Two Chinese Brothers
October 18, 2009 8:03 PM   Subscribe

"This is a novel born out of the intersection of two eras. The first is a story of the Cultural Revolution, a time of fanaticism, repressed instincts, and tragic fates, similar to the European Middle Ages. The second is a story of today, a time of subverted ethics, fickle sensuality, and every kind of phenomena, even more like the Europe of today. A westerner would have to live four hundred years to experience the vast differences of the two eras, but a Chinese would only need forty years for the experience." Yu Hua's Brothers, a sprawling, foul-mouthed, comic-historical epic, and the best-selling novel in China's history, is available in English.

(The quote above comes from the afterword to Brothers, not included in the US edition.)

The New York Times didn't care for the translation, by Eileen Chow and Carlos Rojas; Chinese litblog Paper Republic criticized the review, leading to an interesting comment thread in which both Chow and the NYT reviewer participate.

Yu got even tougher treatment from local critics, who were baffled by Yu's abandonment of his previous restrained, literary style. Cang Hang (translation via Paper Republic) calls the book "a 500,000 character trash heap."

Read an excerpt from Brothers and listen to the relevant podcast at NPR.
posted by escabeche (25 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
How the hell did I miss that Brothers was out in English? I want to check it out.
posted by Kattullus at 8:30 PM on October 18, 2009

Also, that NYT review is a mess. It is impossible for anyone to catch all the references in any novel, especially ones translated from a foreign language. I read Anna Karenina having very little knowledge of 19th Century Russian society and I still loved it.
posted by Kattullus at 8:34 PM on October 18, 2009

Interesting comment thread, indeed.

I have no idea how somebody who runs or contributes to a literary blog doesn't "know anyone who read [the Odyssey or Don Quixote] for pleasure" and then seems to suggest that they're only read because people feel they have to, as part of the canon.
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:41 PM on October 18, 2009

I read Anna Karenina having very little knowledge of 19th Century Russian society and I still loved it.

Well yes, but anyone with a passing familiarity with 19th Century European aristocratic culture would get most everything that's going on in Anna Karenina. There's not really a great deal of difference between the society in the novels of Thackery and Tolstoy and they were across Europe from each other. Trying to read a Dostoyesky book like The Possessed without getting some background in the Russian culture/history he was addressing would be much more difficult.

The real problem with the review seems to be that having decided that the work doesn't have the same power in English as it does in Chinese, the reviewer can't pick whether this is a terribly botched translation or the sort of acceptable diminishment of power that typically occurs in translation. There's reason why people bother to learn languages (and cultural context) to read things in the original.

I was also a little amused that Eileen Chow only showed up to give a quick and dismissive summary of the review. Surely she could at least show the reviewer the courtesy she expects from him.
posted by nangua at 9:01 PM on October 18, 2009

For what it's worth, I thought the English version reads very naturally, but also doesn't read like colloquial English. In many people's view, this is just as it should be. Of course I can't speak to whether it's faithful to the original. Or whether I'm missing 90% of what's good about the book because the translators have left opaque the book's literary context, which is unfamiliar to me. But I think Row is just wrong to say it doesn't work as an English novel.
posted by escabeche at 9:04 PM on October 18, 2009

...a novel born out of the intersection of two ears.

I thought they all were, oh, wait.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:41 PM on October 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

The first is a story of the Cultural Revolution, a time of rapid industrialisation, politicised youth movements, and mass politics, similar to the European Middle Ages. The second is a story of today, a time of one-party rule, emergence as a world power, and every kind of phenomena, even more like the Europe of today.
posted by stammer at 10:53 PM on October 18, 2009

I don't know if I would really call the cultural revolution era like the European middle ages, maybe more like france in the 1800s, or Europe in the early part of the 20th.
posted by delmoi at 11:27 PM on October 18, 2009

More like the barbarians invading Rome, if you ask me.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:34 PM on October 18, 2009

A lot like Russian history, both large peasant countries in which the peasants took over, and brought with them the traditional peasant value of egalitarianism ("communism"). Sort of like the Wikipedia revolution.
posted by stbalbach at 4:16 AM on October 19, 2009

It's an interesting argument, for sure. On the one hand, it's absurd to claim that you aren't qualified to review a translated novel unless you've read the original too. (I know that no-one explicitly says this in the thread, but I think it's a fair summary of the tone there.) A monolingual reader is perfectly qualified to judge whether a book is engrossing or boring, vivid or flat. They're even entitled to speculate on the translation itself: "Knowing that this is a translation, I couldn't help but wonder if X and Y correspond to something more meaningful in the original."

But that's all it can ever be: speculation. Row totally invited this sort of criticism by spending so much of his review making bold claims on "the difficulty of finding an English equivalent for Yu Hua's extremely direct and graphic Chinese" and "the filter of translation" without, it seems, anything more to back it up than a general impression of Yu Hua's writing plus some (admittedly interesting) editorial detective work. What's worse is that it's not even clear what he's claiming: So the translation is matter-of-fact, repetitive, and bland; is the original like this too, and the translation is just being faithful? Is Yu Hua using this for effect, or is he just writing poorly? Are there any English-vs-Chinese style issues at play? These are real issues that could and should have been explored, if he was going to go there at all.
posted by No-sword at 4:51 AM on October 19, 2009

This is a novel born out of the intersection of two eras.

I read that as two ears and thought to myself, 'this is how zen koans get started.'

Aaaah!!! StickyCarpet!! get out of my head!
posted by chambers at 9:17 AM on October 19, 2009

I just read through the first chapter, and going by that I would argue that the translation didn't preserve as much repetition as it could.

Like this sentence - 'Nowadays women's bare butts aren't worth much, since they can be found virtually everywhere.'
The original sentence '现在女人的光屁股不值钱了,揉一揉眼睛就会看到,打一个喷嚏就会撞上,走路拐个弯就会踩着。' is closer to: 'Nowadays women's bare butts aren't worth much, you see them when you rub your eyes; you run into them when you sneeze; you step on them when you make a turn.'

Here, repetition (排比 really) is done for comic effects with a folky overtone. The English version presumably omitted it so that the sentence is leaner and smoother, and for such a long novel, I see why the translators have to make sacrifices.

(However, this brings up a silly convention in modern American publishing - literary novels always have to come in one volume. The original, came in two volumes. If "Infinite Jest" came in four volumes, I probably would have read it by now.)
posted by of strange foe at 9:33 AM on October 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

An interesting back-and-forth; thanks for the post. Boy, some of those comments on Humes's blog sound exactly like MeFi ones, particularly this:
Though this thread has been interesting for many reasons, I think the crux of this discussion has been lost amidst larger, more contextual problems. Setting aside the question of whether footnotes should be used more in novels (translated or otherwise), or what responsibilities readers of translated fiction should bear, the fact remains that Mr. Row's pithy and sanctimonious review should have never been published. Not only do his citations of the translation's shortcomings (two, by my count) fall far short of any measure of success in a translation, but they also lay bare his own dilettantish predilections, resulting in a review that neglects to actually do any reviewing. That Mr. Row finds his reading experience of the English (it is clear by now that he has no grounds for actual comparison between the Chinese original and its translation) frustrating due its lack of yiyin suggests to me that perhaps Mr. Row should stick to reading the Classics. Is this his standard for reading all fiction, or just that from those permanently ancient Oriental countries? And how exactly is a singular, offhand reference to the main character of Hongloumeng (at which point a footnote or some other type of explanation wold have drawn unnecessary and pointless scrutiny to the remark, much like Mr. Row) deepen our reading of the novel or Baldy Li in any way? Should we start complaining pompously every time a love story fails to properly acknowledge its debt to Romeo and Juliet? This is no heavy literary allusion, but at most a popular cultural lexical one, which in my opinion the translators have accounted for nicely with "sentimental heroine." Regarding the other piece of evidence on the inscrutability of the original, if you are still spending your time searching for that timeless rendering of the word imbued with such untranslatable "pathos" that you "suspect" must exist, Mr. Row, its right here: ASS.
The automatic dismissiveness, the lack of careful reading (Row did in fact compare the Chinese original and the translation), the flourishing of half-understood fancy words (I do not think "pithy" means what you think it means), the would-be scathing insult (ASS!!!!), even the obscure, meant-to-be-impressive username (kuyahukduk)—it's all there.

Personally, I thought the review was better than one expects from the Times (generally a sinkhole of mediocrity and saying-nothing), and I was particularly impressed they got a reviewer who could in fact compare the translation and the original, which adds to the usefulness of the review. It would have been nice if there had been specific examples, like the one of strange foe provides (which confirms for me the reviewer's complaints—eliminating repetition like that is FAIL), but it is, after all, a Times review with (I presume) strict wordage limits.
posted by languagehat at 11:26 AM on October 19, 2009

Also, a small peeve - the repeated mention of 'Yiyin' confused me, until I realized that that's probably a typo, and it should really be 'yuyin' (余音).
posted by of strange foe at 12:24 PM on October 19, 2009

Two versions of the opening of the novel. From Cindy Carter at Paper Republic:

Guangtou ("Baldy") Li, the wealthiest scion of our little village, sat upon his celebrated gold-plated toilet - a piece of plumbing every bit as famed, defamed and infamous as its owner - and dreamed of his impending journey into space, courtesy of a Russian space shuttle and a passage booked in excess of 20 million US dollars. Closing his eyes, he imagined himself in orbit around the earth: his meteoric rise, the unfathomable emptiness all around, a planet seen from what lofty heights, the slow unfurling of a horizon. And yet he couldn't help but feel a sense of desolation, for at that moment he knew himself to be friendless on this planet, horribly and utterly alone.

He had once had a brother, a half-sibling named Song Gang, upon whom he depended like life itself. A year older and a head taller than Baldy, Song Gang had been considerate and honest, yet unyielding and stubborn. When he died three years ago, he'd been transformed into a pile of ash and bone that could be contained in a tiny wooden box. Baldy Li could never think of that tiny box of ash and bone without calling up a myriad of conflicting emotions. It occurred to him that if you burned a small sapling, it would leave behind a bigger pile of ash than Song Gang.

and from the published translation:

Baldy Li, our Liu Town's premier tycoon, had a fantastic plan of spending twenty million U.S. dollars to purchase a ride on a Russian Federation space shuttle for a tour of outer space. Perched atop his famously gold-plated toilet seat, he would close his eyes and imagine himself already floating in orbit, surrounded by the unfathomably frigid depths of space. He would look down at the glorious planet stretched out beneath him, only to choke up on realizing that he had no family left down on Earth.

Baldy Li used to have a brother named Song Gang, who was a year older and a whole head taller and with whom he shared everything. Loyal, stubborn Song Gang had died three years earlier, reduced to a pile of ashes. When Baldy Li remembered the small wooden urn containing his brother's remains, he had a million mixed emotions. The ashes from even a sapling, he thought, would outweigh those from Song Gang's bones.

Here's a version of the first paragraph as it appeared in the International Herald Tribune:

"He was thinking about spending $20 million on a seat on the Russian Space Shuttle Soyuz for a trip to outer space," Yu writes. "Sitting on his famous gilded toilet, Bald Li (he had gone bald) closed his eyes, and envisioned how he would float along in orbit, surrounded by an abysmal silence. Witnessing how the great Earth slowly turned around, he couldn't help feeling sad; tears rolled out of his eyes. Then he realized that he did not have a single relative on the earth."

The Cindy Carter link and the NPR story linked in the OP both have a pretty long chunk of the first chapter, so there's lots to compare if you care to.
posted by escabeche at 1:44 PM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thanks, escabeche, that's really eye-opening. I like Cindy Carter's version a lot better—that's a book I want to read. The published one is cardboard by comparison.
posted by languagehat at 3:52 PM on October 19, 2009

I see things to like in both. The first paragraph reads as more uncontrolled, more over-the-top, in Carter's version, and that's as it should be. But "a passage booked in excess of 20 million US dollars" is actually kind of hard to parse, as is "a planet seen from what lofty heights" -- what is the "what?" The slow unfurling of the horizon is great, though, and I don't see why Chow and Rojas stripped it (unless it's not actually from Yu; can any Chinese-reading commenters help with this?)

The last sentence in the second paragraph is massively better in Chow and Rojas: compare the heinously clunky "It occurred to him that" in Carter to C&R's "he thought," dropped in just where the meter of the sentence demands it. The rhyme in "those" and "bones", the dactyls in "ashes from even a sapling" -- this is good stuff that translators have to pay attention to.

Of course, this says nothing about the relationship with Yu's Chinese text -- just what the translator has to do to produce something that works as an English novel.
posted by escabeche at 4:07 PM on October 19, 2009

languagehat: you forgot to mention the lack of paragraph breaks in that comment.

but otherwise, he had me right up until he omitted the apostrophe in the final "its".
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:09 PM on October 19, 2009

The problem, languagehat, is that he says things that imply he is comparing the English to the Chinese, but if you read closely you'll notice that he carefully avoids specific comparisons (he shows us some bits of English, but gives us no idea of what they might correspond to in the Chinese). Escabeche and of strange foe have already provided better information casually, in their spare time.

What Row has to offer here is knowledge of the Chinese classics and an awareness that they are relevant to the book. He should have expanded on this theme rather than opening a second front regarding technical details that he clearly either doesn't fully grasp or is unwilling to frankly critique.

On another note, the repetition example in osf's comment is just maddening. When will editors of translations into English realize that their audience is made up almost entirelyof open-minded literary types who would prefer that sort of thing left in instead of smoothed over? You're not competing with the Da Vinci code here. And if they're doing it to keep the word count down, that's just barbarism. Abridging and admitting it is the honorable way; dumbing down individual sentences and letting the author take the fall is not okay.
posted by No-sword at 4:35 PM on October 19, 2009

FWIW, I read the Chinese version and I thought volume I was alright, but volume II was ridiculous in a crappy way. It's been quite a while though, and I don't have my copies with me here.
posted by bread-eater at 5:22 PM on October 19, 2009

The last sentence in the second paragraph is massively better in Chow and Rojas:

--not so massively better, at least from my perspective.

I'm not sure I can explain the reasons in detail like you did, but I'm with languagehat. For whatever reason, the Cindy Carter paragraphs are much more enjoyable to read. I want to read more. I didn't get that feeling from reading the other two translations.
posted by eye of newt at 8:06 PM on October 19, 2009

Well, to be fair, I've already read the whole book in the Chow-Rojas translation, so I'm used to the way it sounds and I associate it with a novel I liked; maybe it's inevitable the other version would sound "off" to me.
posted by escabeche at 8:51 PM on October 19, 2009

escabeche, 'the slow unfurling of a horizon' from the Carter version corresponds to '地球如何徐徐展开' very well, but her translation of '举目无亲' later in the sentence to 'friendless' is less accurate than 'he had no family left' in the Chow-Rojas version.

I'm not sure that I like Carter's choice of bringing the famous toilet into the opening sentence. The original only mentioned the space trip -- and it's impressive enough. The appearance of the toilet in the second sentence/paragraph jolts one back to earth, yet that's where the main character dreams of his space trip. The reader's perspective goes from heaven to earth to heaven and back to earth again. Compressing the first two sentences shortchanged these perspective shifts somewhat.

(Also, I just want to give a shoutout to Yu Hua's earlier 《在细雨中呼喊》 / "Cries in Light Rain", a novel I read and loved a long time ago.)
posted by of strange foe at 9:47 PM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just for fun, here's Google Translate on the same excerpt:

Our super-wealthy Liu Zhen Li skinhead whimsical, intended to spend 20 million U.S. dollars to buy road money, aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft to go into space surf.

Li shaved head sitting in his famous gold-plated toilets, close their eyes begin to imagine themselves in space orbit drifting career, around the deserted abysmal, Li skinhead overlooking the magnificent Earth to slowly start, the reigning sad tears, this time he realized that his planet is unaccompanied by.

He had had a brother had each called Song of steel, this year older than him, higher than his head, honest and stubborn Song Gang died three years ago, and become a pile of ashes, packed in a small wooden box Lane. Song Gang Li bald thought the small casket containing it will be filled with emotion, thinking that a small tree burn out than the Song of steel gray more than ashes.
posted by escabeche at 4:33 AM on October 20, 2009

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