Litfest interview: Linda Jaivin

Litfest interview: Linda Jaivin

This China favorite has touched on everything from comic-erotic cult classic Eat Me to a biographic look at Hou Dejian in nonfiction The Monkey and the Dragon. She’s translated oral histories by Sang Ye and will release a pair of books this spring: novel The Empress Lover and a Beijing guidebook. During this session, Jaivin examines the nature of translation and how it forges new links. 

You've appeared at the Shanghai Lit Fest a few times now. What makes you keep coming back and how have your past experiences been like here?
It's the who that makes me keep coming back: Michelle Garnaut, the other writers, and Michelle Garnaut, more or less in that order. Oh, and it's a terrific festival - the crowds are warm, engaged and enthusiastic and the location can't be beat. 

You have a couple projects coming out this year: The Empress Lover novel and a Beijing guide book. Could you give a bit of a preview of both these works?
The Empress Lover is a novel that wraps itself around a mystery: A foreign woman living in Beijing is irresistibly drawn to the history of the polyglot scholar, fantasist and rogue Edmund Backhouse, who died there in 1944, leaving behind a most extraordinary erotic memoir in which he claims to have been the lover of the Empress Dowager Cixi. A Chinese poet and philosopher has an encounter in a Daoist temple in the Southwest and wonders if he has acquired the wisdom to deal with his past and face his future - or if he's just spent an afternoon with a charismatic charlatan. A letter comes from a man who is believed to have died decades earlier, and that brings about a meeting between the woman and the poet, who before the night is out will discover that they have both been living under the same shadow...

Beijing is less a travel guide than a companion. At its centre is a history of the city: the dramas, the personalities, the scandals, and the building and rebuilding that has defined this vital city for millennia. There are also essays that use the lakes, the No. 2 subway line, the hyperbuildings, food and other topics as stepping-off points for looking at Beijing's relationship with water and air, buried histories, contemporary dreams and its essentially hybrid, inclusive culture. There are some listings at the back but I've tried to keep them as general as possible (nightclub districts, streets full of shops selling musical instruments, etc) as people will always rely for precise and up-to-date information on websites such as that run by your sister publication That's Beijing, and I point readers to these as well. The book is a love letter to a city I've been a frequent visitor and occasional resident of since 1980.

I've also just come out with Found in Translation: In Praise of a Plural World, a Quarterly Essay (published by Black Inc in November last year) that will be the subject of the lit fest talk.

Your Shanghai Lit Fest talk revolves around translation. What are some of the biggest challenges in translating Chinese text into English and do you think that the number of translators have grown in recent years?
The biggest challenges in translating Chinese to English are, broadly speaking, two. One is rendering into English cultural concepts that are either unique to China (ancestor worship) or mean something in Chinese culture and society that is not entirely consistent with what they mean elsewhere ('face'). The second challenge is to achieve an elegance of expression in English that will give the reader in English a similar sense of the text, its style and its rhythms, to that of the reader of the Chinese original.

There are many more translators at work today - and a number of very good ones, too - than when I first started. Anyone can learn enough Chinese to translate with the help of a dictionary. But not everyone can produce a great translation. It takes a huge amount of dedication, practice, a high level of native literacy and breadth of reading and a talent for writing (which is nurtured by all of the above). It's not a message a lot of people are willing to hear in an age when every blogger calls himself a writer. But you can never have too many good translators.

On working on these two very different projects, how were you able to balance them as a writer? Did you work on them simultaneously?
I did work on them simultaneously, and there are some little echoes that resonate between them: an incident in which I weep over the destruction of a Ming-dynasty bridge only to find out it was a reconstruction from the 1980s appears in both, in The Empress Lover as having happened to my protagonist. But that was me.

Is there anything you would like to add?
There's always much to add! If your readers have something they'd like me to add, they can come to the festival and ask me directly!

// March 8, 12pm, RMB75. Glamour Bar, 6/F, No.5 the Bund, by Guangdong Lu, by Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu 中山东一路, 外滩5号6楼, 近广东路 (6350 9988)


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