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Translating Yu Hua 翻译余华

One result of writing not being my main career: I’ve written lots of things over the past two decades and frankly they’re all over the place. Here is an interview I did with my professor and mentor at UC Berkeley, Professor Andrew Jones, who happens to be 余华 Yu Hua’s translator. Yu Hua did a sabbatical at Berkeley while I was there, and Professor Jones arranged for him to meet us and conduct a series of readings. It was written more than 15 years ago (!!) and published in a Chinese literary magazine in 2003 (I searched high and low but couldn’t find a copy of the magazine…)

(Professor Andrew Jones, left; Yu Hua, right)


“我们第一次见面是在北京一家旅店。余华一进入客房不料突然扑身在地,往冰箱而爬,说道,’好怪的声音啊。’ 原来是冰箱的哼声使他不安. 此时我就了解了余华对音响是多么的敏感。”

当年仅仅23岁的安道, 通过伯克莱中文系著名教授李驼的介绍,认识了刚刚在中国文坛初道迈步的余华。 认识他之前, 刚开始进修中文博士学位的安道已经尝试过翻译余华的一些早期作品。 随着北京之约, 安道得到了对英文一窍不通的余华的信任, 成为了他的翻译人。

如今的余华,不论是人或作品, 已经不是十二年前的他。对安道来讲, 现在的余华不仅稳重多了, 不那么高度紧张性(“high strung”), 也比较谦虚点儿。他虽然还是比较喜欢余华早期的 “实验性”作品, 但是当年吸引他阅读余华的作品的那个独特写作风格,依旧还在。安道道,“余华对语文就如他对音响那么敏感。他的写作给予我一种又迷人又清晰的感觉。我想,这也跟我俩的文学兴趣相同有关。我们有很多共同喜爱的作者, 像川端康成。”

除了余华的作品之外,安道也翻译过张爱玲的作品。比起翻译张爱玲,翻译余华可是易如反掌。因为很熟悉余华和 “余华的言语是怎样从他脑子出来的”, 所以翻译的时候就有点像是 “小说自己在写自己”。翻译张爱玲可是另回事, “ 因为她属于不同的一个时代, 我不仅是不熟悉那时候的中国, 而那时候的中文可是跟现在完全不同, 文化方面也不同, 这些全部都需要很多时间去研究的。另外, 张爱玲的英语是比较英国式的,所以我也会因而试图把我的英文 ‘英国化’点儿。”

最后,我问起了安道对于翻译人对原著的责任的看法。“任何写作者 – 包括翻译人 – 都拥有自己的声音, 而翻译人是无法完全避免自己的声音在翻译的作品中浮现。打个比方来说,这就跟演戏差不多一样; 我翻译时就像是在扮演余华的角色,可是我永远只能是扮演他的演员,我并不能成为余华。”

English translation below (by me):

Professor Andrew Jones’ first meeting with Yu Hua is firmly engraved in his memory.

“We first met in a Beijing hotel. Upon entering the hotel room he immediately threw himself on the floor, crawling towards the fridge, saying ‘something sounds odd’. The humming of the fridge disturbed him. That’s how I realised how sensitive he is to sound.”

Only twenty three at the time, Jones was introduced to Yu Hua, who was just starting to make his name in Chinese literary circles then, by renowned UC Berkeley professor 李驼 Li Tuo. Before meeting him, Jones had already attempted to translate some of Yu Hua’s earlier works. After their meeting in Beijing, he earned Yu Hua’s trust and became his translator.

Yu Hua and his works have come along way from twelve years ago. To Jones, Yu Hua has matured, no longer as high-strung as he once was, and also more modest. Jones continues to prefer Yu Hua’s earlier experimental works, but Yu Hua’s unique writing style remains unchanged.

“Yu Hua’s use of language is like his sensitivity to sound. His works are mesmerising and refreshing. I think it’s also because we have the same literary interests. We share many favourite authors, including Kawabata (Yasunari)”

Jones has also translated 张爱玲 Eileen Chang’s works. He finds Yu Hua much easier to translate than Eileen Chang, because “I’m familiar with him and how his brain processes language, so it feels in a way like the story is writing itself.” But Eileen Chang “belonged to a different era, and I’m not only unfamiliar with China of that time, but the Chinese used was completely different, culturally too, and all this takes time to research. Eileen Chang’s English was also more British, so I try to make my English more British.”

I asked Jones about how responsible he felt towards the works he translated. “Every author–and that includes the translator–has their own voice. The translator is unable to avoid his own voice filtering into his translation. It’s just like acting. When I translate I’m portraying Yu Hua’s characters, but I’ll always be just an actor. I can never become Yu Hua.”

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