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An Interview with Ma Jian and Flora Drew

By Words Without Borders

We spoke with Chinese author Ma Jian and his English-language translator, Flora Drew, who is also his partner, about their collaboration on his work.


Words Without Borders (WWB): Flora—are you Ma Jian’s first reader? Do you ever advise on the writing as opposed to the translation? On structure or story, perhaps?

Flora Drew (FD): Since I’ve known him, yes, I’ve always been the first reader. By the time he shows it to me, it is a finished work, so I have never advised on structure or story. After he finishes a book, he talks to me about what he wants it to say, then we’ll sit down and he’ll read it out loud to me from beginning to end. We’ll discuss it in great detail, and sometimes I might say, “That sentence isn’t necessary” or “Add some more explanation there,” but I’ve never had to suggest any fundamental changes.


WWB: Ma Jian—have you used other translators into English? What do you think Flora’s special qualities are?

Ma Jian (MJ): Flora is the only person who has translated my books into English. She came to interview me in Hong Kong on the eve of the Handover. Her Chinese was very good, so I gave her copies of my books and said, half-jokingly, that she could translate them into English if she liked. It was almost the second thing I said to her! It was a strange thing to say, but there was a feeling of destiny.

I think Flora’s special quality is that she has a finely tuned ear and she is always searching for the underlying meaning. In Chinese, a soul mate is described as “zhiyin”—someone who “understands your music”—and that is what Flora is to me.

When we are talking about books, I don’t feel that we are doing so as friends or partners, or as a writer/translator. It goes beyond that.

WWB: Do you make a distinction between sharing the writing as friends/partners and sharing it as a writer/translator?

MJ: When we are talking about books, I don’t feel that we are doing so as friends or partners, or as a writer/translator. It goes beyond that. It feels like a continuation of the discussions I have with myself in my head.

FD: The Ma Jian I translate is a very different entity from the Ma Jian I live with. There is never any confusion. I never feel I’m translating the words of the person I’ve just had supper with or who’s just taken our children to the park. Knowing him so well, though, means I can in some strange way become him, and write the translation not as a friend or a translator but as Ma Jian would if he were writing the book in English. But there are times during the translation that I feel we are having a silent conversation with each other that we don’t have time for in real life. Many of his books have references to places we have been together, dreams of mine that I have told him about, or things our children have said.


WWB: Flora—what are the challenges of translating from Chinese? 

FD: Chinese and English are as far apart as any two languages could be. I can read a book in French easily, but after all these years, Chinese is still a struggle—there are characters I don’t know or have forgotten, classical allusions that I miss at first. But if the text weren’t slightly opaque to me at the beginning, I wouldn’t feel any desire to explore it further, or spend years translating it. Chinese has no tenses and is more concise than English, so meaning is often inferred through context. But although Chinese sometimes feels like a different universe, I’m always surprised by how much can be translated—how images and metaphors can work across cultures. In The Dark Road, a man says to a woman he wants to marry: “Don’t even think of spreading your pink blossom over the garden walls.” I felt able to translate that Chinese expression without any explanation. It seems a perfect image to describe a woman’s infidelity.  


WWB: Ma Jian’s novels are generally satirical. Humor is sometimes difficult to translate. Is this the case with his work?

FD: Humor that relies on wordplay or puns is always difficult, but I like the challenge of finding an equivalent in English. China Dream has quite a few jokes like that. But most of Ma Jian’s humor is dark and satirical and is a question of tone and mood. It’s influenced by Chekhov and Gogol, so it resonates with a Western reader. But the moments of humor often move seamlessly into passages that are poetic, melancholic, or grittily realistic, and the challenge is to ensure the transitions remain fluid in English.


WWB: Do you ever feel you have to make substantial changes in order to render it into English? For example, Deborah Smith and Han Kang have spoken about the challenge of translating Korean philosophy and, in particular, the concept of “hon,” which has no equivalent in English.

FD: The words “hun” and “ling” feature a lot in Ma Jian’s writing as well. I translate them as “spirit” or “soul.” These terms have been used in translations of Chan Buddhist texts, so I think they can transcend the Christian context. In The Dark Road, passages of the book are narrated from the point of view of the soul of an unborn child, which I translated as an “infant spirit.” They are written in what Ma Jian describes as a “fourth-person narrative.” In Chinese, he can avoid personal pronouns and time indicators to give these passages an otherworldly feel. English insists that a sentence has a subject and a tense, so all I could do was to try to mirror the dry and detached tone.


WWB: Ma Jian—do you read Flora’s translations?

MJ: No, I haven’t read them. But I trust her completely.


WWB: Do you have editors in Chinese and in English? Do you always publish in both languages and which language do you consider to be the master text?

MJ: My books are banned in China, so I have never had a Chinese editor. They have always been published in Hong Kong and Taiwan (apart from my latest book, which no one in Hong Kong will dare publish), but editors there tend to concentrate only on typos. I did manage to get Red Dust published in China a few years ago under a pseudonym. But the editor was no more than a censor. She deleted everything that was vaguely political and rewrote whole chunks of it, so the book is only interesting as a historical artifact. (Still, when the authorities found out that I was, in fact, the author, they ordered all copies to be destroyed.) There is always much more editorial work done on the English translation. When I look back at the Chinese text during the editing process, I often make small changes that are incorporated into the English translation. The master texts are the Chinese ones in the Hong Kong bookshops or are filed in my computer. I hope one day they will be published in Mainland China. 


WWB: If an editor suggests changes, how do you negotiate them? (And if it’s an English language editor, does this mean you take on a different role, Flora?)

FD: I go back and forth between Ma Jian and the editor, relaying their comments and adding my own. 

MJ: Rebecca Carter was my first editor and worked with me on many books. Becky Hardie edited China Dream. They have both been great editors. Their comments helped me look at my text with fresh eyes and inspired me to make changes that wouldn’t have occurred to me otherwise. Neither of them insisted I change anything I didn’t want to.


WWB: Flora—what do you think about the general standard of translation from Chinese to English? Are there any translators who you particularly admire?

FD: I find it hard to read other translators of contemporary Chinese fiction—but that’s my fault, not theirs. It’s too close to home for me. In my head, I’m always working out what the original Chinese might be and thinking about how I might translate it differently. I can’t bear to read my own translations either once they’re published, or at least not until several years have passed, because again I always want to re-edit my words. I feel more comfortable reading translations of classical Chinese fiction. The translation of The Dream of the Red Chamber by David Hawkes and John Minford is wonderful.

I’m hoping to give the English reader an equivalent experience—intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic—to the one that I have when I read the text in Chinese.

WWB: Is there any pressure to make alterations for, say, the American market?

FD: American publishers sometimes have Americanized spellings and different versions of some words (e.g., “sneakers” instead of “plimsoles”), but mostly they just use the English edited version unchanged.


WWB: Have you translated the work of other writers?

FD: Ma Jian is the only novelist I have translated. I never planned to become a translator. When I was studying Chinese at university, I thought I might translate Chinese poetry as a hobby in my retirement. But when I read Ma Jian’s books, I knew at once that I wanted to translate them.


WWB: Ma Jian—do you work with translators into other languages? How does that experience differ? Are there any that work particularly well?

MJ: It’s very different working with other translators. None of them live in the same house as me and bother me day and night with questions! Some have no contact with me at all; some send pages of questions. I seldom get a chance to meet them or thank them for their work.


WWB: In an essay on translating Tolstoy, New Yorker critic James Wood wrote, “Literary translators tend to divide into what one could call originalists and activists. The former honor the original text’s quiddities, and strive to reproduce them as accurately as possible in the translated language; the latter are less concerned with literal accuracy than with the transposed musical appeal of the new work. Any decent translator must be a bit of both.” Flora—does this ring true to you and where would you place yourself?

FD: I agree that a good translator must capture both the sense and musicality of a textIn the early drafts, I focus doggedly on getting the literal meaning. That’s the tedious part. Then I move away from the Chinese and polish the English. There is always a risk at that point that the peculiarities of the original will be ironed out, so I go back to the Chinese. In the final stage, I put the Chinese aside and read the English out loud again and again, focusing on the sound it makes. That is when I feel I am getting closest to the original text, because I’m trying to replicate not just the meaning but also the pulse, rhythm, and tone. In the end, I’m hoping to give the English reader an equivalent experience—intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic—to the one that I have when I read the text in Chinese.


Portions of this interview appeared in the Guardian.


Ma Jian was born in Qingdao, China. He is the author of seven novels, a travel memoir, three story collections, and two essay collections. He has been translated into twenty-six languages. Since the publication of his first book in 1987, all his work has been banned in China. He now lives in exile in London. 

Flora Drew’s translations from the Chinese include Ma Jian’s Red DustThe Noodle MakerStick Out Your TongueBeijing ComaThe Dark Roadand China Dream.

Published May 7, 2019   Copyright 2019 Words Without Borders

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