In this interview, translators Jenna Tang and May Huang discuss their experiences translating contemporary literature in Chinese from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Their conversation touches on the diversity within the Chinese language, translating work that resists compartmentalization, publishing houses in the US and in East Asia, and breaking into the translation world as BIPOC women. Below the interview is a list of resources they’ve compiled for emerging translators working with Taiwan and Hong Kong literature.
May Huang (MH): Hi, Jenna! Thank you for inviting me to be in conversation with you. As emerging translators from Taiwan working in the US, we have a lot in common. We also both got into literary translation in college and received translation mentorships from ALTA. So to kick us off, I wanted to ask: what were your first translation experiences, and how did they inform your current approach to translation?
Jenna Tang (JT): During college, besides taking translation courses with my French major, I earned extra money by translating for conferences and exhibitions. Many times, I translated materials such as articles about performing arts, documents for immigration, and texts related to cultural exchange, tourism, and more. I also worked part-time at the International Office back at my university in Taiwan and had a chance to interpret on many occasions. There were moments when I had to speak English, French, and Spanish to various groups of international students. I was living a multilingual life, and my brain operated constantly in various languages. That was the beginning of my life as a translator. It’s the idea of constantly thinking, “How do I make them understand what this is about?”
MH: I love that your early translation experiences were through gigs! My very first translation involved translating some program texts into Chinese—although that didn’t go well for me as a high schooler at the time. Does the project you are working on now through ALTA resemble your early experiences translating from French and Spanish into Chinese?
JT: Translating from Chinese into English is a completely different experience. I’ve been working with Mike Fu since February; my native language being Chinese and his growing up in America and speaking in English makes our conversations about my translation especially fascinating. It’s like standing at opposite ends of a bridge, trying to convey the nuances of the language and explore different imaginings of the same sentence. This process is translation, and it has really encouraged me to bring more Taiwanese literature to English-speaking audiences. What was your experience of starting out as a translator in college?
MH: I think I got spoiled: I regularly translated for class, received affirmation in workshops, and formed connections with translators early on (networking is so important!). Graduating with polished translations was an immense privilege that I don’t take lightly; the first translation I ever published—“Chicago” by Ya Hsien (瘂弦)—was one I worked on as a student. In college, though, I was used to translating without pay, and to this day, I’m still working to detach myself from that mentality—it’s better for the industry (and ourselves, of course) to not do too much for free, because translation is labor! Like you, I’ve benefited from taking part in the ALTA mentorship. Jennifer Feeley, who continues to mentor me and is all-around amazing, helped me think more about book publication and gave me many translation opportunities I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
“My love for translation is completely tied to my sense of belonging.”
JT: As you started translating and reading more works in translation, did you notice a gap between common perceptions about what defines literature in Chinese and the works you were drawn to as a translator?
MH: Most of the Chinese texts I studied in school were written by authors from mainland China (e.g., Lu Xun [魯迅] and Yu Hua [余華]), but all the writers I choose to translate are from Taiwan and Hong Kong. My love for translation is completely tied to my sense of belonging (and from a pragmatic standpoint, I read traditional Chinese characters, which are used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, as opposed to the simplified characters used in China). I was recently invited to translate a mainland Chinese author for a poetry anthology, and I plucked up the courage to ask the editor if I could translate an author from Hong Kong or Taiwan instead—and she obliged! I was really happy about that. The diverse places we’re from shape our beliefs as translators, and I think it’s important to reflect them in our work.
JT: That’s a very fair point. What impressions do you think readers who aren’t familiar with Chinese-speaking cultures have about literature in Chinese?
MH: You and I have had conversations about how Western readers often associate literature in Chinese with political themes. But I’m typically drawn to work that is more “mundane” or rooted in personal history—poems about houses, family, and places. Frankly, everything is political: the public and private spaces of a city tell you about its lived experiences and what its citizens are fighting to defend. A vignette about Hong Kong cha chaan tengs (local diners) can tell you as much about Hong Kong identity as a poem that is explicitly about the protests. As a Hong Kong citizen, I’m not afforded the privilege of seeing the political crisis happening there as simply a “theme” that “makes a literary text worth translating.” I feel a lot of sadness and guilt surrounding the fact that, over the past year, the situation back home has forced me to think twice about translating or writing something that could be construed as “political.”
All this goes to show that there’s really a diversity in Chinese-language literature, which, as I’ve heard you say before, reflects the diversity inherent in the Mandarin Chinese–speaking world; can you share more about that here?
“What does it look like if we have more translators who are native to the book’s original culture?”
JT: Of course. I think it’s important to acknowledge the diversity of the Chinese language itself. Like many other languages, Chinese has significant regional differences depending on where it’s spoken. It’s not just about the Chinese spoken in China—it’s about the language in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and wherever Chinese-speaking immigrants live. There’s a character in Chinese that I think captures this accurately: 華 (huá), which can mean “Sinophone,” “Mandarin Chinese speakers,” or “people who share the influence of Chinese culture.”
When I translate Taiwanese literature, I try to choose diverse stories that include more than just cultural tradition (festivals, food in the region) or historical events (Japanese colonization, the White Terror, etc.). I’m looking for stories that immerse readers in our thoughts, our culture, and our contemporary everyday life. I’m interested in universal themes many writers address––the #MeToo Movement, sexual violence, women’s societal roles, immigration, and more. My very first translation was Taiwanese author Wu Ming-Yi’s short story “The Descent” (And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again, Restless Books, 2020), a story responding to the global pandemic, environmental issues in the wetlands in western Taiwan, and the alienation of a father-daughter relationship. It’s always interesting to understand how different cultures address these topics, and that’s the essence I’m trying to bring through in my translation.
MH: That’s a really beautiful point. I’m also curious about how these considerations factor into your translation process—on a craft level, how do you approach the texts you translate? This could run the gamut of how you read a text to how you make micro-level word choices.
JT: I always read through the texts I’m translating first. Whether it’s a full article or a chapter from a longer work, I make pencil notes along the way, identifying words and phrases that might be challenging during the translation process. Authors who write in Chinese often use phrases such as “突然” (suddenly), “有一天” (one day), and “這天” (this day), but their meanings aren’t usually rendered so literally in English. Sometimes translation is not just about sticking to a text’s direct meaning––what’s so sudden about a dad coming home? It’s also important to identify words or cultural references that might be easy to understand for me as a native speaker, but not for people from other cultures. I do a lot of research during the translation process, especially when working with ancient Chinese texts (文言文)–– even many native speakers need to pause and read ancient Chinese closely, making sure we’re able to identify the references and the metaphors so we can best translate the meaning of the sentence. As Megan McDowell and Sophie Hughes pointed out in their conversation at Brookline Booksmith’s Transnational Literature Series, we read very deeply in the process of translation, and in fact, that’s one of the best ways to read every book! To me, translation is also an ideal method not only of learning about other cultures but of tracing back to my own.
“Not feeling ‘fluent enough’ has always made me feel imposter syndrome.”
MH: Absolutely! Your point about translation allowing us to learn about our own cultures really resonates with me. For example, although every author I translate writes in Chinese, I’ve learned that I have to pay attention to how words sound in Cantonese, although I’ve never studied it in school and don't speak it fluently. The poem “Housework” by the Hong Kong poet Chung Kwok-keung (鍾國強), for instance, uses the character “喔喔” to represent the sound of chickens. In Mandarin, 喔喔 sounds like “aw-aw”; in Cantonese, it sound like “ak-ak,” which is closer to “cluck-cluck.” My English translation uses “oh-oh,” which I thought sounded musical, but if given the chance to revise the poem, I think I might change it to “ah-ah.” Maybe. Aah! Another important part of my process (and maybe my favorite) is communicating with my authors. It reminds me how collaborative translation really is. Once, the Taiwanese writer Qiu Chang-ting (邱常婷) told me she was asking her husband for advice on something she wrote, while I was also asking my husband to read something I translated. I like these translator-author synergy moments.
JT: I like what you said about how translation involves lots of collaboration. On that note, I have a question for both of us. What challenges do we face as emerging BIPOC women translators in the US? What are your observations about representation?
MH: That’s definitely a relevant question for both of us, as we grew up in places where we didn’t have to think of ourselves as being “BIPOC”—and now we do. In this industry,“translating” itself is perhaps the most smooth-sailing part about being a translator—everything else, from finding work to finding a publisher, seems much harder, and I’ve observed that success as a translator sometimes has little to do with how fluent you are. Although I’m fluent in Mandarin, not feeling “fluent enough” has always made me feel imposter syndrome. And yet, I’ve attended talks by white translators who don’t speak Chinese as well as I do (or at all) but talk about their translations very confidently. These events always have the dual effect of making me feel better about myself but also worse in a way. Do you know what I mean?
JT: Totally. It makes me think a lot about who gets to translate certain works, especially those about sexual violence and violence against women. Similarly, how far should we go in terms of translating cultural nuances? How do we find a balance: not overly explaining our cultures, but also letting readers who are less familiar with these cultures understand the story? What does it look like if we have more translators who are native to the book’s original culture and fluent in both languages? On this note, how do you navigate the publishing world with these questions in mind?
“As a BIPOC woman translator, I constantly feel the pressure of explaining my culture.”
MH: I only started learning about the unspoken rules of translation publishing recently. So I’m grateful to more experienced translators like Jennifer Feeley, Mike Fu, and Jeremy Tiang for helping me navigate those areas, and I hope to pay it forward in whatever way I can someday. I haven’t published a book-length translation yet, and sometimes I feel I should step on the gas. But I always take comfort in what Anton Hur wrote in his essay “The Emerging Literary Translator Valley of Death”: “we really grow into our languages during this time, because no matter where translators live physically, we always live in our languages.” I think that piece is essential reading for any emerging translator. In it, Anton also talks about the “sheer luck it takes to get published,” which is very relatable. Pitching projects to US publishers while communicating with others overseas is a struggle that I know you also know all too well.
JT: The fact that I’m a Taiwanese woman living in the US feels like something that has been constantly emphasized to me since I moved to New York for grad school. However, when I pitch my work in translation, I focus on these questions: what are the meanings brought by this specific book, article, or work? As a BIPOC woman translator, I constantly feel the pressure of explaining my culture––especially when people identify certain parts of my translation work, asking me to “make it clear.” What does “clear” mean? Why do I have to explain my culture from scratch?
As you said, I’ve also learned many things through my experiences working with original publishers of Chinese-language books. Not every publisher understands how the American publishing industry works, and as a translator, having to make sure the English rights are available while trying to find an English-language publisher that’s willing to take on the book, I’ve learned that sometimes I need to explain the process in great detail and be patient about waiting. It's time-consuming and challenging at times. Last but not least, the most significant challenge has been finding other translators who understand these struggles. I’m very grateful to have received support from many fellow translators along the way, and super happy to have found you! We stand together and support each other!
MH: I’m glad we found each other in the world of translation, too! We’re both in the BIPOC Literary Translators Caucus, and I didn’t know how much I needed that group until I joined. It’s a safe space for translators who want to find folks who look like them in an industry that still has a ways to go when it comes to spotlighting translators of color.
JT: Why don’t we end with a piece of advice we would give to other emerging translators?
MH: I’d encourage emerging translators to find a community—whether that is an in-person collective or even a Twitter circle. Being able to talk to folks who completely understand what you’re going through makes all the difference.
JT: I suggest always reaching out. Try to be patient and persistent. As ordinary as it sounds, it’s the key to navigating the translation world. I hope the resources we’ve gathered below will be useful for those who are looking to break into literary translation!
Further Reading / Resources:
—American Literary Translators Association (ALTA)
—BIPOC Literary Translation Caucus (Learn more)
—The Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing
—PEN Translation Committee
Hong Kong Literature:
—字畫 (Fleurs des lettres)
—Voice & Verse, and their online journal with audio recordings《讀音》
—Prism (the new incarnation of the Journal of Modern Literature in Chinese)
—Books from Taiwan
—Taiwan Creative Content Agency
—The Translated Chinese Fiction Podcast run by Angus Stewart
—Brookline Booksmith: Transnational Series
—Community Bookstore: Translation Events with NYRB
Published May 20, 2021 Copyright 2021 May HuangJenna Tang