Translating Double Entendre in Chinese Literature: Liann Waite interviews Sabina Knight

Sabina Knight is a professor of Chinese and comparative literature at Smith College. She has studied many languages including (but not limited to), English, French, Russian, and Mandarin Chinese. Although known for her  translations of modern stories and essays (such as her translation of Liu Heng’s 狗日的粮食 Gǒurì de Liángshi or “Dogshit Food” in The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature), Professor Knight particularly enjoys translating Classical Chinese poetry.


First, I want to thank you for meeting me to do this interview! Now, I was wondering if there’s a reason why you chose to focus on Chinese as opposed to another language?

Perhaps the biggest reason early on was that I was interested in philosophy and ethics. And I thought that it wasn’t very ethical to study only my own tradition. I wanted to study another tradition, and I wanted to study one that had an ancient language, so that I could read ancient philosophy. Another major factor was that I was in love with a certain kind of landscape and nature painting that I thought was Chinese. So, there was an aesthetic that drew me to Chinese as well.

You studied Chinese language, but how did you come to Chinese-English translation specifically?

When you’re learning a language, especially in France, translation is a huge part of what you do. It’s just one very important way that you learn a language. I was doing some translating as part of my studies, and I liked it. But I didn’t think of myself as a translator until my second year of graduate school at Berkeley. I was invited to translate a story by the Chinese author Liu Heng for The Columbia Anthology of Modern Chinese Literature. Liu Heng is a wonderful author, and it’s a really great story, but there were many terms that were very hard to translate. Even the title, 狗日的粮食 (Gǒurì de Liángshi), was tricky. I ended up calling the story “Dogshit Food.” It isn’t the greatest title; I couldn’t think of anything better… The whole project was really challenging. I can’t say that I was eager to translate again right away yet at the same time, the translation was something I got done, and something that I felt a sense of fulfillment doing. I learned a lot doing it too. So it was, on the whole, a good experience.

What is your experience translating Chinese-English? Do you have a certain “mindset” when translating between two languages?

When I was a little girl, we lived briefly in France. My mother could read French symbolist poetry, but she couldn’t really speak French well. When she spoke French, she would sometimes speak a kind of hodgepodge of French and English. I hated that and I would demand, “Either speak French or speak English. Don’t speak both at once!” It made me very upset. To some extent that’s still true. I still find it hard to understand when people mix languages. When a Chinese person throws in English words, often I don’t know that they’re switching to English. The firewall between languages in my mind makes translation especially hard. In order to translate I have to think in one language, then stop thinking, and then think anew in the other language… I’m a slow translator, maybe precisely because it’s not easy for me to switch between languages. I might even say that I experience a certain amount of dissonance when I’m translating.

Do you feel like you bring your own identity into being a translator (i.e., your gender, race, socioeconomic status, etc.?)

That is a brilliant question. First of all, because my dad was a Brit and my mother was a Russian-American and had grown up in a Russian community, neither of them were like many Americans in knowing American cultural references… There were areas that were very rich in my education. But there’s a whole rich area of film and popular culture where I definitely have a deficit. So, I try to avoid translating things where I’m not going to have the vocabulary. I tend toward more literary works composed of the kind of language I know how to use. Maybe because of my British background, I want to be careful with language. Yet I’m conscious that my concerns grow out of a particular subculture. I don’t want to impose those scruples on a text from a different culture. I am aware that I’m more comfortable with certain intellectual and artistic discourse than with much popular discourse… I’ll speak colloquially with people because I want to connect with them. But when I go to write, I don’t want to use certain new terms or patterns that are now acceptable in English grammar. I try to avoid finding myself facing the conflict between my own grammatical habits and that of an author I’m translating.

If characters are speaking very colloquially and therefore aren’t completely grammatically correct in a Chinese text, would you translate it into grammatically correct English?

If the author is intentionally not correct in Chinese, I would want to reproduce that in English. On the other hand, we’re writing in a world where there are all these stereotypes. If I translate a Chinese text into a certain kind of ungrammatical English, it might just sound the way people stereotype Chinese people as speaking. I might be playing into a stereotype and the racism behind it. Ultimately, I don’t want to play into that prejudice. So, such choices are really hard. For example, if I were going to translate Wang Shuo, an author of a genre called Liumang wenxue “hooligan/bad boy literature,” I might use rap. If I were translating him and hit on a passage in which the characters are speaking that kind of bad boy language, I would find the right, equivalent English dialect. So, if I were translating that… I would translate it into Jive, what Black people often speak in the inner city. I would translate it into something that works and that has a value as a subcultural dialect, not just broken Chinese.

How do you translate Classical Chinese to English? How do you convey that Classical Chinese is an ancient form of writing when translating it into English?

Classical Chinese may be the most beautiful language in the world. It may be weird to say that because it’s only written… Nonetheless, it’s very beautiful on so many levels and there’s really no way to reproduce that beauty in English. Yet you try. I usually try to make it literary… It’s literary in Classical Chinese, so I try to make it literary in English. Most Classical Chinese poetry is highly structured. There’s a tonal system for the lines; there’s parallelism between the lines; and there’s often a rhyme scheme, too. There are also set forms, the way we have sonnets and ballads… Often, if there is an important formal aspect that I can’t translate, I figure out an alternative way of conveying that craftsmanship… Many translators render Classical Chinese poems as free verse. Sometimes one has little alternative. Generally, though, I do not want to take a structured Chinese poem and make it free verse in English. Many translators do so because they can then be more faithful to the meaning of the poem. But that approach is seldom true to the spirit of the poem. That’s why I seek some way to preserve some kind of equivalent effect. So, I look for particularly beautiful words, and I do my best to have, if not rhyme, then assonance. I want some kind of meter too, if possible. The point is to give the poem a rhythm and as many other features as possible to convey its craftsmanship. Often, I can’t translate the many double entendres, but sometimes I even do that. I did, for example, in my translation of Du Fu’s春望 (chūn wàng) “Spring Contemplation” for my second book, Chinese Literature: A Very Short Introduction. In that little book, I made this poem a special example precisely because it was one of the only poems that I was able to translate and preserve the double entendres. There’s one double entendre in the English that pretty exactly mirrors the most important double entendre in the Chinese. A blogger caught the depth and difficulty of such a rendering and featured the poem in his blog. I was thrilled. I was thrilled because a reader fully understood… I hit on something with that particular poem. I love when that happens.

When do you know that a translation is finished?

(Without hesitation.) When the deadline comes.

Liann Waite ’20 is a senior at Smith College, majoring in East Asian Studies with a concentration in Translation Studies. She has devoted much of her academic career  to her life-long passion for learning foreign languages,  developing a  professional proficiency in both Mandarin Chinese and French through studies both in school and abroad, as well as an intermediate knowledge of Korean. 


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