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Li Yongping

English Translation

Interview with MIT by Min-Min Liang, translated by Min-Min Liang

1. Professor Li, you have translated many Western works into Chinese, and the range of the subjects is very wide and not just limited to one genre. We would like to know how you choose your books to translate? Do any of these works have any influence on your own writing?

Li: In 1994, I resigned from my teaching position at Soochow University due to certain reasons. After that, I had lived in seclusion in the old part of town on Taipei’s west side (Ximending) for five years, and that was a period of my leisurely and carefree life. After friends’ recommendations, I started translating books in order to make a living. As a professional translator, I did not have any right to choose books to translate. Whatever the publisher wanted me to translate, I had to translate. Therefore, in that period of time, I translated many Wwestern works (how many? I did not really count them carefully, but it had to be at least 20 books!), and mostly were American bestselling books, covering all fields of studies. I even translated many subjects that were unfamiliar to me, such as astronomy and geomancy, medicine, prophecy, astrology and physiognomy. I simply turned into a translation machine. These works definitely did not have any impact on my own writing, at least not a positive impact. At that time, translation was mere a tool for making a living, and while I was at it, I could practice my Chinese. Nevertheless, occasionally I did encounter one or two serious books with literary value, such as A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul and The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster. Then I would feel exhilarated. It was like an old man who picks scrap for living and suddenly finds a treasure in the rubbish. After being pleasantly surprised, I would translate the work more attentively and be extra careful with the translation. Upon completion, I usually felt satisfied and had a sense of achievement.

2. During the translation process, what do you consider to be the most difficult component in doing a translation? Can you give us some examples?

Li: Translation is dealing with two languages, and during the process of rendering one voice into another language, it is unavoidable to encounter all kinds of the obstacles. Chinese and English are two very different languages in terms of linguistic structures, sounds, and grammars, so the challenges and difficulties of translating Chinese into English or English into Chinese are even bigger and more complicated. Let’s take tone for example. In my personal experience, the most difficult task in writing a fiction/novel is to have an excellent command of the narrator’s voice. I believe that it is the same in translation, but even more difficult because after all, the task deals with two different languages. It gave me a lot of headaches while I was translating The Brooklyn Follies. This is a novel with first-person narrative, and its language is infused with a heavy and unique Jewish New Yorker’s accent. What would that sound like in Chinese? Fortunately, I studied at State University of New York at Albany for two years, and many of my classmates were Jewish from New York City, and therefore I was already very familiar with the way they talked. While translating The Brooklyn Follies, before translating each paragraph into Chinese, I often chanted it several times, ruminated over it, and deliberated on the passage, and then translated the passage into Chinese. I would recite it over and over, and revise it again and again until I was satisfied with it. This way of translating is a very difficult task, but I think that this is the best respect that a translator can show for the literary work and its original author.

3. Professor Li, you have a very strong background of Western literary theory, and you've also translated many Western works into Chinese. Comparing Chinese literature with Western literature, what are the strong points of Wwestern literature worth emulating by modern Chinese novelists?

Li: In China, fiction is the genre that has been deemed “small way (trivial skill), ” and has been undervalued. Therefore, there has not been any extensive and profound development in the artistry and literary theory of (Chinese) fiction. Chinese traditional fiction is especially inadequate in terms of artistic expression, technique, and structural style. In these aspects, we have to learn from Western literature. When I was in college, I read a quote by the novelist Henry James, from a book: “ You can use five million ways to tell the single same story,” and it really struck the right chord in me. The words are simple and a bit exaggerated, but comprise the very essence of the artistry of modern Western fiction. These words expand the possibilities of this literary genre and open up a brand new and infinitely large space in the world of fiction. Yes, the art of fiction is no more than one’s choice of a form of expression and command of narrative point of view. This kind of the choice and judgment is really the best touchstone of a novelist’s ability. I think that we, all fiction writers, should reflect on these words from Henry James.

4. Many literary critics consider you as a practitioner of “Modernism” or even “Postmodernism,” and your work also has been described as “aesthetically intense.” Do you have any opinion concerning these analyses? Do you read criticisms of your work? Do you take them into account in your own writing?

Li: I don’t like labels, and I am also very afraid of being labeled. I feel that a political label is pinned on me. Pardon me for being frank with you, “Modernism” or “Postmodernism” does not mean anything to average readers. Its function is only useful for scholars to discuss certain questions. As a novelist, I have a basic belief: A piece of good work has to and will surpass time and space, meaning that it will surpass these academic terms—surpass the arbitrariness and limitation represented by these terms. As for the comment by some critics about my novels being “aesthetically intense."", I am quite happy to hear that, because this is an insight concerning the nature of literature, and is also an approval and praise of the art of my novels. “Aesthetically intense,” isn’t that the state all artistic creations want to reach?

5. Professor Li, you have said that the character Zhu Ling was the muse for your writing. Does this name have any special meanings? Why did you pick a character like Zhu Ling to be your muse? Except for Zhu Ling, are there any other people or events that give you the inspiration to write your novels?

Li: In my lengthy writing career, “Zhu Ling” is my only and forever muse, and no one can replace her. It is just like Beatrice to Dante, and Consort Mi (Zhen Mi) to Cao Zhi. Originally, I did not “choose” this little girl from Taipei to be my muse, but she just entered my fictional world on her own. I have already talked about this mysterious predestined relationship in other interviews many times, such as Taipei China Times on January 4, 2011, and Hong Kong Wenhui Bao (Wen Wei Po) on May 9, 2011, so it is unnecessary to go into details again. However, I do want to explain the name “Zhu Ling” here. This lonely little girl who roams around the hustle and bustle of Taipei City with a carefree attitude is like a young red sparrow that has just left its nest. When she first appeared in my novel Haidong Qing or The Eagle Haidong Qing, I wanted to give her a name that was endowed with unique Chineseness and resonant sound. I immediately thought of “Zhu Ling” —a red little bird. It seemed predestined. In Haidong Qing, she led “me” into that splendid, colorful, enchanted and illusive world of Taipei City. In Yuxue Feifei or The Snow Falls in Clouds: Recollections of A Borneo Childhood, it was she who led “me” along the Xindian River, upstream voyage, to find the supposedly long extinct Skipjack Tuna (Anzai Yu), a pure species that originated from Taiwan. In Dahe Jintou or The End of the River, it was she again who led “me” to embark on a memory trip. On the river of Borneo, I rowed against the current to return to the homeland that was hidden in the deep primitive rain forest. In my fictional world, this little muse always plays a guide and performs the function of leading a way. Look, doesn’t one of the characters “Ling” in her name mean a “guiding bird?”? Three beautiful square Chinese characters combine to form an even more beautiful and wonderful square Chinese character—Ling. Zhu Ling, a red guiding bird, is such an appropriate name, and it is such a wonderful lucky coincidence. I never thought about this when I first named this little girl.

6. Professor Li, you have a strong passion for Chinese characters, and your English is also excellent. How do you think that the Chinese language differs from English language in terms of artistic expressive ability?

Li: The difference between English and Chinese languages and which one is superior or inferior in artistic expressive ability? This question is hard to answer because it is easily swayed by the nationalist sentiment. Let me just talk about my personal experiences and feelings. Some critics have compared me with V. S. Naipaul. The details of our family background are quite similar. V. S. Naipaul was born in an Indian community in Chaguanas in the Central America, and I was born in an overseas Chinese family in Borneo. Both of us grew up in the British colonies and received English education at the very young age. We both became writers after we grew up, but the difference is that V. S. Naipaul chooses to write in English, and quickly rose to the top of the international literary circle and became a famous world writer, but while I choose to write in my native language (Chinese), and my career path has been rather rough. Do I envy V. S. Naipaul? I honestly don’t. Although V. S. Naipaul has been considered as one of the masters of modern English prose in the twentieth century, no matter how talented he is, he will never reach the highest state of English language, because the highest state of any language is a feeling, and it only comes from the mother. That very deep level of feeling of a nation can only be fully expressed through its native language. In comparison, as a Chinese descendant, I write with the language passed down from my ancestors, and even though I have worked very hard on it my entire life, I still cannot reach the highest state of Chinese language because of my family background and my own aptitude. I think I am closer to the highest state of Chinese than V. S. Naipaul is to English. To me, a second generation “overseas” Chinese from the South Seas, the Chinese language is not just a set of linguistic signs, such as English, Spanish, or any other alphabetic written languages. Since I was a child, in my mind the Chinese language and its several tens of thousands of square characters, which are unique and beautiful in both forms and sound, always has been the totems and the distinct symbols of a nation. I choose to write in Chinese because I hope that I can articulate my feelings of life and express my view of the world through this group of magnificent, splendorsplendid, and colorful and rich totems. For this, English, this alphabetic written language, doesn’t possess the qualities that can satisfy my needs.

7. Professor Li, you once said that there are three stages to writing. First phase, the mountain is the mountain. The writing is straightforward, unadorned by literary artifice. Second phase, the mountain is not the mountain. Haidong Qing was written during this phase. You focused on literary devices, and everything has a hidden meaning. Third phase, the mountain is the mountain again because the author tries to recover a simpler style. Your recent work Dahe Jintou or The End of the River apparently has reached this state and received great reviews. You also said that many writers never get beyond the second phase and cannot breakthrough it. Can you talk about your own journey of writing? How did you breakthrough the shackles of each stage and reach the third stage?

Li: I have been writing for forty years, and the changes of my subject matter, style, and worldview naturally form several stages of my writing career. In the past, I adopted Buddhist terms for the three stages—The mountain is the mountain; the mountain is not the mountain, and the mountain is the mountain again—to mark my own writing path. That was my own expectation for myself when I first engaged in this profession. Now I think back on the journey of forty years, and I have discovered that writing itself is in fact a lucky coincidence: from the original idea, conception, to writing and finishing, every step is involved in a series of wonderful, mysterious, and incomprehensible elements that are beyond the author’s control. Let’s call it “dependent origination” or “yinyuan” for the moment! Rather than plan everything purposefully, it would be better to let nature take its course. I am more than sixty years old now, and I finished Dahe Jintou or The End of the River, a novel that I am happy with and like. I don’t plan to give it an arbitrary position to define the stage of its achievement. I can only say that it is a novel that was written during a certain period of time and in a particular frame of mind in my writing career.

However, during the course of writing Dahe Jintou or The End of the River, I experienced a very different writing experience and pleasure that I had never experienced before: doing as I pleased. After all, after writing novels for forty years, I think that I am qualified to put all the literary theory and techniques that I have earned all behind me. I will write whatever I want to write and don’t need to care about others’ opinions. Perhaps this kind of the freedom is the stage of “the mountain is the mountain again!” Perhaps it also resonates with the wisdom embedded in the poem that I love to recite all the time, Gui Yuan Pu, by Southern Song poet Yang Wanli (1127–1206):

Ten thousand mountains do not allow one creek to quickly run through,
The obstructions make the creek complain vehemently day and night.
When arriving at the foot of the mountain ahead,
The gushing creek flows out over the first village.

8. The idea of “literature for conveying truth” plays a very important role in the Chinese literary tradition. In your opinion, what is the function of literature?

Li: This question is too lofty and heavy hearted. I am only a writer who has produced several novels, and I am extremely afraid of answering this question. I don’t really know how to answer it. I can only humbly say that the “small way" or "xiaodao” (fiction), this kind of the trivial literary genre, has provided me a channel. It gives me an opportunity to express my insignificant view and feelings of life and the world through a touching story or the sorrows and joys of parting and reunions of a group of people. Moreover, I can share my feelings and views with readers in the world with my own choice of words. To me, this is the function of literature. Perhaps I am not too very ambitious so my statement is not very profound or important—but I am absolutely sincere.

9. Professor Li, can you talk about your writing plan for the future?

Li: I just had a major operation on my coronary artery. I am still recovering from it. The doctor told me that I could not travel long distances so I can only stay in seclusion in the Danshui Town located in the northwest corner of Taiwan. I don’t have much to do every day, so I sit in my studio looking at the Guanyi Mountain outside of my window and meditate on something. My mind is filled with subject matter, characters, and stories of a novel. Maybe one day when I have a sudden inspiration, I will write my little muse—Zhu Ling girl—into the rain forest of Borneo, and let her be the female protagonist and the narrator who really embarks on a magical trip. I might write a sequel to Dahe Jintou or The End of the River, calling it The Book of Zhu Ling. For this, with the prequel, Yuxue Feifei or The Snow Falls in Clouds: Recollections of A Borneo Childhood, then won’t I have accomplished The Borneo Trilogy?

Chinese people always say that fallen leaves return to the roots. Most of my life, I have been away and wandering around. After turning fifty, I started thinking of the land where I was born and grew up: Borneo. I am a novelist, and naturally I will employ the technique of writing and the style of telling a story to look back on my growing-up experience, to sort out my obsessed memory of Borneo. Borneo Trilogy (maybe I will give it an unique and lyrical sounding title, such as Three Voices of the River) will be the last, the most sincere, and the only present in my life to the mother Borneo from me, the wandering son.