It was a good opportunity to ask more questions and follow up on previous conversations over mouths half-full of food.
The second half of the event was a translation workshop, involving the acclaimed Hong Kong writer Dorothy Tse, her translator Nicky Harman, and editor of Pathlight Magazine Dave Haysom. Sitting in a row, with Tse in the centre, they displayed a powerpoint presentation of Tse’s translated story in English, and on the slides themselves pointed out words or phrases that Harman needed to confirm with Tse, such as what gender the character is and whether certain nouns are singular or plural—an ambiguity that is quite convenient for Chinese writers. Then Haysom would point out places where he had offered critique and advice for Harman’s choices, and both would explain the exchanges that they went through to arrive at the right translation. It was an extremely entertaining way of showing how the translation process works and what kinds of interactions go on between the people involved.
After that there were some closing remarks and thank-yous to the speakers for the final day of the symposium, as well as the launch of the Read Paper Republic. I promised that in the future I would attend events such as this one in Leeds, and until University of Leeds gets its student PEN centre, to be a decent surrogate for anything related to translation or freedom of speech and expression. Until then I look forward to reading the newest fiction coming out of East Asia!