Each week, the Sunday Post highlights just a few things we loved reading and want to share with you. Settle in with a cup of coffee, or tea, if that's your pleasure — we saved you a seat! Read an essay or an article online that you loved? Let us know at email@example.com. Need more browse? You can also look through the archives.
This is Julie, stepping in for Dawn, who is taking a much-needed vacation this week.
Even though it’s September (already!), and Women in Translation Month is over, I’m using this Sunday Post to talk about women in translation (and women translators!). I hope that even without a dedicated month, you might continue to discover and dive into all the great writing by women outside the Anglo-American sphere.
If you can read them in their original language, all the better. But you might also keep a translation around, if only to marvel at the feat of literature required to render one language clearly and elegantly into another.
Here are three great reads that contend with the art and artifice of translation — and engage with writing from Poland to Pakistan.
First, a personal essay from translator Jennifer Croft, who finds parallels between her own life and Polish writer Sylwia Siedlecka’s. Croft and her sister Anne Marie were inseparable until Anne Marie was diagnosed with seizures. By age 6, Anne Marie’s life held no resemblance to Jennifer’s. In an almost poetic reversal, Sylwia Siedlecka’s short story “Wodny motyl,” translated as “Water Butterfly” is about conjoined twins.
If you love those weird untranslatable words, you’ll love this essay. Croft muses on all the strange inequities between languages and the “strange alchemy” of being a translator.
In some languages, like Polish, the word for share is the same as the word for divide. It took some time, but finally this did make sense to me. If there is an unlimited quantity of anything, I don’t know what it is. To share is always to give something up: to divide.
If you’ve had any exposure to the Chinese literary canon, it’s hard to overstate how popular and influential Eileen Zhang (or Chang, depending on the romanization) is. My mother had most of her books lined up on the shelves at home. When I went to college, I signed up for Chinese classes, where I struggled character-by-character through her short stories with a dictionary. Sometimes, I “cheated” by finding the English translations to read instead (sorry mom/Professor Wang, if you’re reading this). For anyone looking for an introduction to modern Chinese literature, there’s no better place to start than with Eileen — her characters are modern, approachable, and alive with smart writing.
Or you can start here: Sheng Yun’s London Review of Books review of Zhang’s novel-cum-autobiography Little Reunions. Sheng does an excellent job of putting Zhang’s life and work in the context of the tumultuousness of a half century of Chinese history. After the communist revolution, Zhang moved to Hong Kong. The United States Information Service commissioned her to write anti-communist novels — in English. Through propaganda, Eileen Zhang effectively becomes her own translator, to frustrating ends:
The novels’ outlines were set by the American propaganda officer, and Naked Earth caused [Zhang] a lot of headaches and ‘mental constipation’. The ‘bedroom scene’ was a challenge too: ‘How do English novels deal with this? Maybe I should read something like From Here to Eternity or Bhowani Junction.’ The Rice-Sprout Song was acclaimed by American critics, but Chang swore she’d never again write anything she didn’t feel committed to, or on a subject she wasn’t familiar with.
But what happens when a translation just works?
“Can you really like the translation of a book you did not like when you first read the original?” asks Asif Farrukhi when reading Daisy Rockwell’s translation of Khadija Mastur’s posthumous Zameen, a forgotten Urdu story about the upheaval of the Partition.
The original, Farrukhi complained, lacked finesse. It felt hurried, like a first draft. Unfortunately, the author died before the original was published.
But maybe a translation is not just alchemy or mental constipation. It is also a revision — a second draft that the writer could not undertake herself. Under Daisy Rockwell’s “deft hands,” the original becomes accessible, and meaningful — even when translation errors inevitably proliferate.
The work of a translator gives forgotten works to new audiences, and just might save it from the dustbin of history.
The novel did seem hurried over as if some parts of it were meant to be developed further or marked for revision by the author. I recall a conversation with Hajra Masroor Mastur’s sister and a master of the short story in her own right — where she vehemently denied that _Zameen_ was unfinished or in a draft stage. She insisted that the book was exactly as its author had intended it to be. In spite of this, over the years, the book has attracted far less attention than its predecessor. I wonder if its fortune will change and, with this new translation, it will find more readers. As far as I can say about myself, it caught me by surprise and I read it with new enthusiasm.