Nicky Harman, tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m based in Weymouth and in London. I go to China every year on visits. I speak and read Spanish, French and Italian but I only translate from Chinese. I have two kids, grown-up now, and two grandchildren. I keep reasonably fit, cycle, walk, swim and do yoga –– but all in moderation! And I love food.
When you were growing up, what books had an impact on you?
When I was very small, my father used to read us Grimms Household Tales every day after tea, and I loved that. Rapunzel (‘let down your hair’) was a particular favourite. This only happened in winter . . . my parents were farmers, and in summer, work went on till late in the evening. In my early teens, my father tried to wean me off children’s books and introduce me to the classics, and as a result, I went on strike and didn’t read any more fiction until I was in my thirties. After that, and somewhat belatedly, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens became big favourites. I wasn’t an entirely undutiful daughter: I carried around my father’s present of a leatherette-bound box set of Austen for twenty years without ever opening them, and then had to retrieve a couple of the volumes from houses in places like Sheffield and Wandsworth, where I had somehow mislaid them years before. I never did make headway with Trollope or The Brothers Karamazov, which my father kept pressing on me.
Why do you translate?
I love the language, and writing. When things go well, I feel I’m opening a window on another world for readers and that’s a great privilege. I have no desire to write a novel of my own.
Your advice to new translators just starting out?
Keep the day job. Learn as much about the translating/publishing business as you can. Explore the literature of the language you want to translate from, and figure out who and what you like. While you’re waiting for that book contract, translate short pieces for fun. Place them with lit-mags, and get feedback from more experienced translators. Join the Translators Association as soon as you can (when you have your first contract for a full-length work), or the Emerging Translators Network. Come to translation-themed events like the ones run by the Free Word Centre, and International Translation Day, which will be held this year at the British Library in London on 30 September, 2016.
How did you kick-start your career as a translator, what was your strategy?
I confess I didn’t have a strategy, and it took a few years before the work built up and I could give up teaching to devote myself to translating. My work as a translator started slowly, partly because there was so little being translated from Chinese. Things are much better now. I draw up a list for Paper Republic every December of new Chinese fiction in English, and every year the list grows longer.
How and why is the role of the translator important as a UK editor engages in the acquisitions process? And how important is funding?
Most publishers and agents can’t read the original Chinese, so sometimes translators have to be intermediaries, between author and publisher. That’s not always an easy position to be in, and it can involve an awful lot of unpaid and fruitless work. But sometimes, I’ve been successful. For instance, with Xu Xiaobin and Crystal Wedding, I was introduced to the author by Ou Ning, a Chinese lit-mag editor (amongst other things) whose opinion I greatly respect. In turn, I introduced Xu Xiaobin to Roh-Suan of Balestier Press, and Crystal Wedding appeared in print a year or so later.
Funding is crucial for translations, especially for small publishers. PEN Translates is a hugely important source of funding but over-subscribed, of course. National cultural organizations should support translations, and some do, the Polish Cultural Institute for instance.
What are you most proud of translating?
Gold Mountain Blues, a historical novel and family saga by Zhang Ling. She has a wonderfully muscular style of writing and effortlessly weaves the personal into the historical. An extraordinary feat of writing, so of course it required a superhuman effort from me, as translator. After a rocky start when it was first published in Canada, this novel is about to come out with Atlantic/Corvus in the UK, and I have great hopes for it.
What is your biggest failure?
I’m not sure. I always do my best in translations, but some work out better than others. In particular, some novel samples I’ve done have been no more than competent. I have a translator friend who, when things don’t seem to be going well, says jokingly that she’s still waiting to ‘get the voice’. It’s a good way of putting it. Conversely, when you do ‘get the voice’, it feels as if the translation is taking off and acquiring a life of its own. Very satisfying.
What are you working on at the moment?
As a freelancer, I’m always busy with several different things. I’m helping to promote my last translation, Xu Xiaobin’s novel Crystal Wedding, finishing a novel called Happy by Jia Pingwa, (a great writer, up there with Nobel Prize-winner Mo Yan, but largely unknown in translation), and am about to begin my first graphic novel. Oh, and I’m working on Paper Republic, of course, and preparing to teach a one-week summer school at City University, and . . . and . . .
Your views on book publishing and translation?
Let’s have more of it!
Has the perception of books in translation in both the book trade and the Media changed during the time you have worked as a translator?
My gut feeling is that, yes, translated fiction is now more widely read, though I don’t have any facts or figures to prove that. I think that UK-based translators from all language are much better at promoting themselves and their work. On the down side, there are now fewer literary prizes for translations.
Your views on how new technology has (or has not) impacted books in translation and your translating life?
From a very practical point of view, it means I hardly ever have to use a giant and cumbersome Chinese paper dictionary. Most of my terminology research uses online resources. I’m not sure how I’d have coped, translating on paper with paper dictionaries, say, fifty years ago. I could have done it, but the work would have gone more slowly.
Do you enjoy reading ebooks?
Yes. I have no problem with ebooks, and no particularly strong feelings about holding a physical book in my hand, though I do that, of course
How involved are you, in the promotion of the books you translate? Your views on social media?
Social media? It’s a very good thing. The extent to which I promote my own translations depends on the publisher. It’s their decision whether or not to involve me, though I always offer my help and use social media as much as I can. In the case of Xu Xiaobin’s Crystal Wedding, I’ve worked closely with Balestier Press, partly because they’re a small company, but also because I believe in the book and I want people to read it. For instance, I recently interviewed Xinran and Xu Xiaobin together, about their views on women in China today, for a Foyles bookshop blog posted on 20 June, 2016. That way, I paired up Xinran, who’s very well-known, with a new writer, Xu Xiaobin, whom I was able to introduce to western readers.
I also spend a lot of time promoting contemporary Chinese literature in translation in general, not just my own work. For instance, for the last year, I have co-run Read Paper Republic, a Paper Republic initiative, for readers who wonder what new Chinese fiction in English translation has to offer and would like to dip a toe in the water. Between 18 June 2015 and 16 June 2016, we published a complete free-to-view short story (or essay or poem) by a contemporary Chinese writer, one per week for a year. And, to get the stories out there, I’ve blogged and organized a number of live events with other translators and authors, around the Read Paper Republic stories.
Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
Carrie Gracie, for her wonderful China reporting; Fuchsia Dunlop, for her fabulous Chinese cooking; the late Professor Owen Lattimore for his wonderfully crafted, erudite lectures on the Tatars (not ‘Tartars’, he was insistent), the Han Chinese and the Great Wall; Dr Emily Mayhew, who can make the history of medicine the most fascinating subject in the world; and my daughter (to see her reaction, and so we can swap notes the next day).
As you can see, I’ve chosen storytellers. I plan to say nothing, just sit back, enjoy Fuchsia’s food, and let them do the talking. If any of them can’t come, I’ll have King Lear, for his raw, naked disillusion.
Your bedside reading?
Crime novels, preferably set as far away from the present day and my present surroundings as possible, for example in Ancient Rome
Your favourite prose author?
Amitav Ghosh, because of the Ibis Trilogy. I’m fascinated by all the different voices he writes in, and the way he uses so many different kinds of Englishes. I also think the Ibis Trilogy is important because a large part of it is history which has been untold, or only partially told.
Your favourite poet?
John Donne and Han Dong. I’m not being flippant, though the two names together do have a nice ring to them. John Donne was a favourite in my teens, Han Dong is the one Chinese poet I’ve translated. I hardly ever read poetry but translating Han Dong I find a wonderfully meditative experience, quite different from fiction translation.
Your heroes in real life?
Médecins Sans Frontières, but there are other unsung heroes of course.
Your chief characteristic?
Your chief fault?
Your favourite motto?
‘Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.’
And (just occasionally), ‘mañana!’, as in, let’s leave it till . . .
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