Between the lines
WHERE can you find a group of professionals who translate and edit translations of local and mainland modern literary classics from Chinese into English for nothing? Only in Hong Kong, says a research team at the Chinese University.
''We are probably the only such research unit in the world which publishes Chinese literary works in English without having to worry about money or politics,'' said Dr Eva Hung, general editor of Renditions Paperbacks. ''We welcome anything that comes our way.'' The research centre was set up in 1971 to promote translation in Hong Kong and all researchers are classed as university staff. Renditions Paperbacks was launched in 1986, receiving funds from sources ranging from the Asia Foundation and Rockefeller Brothers Foundation in the United States to the Taiwanese CCK Foundation.
''There are no restrictions on what we translate or publish,'' said Dr Hung.
The 17 titles published so far include controversial works such as Yu Luojin's A Chinese Winter's Tale, a personal account of a young woman's experience during the Cultural Revolution and Wang Anyi's Love in a Small Town exploring sexuality.
Selected Poems was translated and compiled by leading mainland dissident poet, Gu Cheng, who committed suicide earlier this month after killing his wife at their New Zealand home.
The total print run for the unit's paperbacks is small, normally 2,000 per title, although A Chinese Winter's Tale proved so popular that an extra 1,000 copies were printed. ''But nobody makes money out of these books,'' said Dr Hung.
The translations, she says, help promote Chinese culture. ''Renditions Paperbacks aims to present high quality translations of Chinese literature for general readers as well as students.'' ''It's not just an academic exercise. Such publications could not sustain themselves by the money they make. It needs sponsorship and there are no other outfits similar to us,'' Dr Hung said.
Not all publications are controversial. Their latest book, My City - A Hong Kong Story, released this week, is a lighthearted, humorous piece on the territory and its history by Xi Xi, an acclaimed local writer.
The story is a young boy's account of the economic, social and political changes that took place in the territory in the 70s.
Like most of the Renditions Paperbacks, it was the translator not the author who suggested an English version of My City. About 80 per cent of the unit's translators are overseas, mainly in the United States and Britain.
''A friend initiated the idea of an English version of My City. I did not know that my work was being translated until the publisher approached me for copyright,'' Xi Xi said.
She was happy to agree ''because my work will now be read by more people''.
The problem of misinterpretation is not something she worries about. ''Translators have a right to their own interpretation.
''It is very difficult to translate and interpret the author's state of mind and how he or she sees the world.
''It is harder to translate a book than to write one.'' Manuscripts from the mainland began to pour in to the research centre four years ago but the unit has yet to receive anything from Taiwan.
''Prominent writers are far easier to market and we have to consider that. But being a research centre in a university, we are not bound by that, as long as the work is contemporary,'' said Dr Hung.
Translation unit member Chu Chi-yu said that modern mainland authors such as Mo Yan, Han Shaogong and Liu Sola, seem to write more about the country's history and social relationships than politics.
''But don't be misled into thinking these writers are apolitical. It's more like a silent rebellion against the socialist realism prominent in the 50s and 60s when literature was used as government propaganda,'' Dr Hung said.
''We don't call that literature.'' Managing Editor of Renditions, a twice-yearly collection of translated short stories, poetry and essays, Janice Wickeri, said that the authors chosen are diverse in background and style.
Some use simple, tale-like narrative while others' use of language is dense with multi-layered meanings. But the critical factor is whether the translators think a book can be put into English without losing the original meaning.
''There is rhetoric in Chinese which does not work in English. Translating the work may include changing the rhetoric or toning down the hyperbole. . . We make it sound more 'English', '' Dr Hung said.
Unit member Professor Pollard stressed that accuracy is important in all translations. ''That is the vital difference between us and other translators. The works we receive are read by three to five [experts]. Some concentrate on the English while otherslook at the correctness in Chinese,'' he said.
''Elsewhere, this filter does not exist.
''When it comes to controversial works that may have more than one meaning or interpretation, we have to exercise our judgment.'' Despite its local base, over 50 per cent of the unit's sales are made overseas, mainly in the United States, Britain and Scandinavian countries. But the translators are convinced that the interest is there: ''Great literature will sell itself in the longrun,'' Dr Hung said.