The Literary Tourist is a column of conversations between literary translators about newly released books in translation. This month Andrea Gregovich interviews poet, editor, and Chinese translator Canaan Morse. Canaan co-founded the literary journal Pathlight: New Chinese Writing as its first poetry editor, won the Susan Sontag Prize for Translation in 2014, and has published translations and book reviews in several international journals, both print and online. The Invisibility Cloak, a captivating experimental novel by Ge Fei, is Canaan’s first translated book.
Andrea Gregovich: The Invisibility Cloak feels unique to me—a Beijing-based freelance designer of custom sound systems for wealthy people takes a sketchy job that goes awry, and trouble ensues. Its narrative is a patchwork of classical music discussion, shop talk about audio components, and the political and philosophical opinions of various characters. Did you detect any literary influences when you were working on this book? Does it fit into any literary trends in China?
Canaan Morse: I’m so glad you asked this question, because my answer is a resounding “No.” While much of the earlier, experimental fiction upon which Ge Fei built his reputation is deeply (and clearly) influenced by American Modernism, his later fiction speaks with a much more individualized voice. This book in particular leaves an aesthetic impression unlike any other; its terse yet suddenly mellifluous narrative style and its embrace of suspense distinguish it clearly from all the English and Chinese literature I’ve read.
AG: How did you end up translating this as your first novel?
CM: To use a baseball metaphor, I looked this ball all the way into the glove. In 2011, I was working with Eric Abrahamsen to bring Paper Republic, a Chinese literary translation community turned publishing business, off the ground and into the world. That August, I sat down at the Beijing International Book Fair with a young Chinese editor friend from a literary house. When I asked her what she had going, she said, “You know, Ge Fei’s just come out with a new book. It’s kind of weird; I don’t really like it that much.” I had known and appreciated Ge Fei’s work for a while, and when she gave her opinion, something in my brain clicked. If a mainstream editor tells you a book is “weird,” it’s probably worth checking out.
I took a copy home and stayed up until 3 a.m. to finish it—the first time in years a book had hooked me so hard. I loved the language, sympathized with the people, and felt caught up by the story. I did a sample translation, Paper Republic pushed the book hard, and we caught the interest of Jeffrey Yang, the well-known poet and editor at New York Review of Books. When Jeffrey asked me to translate the whole thing, I couldn’t say no. I wanted to carry the project from start to finish.
AG: I only caught one instance of the title “The Invisibility Cloak” in the novel, and it was an offhanded mention of a celebrity tycoon who was rumored to have an invisibility cloak. Is there a larger theme at work here, or is this an avant garde thing?
CM: To paraphrase Ge Fei’s own words, this book is about people who stubbornly build and protect their own individual subjectivity in a society that doesn’t value individualism at all. The protagonist, Mr. Cui, makes conscious choices to define himself according to what he loves—classical music and hi-fi sound systems—and establish his identity and daily routine on that foundation. Those numberless choices force him away from society, allowing him to don an “invisibility cloak” of sorts. On another level, of course, the invisibility cloak symbolizes the willful marginalization of rural migrants in contemporary Chinese urban society, as an increasingly rigid social hierarchy pushes artisans and laborers out of public view. So the “invisibility cloak” is something one can put on oneself as well as others. I think that story about wealthy eccentric Mou Qishan is intended as an instructive example.
AG: Some of the fiction I translate has a lot of technical and mechanical language in it, stuff that is completely beyond my expertise, and I find I have to get creative with my research and resources to make sure I’m accurately translating it. In this book it isn’t just the specs of things like speakers and cables that seem difficult—there are also complex sentences about acoustics, like “Sound waves bounce off the glass to create interference that ruins the final stereo imaging effect.” Was it a challenge for you to translate a novel with so many precise audiophile descriptions? Did you use any interesting resources, online or otherwise?
CM: I read blueprints for Tannoy Autograph speakers in order to understand what they look like and how the “dual concentric core” actually works. I read circuit diagrams to the best of my ability, and crawled down rabbit holes of online manuals, sales catalogues, and BBS postings to find the proper English names of the parts he mentioned. As is so often the case, real information is found in untagged, disposable media. That kind of detective work is, honestly, my favorite part of translation. It’s unbelievable how much you learn.
AG: It’s also a book full of wise moments. One of my favorites was when Mr. Cui, the main character, is telling his client Bai Cheng’en, a lawyer, about how everyone in the community of audio connoisseurs is so morally good, he’s never had a problem with payment. He correlates this goodness with their appreciation for classical music, but his client bursts his bubble: “You know, by day the Nazis sent thousands of Jews to the furnaces without batting an eyelash—they even tossed in newborn babies. But that never prevented them from kicking back in the evenings with their coffee while listening to Mozart or Chopin.” Did you have any particular favorite moments of insightful wisdom that struck you?
CM: Generally speaking, I’m not one for declamatory rhetoric. The protagonist’s everyday speech—that straightforward, blue-collar, yet emotionally flexible voice—brought me the greatest enlightenment. I had never before heard a narrative voice in Chinese that resonated so clearly with my American, working-class ideological background. The knowledge that his character—a person I know how to talk to on a spiritual level—could actually exist was certainly a revelation.
AG: When politics came up in this book I always got intrigued, because I’m rarely in a position to hear the opinions of average Chinese people on topics like climate change, America, and the role of China in the global economy. It seems like they don’t necessarily agree or disagree with American views on a given topic; they have their own unique perspective. How well do you think this book represents Chinese opinions in this way? Do you think this is some kind of a cross-section of Chinese society, or is the author making his own statement with the characters and their opinions?
CM: Beijing residents have an opinion about everything, especially when it comes to politics. While I wouldn’t dare suggest this book represents a wide cross-section of Chinese opinions in that regard, certain strains of thought are clearly present in China today. The empty talk of university intellectuals (who have to survive on empty talk) is everywhere to be seen, as is a current of popular disappointment in them for their failure to act as responsible stewards of the country (China, traditionally, has been governed by the intellectual class). Cui’s mother’s habitual passivity in the face of dangers she feels are too big to resist is also a popular sentiment among those who have neither wealth nor power. Their catchphrase is the ubiquitous mei banfa, “nothing to be done.”
AG: This book has plenty of Chinese cultural and pop cultural references, as well as lots of place names and other such details for which I really have no frame of reference. And yet I didn’t get lost in this stuff—I’m sure I missed heaps of allusions and metaphors and such, but I felt like I understood what points were being made. Was this a book where the translator has to be a kind of de facto editor, making little rewrites so that unrecognizable references are framed in a way that foreign readers can understand? Or was this readability a sign of the author’s writerly skills shining through?
CM: There shouldn’t have been too many allusions—if you felt like you understand something, you probably did. Every literary translator walks the tightrope of localization versus foreignization in the target language; do I call these meat-filled breads “dumplings,” or do I use the authentic Chinese word baozi and elucidate through context? The translator is always the text’s first editor, and a deep understanding of translation as co-creation gives us principles to adhere to as we do our work, building a context that guides interpretation and creates aesthetic effects similar to those of the source text.
What I’m trying to do, I guess, is to argue on a theoretical level that “readability” is always the result of the translator’s work without sounding boastful in this particular instance. It is impossible to read a translation in such a way as to ignore the translator’s agency, though many don’t realize that.
AG: Without giving away the ending, I think it’s fair to describe it as a last-minute plot twist, a sudden revelation in the last paragraph. Mr. Cui finally really speaks his mind and has something insightful of his own to say. Why do you think Ge Fei gave the book such a sharp turn at the very end?
CM: I’m not so sure why he chose that sharp turn in particular; there are many such turns throughout the book. I know that he wanted to incorporate suspense into the novel, in part as a response to the question “Can you really put classical music and horror together in one story?” Some cliffhangers are solved, others aren’t, and as he told an audience at Columbia University, there are some for which the clues are hidden in the text.
AG: As a literary translator in a language with an alphabet, I’ve never managed to wrap my brain around how literature in a character-based language makes the leap into English. I wonder about how things like style, humor, and irony work in Chinese, whether there’s a pictorial element in a character-based language that doesn’t translate, how you express poetic sounds of such a non-parallel language into English, stuff like that. So tell me, what is uniquely difficult about translating Chinese literary writing into English? What sorts of things get lost in translation?
CM: Chinese characters aren’t Egyptian hieroglyphs. Most are organized in phonetic systems or built around homophones, and when you look at an unfamiliar character, it’s much easier to guess how it’s pronounced than to guess what it means. The language, meanwhile, is subject to the same strains and tensions that other major languages sustain, and changes accordingly. Appreciation of the written character as an aesthetic object has all but evaporated with the advent of the word processor.
That is not to say that the language lacks distinctive characteristics, one of which I find especially interesting: the quality of time and tense. Chinese is a completely uninflected language, which means verbs do not conjugate, and nouns do not decline. Narrative time is indicated largely by the use of verbal complements, single or dual-character particles result, continuation, or other forms of change. This makes the interpretation of time highly contextual, more of a “feeling” than a direction, and this can cause real vertigo when one is working with experimental or stream-of-consciousness prose. American readers don’t like tense shifts; we equate them with bad writing. By contrast, Chinese readers are both better able to narrate the changing currents of immediacy and “pastness” and more comfortable with ambiguity, which makes their sense of narrative time much more mutable than ours.
AG: You are notorious at the ALTA (American Literary Translators Association) yearly conference as the “Chinese Vegetables Guy” because of a performance you do in Chinese of a period market vendor calling out the vegetables he has for sale. I’ve witnessed this performance twice at Declamación, the annual evening at ALTA of drinking and reciting of poetry and such, and it knocked my socks off both times. But I must confess I wasn’t quite sober either time, so I’m still fuzzy on the details of what it’s about exactly. Could you explain this performance piece you do, how you learned it, and where it comes from?
CM: I hope I haven’t worn that material out! Those short pieces—I have done two or three at each of the last two conferences—are traditional vendor’s songs from pre-modern Beijing. In the days before the supermarket, farmers and craftsmen would wander the inner alleys of the city, singing their wares. When those inside the house heard the familiar song of, say, the vegetable seller, or the knife sharpener, or the candy man, they’d run out to get what they needed.
Although most of those melodies have, of course, disappeared, they’ve survived in a form of traditional comic performance known as “cross-talk,” an art I learned and performed for about five years in Beijing. My master grew up with those sounds in his ear; cross-talk performers learn and sing them as exhibitions of traditional culture, and you can still bring a tear to the eye of a Beijing native if you “sing them right.” I’ve always been drawn to works of disappearing art; I like to think of myself as a vessel for preserving them, and I will gladly perform them for anyone who wishes to listen.
Andrea Gregovich is a writer and translator of Russian literature. Her first translated novel USSR: Diary of a Perestroika Kid was published by Fiction Advocate in 2014, and her translation of Nadezhda Belenkaya’s Wake In Winter was recently released by Amazon Crossing.