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A Reply to a Message in a Bottle ─ Remembering a Translation Workshop in the UK

  • PublishTime:2024-04-01

Chang Chuan-Fen(張娟芬), translated by Gregory Laslo

On the day I had to rush to the translation workshop, I ran into the UK Rail strikes. Experienced in running workshops, the University of East Anglia’s British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT) responded immediately. They contacted Danny, a noted translator, and asked him to rent a car and meet Kuwaiti author Bothayna and myself at the airport. After a fourteen-hour flight, I waited three hours at Heathrow Airport, witnessing an argument over cutting in line and many children’s antics, before an immigration officer let me through in a scant thirty seconds. And yet, we were thankful for the strike. Both Bothayna and I were sure that without Danny, we wouldn’t have been able to navigate our way through the pitch-dark campus, conduct a conversation via intercom to open a heavy security door, get our keys, then drag our luggage down the road and up four floors to our rooms. It was rainy and cold, and I was shivering constantly. Was it really July?

The next day, I pulled back the heavy red curtains, reminiscent of those at a theater. From my room, I could see a slope of a grassy knoll. Compared to the day before, the weather was good – by UK standards, at least. I saw crows strolling around and rabbits scampering about wildly.

Literature at UEA, including translation and creative writing, enjoys a high reputation. The campus was utterly deserted, since all the students were gone. Whenever anybody ran into another person, they probably both thought, what are you even doing here right now? After walking around for a bit, I was thinking – it’s funny, how should I put it? It seemed like a return to simpler times. All the flowery language was stripped away. On campus, the road where the most shops are is called the Street. One store there is named The Shop. The space formed by a few buildings is the Square, and one place to go eat is the Campus Kitchen.

We met in the Square in the afternoon. Our tour guide pointed out the Campus Kitchen, took us down the Street, and told us that if we needed anything, we could go to the Shop to get it. Our tour ended at the Sainsbury Centre, where the sun blazed through the floor-to-ceiling glass panels of the café. The workshop was divided into seven groups. Ours was Literature from Taiwan, a name that must have been chosen with great care. Our members were very diverse, having traveled all the way from Taiwan, Singapore, China, Hong Kong, Italy, or other places in the UK, and each had their own stories of trials faced. Jeremy Tiang (程異), the leader of the workshop, was from the United States. When we first entered the café, everyone spoke very softly. By the time the champagne was done, we had to shout to converse. The workshop had yet to start, but the fact that everyone was chatting like this meant that it had already begun.

One of our team members from Taiwan told me that he had read the first chapter of Hooligan Wang Xin-Fu, and the simplicity and rhythm of the language reminded him of Shen Congwen’s(沈光文) Border Town. That was really touching – I carried the pleasant thought with me for several days.

During the opening ceremony on Monday, each writer read excerpts of their work aloud in their own language. This was followed by an intense three-part translation workshop, for a total of four and a half hours. On the second day, there was a creative writing workshop, a lecture, and a two-part translation workshop, totaling three hours. The next few days were similar, and just as grueling. But for breakfast, there were mushrooms the size of my palm, tea, coffee, and snacks during breaks, lunch boxes too generous to finish at noon, and dinner was no slouch either. “You’ll eat well there,” Danny had told me on the first day, and that was certainly true.

But – wait a minute – You will be fed properly is what Danny had actually said. Should I leave fed the way it is? I could turn the passive voice into active – was that the feeling I wanted to convey? What was the proper way to translate properly? Will the translation have the same casualness, the same colloquiality, the same everyday feel? After a few days of eye-opening education at the hands of the translation workshop, my mind was filled with such considerations typical of professional translators.

Our Literature from Taiwan group had twelve people, and our task was to translate a short section of Hooligan Wang Xin-Fu. Presumably, when they had questions about the justice system, social context, or specific details, they would need me there to provide answers. I had thought I was there just to be a mascot.

The first sentence of the passage was, “Wang Xin-fu sat in the jail cell, dejected.” Jeremy had each person write their translation anonymously on a piece of paper. We twelve people produced thirteen versions, since I had first turned in a half-baked version before creating another one. The thirteen translations were all different in structure and vocabulary, and from there, I watched with amazement as the professionalism of translation gradually unfolded before me.

They carefully weighed and turned every sentence and every word. I suddenly achieved an entirely new vision of what I had written. From this segment to the next, I had moved the point of view from Wang Xin-fu himself to the objective, all-seeing third person. Later on, I had then shifted it to the emotional A Yu. I had not considered any of this when writing, relying only on instinct. Writing came smooth in my mother tongue, but perhaps habit had blunted my feel for the language. After converting it to English, formerly unthought meanings jumped out at me.

The meaning of translate in the original Latin is to carry across, to take something from point A to B. This crossing not only leaps across languages, but societies and culture as well. Hence, these professional translators were considering in detail how they should translate “The Chiayi Penitentiary sent someone to take Wang Xin-fu to Puzi Hospital,” in a way that allowed non-Taiwanese readers to understand just where the penitentiary sent Wang Xin-fu when they sent him to a small and local hospital. When carrying the meanings of characters and words across to another language, translators also have to pack up the implied meanings to take with them.

As an author, I choose every word with care. A long time ago, when an article of mine appeared in the paper, I saw a misprint, and I was furious. Other ways it happens – I wrote a review of a book by a very young author, and so I used the phrase “ugly duckling” at the start of the article. Near the end, I called back to that by describing the author’s “swanlike stroll,” to say that I was happy to see his metamorphosis and maturation. Without even asking me, the editor assumed I had made a mistake, and all on his own, changed it to “sunny stroll.” You dimwit! You’re all dimwits! – and I’m angry again. In the era of the newspaper, a single slip-up can mean disaster. Once it’s printed wrong, there’s no changing it. I’m still mad about it to this day.

That sense of loneliness which comes from writing is something I had long grown accustomed and even numb to. Those thoughts were just meaningless mutterings to myself; I had never expected anyone to comprehend them – I was just a dog chasing its tail. The translation workshop was the first time that I saw anybody peruse, analyze, and scrutinize my work so closely, and also correctly understand it. The message in a bottle which I had casually tossed into the sea had actually produced a reply. Jeremy calmly chuckled, “Translators are your closest readers.”

It was still light out when I returned to my room after dinner. Herds of rabbits crawled about on the grassy knoll, their dark brown fur melting into the ground. Whenever one jumped, its tail would give a flash of clean white, revealing itself for all to see. There were a few people taking walks on the road, but everyone had eaten their fill, and the rabbits had nothing to fear. I gazed down at them from my room, and gazed on and on, packing up that serene, peaceful image in my heart to take back with me.

About the Author: 

Chang Chuan-Fen   is a graduate of National Taiwan University’s Department of Sociology, and holds a joint master’s degree in journalism from Aarhus University in Denmark and the University of Hamburg in Germany. She received her PhD in criminology from a joint PhD program organized by the University of Hamburg and Eötvös Lorand University in Hungary, and is currently the chairperson of the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP). 

Her works include Against the Wall: An Analysis of Lesbians’ Oppression in Taiwan; An Unhealthy Coming of Age: The Case of the Hsi-chih Trio, 1991 to Date; Lesbians Like This and That: The Eroticism of Lesbianism and Its Cultural Meaning; Clean for Two Months: My Trip to Nepal; The Difficulties in Killing: Essays on the Death Penalty; and The Murder Case in “Auntie 13” Karaoke.