Helen Wang was awarded the 2017 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation for her translation of Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan (Walker Books). Now in its 20th year, the Marsh Award celebrates the astounding quality of translated children’s literature being published, and supports the assorted organisations championing the importance of making books from overseas available to children in this country.
Daniel Hahn interviewed Helen for Books for Keeps.
First things first: how come you know Chinese?
I was one of the last people in my year at school to fill in a UCAS form. The headmistress pushed the yellow-backed Compendium into my hands, and told me to go to her office first thing the next morning with my five choices in order of preference. So I went home and half-heartedly flicked through it. I wasn’t ready to think seriously about going to university, and didn’t know what I wanted to do next. But she was a strict headmistress, and I obediently went to her office the following morning. At the top of my list was Art and Archaeology at SOAS. It wasn’t an obvious choice for someone doing French, German and Spanish A-levels, who was living in a little village in the Yorkshire Dales. The application form was submitted, and everyone relaxed for a while. Then, I was offered a place, and as the reality of going to university loomed, I decided to do a language instead; I’d paid enough attention while flicking through the Compendium to note that applicants for courses in European archaeology were required to have an A-level in a European language, and so at the age of eighteen I started a degree course in Chinese.
That sounds perfectly logical now. Next step is going from an out-of-the-blue degree course to working as a translator: was there a moment you knew translation was something you wanted to pursue, or did you just stumble into it?
I didn’t think it was possible to have a life (earn a living) as a Chinese-English translator, at least not with the kind of things I was interested in translating. I did a few translations for a couple of anthologies in the early 1990s, but there was no money in it, and no feedback, and it didn’t lead to more translation work. So I got a job, started a family, and did a PhD. Then a friend introduced me to Nicky Harman, dynamic Chinese-to-English translator, and a new world of possibilities started to open up.
How much translation for children specifically did you do before Bronze and Sunflower
I translated a children’s novel, Jackal and Wolf by Shen Shixi.
And for Bronze and Sunflower, did Walker discover it themselves and approach you?
They approached me. They already had everything in place, I think, including a potential translator. But she had to pull out, and asked if she could recommend me. With Jackal and Wolf, I’d won the contract by competition, so by the time I was working on the whole book, the publisher had seen quite a large sample and had compared it with several others. With Bronze and Sunflower, Walker didn’t know me or my work (and didn’t have anyone on staff who could check against the original Chinese, so their only quality control was the French translation). We took the first couple of chapters quite slowly, and went from there.
Would you please introduce Bronze and Sunflower to anyone who doesn’t know it? What, when, where?
It’s set in the Chinese countryside during the Cultural Revolution (1960s-70s). Sunflower’s father has been sent to the remote reed lands for political reasons, and Sunflower is there with him. When he dies in a freak accident, Bronze begs his family to adopt her. The children become inseparable. The story follows their lives – through happy, yet very difficult, times.
It’s a world entirely unfamiliar to your readers – how much of the culture, history or setting did you feel your translation had to ‘explain’?
Not very much. Where there’s an explanation, it’s usually in order to retain the original Chinese word: for example, in the first chapter, ‘She recognised the smell from the zongzi, the parcels of sticky rice wrapped in reed leaves that she had eaten in the city.’ The term ‘Cadre School’ appears in the first chapter, too, but the author describes the Cadre School before introducing the term, and then says, ‘The villagers had a vague idea of what Cadre Schools were…’ – so the reader knows as much about them as most of the characters! For many of Cao’s younger readers, this will be an unfamiliar world, too. (There’s a Historical Note, but you can follow the story without it.)
So that phrase, ‘the parcels of sticky rice…’, is a gloss you’ve added to help your readers?
If you were reading in Chinese, you’d be reading ‘zongzi wrapped in reed leaves’. Zongzi can be wrapped in various kinds of leaves, like reed leaves or lotus leaves, and they’re particularly associated with the Dragonboat Festival. I could have omitted the word, but it’s quite possible that some readers of the English version will know what a zongzi is, or will come across them in the future (you can find them in Chinese supermarkets in the UK). I used to love coming across the occasional foreign word in italics when I was little – it felt special even if I didn’t always know what it meant.
Bringing Anglophone readers closer to a different world – is that why you translate? Or is that horizon expanding only secondary, and it’s fundamentally just about the usual pleasures of a well-constructed plot and lovely characters and so on, like any other good book?
Oh, it’s the story! And once you have the story, it’s the process, the challenge of moving the story from one language into the other, trying to recreate it in English – not just the words, but the story as a whole. Sometimes Chinese storytelling is so different that you wonder how on earth you’re going to do it. It’s an intensively creative process! As for horizon-expanding, let’s be honest: cultural knowledge of China is quite weak. How many Chinese authors, poets, artists and musicians, past or present, have Anglophone readers heard of? And famous stories, novels, plays, poems, paintings, or pieces of music? Not many. This means that almost every Chinese cultural reference has to be explained, or given a gloss, or skipped over. If you’re constantly tripping over unfamiliar cultural things, then you lose the story.
There’s a huge imbalance in children’s books at the moment. Last year you counted the translated titles in the children’s section of a big London bookshop, and it was shockingly few. I did a similar thing in China last summer, and found shelves full of translated titles. I also did an experiment to see how many School Library Journal ‘Top 100 Picture Books for the 21st Century’ had Chinese editions – I found 76!
Of course the Marsh Award (congratulations again!) helps remedy this insularity; but why’s winning it important to you personally?
I translate in my spare time (I work at the British Museum as Curator of East Asian Money. Sometimes, family, friends and colleagues wonder why. I’ve had comments like: ‘Why would you translate?’, ‘Do you get paid?’, ‘I suppose it keeps your language skills up’, ‘You should write your own books, instead of translating someone else’s’. (I do write my own: non-fiction, in English.) So, on a personal level, winning the Marsh Award is not only an endorsement of the quality of my work, it’s a huge thumbs-up to translators and everyone who makes translations happen. And that’s important.
Daniel Hahn is an award-winning writer, editor and translator and national programme director of the British Centre for Literary Translation. He is the editor of the Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature.
Bronze and Sunflowers by Cao Wenxuan is published by Walker Books, 978-1-4063-4846-0, £6.99 pbk