Andrea Lingenfelter is a “literary translator,” best known for her English translations of Farewell My Concubine by Lilian Lee, and the controversial novel Candy by Mian Mian, the Chinese version of which was banned over here.
A poet herself, Lingenfelter has now turned her sharp pen toward contemporary Chinese poetry, which she will be reading Saturday as part of the Shanghai Literary Festival.
We caught up with her to talk about the art of literary translation, Shanghai’s unique writing voice, and those terrible Chinglish menus at Chinese restaurants…
Andrea Lingenfelter will be at the Crystal Room at 12 pm Saturday, reading her translations of the work of Shanghainese poet Wang Yin and from a new book of poetry by Zhai Yongming, to be published by Zephyr Press.
Shanghaiist: So what exactly is a literary translator? What makes it different from other types of translation?
Andrea: In literary translation you take a work of art in one language and create a new work of art in a different language. You want to be faithful to the spirit, to the author’s sensibility, but you don’t have to be literal. In fact, if you’re too literal your translation will be awful. It won’t have life in the new language. It’ll be all bones and no flesh.
Shanghaiist: As a poet yourself, how do you stop yourself from writing in your own voice and overtaking that of the original author’s?
Andrea: By paying close attention to what the work is saying and how it’s saying it. For a long time I’ve felt that translators are like actors. Some actors are better at subsuming themselves in their characters; some always play themselves no matter what the role is. To wear another writer’s mask, or persona, demands a kind of empathy and intuition. Can you completely disappear into your role? No. But you can adopt another’s persona and adopt a style that suits them. Every translator will do something different with a work though, which is part of what makes it exciting.
Shanghaiist: From your work with Shanghainese writers, do you find that Shanghai inspires any particular type of writing?
Andrea: In some of the novels I’ve read, I think the city itself becomes an important character. The Shanghai fiction writers I like are really good at creating a sense of the city’s culture and life. I’m most familiar with Mian Mian, Wang Anyi and Eileen Chang. They don’t write epics; instead they have an eye on the experience of life as it’s lived in the everyday, especially by women. But I don’t know if that’s a Shanghainese quality or a gender quality.
Shanghaiist: What’s up with English translations of Chinese menus? Why are they so hideous/hilarious?
Andrea: They’re too literal. Chinese dishes often have very flowery poetic names that merely hint at what’s in the dish. They’re evocative, not descriptive. Translated directly into English, they’re way over the top. But I think the other problem is that Chinese cuisine has such a long history, and each menu item expresses a lot of that tradition in just a few words. You can’t express all of that cultural information in a short English phrase.
Shanghaiist: Tell us about what you’ll be reading on Saturday.
Andrea: I’ll be reading translations of poems by Zhai Yongming, a poet who’s based in Chengdu, and by [Shanghainese poet] Wang Yin. Zhai’s recent works are increasingly concerned with Chinese tradition. There’s a lot of social criticism in her poetry, especially about gender issues and the position of women in
Chinese society, and she has a bitter wit.
Photo from Western Michigan University.