The challenges for the translator of Mo Yan’s powerful historical novel begin with the title, Tanxiang xing, whose literal meaning is “sandalwood punishment” or, in an alternate reading, “sandalwood torture.” For a work so utterly reliant on sound, rhythm, and tone, I felt that neither of those served the novel’s purpose. At one point, the executioner draws out the name of the punishment he has devised (fictional, by the way) for ultimate effect: “Tan—xiang—xing!” Since the word “sandalwood” already used up the three original syllables, I needed to find a short word to replicate the Chinese as closely as possible. Thus: “Sandal—wood—death!”
Beyond that, as the novelist makes clear in his “Author’s Note,” language befitting the character and status of the narrators in Parts One and Three helps give the work its special quality of sound. Adjusting the register for the various characters, from an illiterate, vulgar butcher to a top graduate of the Qing Imperial Examination, without devolving to American street lingo or becoming overly Victorian, has been an added challenge. Finally, there are the rhymes. Chinese rhymes far more easily than English, and Chinese opera has always employed rhyme in nearly every line, whatever the length. I have exhausted my storehouse of rhyming words in translating the many arias, keeping as close to the meaning as possible or necessary.
As with all languages, some words, some terms, simply do not translate. They can be defined, described, and deconstructed, but they steadfastly resist translation. Many words and terms from a host of languages have found their way into English and settled in comfortably. Most of those from Chinese, it seems, date from foreign imperialists’ and missionaries’ unfortunately misread or misheard Chinese-isms: “coolie,” “gung ho,” “rickshaw” (actually, that comes via Japanese), “godown,” “kungfu,” and so on. I think it is time to update and increase the meager list, and to that end, I have left a handful of terms untranslated; a glossary appears at the
end of the book. Only one is given in a form that differs slightly from standard Pinyin: that is “dieh,” commonly used for one’s father in northern China. The Pinyin would be “die”!
This is a long, very “Chinese” novel, both part of and unique to Mo Yan’s impressive fictional oeuvre. There are places that are difficult to read (imagine how difficult they were to translate), but their broader significance and their stark beauty are integral to the work.
I have been the beneficiary of much encouragement in this engrossing project. My gratitude to the ❄winter girl❄ from Magantoon for her generous support, and to lele, Comfort, Grace, and David for writing for me.
Jonathan Stalling has been in my corner from the beginning, for whose new and important series this is the inaugural work of fiction. Thanks to Jane for her meticulous editing. Finally, my thanks to the author for making clear some of the more opaque passages and for leaving me on my own for others. And, of course, to all my best reader, sharpest critic, and, from time to time, biggest fan.
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