No. 14 (Autumn 1980)
|A Universal Vernacular
—When "Taipei Characters" Speak in English
By George Kao
TEN YEARS AGO, Pai Hsien-yung's Taipei jen (Taipei People) stories were fIrst collected and published in Taiwan. They quickly established their author as a writer with a rare combination of artistic sensibilities, technical equipment and a deeply moral purpose. These stories have won him a large following in Taiwan and Hong Kong, and in Chinese communities scattered the world oyer. More recently, the book has been allowed into mainland China and selected reprints are read avidly by a fortunate few among the youths of the People's Republic starved for any literature not written to the official line.
That Taipei jen is a long time reaching the English-reading public must be attributed in part to the difficulties inherent in its translation. The title of the book, literally rendered, would in itself be misleading, since Pai is not engaged in writing polemical or topical fiction, nor is he dealing with what is called the "broad masses of the people". What he has given us, through a series of arresting incidents, is an insight into life as endured by a handful of men and women who sought refuge in Taiwan in the 1950's, following the Communist conquest of the mainland. In this context the label "Taipei jen" may be more accurately represented as "Taipei characters".
And what characters, in the colloquial sense, they are! Taxi-dancers, singsong girls, and high-toned ladies. Venerable generals and elder statesmen, dead or living out their days with memories of heroic exploits in the early days of the Chinese Republic. Scholars, teaching abroad or yearning to do so, while they recall their own student days of patriotic demonstrations. Old soldiers bearing battle-scars from fighting the Japanese invader. Air Force widows, ancient domestics, a proud food shop proprietress, an aging homosexual movie director. These flotsam and jetsam of the civil war the author parades before us, in language by turns plain and sparkling, sometimes raw, frequently colorful, but always tuned to the levels of speech of his motley crew. Like a solitary star in the sky, he fixes a diamond-hard gaze on the Walpurgis Night that is enacted, scene after bizarre scene, in the world below.
Pai Hsien-yung belongs to a remarkable generation of creative writers that grew up in Taiwan, received university education there, and went on to further studies in the United States before producing their mature works. This group, which includes both Taiwanese and the younger members of mainland refugee families, has already given us Chen Jo-hsi, author of The Execution of Mayor Yin and Other Stories from the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Chen's book, of more recent authorship and subject matter, documents daily life in the People's Republic during the ten harrowing years 1966-76. Pai's Taipei characters fill out an earlier and not unrelated chapter in the "trouble-ridden" history of contemporary China.
A detached chronicler, Pai writes out of a personal background rich in oppor- tunities and vantage points for observing the people and things around him. He was born in 1937, the year of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident and the outbreak of War, a son of General Pai Ch'ung-hsi, the distinguished military strategist of the 1927 Northern Expedition and the War of Resistance against Japan. In 1951, General Pai retired with his family to Taiwan rather than join the Communist regime as did a number of other prominent Nationalist generals. Thus, there are autobiographical overtones to some of these stories, and in all of them we- find evidences of a keen eye, of impressions tellingly registered, as the young Hsien-yung traveled with his parents from their native province of Kwangsi to post-War Nanking, Shanghai and Hong Kong, eventually to settle in Taipei.
In his unflinching look at these individuals, exiles among their own kind, Pai Hsien-yung does not assign any blame or point an accusing finger one way or another. He notes with a high sense of irony their business(and pleasure)-as-usual lifestyle and, not without compassion, their clinging each to a past of real or imagined glory—or rather the past that lives on in them and haunts them. His is not a political nor even social history , but a history of "the human heart in conflict with itself," in the words of William Faulkner who wrote about the crippled and the dispossessed of another culture.
There is something to be said of the kind of hurly-burly society that has nurtured creative talent of this caliber. It was the same kind of mixed soil that produced the first fruits of China's modern literature following the May 4th Move- ment. Pai, with others of his generation, is a spiritual offspring of the Western- oriented writers of the 1920's and 1930's. Only, thanks to the perspectives of time and circumstance, he can display a healthier appreciation of the Chinese cultural heritage and a more serious attitude toward his chosen craft.
An alumnus of Iowa's famed Writers' Workshop, Pai Hsien-yung presumably has absorbed the lessons of such masters as James and Joyce, and Faulkner and Fitzgerald. His recurring theme of innocence in corruption suggests this, and his description of conspicuous consumption, of fancy foods and hua-tiao wine, invites comparison with Gatsby's lavish parties. But whether against a backdrop of high life or low, it is the passionate pursuit of a cherished, illusory ideal that brings humanity to his characters. For their meretricious aspirations, so much buffeted by forces beyond their control, the epigraph is equally apt which Fitzgerald has written out of the ash heaps and the holocaust of his American Dream—"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
About half of the Taipei jen material was first collected, along with a couple of the author's earlier pieces, in a 1968 volume which bears the title of its leading story , Yu-yüan ching-meng (Wandering in the Garden, Waking from a Dream). This poetic and evocative phrase is adopted as the title of the English edition of the complete Taipei jen stories because it underlines the nostalgia for happier days that runs through the entire work and crystallizes the shock of reality that hits the reader at every turn.
The story "Wandering in the Garden" in many ways represents Pai Hsien-yung's style at its finest, suffused as it is with the modern creative spirit and yet deeply rooted in traditional Chinese life and culture. Here the Ming dynasty drama Peony Pavilion is employed both symbolically and as closely woven strands in the fabric of a poignant tale. "Wandering in the Garden, Waking from a Dream" is, in fact, the name of a regional opera of later date which was based on Scene 10, the dream sequence, of T'ang Hsien-tsu's beloved musical play. Allusions to popular dramas, as Pai himself has pointed out, are often found in Chinese fiction, notably in The Dream of the Red Chamber. In that classic novel of frustrated love the heroine is deeply affected upon overhearing snatches of an aria from a rehearsal of The Peony Pavilion which awaken her to the tragedy of the evanescence of life. His own story is set in the nouveau-riche ambience of a private garden in the Taipei suburbs—or rather a dinner at a swell mansion reached by way of a garden. In it this selfsame aria figures in an even more organic fashion: its strains alternate between passages of realistic immediacy and a stream-of-consciousness past, marking the ups and downs of Madame Ch'ien's wasted life with such traumatic effect as to cause the onetime singing star momentarily to lose her voice.
This kind of writing, with its biilliantly allusive language poses an uncommon challenge to the translator. A time-honored dodge in Western popular fiction about the inscrutable Chinese is to simulate their exotic speech the better to lend an "authentic flavor" to fanciful concoctions. A translator of Chinese fiction does not enjoy this luxury or license because he has an original text to which he is held accountable. Still, it is legitimate to translate literally from the Chinese for the sake of verisimilitude, and admirable if one can do so without ludicrous results. Sometimes the practice makes for obtrusive affectation—to say "cow's flesh" for "beef" for instance, or "people-as-host" for "democracy". In other cases admittedly picturesque expressions are transplanted from the Chinese, but their meaning is not apparent from the context and must needs be explicated through the impedimenta of footnotes. Then there is a school of thought at the other extreme which believes in the efficacy of equivalence, the matching of Western idioms to the Chinese. People the world over feel and think alike, so the reasoning goes, and for every well-turned Chinese phrase there ought to be an English (or American English) counterpart waiting to be uncovered and brought into play. The trouble is, to the extent that one succeeds in this exercise he risks lessening for his reader the illusion of a Chinese story.
It is a testimony to the power and attraction of the Taipei jen stories that many scholars, both Western and Chinese, have tried their hands at rendering them into English. For the present work our translators, working closely with the author, have struck out anew, and boldly in both directions, stopping at nothing in their endeavor to reproduce the pungent speech of his assorted characters. They would retain the Chinese idiom as much as possible. while adopting American col- loquialisms, even slang, that could in some uncanny fashion convey the spirit of the original. In a story like "The Last Night of Taipan Chin", the tough-talking dancehall hostess obviously should not be made to speak standard Eqglish, or for that matter in the spurious accents of a Dragon Lady. The same is true with the matron who narrates the story " A Touch of Green", and the boss-lady of "Glory's" through whose eyes we follow the love-crazed school teacher to his pathetic end. If English is to be their medium of expression, then they must be permitted to talk freely and naturally in that language.
The role of the editor in such an enterprise is one of mediation: to steer the precious cargo that is the heart of the story through the Scylla and Charybdis of disparate accents and imageries. It is pragmatically to help achieve a tone and texture of language at once intelligible in English and faithful to the original—to move the reader where he should be moved and to avoid any laughing at the wrong places. This means ameliorating an occasional verbal gaucherie and eliminating incongruities that might produce the wrong effect, whether these resulted from over-fidelity to the Chinese text or too free a helping of the riches of the polyglot American tongue.
A case in point is when J olie Chin, the "last of the red-hot mamas" in any language, exclaims her impatience for the long-deferred altar: "… just five more years-five years, mamma mia!" The equivalence here to the Chinese "wo-tê niang!" could scarcely be more exact, but for purposes of this translation we were constrained to part with it in favor of the equally serviceable "Mother of Mercy!"—at some loss, it is true, of comic vehemence—or the resulting ethnolinguistic mix would be too distracting for words!
Or a mere name can trip you up, such as that given the silent movie actor in "A Sky Full of Bright Twinkling Stars". Shall we translate it straight and call him "Crimson Flame", or simply transliterate the characters "Chu Yen", two syllables utterly without meaning to a foreign ear? Our solution is something of a compromise, just as throughout the book personal and place names are sometimes romanized and on occasion colorfully and significantly represented, in the best tradition of the Red Chamber translations. Chu Yen, or "Crimson Flame", could be interpreted further as a pun on Chu Yen for "Rouged Cheeks"—a Chinese symbol for ephemeral youth which has the weight of thousands of years of poetic literature behind it. A double footnote would have been required to unravel the author's intentions in this one name, not to mention a host of others equally intriguing to his Chinese readers. In such instances the translation has got to suffer a little in the interest of readability, leaving something for the classroom lecturer or the future Ph.D. candidate to explore.
In one case, in the story " A Visit to Bygone Days", the translators have adop- ted a truly innovative approach: the use of the U.S. Southern dialect to represent the homespun talk of two old women lamenting the decline of the once-great house in which they served. I have heard Chinese remark who know this country well that there is something reminiscent of their own way of life in the American South, with its soft accents and mannerly ways, and the vestiges of an old culture in which the master-servant relationship played a strong role. With this in mind, the translation device—a kind of conceit, if you will—is not as strange as it may sound; and so I found it judicious to remove only a few of the more jarring regionalisms. Much of the rest of the translation is left in what I would like to call a "universal vernacular", without which these two nannies or any other of the Taipei characters might not be so readily and vividly realized in English.
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Research Centre for Translation, The Chinese University of Hong Kong.