Ferryman of Lives: Sujane Wu Discusses her ongoing translation project with Bea Edmonds

Sujane Wu is a professor of Chinese Language and Literature at Smith College. Her work centers around Chinese poetry, song, biographical writings and early Chinese history. She is also a professor of Chinese as a second language and a translator of works from Chinese to English. Professor Wu received her B.A. in Taipei, Taiwan at Soochow University, and continued on to receive a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.


What is the work you are currently translating?

Ferryman of Lives: When Opportunity Meets Creativity by Wu Jing-jyi, that’s the only translation project I’m working on, in addition to my research. My own research is about third-century Chinese poetry, but in terms of translation, Ferryman is my focus now.

What is the original like?

It’s an autobiography; he was a professor and also the Executive Director of the Foundation for Scholarly Exchange (Fulbright Foundation) in Taiwan.The original is about how his life intersects with Taiwan’s politics and with some cultural and artistic aspects. Actually, he narrated it and someone else wrote it on his behalf, so it’s more like an oral history or an oral narration.

Why did you choose to translate this?

There are a couple reasons, one is because he was very famous in Taiwan. I mean he was some time ago; I don’t think young people now really know about him. He also made many contributions to Taiwan’s scholarly field and art. His specialty is educational psychology, so now he has a lot of students who are chairmen of different universities in Taiwan.

He really brought Taiwan into light on a global stage after Taiwan and the United States severed their diplomatic relationship. This is the first reason; the second reason is more personal, because he is my cousin. He is my father’s oldest brother’s oldest son, but we are actually twenty something years apart. Now he is 81 years old. When I was growing up the first memory I have of him is when he was coming back from the U.S. from the University of Minnesota where he had gone to study for his Ph.D. I remember one time he came back because my grandma was sick. He gave me a U.S. quarter. I did not really know him because we have such a wide age gap so we never really lived in the same house. But because I was the first girl to go to college in my family, he knew–he was already the Executive Director at the FSE (Fulbright foundation)– he knew I needed to support myself. I’m the second child in my family and my parents did not have money for me to go to college. Once I got into college he called and wanted to talk to me. I remember I used the public phone booth to call him at FSE. He said ‘I know you need a job, so you can come here to work as a student assistant at Fulbright.’’ And I was offered a job there at the library. I was so happy because it meant I could pay my own tuition.  So, he is the one who at that particular moment gave me the opportunity.


I always have that kind of gratitude towards him. So that’s the personal level. When I read his autobiography there were so many stories I did not know about. So I told him that I wanted to translate his book and bring his individual story into Taiwan’s history, politics, and culture. After this translation  I probably will interview two or three people of his age and write an article about how these individuals contributed to what made Taiwan become Taiwan today. They do not want to talk about their impact themselves, but I think people should really recognize their impact.

What is your hope for this and what is your audience?

My audience would be people who are interested in Taiwan – so general readers, not really academics, but of course I hope someone will use this autobiography in the classroom.  Hopefully this kind of biographical story will bring people a different perspective. I have to get it published first. But, when I’m doing a project usually that is my last concern. I just want to finish and then see.

What is the biggest challenge for you in translation?

I think in general the biggest challenge comes in going from colloquial Chinese to English. Somehow I feel that language itself is a challenge because everybody has a different kind of feeling towards a particular word– a different kind of sensibility, even in Chinese, people disagree. I think language itself has a lot of potentiality, it’s a variable, it doesn’t have a fixed meaning or a fixed way of using it, and that’s the most challenging problem. I always have to negotiate with myself ‘okay so here am I going to do a literal translation or should I change the wording in order to make it readable in English?’

Does this vary with the material and with time?

Yes, I think so. For this particular text,  because it is an oral narration, an oral history, sometimes the sentences are long. The way he uses a certain term, sometimes I find myself confused because now the context has changed. In translating classical Chinese and especially poetry there is a different kind of challenge. You do not want the translation to read like a narrative. The conciseness of Chinese poems also needs to appear in the English translation. But sometimes this is very hard, especially short poems in Chinese. In English you don’t see/use the same format at all. The Chinese line could be five words but in English you might need seven words in order to really convey the meaning. And also, the hidden meaning is so difficult. In Chinese, the first and second line might not have any connection, but in English you need connectors, like ‘and, so, because’. But if I add those words, I feel like I fix the meaning. If you use ‘because’ in the second line, then the first line becomes the cause, but in Chinese it’s not that, so I feel like ‘maybe this is not right’. It doesn’t need to have that cause and effect that you have spelled out in English.

What does your translation process look like?

Usually I will do many drafts– get the meaning out there first and then revise it. I think a lot of translators go through it like that. So, I will read the original several times, and then see what the key meaning is and try to write it out in English then revise it. Sometimes I’ll even revise the entire paragraph. The first draft is always just wanting to get it out, then you read it and if it’s not right, then you revise it. So, struggle, compromise, and then finding a way to get through it.

How long might one project take? What is the range of time?

Wow, a long time. I think this project will probably need another year. I’m hoping more and more to find collaborators. Now I am working with two students and in a way I think it’s a mutual benefit. We are all learning together. This project is totally for my own curiosity. I just want to do something for Taiwan because I’ve never really done anything to contribute to Taiwanese society. My entire adult life has been in the United States. The longer I stay here the more I want to learn more about Taiwan. A life story is better than just reading facts. Because it gives a different layer of emotions, feelings and human beings.

Why do you translate?

At the very beginning it was because of my research. Because something I was researching had no existing translation so I had to do it on my own. But the second reason is that I think it is very important for people who cannot read Chinese to know other cultures through translation, or to gain different perspectives. I think this book is very important because Taiwan has a lot of translations of Western literature. Some kids when they are in high school already read Dickinson and Hemingway. But it seems like the United States doesn’t have equal numbers of translations. It’s fine if you don’t read the language but translations encourage mutual understanding.  For example, although for Americans Fulbright is a well-known organization, nobody really knows how it works, or how Taiwan and Fulbright started. There’s a history and a politics that through translation people will start to understand.


Béa Edmonds ’20 is a fourth-year student at Smith College majoring in Chinese Language and Literature with a concentration in Translation studies. Her most recent research focuses on the effect of climate change on women in China in the regions of Beijing and Yunnan. Béa has studied Chinese for over six years, and is involved in the above mentioned translation project with Professor Wu.



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