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A participant in a translation workshop I run recently completed a translation of a short story by Sheng Keyi that has the following sentence: "To cut off the hands or chop off the legs, to scoop out the eyes or to lop off the ears . . . he realized that mangling someone was even harder than murdering someone." Your taste may be different than mine, but I find the music of this sentence to be beautiful—heavily rhythmic, consonant, orderly yet textured. In Chinese, Sheng Keyi's prose is poetic literary writing of high caliber, but because "hands, legs, eyes and ears" are all single-syllable words in English ("eyes" and "ears" have two syllables in Chinese) and the "chop/scoop/lop" rhymes are new in the English—the translator, Samantha Hawkins, swears this was an accident—the weird sensation of singing about something horrible is a little sharper and more disorienting in the English version.
Translation is always other than its original: even if it is unimpeachably faithful, a translated story will feel and act differently in a new language. Often, our desire for originals and translations to be intimately connected prevents us from enjoying the creation of new techniques during translation. As I gain experience in producing more perfectly faithful, defensible translations, I value faithfulness less and less, and I am increasingly attracted by the risks and rewards of intentional and partisan error.
The Web has let me see translations accumulate error—for worse and for better—in real time. I translated a poem by Liu Xiaobo for his book No Enemies, No Hatred called "Looking up at Jesus" that has the following lines:
I suspect you were a bastard child
cruel god tearing the hymen open
he made you sacrifice alone
The Old Testament God in this poem symbolizes Liu's resentment for his own cruel, powerful, paternal state. By asking who receives the sacrifice of the crucifixion, by putting Jesus into conflict with an uncaring and abusive father, and by seeing the power of that father as a weapon rather than a salve, Liu's Jesus becomes abject, lonely, helpless. Liu’s interpretation of Jesus’ story runs parallel to his own longstanding, self-imposed responsibility to account for and remember the sacrifices that the Chinese government has demanded from its own people. The Jesus of the poem is, at best, a version of Jesus, a story told for a particular context—not literally or figuratively orthodox, but all the same not wrong—a difference invented for a purpose.
In an op-ed about the power of love, the Christian Science Monitor quotes only the end of my translation of the poem:
Between the rural manger and God’s crossa destitute infantturned a wrathful God into the embodiment of lovecontinuous repentance and infinite atonementloveno boundary, no leewaylike the darkness before history
The op-ed aligns this version of Jesus with Liu's insistence on pacifism and his assertions of fellowship ("No enemies, no hatred"). It lines up Liu's ideology with that of Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi, whom the op-ed claims were able to embrace their tormentors and detractors, and answer violence with love. This makes a lot of sense in its context, considering that the power of insisting upon love and goodness and perfection is a key tenet of the Christian Science faith: "Christian Science teaches that it’s never God's will for anyone to suffer, be sick, or die. Instead, it shows how God is entirely good, and therefore His will for each of us is only health and life." Adherents access the inherent goodness of reality by "resolving difficult challenges with health, relationships, employment, and other personal and global issues through prayer." The overcoming love in the last line of the poem, its literal transcendence, must have seemed quite recognizable to people who believe in Christian Science: all of a sudden, we have a Christian Science version of Liu Xiaobo's version of the Bible's version of Jesus.
This is not, however, the end of the line: the op-ed by the Christian Science Monitor was translated into Chinese by an entertainment website, for reasons that are not clear to me. The translator there didn't look up the original poem; instead they translated my translated English into Chinese, apparently with the help of an automatic translator. Here are the last three lines, retranslated into English:
enjoying the darkness before history
There's some kind of commodified, industrial sense to the Chinese translation—as if some office drone at an Internet startup decided that dumping large amounts of translated foreign media onto a very simple website might drive enough clicks to make some money, but didn't see the profit, or didn't have the resources, to invest in selection, error correction, or research. They therefore miss an easy one: that "like" in English doesn't always mean "to enjoy." The literal meaning of the poem excerpt in Chinese seems to insinuate that love is what happens in the moment before history starts—a depressing thought. But no matter how I feel about the little translation-bots weaving through intercultural spaces arguing the murder of love by history, simply to print the name of Liu Xiaobo on a website that's available in the PRC is quite impressive. This quick-and-dirty translation accomplishes what the previous publishers and translators of Liu Xiaobo's couldn't: they return something of Liu Xiaobo back to mainland China, the place his writings are designed to affect, and a place where his writings are still banned. A better website, or a better translation, might very well have seen the piece blocked or deleted by now.
Something of Liu Xiaobo—but what? What does the end of this twisted, half-unraveled rope have to do with the many regions through which it has snaked, with Jesus, with Liu Xiaobo in 1998, with me in my office? What binds the Chinese, English, and Chinese versions of this poem isn't a shared quality, because they share no single trustworthy quality: it is their shared consent to being considered as versions of the same experience. When I translated the poem, I implied that I wanted it to be compared to Liu's original; when Liu called out Jesus, he put himself into a relationship with other texts about Jesus. Those relationships can be fractious, contradictory, harmonious, distant, or anything else, but they remain relationships, intimacies: the core of the contact that is translation.
The only way I can understand that contact, the specific relationship between a piece of art and its translation, is as a biological process, the mangled braid as the mutated strand of DNA, the translation as child of the original. Children can be adoring, sullen, confrontational, obedient—their connection with the parent is seen not in straight, deterministic lines but in unexpected and uncanny echoes. At some point when they were young, each child of my parents shoved a small object traumatically far up their nostril, once per child: we are related. Our connections to one another, and to our parents, are so strong that they feel physical: we say things like "well, he's my brother," as if that is an intelligible, unimpeachable reason to lend someone money or lie for them in court. And yet these relations don't determine the course of our lives or predict our behavior in the least; we are connected at the level of identity, but we are not identical. So it is with translations: they are the same poem as the original, without being the same as the poem. You ask me why I translate "love" alone on a single line, a maneuver I'd never make in a thousand years in a poem of my own, and I answer, "well, it's like that in the original." The baldness of that gnomic statement about love then connects me to an audience that would never read poems like the ones I write: a new twist of the same weird braid.
In the biological metaphor for translation we can feel its underlying politics. I can translate Liu Xiaobo in part because I believe that I share something with him, something that allows me to hear him—a humanness, a shared filiation, the echo of our common intellectual and biological progenitors. We assume—or, we could say, we have faith—that the feelings inside one person can be felt, in some related version, by another. This makes the moment of the mangle, the moment of transformation during translation, crucial; we pull away from our shared identity, but hopefully not so far that we cannot still be reached. The struggle to be both individual and understood is humanism, something that every member of this screwed up, twisted chain of people has in common: we feel something of ourselves in one another so deeply that we don’t have to feel our differences as boundaries. If our individual uniqueness is represented in part by the idiosyncrasies in our translations, then careful mistakes can broaden and enrich the territory reachable through our empathy, or our faithful connections to our source texts. The process isn't always pretty up close, but the result satisfies in a way that little else can.
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