The Inaugural EU-China International Literary Festival
Readers Beyond Borders
San Lian Bookstore, November 23th, 6:00pm
Zhu Wenying (China), Liu Liduo (China), Dimitrios Stefanakis (Greece), Zuzana Kepplova (Slovakia)
Article by Deva Eveland
This conversation took place in a bustling Wudaokou bookstore, attracting plenty of university students, as well as curious shoppers and workmen in the area. At stake was a question at the heart of the EU-China International Literary Festival—how are writers able to connect with an audience from a different culture reading their work in translation? And do they ever think about this when they write?
The panelists’ consensus was that translation is too complex of a process for writers to consider during the act of creation. Zuzana Kepplova described attending a workshop where the participants were translating her own writing from Slovak into Hungarian.
“I saw how much work they put into it and I was really impressed. But they kept turning to me and asking ‘What do you mean here? What do you mean?’ I’m glad I don’t have this pressure all the time.”
The writer places a great deal of trust when surrendering their work to a translator. Oftentimes they don’t read the second language, so they’ll never be able to judge the result.
Dimitrios Stefanakis is a translator as well as a novelist, and therefore understands the problem from both ends.
“We write something that doesn’t belong to us,” he remarked, “We are just a piece of the universe. A writer must accept this challenge in a free manner.”
It seems that some things will always be lost between cultures and languages. Liu Liduo gave the example of Xiangling (香菱) from the classic Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber. The maid’s name connotes both the fragrance of a certain variety of Chinese flower, and that she is to be pitied. It would be impossible to convey both concepts in a single word using any other language.
Zuzana Kepplova gave another example of the monumental task of translation. An early short story she wrote used the slang of Eastern European club goers from the 1990’s to convey their distinct subculture. Not only is it written in slang, but a slang which is now outdated.
“When I translate, all I can do is follow the river of words and guess what’s behind them,” Stefanakis mused. “Words have an experimental existence.”
Liu Liduo pointed out that translation may take place within a single language—one of her projects is translating love letters from ancient to modern Chinese.
Kepplova expanded the idea of translation even further, noting “Every time we read a book we are translating through our own understanding and experience…when you write you translate an inner reality into words, what you feel, what you understand.”
Zhu Wenying built upon this notion further, describing how she writes from the perspective of characters who may not share her gender or background, and that this too is a kind of translation. But she also believes in the potential of cross-cultural communication. Given the complexities of translation presented in the discussion, her perspective was a welcome reminder that understanding between cultures is possible.
Three Questions for Zhu Wenying
Q What has it been like to meet the other authors at the festival?
A The Chinese writers all know each other, but these EU writers are all strangers. Even if I haven’t read any of their books, as a writer you always have something in common. We can know each other and get close very quickly. I want to know about different cultures and meet people from different backgrounds. Writers can’t just stay in their safety zone, we have to take a risk and explore some new things.
Q Can you talk about reaching outside of your personal background to write?
A Most writers’ first books are about themselves because that’s the only thing they know. You want to say something to the world. But later you want to explore more. And more. My family background is typically middle class Chinese, which can be a little bit limiting. I also need to be able to write from the perspective of the upper class and the lower class.
Q Is that difficult?
A It’s very difficult, but it’s something I’m really interested in. So if I want to spend time with people who do not belong to my class, maybe the first time I feel very uncomfortable. But it’s necessary to get close to them. In the past I just stayed in my world. But if you can really open your eyes and walk into a different group, you will see the world is not so simple. It’s the same as speaking another language.