An interview with the translator of Bronze and Sunflower by Cao Wenxuan

posted in: Cao Wenxuan, Helen Wang, Meilo So | 2

Many of the best books take us into ourselves and outside into the world, facilitating journeys we might not otherwise have taken either in thought or reality. This sense of adventure and possibility is one of the reason’s why I’m so passionate about books in translation and why I was delighted to hear about the bestselling Chinese children’s novel Bronze and Sunflower (青铜葵花) by Cao Wenxuan hitting English-language bookshelves for the first time this year, thanks to its translation by Helen Wang.

Cover art by Meilo So
Cover art by Meilo So
Sunflower and Bronze, two children who are isolated and lonely for different reasons befriend each other. Following the death of Sunflower’s father, Bronze’s family unofficially adopt Sunflower and the story then follows the two children’s friendship, adventures, and experiences living in a very poor but very happy and generous family. Although not without times of grief and real hardship, Bronze and Sunflower’s lives are full of so much loveliness, happiness and kindness that this book, this story came as a welcome breath of fresh air, full of hope and a reminder that warmth and generosity can make for powerful storytelling just as much as angst and dystopia.

Although set in rural China during the Cultural Revolution Bronze and Sunflower has a timeless quality about it; yes, there are references to Cadre schools (a feature of the Cultural Revolution) but nevertheless it felt as if this story could have been set in almost any time period. It has a folktale-like quality in its focus on simple everyday events and challenges. The ingenuity of Bronze, the determination of his entire family to provide the best they can for Sunflower, and the fierce love between adoptive brother and sister are moving and enchanting.

This exploration of aspects of every day simple life reminded me at times of the Laura Ingalls books in the best possible sense and thus I believe Bronze and Sunflower would make a great read aloud from around 6+, as well as being enjoyed by older independent readers. This quiet and gentle story woven through with thoughtfulness and bright love will stay with me for a long time.

Captivated as I was by this Chinese novel, I took the opportunity to interview its translator, Helen Wang, about her work and – more broadly – Chinese children’s literature. First I asked about the process Helen goes through when translating a book, where she starts and what “tricks” or routines she makes use of.

Helen Wang: This is only the second book I’ve translated, so I don’t really have any “tricks” or routines. It takes a few months to translate a novel, and it seems to take between one to two years for a translated book to appear in print. It’s quite a commitment for everyone involved. So I like to take some time at the beginning to read the book and play with it, and work out whether we’ll get along – a bit like browsing in a bookshop or a library. One publisher was very keen for me to translate a particular book, and was so anxious when I turned it down. She wanted to know what was wrong with the book! There was nothing with the book, it was just that I didn’t feel I was the right person to translate it. Actually, the experience reminded me a bit of Daniel Pennac’s book “The Rights of the Reader” (translated by Sarah Ardizzone).

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Playing by the book: Yes, translators have rights too! How interesting that you felt your style or approach didn’t somehow match a given book. That makes me wonder…what were the most challenging aspects of translating Bronze and Sunflower?

Helen Wang: When the editor at Walker Books sent me the Chinese edition of Bronze and Sunflower, I was staying with my mother and sister, and I would read a chapter at a time and then tell them what had happened. At first it seemed as though I was telling them about one brutal disaster or trauma after another, and it was not easy to show how the story would work in English. As the written translation progressed, it was lovely to see the human story coming to the fore.

We often think about language and culture when translating, but the story-telling is just as important. Things like timing, tension, suspense, length, rhythm, humour and dialogue are crucial elements of a story. We learn these when we are very young, and we all know how little children will complain if you don’t tell the story properly. Chinese stories often provide more information, and more repetition, than the English reader is used to. It doesn’t mean that one style is better than another, but rather that we have different expectations and tolerances. For example, when Sherlock Holmes’ stories were first translated into Chinese, they were given spoiler-titles like “The Case of the Sapphire in the Belly of the Goose”. Part of the challenge of translating is working out the storytelling!

Two Chinese language editions of Bronze and Sunflower
Two Chinese language editions of Bronze and Sunflower

Playing by the book: I find it really interesting that you talk about the impact of the disasters when you were first reading Bronze and Sunflower. Whilst there’s definitely hardship and trauma I didn’t find them overwhelming. What shone through was the compassion and thoughtful human relationships. There were whole stretches I wanted to underline! So tell me, what is your favourite passage in Bronze and Sunflower – your favourite bit of narrative?

Helen Wang: I think one of my favourite lines in the whole book has to be in the last chapter, when the authorities come to talk to the head of the village about moving Sunflower back to the city. We’ve followed the family through all the hardships, and like the family and the villagers, we can’t bear the thought of the authorities taking her away. The head of the village, playing for time, sums up the situation so succinctly: “It’s difficult”. It’s perfect!

Playing by the book: Ah yes, that’s a great scene. My personal favourite (without giving too much away) is the one which involves fireflies…. But now perhaps a much harder question: In what way is Bronze and Sunflower typical (or atypical) of 21st century Chinese children’s literature? I read recently that Chinese children’s literature tends to have what Westerners might call a strong Famous Five flavour, and that lots of what gets written would be considered a bit old fashioned for success in Western markets.

Helen Wang: Well I’ve already mentioned the fact that in Chinese stories there can be a different tempo, tension or tolerance of certain linguistic devices such as repetition.

I’ve heard English people say that Chinese children’s books can be overly moral or too didactic. And I’ve heard Chinese people complain that English stories lack firm morals and instruction! But these were adults talking, and it would useful to have some feedback from younger readers too!

A Monster Magic title by Leon Image
A Monster Magic title by Leon Image
One way to get an idea of what’s popular in China now is to look at the list of the 30 bestselling children’s books. The last available list is for February 2015.

By far the most popular children’s author at the moment is Leon Image (a pseudonym), who has ten books in the Top 30, and is one of the richest authors in China. Leon Image is the creator of the phenomenally successful Charlie IX series. Charlie IX is a dog with royal pedigree and superpowers, who, together with his schoolboy owner DoDoMo, goes on amazing fantasy adventures that involve working out clues along the way. The books come together with a magnifier, stickers and puzzles. The latest book is the series is no. 24: Charlie IX, Empty City at the End of the World, and there are currently eight books of this series in the top 30!

Leon Image has also produced the very popular Monster Magic series, and two of these (nos 13 and 14) are in the top 30. I don’t think any of the Leon Image books have been translated into English. However, there are four authors on the list whose work has been translated into English fairly recently.

The first in the Mo's Mischief series by Yang Hongying
The first in the Mo’s Mischief series by Yang Hongying
Yang Hongying is the creator of several very successful series. She started writing children’s books as a young primary school teacher in the 1980s, and after a few years left teaching to concentrate on writing. Her ‘Mo’s Mischief’ series is about a lively little boy, Mo, who keeps getting into trouble (some of these are available in English: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mo’s_Mischief). ‘The Diary of a Smiling Cat’ series follows the adventures of Mo’s cousin’s talking pet cat. ‘Girl’s Diary’ is about a girl in her last year at primary school.

Shen Shixi is China’s “King of Animal Stories” and he has written lots of them! His current bestseller in China is ‘Wolf King Dream’. His book Jackal and Wolf is available in English (translated by me) – it’s about a jackal who raises an orphaned wolf cub and the hair-raising adventures they have hunting, surviving, finding mates, having cubs – with the added complications that wolves and jackals don’t get on, and that they have a mother-daughter relationship.

Wu Meizhen is well-known for her Sunshine Sister series. She also wrote An Unusual Princess, which is available in English, translated by Petula Parris-Huang, and has a few twists in the tail.

jackalprincess

strawhousesCao Wenxuan is Professor of Chinese Literature at Peking University, and writes for both adults and children. He currently has two books in the top 30: Bronze and Sunflower, first published in 2005 and still one of the bestselling children’s books in China; and Straw Houses (tr Sylvia Yu et al). Both of these are available in English now, and I hear a third – Dawang Tome: The Amber Tiles (translated by Nicholas Richards, Better Chinese, California, 2015. ISBN 978-1-60603-707-2) – will be launched at Book Expo America 2015, in May, where China is the guest of honour this year.

There are several commercial titles tied in with TV series, such as the Happy Lamb, Little Pig and Carrot Fantasy series. And there are six well-known translated titles on the list too: Totto-chan, Little Girl at the Window (Tetsuko Kuroyanagi), Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White), Pippi Longstocking (Astrid Lindgren), Fantastic Mr Fox (Roald Dahl), The Cricket in Times Square (George Selden) and Guess How Much I Love You? (Sam McBratney, Anita Jeram).

If you want to read more you might enjoy the special issue of IBBY’s journal Bookbird devoted to Chinese children’s books, although it was published nearly 10 years ago in 2006, nearly 10 years ago! It’s time for a new one!

There are also a couple of lists on Good Reads dedicated to Chinese children’s books / themes – Children’s Books about CHINA & Chinese Culture and Chinese Juvenile/Young Adults books.

Some books I might highlight include:

  • White Horses by Yan Ge, translated by Nicky Harman. This is a Young Adult novella. Yan Ge’s a very observant young writer with a wicked sense of humour.
  • Black Flame by Gerelchimeg Blackcrane, translated by Anna Holmwood. This is an animal story about a Tibetan mastiff
  • Pai Hua Zi and the Clever Girl, a graphic novel by Zhang Xinxin which I’ve translated, about Zhang Xinxin’s childhood in Beijing in the 1960s on the eve of the Cultural Revolution.
  • Little White Duck – a Childhood in China by Na Liu and Andres Vera Martinez. This graphic novel is set in the 1970s.
  • A Chinese Life by Philippe Otie and Li Kunwu. This graphic novel is set in 1940s onwards, under Mao Zedong.

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    Playing by the book: It’s interesting to see what’s been translated and sells – both in terms of being translated from and into Chinese. What other Chinese children’s literature would you like to see available for English language audiences?

    Helen Wang:I’d like to see a wider range of titles that show us different aspects of the Chinese experience from a child’s point of view. How about a Chinese version of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”? Something that tells us what it’s like being a child in China today?

    The Ventriloquist's Daughter by Man-chiu Lin
    The Ventriloquist’s Daughter by Man-chiu Lin
    From the list of bestsellers, you can see that there are school stories, animal stories, naughty boy stories, and stories about children having adventures, just like there are here in the UK. I’d like to see some more stories that are about what it’s like to be a young person growing up in China or in the Chinese diaspora. I recently read The Ventriloquist’s Daughter by Man-chiu Lin, which is a wonderful story of a young girl’s struggle to establish her own identity as she grows up – I think this would work very well in English. You can read a sample of this (translated by me) in the new Found in Translation Anthology here on pages 57-71.

    Playing by the book: Thank you so much Helen. My reading list has grown exponentially! I’m very grateful that you’ve shared your knowledge of Chinese children’s literature today, and I especially want to thank you for enabling – with your translation – the story Bronze and Sunflower to to find another fan, another home inside me and no doubt many other English language speakers and readers.

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    1. […] and a window into a foreign culture. As I wrote this review I was reminded that my friend at Playing by the Book had interviewed the translator for this book, take a look it is a fascinating […]

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