A Conversation Between Literary Translators Marian Schwartz and Nicky Harman

Marian Schwartz is the award-winning translator of “Russian crime queen” Polina Dashkova’s first book to be translated into English, Madness Treads Lightly. She is the principal English translator of the works of Nina Berberova, and translated the New York Times bestseller The Last Tsar by Edvard Radzinsky, as well as classics by Mikhail Bulgakov, Ivan Goncharov, Yuri Olesha, and Mikhail Lermontov.

Nicky Harman, winner of the Mao Tai Cup People’s Literature Chinese-English translation prize 2015 and the 2013 China International Translation Contest, Chinese-to-English section, and is the translator of Happy Dreams by Jia Pingwa, one of China’s most celebrated writers.

We’ve brought them together to talk about their process, communicating with their (still living) authors, difficulties in their work, and more:


Can you both explain the #1 thing about translating that you wish readers knew?

NH: Well, the most important thing for me is that reading a translation should be fun. You shouldn’t have to read a translation because it’s ‘worthy’. It has to work as literature in its translated version. Second of all, I feel that the translator has an equal duty to the original author AND to the readers of the translation. For both those reasons, they should love the language they’re translating just as much as the source language.

MS: I think you hit on an important point when you bring up the idea of fun, by which I assume you take the broad view of ‘fun’ as something pleasurable and worthwhile. This is one of my hobby horses, I fear, but translated literature has become (as I read somewhere) “scary”. That’s because so little gets translated and published from any given language that we’re seeing mostly erudite and difficult stuff. But I agree with you, that the reader has to be excited about what’s being read!

What I was going to say was that I wish our readers would approach translations prepared to be surprised and delighted by a story very unlikely to resemble anything that could be written in English. A translation is a door to a new world very likely not accessible any other way, and it’s the translator’s role to serve up as much of that exotic worldview and aesthetic sense as possible. I think you and I are on the same page here.

NH: I do find it one of the most exciting things about translation, and a huge privilege: that it opens a window on another world, and through my efforts, I can open that window for other people too.

happy dreams jia pingwaMS: Nicky, I’m fascinated to know some of the specific ways you go about opening that window as wide as possible. What kinds of issues come up either with Chinese in general, or with this latest book of yours, Happy Dreams, in particular?

NH: With Happy Dreams, I think there were particular challenges. The most basic (and, in a way, the easiest to tackle) was the very different world being described. I mean, I have friends, and relatives too, among migrant workers in London, but none of them live in bleak hovels or in such abject poverty. So I was very careful to check that I had the right image in my mind, and that I understood exactly what kind of cooker or pancake or whatever was being talked about. The most interesting challenge was that I had to find a convincing voice for Happy Liu in English. This is a process that happens with all translations, pinning down how one does it is difficult, but it is especially important when the novel consists of, literally, one man’s voice. Happy Liu is the first-person narrator, and most of the book is either interior monologue, or dialogue with his migrant worker friends. Imagine translating a story entirely related by a Glasgow Uber driver, into any other language.

MS: Oh my!  A single voice is quite a challenge. On the one hand, you have lots of time to develop the voice; on the other, you have lots of chances to introduce erroneous notions.

NH: OMG yes! What about your book? Cultural differences? Differences of genre? You had a woman as a heroine. Did that help or hinder?

madness treads lightlyMS: Having a woman as a heroine was, from my point of view, fabulous—as it usually is (and so rarely happens). And in this case, unlike most contemporary Russian fiction, the author, Polina Dashkova, worked quite significantly in a storytelling form recognizable to Western readers. As is often the case with contemporary Russian fiction, I had many questions about slang and interjections (I even got to use “Holy shit!” which made my day), but the hardest part in this case was language referring to the criminal world and especially the prison world.

And this was something I was wondering about in your case. Virtually all Russian gangsters have nicknames, sometimes based on appearance, sometimes on their actual surname. Two examples in this book: A man whose last name is Slepak, was nicknamed Slepoy, which means “blind.” The character appears many times, so I felt it was important to convey the sense of the original name and so called him “Blindboy.” But because a non-Russian speaker wouldn’t get the connection, I allowed an interjection: “So the nickname wasn’t just about his eyes. ‘Slepak’ has the same root as slepoy—blind.” But then for another name, I didn’t give the etymology, I just said: “Vladimir Mikhailovich Kudryashev—Curly, the boss of the taiga—sat staring at the television screen.”  I never explain that Kudryashev has the same root as “curly.” Curly also happens to be bald.

NH: That’s a really interesting example, and it happened a lot in Happy Dreams, where names produced many entertaining (translation) moments. The thing is, Jia Pingwa has a particular take on his characters’ names. They are, he says, part of the imagery of his novels. So in Happy Dreams, we have a rubbish collector whose name is Huang Ba, surname Huang, Ba meaning ‘eight’, as in eighth child in the family. Except of course that any Chinese person will immediately chuckle because Huang Ba sounds like Wang Ba, a term of abuse so common that it even appears in English in urbandictionary.com now. I failed to reproduce that pun at all convincingly but I did come up with another punning name that I was quite pleased with. One of the workers is called Zhu as a surname, a common surname but actually meaning the colour vermilion. His mates rudely call him something that puns on Zhu (same sound, different c=Chinese character means ‘pig’) and refers to his big balls (he’s the only male worker with a woman on site and the others suffer agonies of sexual frustration). So I diverged a little from my normal practice and created a new surname for him. Instead of Mr. Zhu, he became Mr. Gules (the same colour in heraldry) and his nickname was then Goolies (for any reader who’s not familiar what the slang goolies means, it’s made abundantly clear in the story). I played around with many alternatives but that one stuck.

NH: Marian, did you exchange emails with your author? Was that important?

MS: Yes, I did, but even better, I met with her in Moscow last year! She’s an extremely intelligent woman, and that interaction made me realize I could keep the heroine exceptionally decent and refined. After Anna Karenina, that was a relief. Nicky, I understand that you, too, have translated classics. How did that process differ from your work on Happy Dreams?

NH: Actually, Jia Pingwa is the most ‘classic’ author I’ve translated. Not in the accepted sense of 19th or 20th century, but in that he’s hugely influential in post 1970s literature in China, and he’s basically considered a ‘national treasure’. I was going to ask you this about Anna Karenina. I know full well that so many Chinese people who read English well will be combing through Happy Dreams. I’m sincerely hoping that they like what I’ve done! Seriously, I made sure to query things (eg: dialect and objects, both with Jia Pingwa via email and with some very nice and careful Chinese friends of mine who did some checking) to ensure that I got things accurate. But that said, the ultimate responsibility for the translation is mine.

MS: Brace yourself. The figure we in the States refer to as “Dr. Horrendo” is bound to pop up. Dr. Horrendo latches onto tiny details—and often finds errors where there are none, or where, with a broader view, one would find none. With Anna Karenina, there were many, many of these instances. This isn’t a case of error, but Rosamund Bartlett, who is British, did a translation of the book around the time mine came out, and we compared notes extensively. At one point, Levin wears a specific kind of shoe. She and I both, independently, researched this shoe on Google Images. (Really! We settled on the same page!) I translated the shoe as a ghillie, because in the picture it had laces across the top. She looked at another picture on the same page, which lacked laces, and called it a moccasin. I told her I couldn’t use “moccasin” in any case because of the association with Native Americans, and she said she couldn’t use “ghillie” equally because of the association with Scotland!

NH: That’s fascinating! I did feel I was translating twice during some of the editorial process! From Chinese to British English and from British to American English. Luckily the editor was extremely sensitive to my concerns, which were mainly that I didn’t want the slangy tone to be flattened by being moderated. I felt I had worked on achieving this voice that fit the character of Happy, but it took a bit of a battering! Because some expressions clearly weren’t acceptable. Let me think of an example…

“Happy, what’s up with you? You look terrible!”

“I’m fine,” I said.

“Nuts to that! Let me give you a back scratch!” she said.

WHICH BECAME: ‘Screw that!’ (edit) THEN ‘Bullshit!’ (final edit)

And I was disappointed that I couldn’t have used I was “chuffed”, when Happy was satisfied as well as delighted, but…well, all tiny instances in themselves, and many of them matters of personal opinion or one’s idiolect. And after all, translation is the art of compromise.

MS: The British-to-American conversion can be disheartening (as can the reverse, obviously) because those are the very terms that are so deeply felt, but yes, the reader has to have a chance at understanding.

I would say in the case of an older book that’s been translated many many times, the translator, it seems to me, needs to have a very good reason for revisiting the text. I gather Happy Dreams hasn’t been translated before, so that wasn’t an issue for you.

Have there been other texts that you’ve retranslated and, if so, how did that go?

NH: (I can’t wait to read Anna Karenina in your translation! And the new one too.)

I’ve once or twice translated a short story that someone, a Chinese native speaker, had had a go at. While respecting their efforts, I simply started again. My very favourite translation from Chinese is the huge novel that has been translated as The Story of the Stone or The Red Chamber Dream (or similar), as many different versions exist. The Story of the Stone by Hawkes and Minford is the best translation ever. I adore it and wouldn’t dream of trying to re-translate!

MS: On a different subject, I’m very curious about your efforts to promote Chinese literature in English through Paper Republic. What is your assessment of that effort’s outcome?

NH: The results are more of a ‘drip-drip’ effect rather than dramatic outcomes, but as a small collective of translators (half a dozen) I think we have achieved quite a bit, both in the US and UK (and other English-speaking areas.) We do live events (which is the most rewarding but may only get an audience of 30-50). We also run translation competitions, and publish free short stories and do mentoring of emerging translators. For me it’s all hugely rewarding. Translation can be a bit isolating. When a Polish woman says to me that she loved a short story I translated into English, I beam and glow with satisfaction. 🙂

MS: Russian literature, especially contemporary Russian literature, is in an analogous situation to the Chinese, I think, which is why I ask. People think only of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov, and, if we’re lucky, Bulgakov and Pasternak, but they’re largely ignorant of contemporary authors. I’m hoping that by bringing out less difficult and shorter novels—(Russians adore their 800-page novels)—work, like Madness Treads Lightly, English-language readers can develop a taste for Russian culture and the Russian sensibility.

MS: Another question: In Russian literature and culture, gender relations are largely antithetical to our Western notions. This, along with the propensity for heavy drinking, makes contemporary Russian literature less attractive to Western readers. Is there anything analogous to this problem with Chinese literature?

NH: I know the problem! Many Chinese male authors of a certain age are, shall we say, less than sympathetic to their female characters. One of the reasons that I like Jia Pingwa’s writing is that he bucks that trend, and has very sympathetic female characters. Of course, one can settle on translating Chinese woman authors, where that precise problem doesn’t arise. I do that with enthusiasm too.


NH: Marian, this has been a hugely rewarding conversation. I’m going to buy lots of books translated from Russian.

MS: Nicky, I agree, this has been great fun. Now I’m intrigued by Jia Pingwa and look forward to reading your Happy Dreams.

Samantha Irby and Robin Sloan talk about their favorite books in our newest podcast, Recommended. Download it for free from Apple Podcasts or Google Play.
VIEW COMMENTS