[Review] “Message from Translators of Little Reunions” by Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz

{Written by Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz, this rejoinder is part of Issue 42 (December 2018) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Editors’ note:
Read Susan Blumberg-Kason’s review of Eileen Chang’s Little Reunions here
and her response to Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz’s rejoinder here.

Little Reunions

Dear Editors,

We are grateful to your journal for the attention given to our translation of Eileen Chang’s novel Little Reunions. We wish to address a few points raised in the book review written by Susan Blumberg-Kason.

The reviewer writes “Little reunions are smaller gatherings—perhaps just between mother and daughter. Little Reunions is a family saga centering around Julie Sheng and Rachel Pien…”

This is true at one level. We as translators are in no position to instruct readers how to read a book but we believe saying the novel is “perhaps just between mother and daughter” oversimplifies the complexity of the novel with a narrative that “focuses as much on the details of everyday life as it does on the larger political arena.”[1] As the literary scholar Xiao Jiwei puts it, “History, in Little Reunions, is represented through an intensified female consciousness.”[2]

Between waves and ripples of side stories and flashbacks in the novel, as translators we can hear a long literary sigh over the pitifulness of human relations of many kinds, not just small gatherings between mother and daughter.

The reviewer writes:

I wondered if the translators took liberty and used the English word ‘rape’ in 2018 when Chang may have used a lesser Chinese word in the original from the mid-1970s. So I obtained a copy of the original Chinese and searched for what had been translated into English as, “It was clear she was referring obliquely to rape.” In the original, I find Change (sic) writes ‘強奸,’ which means rape in Chinese.”

Here are the relevant Chinese text and English translation in Chapter 4:

那時候緒哥哥跟我不好,我常常在辦公室很晚才回來,跟焦利調情。我也害怕”,她笑容未歛,末句突然聲音一低,滯重起來,顯然是說強姦。

I was on bad terms with Brother Hsü at the time, and often stayed late at the office, flirting with Jory. But then I became scared . . .” Her smile disappeared and her voice lowered to a muffle as she faded out.

 It was clear she was referring obliquely to rape.

We appreciate the reviewer’s diligence and eventual acknowledgement that, after her investigation, the translation is correct. The phrase 強姦 really does mean “rape.”

The reviewer also writes that she found a discrepancy in the translation:

Unlike the translators, Chang doesn’t write anything about it being inevitable, only that he says he perhaps used force. Adding this phrase about inevitability shows that Chih-yung was trying to excuse his actions, whereas in the original he doesn’t justify them.

Again, relevant segments in both Chinese and English:

熟人的消息講得告一段落的時候,她微笑著問了聲 “你跟小康小姐有沒有發生關係?”

“嗯,就是臨走的時候。」他聲音低了下來。“大概最後都是要用強的。──當然你不是這樣。”

她沒說什麼。

After dispensing with news about mutual acquaintances, Julie gave a faint smile and asked, “Were you ever intimate with that Miss K’ang?”

“Um,” he acknowledged, “only once, when I was about to leave.” His voice lowered. “In the end I forced myself upon her . . . perhaps that is always inevitable—but of course you were different.”

Julie said nothing.

As translators, we believe it’s vital to comprehend the context of the story and convey the author’s message holistically, both spoken and unspoken, rather than simply translating the text on a word-for-word level.

The English translation indeed “shows that Chih-yung was trying to excuse his actions.”

No translation is perfect and there is always room to improve. However, in this instance, we believe adding “inevitable” is justifiable, and, in fact, inevitable.

The Chinese text does not semantically contain the expression “inevitable,” and a literal translation of the segment in question is:“Probably in the end always have to use force” 大概最後都是要用強的. This is actually a way of saying “inevitable”. The words “最後” [In the end], “都是” [always, all] and “要” [required, have to] imply “inevitability”.

More importantly, the subtle unspoken message of “trying to excuse his actions” is consistent with Chih-yung’s “track record” in the rest of the book — he repeatedly looks for excuses to justify his actions and inactions.

For example, he is reluctant to end his previous marriages when pressed by Julie because he “can’t simply drive her out!” (要趕她出去是不行的!Referring to his second wife).

To justify his relationship with Miss K’ang, Chih-yung says, “Such a wonderful girl . . . I simply must help her continue her education,” and “Must nurture her…”  (“那麼好的人,一定要給她受教育,” 他終於說。”要好好的培植她…”)

To justify his reluctance to end his relationship with Miss K’ang when confronted by Julie, Chih-yung says, “Why must a good tooth be extracted? Having to make a choice like this isn’t ideal…” (好的牙齒為什麼要拔掉?要選擇就是不好…)

We are aware that readers from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds may at times interpret literary texts differently. Nonetheless, we wish to take this opportunity to stress the importance of understanding the historical and linguistic context of a literary work in order to decipher an author’s message in a holistic manner.

We would appreciate it if the reviewer would reconsider her remarks. If this is not possible, we would be grateful if you could publish our response in the journal or on your website.

Thanks again for providing a platform for the appreciation of literature.

Sincerely,

Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz

[1] Carlos Rojas, “Review of Eileen Chang’s Little Reunions,” The Shanghai Literary Review, no. 3 (June 2018): 19.

[2] Jiwei Xiao, “Belated Reunion? Eileen Chang, Late Style and World Literature,” New Left Review, no. 111 (May-June 2018): 102.

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Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz.jpg

Jane Weizhen Pan, Eileen Chang and Martin Merz

Jane Weizhen Pan has collaborated with Martin Merz on translations of many works by contemporary Chinese writers. She first encountered Eileen Chang’s work as a high school student in China and has been a devoted reader of her writing since. Pan is based in Melbourne, Australia, where her research focuses on early Chinese translations of English classics.

Martin Merz studied Chinese at Melbourne University and later received an MA in applied translation in Hong Kong. He moved to Asia in 1980 has worked in greater China ever since. In addition to his co-translations with Jane Weizhen Pan, he translated the modern Peking Opera Mulian Rescues His Mother, which was performed at the Hong Kong Fringe in the early 1990s.

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