Mosaic of China Season 01 Episode 24 – The Ode Decoder (Gigi CHANG, Literary Translator)

Oscar Fuchs
Once you listen to Gigi Chang talk about the philosophy behind her work translating literary texts, you'll know that there can be no substitute to the human touch.
Oscar Fuchs

We all take translators for granted these days. But once you listen to Gigi Chang talk about the philosophy behind her work translating literary texts, you'll know that there can be no substitute to the human touch.

Original Date of Release: 03 Mar 2020.

Mosaic of China Season 01 Episode 24 – The Ode Decoder (Gigi CHANG, Literary Translator)


GC: It's the most beautiful poetry on the surface. But if you really know the context, it's the dirtiest dirtiest smut. It's pornographic.


OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I'm your host, Oscar Fuchs.

Well, thanks very much for all the comments on last week's episode with Greg Nance. It was a real honour to be part of Greg's process of speaking more openly about his past in public. And I think all of the comments his story has received reflects the support that he'll be sure to get in the future. Good luck to you, Greg.

Since last week, there hasn't been much change in the situation with the Coronavirus in China. It's the beginning of March 2020, and now it's the world outside of China that is becoming more of a source of anxiety. It looks like any new rules coming into effect here will be about protecting people in China from those arriving from other countries, and potentially bringing the virus back in. What a mess.

Today's conversation is with Gigi Chang and, like all of the remaining episodes of the season, it was recorded way before today's current situation. Gigi works as a literary translator, so if you're someone who in any way deals with words or language, then you should really enjoy this one.

[Part 1]

OF: My chat today is with Gigi Chang. Gigi is a translator, who has been living here in Shanghai for nine years now. And as you know, we start all of these conversations with an object. So what object did you bring in that in some way exemplifies your life here in China?

GC: I've brought my clipboard. I suddenly discovered how useful it is when I started translating, because often what I work on, I might not have a physical book, I just get a digital document. And it's so much easier to work on when it's been printed out. And a clipboard is perfect because it's really hard. So you can stand it up on a stand, or just prop it up somewhere. And it's very easy to write on. I never thought I would be using a clipboard ever in my life, other than at school taking attendance.

OF: Yeah.

GC: But it's perfect. You know, you can prop it up on a plane, you can prop it up on a train. It's extremely handy.

OF: I love it for its sheer banality.

GC: Yes.

OF: Have you had the same on the whole time?

GC: No, this is my second or third one. And the best thing is, you can also clip or pen onto it.

OF: You know, I've never seen such a technological advance in this room before, it's quite something…

GC: I use the iPad as well. But you can't write as fast as with pen and paper. And because you can't flip back and forth so easily.

OF: Right.

GC: Because, you know, I can easily jump from page 20 to 40. But with a digital document, I can't put them side by side.

OF: Yeah. And so I guess what you're doing there, in that instance, is you're cross-referencing something you've said before, and you want to be consistent?

GC: Yeah. Or "Are these two passages really similar?" Or… I guess I'm at an age that I find it much easier to read on paper.

OF: I'm not sure that's an age thing, because I think there's something tactile, you know. It's something which is connected when you touch something, you can actually take something in.

GC: Yeah. And I think it is also habit as well. You go to a lecture hall now, students are taking notes on their computer. I type really fast, but I wouldn't be able to type notes on a computer, because it won't make any sense.

OF: Well, how did you fall into this line, then? Like, was it always your dream to become a translator?

GC: Not really, it's really by accident. So I grew up in Hong Kong, but I went to university in London. And then I worked for the V&A on a Chinese project.

OF: That's the 'Victoria & Albert Museum', right?

GC: Yes, that's right. And at that time - it was between 2005 and 2008 - the Beijing Olympics were coming up. So they were actually, all around the world, lots of special events or projects or displays about China. But at that time, ethnic Chinese international national students tended to either come from Hong Kong, Taiwan, or the Chinese diasporas around the world. Mainland Chinese students were still very much a rarity. And particularly in the workplace, you had very few Chinese speakers. And also at that time in mainland China, there were very few English speakers, or people that aren't Chinese who can speak Chinese. So basically, I was the assistant on the project. So anyone else in the museum that needed help communicating with their Chinese artists would come to me, because they're not going to my boss.

OF: Nice.

GC: Yeah. So that's how I started doing my first translations. Some of them published as well, in catalogues published by the museum. That was the practical side. And the other side is that I love theatre. And I was in London, I'd seen literally hundreds of performances. And I'd never seen a single Chinese play in English. You know, you see a lot - not a lot, but you see a fair amount - of translations from Europe, from Russia, from South America, from Japan, from most other parts of the world. But not China. In terms of pure sort of population statistics, you know, one of the ancient civilizations, yet, you can't name a story, you can't name a song, you can't name anything. You probably can't even name a famous person, other than a few political figures. You can't name a writer. Something didn't feel right about that. And so, at that point, I also translated a play, because I thought "Well, maybe I'll put it on with my friends".

OF: And that was just voluntarily, like you hadn't been asked…

GC: No, no, no. I was going to put it on with a friend, because we were both aspiring to be theatre producers at that point. Yeah.

OF: And so this is how you've landed into your particular niche, right? You have been translating cultural artefacts - including theatre - all this time since then, right?

GC: Yes.

OF: What I want to know is, how do you even start? You know, you've got this literary piece, which is imbued with thousands of years of Chinese culture. How do you even go about translating that into English?

GC: You need to know who's going to read it. Why it is being translated. This is the same as writing anything. You know, why am I writing it? Once you work out that big question, then it's much easier to work out all the other big questions. What does it feel like, reading it? It is a difficult read? Is it difficult on purpose? Each piece of writing, there's always something a little bit different. There's a texture to it, just like fabric. Or like food, you know, is it crunchy or soft? And then how to bring that sense into the reading experience as well. It's like peeling an onion or going on a treasure hunt. You're given a map, you have a roadmap, you have some information, but you have to get to it.

OF: And are you influenced just by the words on paper? Or is it also a function of meeting the author, or just knowing the context?

GC: Sadly, a lot of what I work on now are works from the past. But you can still find out a lot about them by reading the text. You know, that person exists between those words.

OF: Right. And interestingly, when you say 'peeling the layers of the onion', how many times do you have to read through until you find that "OK, I'm getting a sense of it"? Or does it come even on your first read?

GC: I personally tend to read the thing through before I start.

OF: Right.

GC: Because mostly, I just don't want surprises that I didn't expect. And then, you know, I've gone down this direction, and then right at the end, I realise they've actually gone down the other direction. And sometimes it's very difficult to backtrack, because you've set your mind on something, then you have to completely uproot yourself and re-think everything, which is quite difficult.

OF: And did you learn that from experience? Or was that something that you innately knew from the start?

GC: Most of the things in the beginning that I translated were quite short. So it wasn't difficult to read it through. And when I was younger, I absolutely loved Harry Potter.

OF: Oh right.

GC: And you can see, as she writes, I think she intended to go 'right', but the story eventually went 'left'. And then you can see the loose ends hanging out, hanging down, because you know the story so well. I wouldn't say it's a shortfall, it's a natural process. Because, like identical twins, you have exactly the same genetic makeup, you grew up in the same family, you still end up being different people. It's a little bit like that. So if you know where exactly everything is going to go, then the surprise is only going to be small within the text.

OF: Got it. OK, well that's the process writ large. What about, then, the minutiae? Like, can you give us an example of one of your recent translations where you really had to wade through something quite dense.

GC: So the book that I just translated - that just came out - is called 'The Legend of the Condor Heroes' by 金庸 [Jīn Yōng]. And it's a book that's been written in the 1950s and been read by literally millions of Chinese. It was made into very popular TV shows in Asia as well. And it's a martial arts fiction, so it's got a lot of kung fu and fighting. Not just fighting but also learning kung fu as well. A bit like bits of Star Wars where you spend a lot of time training to be a Jedi. But all that, written in words.

OF: Right.

GC: And it is a historical fiction as well, set in the 1200s. And with Chinese martial arts, it's all rooted in Chinese classics - you know, philosophy and Taoism, and deep stuff like that - which no-one is particularly familiar with, unless you're a specialist.

OF: Even in China?

GC: Even in China. Like, we would have an idea, but you wouldn't know the content. For example, the kung fu master teaches his disciple a move. But these are like high-level ultimate moves. So it is not like an outside 'slap someone' or 'smack someone' or 'punch someone.' It's all about channelling internal energy, and 气 [qì], and things that are very, very abstract. You can't see it, and there's no movement. And there was this one particular passage which gave me headaches for days. It was the master explaining this move verbally by quoting Chinese classics, but he's also saying this actually out loud to his student. So first and foremost, if you're translating or writing a speech, it has to sound like speech. The individual sentence structure still has to be speech-like.

OF: We've all seen movies where that hasn't been done very well.

GC: No, yeah. And you're kind of like "What?"

OF: Yeah, interesting.

GC: Yeah, so there's that. So it's something that's got to flow naturally. There's speech rhythm, and sentence structure, and length, and pauses. So that is a very particular way of organising information. And then at the same time, we've got this talk of 'abstract flow of energy'. You know, what can I draw on that can explain that? Is it blood circulation? Or breathing? You know, something that I can use as a model when I think about it. And then lastly, I have these quotes from the old classics. So those have got to sound a bit different from everything else he's saying as well. Because they are different. You know, if you quote a line from Shakespeare, you can hear the textural difference, even though we still use all the words.

OF: Yeah.

GC: And we might even use that sentence structure.

OF: It's the whole cadence of it, right?

GC: Yes. Yeah. So it's sort of trying to get all of that in, within the package - or the limitation - of natural speech.

OF: Right. I mean, that's exactly the kind of jigsaw puzzle that I wanted you to try and un-piece. And like, how does that come? Do you have to look at the text, then you have to have a bath, or go for a run, and then it suddenly comes to you? Or do you just sit there, and you have to try and drill it into your head?

GC: So I didn't used to work like this, but now I just put down the meaning, as much as I could, and then probably go off and do something else. And then come back and try to shape it. Like kneading dough. Keep kneading until it forms. And keep trying this, trying that, trying this, trying that. You know, cutting, pasting, turning sentences around, moving them up and down. Until you get there.

OF: Do you use dictionaries and thesauruses, or do you try not to?

GC: I do use dictionaries and thesauruses, I've got probably four or five open at the same time. Yeah. You might not use the words they suggest. But they can prompt your mind to think of other things.

OF: Right. Because which of the two is actually most rich? You know, if you look at Shakespeare, how many new words he created. And then of course, there's a whole culture of creating new words in English. But the Chinese that I know, when you have two concepts in two different Chinese characters, and you bash them together and they create a word, there's multiple combinations.

GC: Yeah. Yeah, because the Chinese language is modular. So you can create anything. That sometimes makes it quite difficult to translate. But at the same time, you also have a freedom. Ultimately, you're working for both the author as well as the reader.

OF: And also yourself…

GC: And myself as well, obviously. But it has to be understood by your particular reader or audience. So they will help you make a lot of decisions on what to do.

OF: Interesting. And so when you do have a problem, do you collaborate with other people? When you really do reach a dead-end, how do you finally solve it?

GC: So with this novel, I'm translating with another translator, Anna Holmwood. And she translated the first volume. In fact, she probably dealt with the biggest and toughest questions of style and tone. So when I translate, my difficulty is understanding how she came to the system. But the system is there. So I need to find the tools and use them, rather than completely create the tools myself. But obviously, as the story progresses, then we have new characters, we have more powerful kung fu. I then will have to use her tools, to create new tools, to get to these new concepts.

OF: Right.

GC: Yeah.

OF: So you've almost got another extra master.

GC: Yes.

OF: You've got the author, the audience, and you've got the other translator.

GC: Yes. But usually translation is quite lonely work, you know you're just with yourself.

if you're lucky, you can talk to the author as well. So it's really nice to have a team. The two of us, we can talk through problems and you know, if you're really stuck, then maybe the other person might have a better idea. By talking about it, it already helps.

OF: Yeah.

GC: And then eventually you will find a solution. Because you have to.

OF: Well, I guess that leads me to my last question, in terms of the collaboration. Because I'm guessing that this is where there could be the biggest problems when it comes to translating, especially - as you said - if the author is still alive. Like, can you think of any moments where things haven't gone so smoothly in your process?

GC: I think a lot of the times it will be when you're working with someone who has never had anything translated before. So say someone has a product, and they needed it translated into English. Some people might want it very, very close to what they've written in the Chinese. But it might not work for that particular market, because of the different ways people understand things culturally. Uou know, how you sell things, how you market things is different.

OF: It's almost like an anthropological experiment.

GC: Yeah. So it's much more cultural, rather than language. Yes, I can give you more or less the same thing. But the result would be very different. So with that sort of experience, sometimes you might get your collaborators not seeing that cultural different point. This is beyond linguistics, or language. And they might insist on doing it their way. But that's when it gets quite difficult, because you don't want to do something that you know isn't going to work. But then you try to explain, they might not understand. Or because it's the first time they do it, they didn't understand, because they haven't seen it fail. And then the next time they do it, probably the same person won't have the same problem with it. Because, you know, they learnt. It's something that you have to learn by being in-between cultures, and moving around. And it's always difficult for someone to trust a complete stranger entirely with their baby, basically.

OF: Right.

GC: You know, to convey who they are.

OF: Right.

OF: So I think it's also a matter of trust. And this is something that comes with experience. And failure.

OF: Right. Well, thanks so much. That's fascinating.

GC: You're welcome.

OF: Now, Part 2.

[Part 2]

OF: What's your favourite China-related fact?

GC: So I said I love theatre. And some years ago, I discovered that Noël Coward wrote 'Private Lives' in Shanghai.

OF: Really?

GC: At the Cathay Hotel, which is the Peace Hotel. And I think he got a cold or influenza, and he got stuck. It's just this utterly, utterly English upper-class play is written in Shanghai in 1930.

OF: Wow. Question 2, do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?

GC: No, I can't say anything in particular. But I just love the versatility of the language. It's very, very versatile. And the allusions it could make. Something that I was working on quite recently is the most beautiful poetry on the surface. But if you really know the context, it's the dirtiest. dirtiest smut. It's pornographic.

OF: Wow.

GC: But it's also the most beautiful poetry, and there's not a single dirty word, there's nothing wrong with it…

OF: From what era is that poem?

GC: It's 3-400 years ago. So there are different versions of it, but yeah.

OF: Well, I should have known not to ask a translator about one favourite phrase. As I was saying it, I knew you weren't going to give me the answer I want here.

GC: Yeah.

OF: What's your favourite destination within China?

GC: I went to 运城 [Yùnchéng], and it's a beautiful place. Lots of history around. You know, you've got the Yellow River, it was a major battlefield for hundreds of years, there is one of the few surviving 元 [Yuán] dynasty temples there…

OF: Right, awesome. If you left China, what would you miss the most and what would you miss the least?

GC: Definitely Cantonese food. I grew up in that region.

OF: Yeah, but I mean, when I think about Cantonese food, that's the food that you can find the most outside of China.

GC: Yes. But most of the time, you can't get the ingredients right. So it never tastes right.

OF: Right.

GC: Yeah.

OF: Is there anything that still mystifies you about life in China?

GC: People can really spend and shop.

OF: Oh yeah.

GC: Like, especially when I was still working in an office building environment. You go out at lunch with colleagues, and you're just like "Why are you looking at that? That's really expensive". That willingness to spend still mystifies me. Because I think, in my mind, I'm still a poor student. I haven't quite left that mentality yet.

OF: Right. Isn't that funny, because actually the reputation of the Chinese in general is that they're good savers. But you're right…

GC: They're good savers, and good spenders at the same time. Which is… I think that is a philosophical question.

OF: So where's your favourite place to go eat, or drink, or just hang out?

GC: Well, my go-to restaurant, if friends come to town, in Shanghai would be Spice Moment on 五原路 [Wǔyuán Lù], it's a 湖南 [Húnán] restaurant. I particularly like it because it's very difficult to get good Cantonese food here. Good in the sense that, Cantonese food is not just about ingredients or tastes or flavourings, but you have to fry everything on a very, very, very, very hot wok. And that is a particular taste. Like, you can't really describe it. It's not like a flavour, salty or sweet. But if you fry something on a very hot wok, it tastes different from a non-hot wok.

OF: And is it also a wok that has been fried before, and has some residual taste from it?

GC: No, no, no, it is not like a flavour-type taste, but that is something… It's like cooking something on wood, on coal, or on gas, or on electric. They taste different. And I love that restaurant because even though 湖南 [Húnán] food tastes very different from Cantonese food, that taste of fire is in it.

OF: Very good. What's the best or worst purchase you've made in China?

GC: Well, it's not exactly a purchase. But I will say adopting and rescuing our dogs and cats.

OF: Right. Go on then, what's the menagerie?

GC: We adopted one dog off the internet because we saw the picture, and it was very cute. And then we kept thinking about that picture, and then eventually reached out. And the dog hadn't been adopted, poor thing. He was eight or nine years old when we adopted him. And then we also picked up a little yorkie on the street.

OF: Oh, just wandering around?

GC: She had probably been abandoned. She couldn't walk and she had a big tumour on her breast. No-one thought she was going to live for many months. But now we've had her for a year and a half and she's walking very well.

OF: Wow.

GC: And then the last animal we picked up was a cat on a rainy day. And he was very, very skinny. But he's actually an enormous cat. And he's got a moustache like… er…

OF: Not a certain German leader?

GC: Yes.

OF: Oh, no!

GC: Or you can say Charlie Chaplin or Freddie Mercury. But we named him after Magnum P.I., so he's called 'Mog-num'.

OF: Oh 'Mognum', Oh god, that's good, 'Mognum'.

GC: Yeah.

OF: Well, you know I'm gonna have to ask you for photos. So we'll put that on our Instagram later.

GC: Yeah, yeah.

OF: And what's your favourite WeChat sticker?

GC: Well, I like the WeChat pups, the green one and the white one

OF: Oh I love those, I always use those.

GC: Yeah, they're my favourite. Yeah.

OF: Do you have a particular sticker that you like the most?

GC: I think I like most of them. I think there's one where one of them just walks off and takes a dump.

OF: Oh, really?

GC: Yeah. I think there was one that was just sort of like 'poo'.

OF: OK, well if you can find that, then send it. I'll put that online too.

GC: Yeah. I don't think I made it up. I think it's real.

OF: OK. And what's your go-to song to sing at KTV?

GC: I don't, really. I mean, either some sort of 80s Hong Kong TV theme song. Or I'll try very miserably and impossibly to sing this Chinese band called 'New Pants', 新裤子 [Xīnkùzi]. But yeah, it's impossible. I'm very bad at karaoke.

OF: And finally, what other China-related media or sources of information do you rely on?

GC: I quite like Sixth Tone. It's an English language news website. But I think it was a site started to give a different perspective on China, beyond grand politics or economics. This is much more about people.

OF: Very good. Well, thank you so much, Gigi. That was very interesting.

GC: You're welcome, thank you for having me.

OF: And I have the final part of the interview, which is of course the referral.

GC: Oh, yes.

OF: So if there was someone who is the most interesting person who you think I should interview next, who would it be?

GC: So I think it would be great if you could interview Sammi Liu. She lives in Beijing, and she's the founder of an art gallery called Tabula Rasa. She's got one project at this gallery called 'Almost Art', where she works with people who make art, but weren't trained in art school. And I find that really, really interesting. Not the usual thing you would see.

OF: Well. I can't wait to meet her. Sammi, right?

GC: Yes, Sammi, yes.

OF: Well, I'm gonna have to pack my bag and go and see her. Thanks so much, Gigi.

GC: Thank you.


OF: So part of the fun of recording this series has been in seeing the random connections between guests. In the case of Gigi, the answer that she gave about her best purchase in China being her rescue pets was the same as the answer given by Eric Olander, the journalist from Episode 03. And who would have predicted that Gigi would be connected to Michael Zee - the 'Symmetry Breakfast' Instagram influencer from Episode 07 - by the fact that both of them spent time working at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. I didn't account for mentioning that place twice in a series about China.

The part about Gigi interview which resonated the most with me, was when she said that the starting point to writing is thinking about who your audience is. When I heard her say this while working on the edit of the episode, my immediate thought at this time was that she's wrong. You should just write what you feel like, and your starting point shouldn't be the audience, it should be finding your own authentic voice from within. But then the more I thought about it, the more I tend to actually agree with her. And it inspired me to write a short piece about this on LinkedIn. So in case we're not already connected on LinkedIn, then please look me up. As I mentioned before in this series, LinkedIn is a very interesting platform for content about China, because it's the one global social media platform which isn't totally blocked here. So you can really see the difference of opinions between people on both internet ecosystems. I've been writing a few articles there recently, and the comments there have been fascinating to read. As for the rest of social media content for this episode, you can see all of the images relating to today's chat as usual on Instagram on @mosaicofchina_* and Facebook on @mosaicofchina. And for WeChat, you can add me on my profile ID: mosaicofchina* and I'll add you to the group there myself. There's Gigi with her object; her favourite sticker, of course; a photo of her cat that looks like… Charlie Chaplin; photos of Gigi presenting the published book, and the translating team that she worked with too; as well as a very nice display of 'The Legend of the Condor Heroes' book at Kinokuniya in Singapore, which is still my favourite bookshop in the world, I think. I think the display is still there, if I'm not mistaken. So if there are any listeners in Singapore, then please send me a photo.

Mosaic of China is me Oscar Fuchs, artwork by Denny Newell, and extra support from Milo de Prieto and Alston Gong. See you next time.

*Different WeChat and Instagram handles were mentioned in the original recording. These IDs are now obsolete, and the updated details have been substituted.

Mosaic of China Season 01 Episode 24 – The Ode Decoder (Gigi CHANG, Literary Translator)

Oscar Fuchs: Creator, Producer and Host of the Mosaic of China podcast

Oscar Fuchs was the Co-Founder and Managing Director of a global executive search firm dedicated to the Human Resources profession. He was born in the UK and has lived in Asia for 18 years, including 3 years in Hong Kong SAR, and 7 years in mainland China. In 2019 he sold his company, and launched Mosaic of China.

In China, the podcast can also be found at 苹果播客, 小宇宙 and 喜马拉雅.

Internationally, it can also be found at Apple, Spotify, and all other podcasting platforms.

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