Asymptote Book Club: In Conversation with Nicky Harman

The novel is savagely realistic in its description of relationships between squabbling siblings and its forensic teasing-out of a family’s secrets.

Continuing our Asymptote Book Club interview series, Assistant Editor Kevin Wang talks to Nicky Harman, translator of Yan Ge’s The Chilli Bean Paste Clan. In addition to co-Chair of the Translators Association (Society of Authors), Nicky Harman is one of the foremost contemporary Chinese-to-English translators and a passionate advocate for Chinese literature in English. Her previous work includes translations of novels by Jia Pingwa and Xu Xiaobin.

Read on to find out why Yan Ge asked for the swearing to be made more “colourful” in the English version of her work, which sections of The Chilli Bean Paste Clan were almost untranslatable, and why relying on Google Images can sometimes be a dangerous approach to translating…

Kevin Wang (KW): In your acknowledgements, you mention that Yan Ge “went above and beyond the call of duty in examining and discussing the English text.” How would you describe the differences between working with an author closely involved in the process and translating a nonliving author? 

Nicky Harman (NH): Well, I do like my authors to be alive! I almost always want to be able to raise a few queries with them. For instance, with Jia Pingwa, I needed to know more about a rudimentary cooker that the migrant workers used in 高兴 (Happy Dreams). He kindly did a sketch for me, and it turned out to be made from an old oil drum. That’s the kind of crucial information that you couldn’t get if the author was dead: in this case, the internet was no help.

But with Yan Ge it was a different, much more thoroughgoing process, for two reasons: one, her English is very good, and two, there was a lot of slang and dialect chit-chat. It wasn’t just a question of Yan Ge checking that I had understood it correctly, we also discussed how certain phrases reflected family relationships—Dad’s animosity to his siblings or his mother, for instance. Sometimes she wanted me to convey quite subtle shades of feeling.

For instance, at the beginning of chapter 2, Dad “想” that his tyrannical mother has died. 想 can be neutral (“thinks”) or it can imply that he’d really rather like her to pop her clogs. He doesn’t acknowledge this deeply-buried hostility to anyone, even himself, so I didn’t really pick up on it. In fact, I thought it was fair to refer to his daydreams as “anxieties”. However, after Yan Ge and I discussed it, I used the words “fancies”, which nicely implies that he wouldn’t mind if she died, without making it too explicit. The whole story rests on a series of buried family secrets which are hinted at very subtly, so I had to convey the same subtlety in my translation, and a lot of our discussions about the translation focussed on that aspect.

Then there was the thorny matter of the swearwords. I have just dug up a very funny email exchange with Yan Ge from when I was revising the translation. (Apologies for the bad language, but it is an essential part of Dad’s character that he is foul-mouthed.)

Yan Ge wrote to me: “The use of ‘fucking’ and ‘son-of-a-bitch’ may be too much. Is there any way to diversify the curse words to make them more lively and real? . . . The curse words [should] sound like [they are] just bursting out of the character’s mouth.” I responded: “there are 36 狗日 in the Chinese text; 39 ‘fucking’ in the English, of which 3 are verbs” [i.e. different characters in the Chinese]. In other words, I had only put into the English what she had put into the Chinese. After that, however, we worked hard on making Dad’s cursing as colourful as possible. The process certainly stretched my linguistic muscles. On the other hand, I am certainly not the only into-English translator to be frustrated because English swearing is less colourful than other languages. A quick Google search will bring up numerous posts from translators struggling, for instance, with religious profanities and obscenities in Latin languages for which English has no, or only pale, equivalents.

KW: The novel is full of cultural references, idioms, and slang, many unique to Sichuan. In addition to discussions with Yan Ge, what were some of the ways you conducted terminology research? 

NH: The internet is a wonderful source of information if you know how to use it. It is actually relatively easy to find out what dialect expressions mean, for the simple reason that Chinese from other areas of China are curious too, and with luck, someone will have posted a query like ‘What does xx mean in Sichuan dialect?’ and someone else will have answered.

There are a number of other ways of tracking down meaning and context using the internet. I have recently been translating some short stories by Xu Xiaobin, in which a young woman is told to leave a message on the big bell/clock at the village entrance (村口大钟). “大钟” can mean bell or clock, and searching for “大钟” brought up plenty of images of Big Ben amongst other fine big clock towers. But by dint of putting the whole phrase in quotations marks, I also found pictures of bells hung in village trees. Logically, a poor village in 1990s China was unlikely to have a clock, but it is easy, when you’re working under pressure, to allow an image to lodge in your head and fail to challenge it. And translating it as a clock would have been a most embarrassing mistake. In this case, the author confirmed that the bell hung in the tree was correct.

Using Google Images is always a somewhat imprecise art, because the usual Boolean queries (using double quotes, “. . .”, to find an exact phrase, for instance) don’t work. I was once illustrating its uses to a class of translation students, and typed in “akimbo”. I forgot to add “arms”, and the whole class was confronted with images of legs akimbo. Dear reader, please don’t say I told you to try it.

KW: As you translate, do you have a certain type of reader in mind? In the third chapter, there’s a comparison between Jasmine and Xishi, and in the translation, you add: “Xishi, the legendary Chinese beauty.” On the other hand, Chen Xiuliang is introduced as Dad’s “shifu” without any explanatory remarks. Certain choices in the translation seem to depend on whether the reader already knows a little about Chinese language and culture. 

NH: That’s a great question! Someone is bound to ask why there are no footnotes to explain references like Xishi, so I had better nail that one on the head first. Nowadays, publishers and their editors don’t like footnotes in novels, on the grounds that they disrupt the flow of the text and, with it, the reader’s mood. So the question then is, does the translator insert a gloss, as in “Xishi, the legendary Chinese beauty” or leave the foreign word untranslated and hope that the reader will come to understand it with sufficient repetitions, as with “shifu” (Dad’s supervisor and mentor when he was a young apprentice)? I know one translator who believes that you don’t help the reader with any glosses: you should make them do their homework. I’m not so hardline (and, yes, I am translating these novels for the general reader), and I use a judicious mixture of both approaches. Later on, towards the end of the book, there is another cultural reference that I finally omitted altogether though I tried hard not to: Zhong, Dad’s best bro, becomes a reformed character when his wife gets pregnant, and doesn’t go on drinking binges with Dad anymore. Yan Ge puts it beautifully:  “和老钟成了牛郎织女”, “Dad and Zhong became [like] the cowherd and the spinning maiden.” In other words, like the ill-fated lovers of the traditional folk tale, they were only allowed to meet once a year. I didn’t think that the cowherd and the spinning maiden were familiar enough in English to translate this directly and I couldn’t find a suitable equivalent: Romeo and Juliet, our own most famous ill-fated lovers, don’t work at all, because they both died, and so did Pyramus and Thisbe. So, regretfully, I lost that reference in my translation and reduced it to: “[Dad] has to accept that [their] drinking days are over.”

KW: Translated into a new language, words and sentences develop new cadences and can end up adopting unexpected connotations. Can you think of any words or lines of dialogue that were especially difficult to translate while preserving the original meaning and tone?

NH: Lots! Usually when a character gets annoyed and there’s an outburst, sometimes whole sentences made me rack my brains for a fiery equivalent that follows the original sufficiently. But here’s just one small example. At the very end, Gran is furious with her daughter because she’s insisting on divorcing the philanderer she was forced to marry all those years ago. Gran says: “真的是气死我啊!”

气死 is a resultative compound, meaning “anger [resulting in] death”, and it’s a common expression. So you could just translate her words as “I’m furious”, “I’m livid,” or something similar. But the next sentence goes:  “当然了,哪个也气不死奶奶.” “Of course, no one is going to make Gran so angry that it results in her death.” So I had to work the “death” into Gran’s outburst somehow. I ended up splitting the anger and the death into two phrases: “I’m so furious, she’ll be the death of me!” That way I could follow it with: “Of course no one will be the death of Gran…”

Here’s another example of unexpected connotations, or perhaps unintended consequences. Body language, and bodily fluids in particular, sometimes have very different connotations in Chinese and in English. When adults are convulsed in tears in Chinese fiction, it’s not unusual for snot and tears to intermingle on their faces; but in English, mentions of snotty noses are usually reserved for children. So I first translated the very last line of the novel, “爸爸最重要的任务是醒过来,免得这些人把眼流花儿啊,鼻涕水啊,都往他身上揩” as “Right now, Dad needs to wake up so that everyone can stop weeping over him and dry their eyes.” But Yan Ge emailed me: “Go more graphic!”  I hadn’t deliberately censored this paragraph in my translation, but perhaps I was being subconsciously squeamish. Anyway, I did as I was told and it became: “Right now, Dad needs to wake up so that everyone can stop dripping snot and tears all over him.”

KW: Describing Yan Ge’s work, David Der-wei Wang writes:  “She has her own worldviews, and frankly speaking, she is of a very fortunate generation. What she may have encountered as she grew up is not as tumultuous or adventurous as the writers that came before her, and therefore the factor of imagination has gradually come to matter more than experiences in reality.” 

Do you find this comment to be an accurate description of the differences between younger writers like Yan Ge and the generation that preceded her?

NH: “The factor of imagination” sounds slightly disparaging, as if those writers who grew up in peaceful times (unlike preceding generations) can afford flights of fancy (or fantasy) and these are worth less because the writers have not lived “tumultuous” or “adventurous” lives. But it’s an interesting question because it made me think about how the fantasy elements in some of Yan Ge’s stories work with her overall realism: two examples I can think of are Strange Beasts of China ( 异兽志 ), which Jeremy Tiang is currently translating, and White Horse (白马), which I translated. In fact, White Horse is not a fantasy novel per se; the supernatural element is a way of imaging the unbalanced state of mind of the girl. And both Yan Ge and Jeremy Tiang concur on Strange Beasts—more mythic than fantasy and (as Yan Ge points out) written and published long before the fantasy (玄幻) genre became popular. Jeremy suggests using the term “slipstream” genre; Yan Ge maintains that Strange Beasts is indeed a reflection of the reality she saw around her, things that confused and unsettled her—the marginalized and underprivileged groups in the city, the immigrant workers, the laid-off employees of state-run companies, the teachers in the correctional schools. And she adds: “In this respect, Strange Beasts and The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, with its portrayal of small-town life, are similar.” Although actually, The Chilli Bean Paste Clan has no fantasy elements at all. My own reaction to the critical prof’s comment is this:

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan is savagely realistic in its description of relationships between squabbling middle-aged siblings, and its forensic teasing-out of a family’s secrets and all the emotional burdens that come with them. I think that writing like this is an impressive feat for anyone to achieve, especially a writer who was in her mid-twenties at the time she wrote the novel.

Nicky Harman is based in the UK, and translates fiction and occasionally non-fiction and poetry from Chinese. She actively promotes Chinese fiction to the general English-language reader, running literary events, writing blogs, and giving talks. She also mentors new translators, teaches summer schools, and judges translation competitions. She tweets as the China Fiction Bookclub (@cfbcuk). She is active on the Chinese literary translation website,, and the short story project, READ PAPER REPUBLIC.

Kevin Wang is an assistant editor at Asymptote. He was born in Kaifeng, China, and is currently based in New York City. He studied English literature at Skidmore College and will begin an MFA in nonfiction and literary translation at Columbia University this year.

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