Translation as Self-Expression: Nicky Harman

Nicky Harman

NICKY HARMAN is a Chinese translator from England. She has translated work by authors such as Zhang Ling, Mian Mian, Han Dong, Xinran, Zhao Haihong, Ding Liying, Zi Ren, Xie Mian and Cao Jingqing. A former lecturer at the Imperial College in London, she has also given seminars at various venues ranging from universities to cultural centers in United Kingdom, Hong Kong, China and Algeria. With Eric Abrahamsen, she worked on Paper Republic, a website that promotes Chinese literature in translation, developing and promoting the website at international book fairs. In her spare time, she has also set up the London-based China Fiction Book Club — a “gathering of kindred spirits bonded together by the love for Chinese language and literature,” where “over tea and snacks, members meet about once every two months to translate a piece of contemporary Chinese literature into English.”

How did you begin translating?

I started translating Chinese fiction in about 2000, combining it with various part-time jobs which culminated in a lectureship teaching translation at Imperial College London. My first “real” piece of work was K — The Art of Love by Hong Ying. This was a very good experience because I really liked the novel — and it sold! This was a joint translation, in that Hong Ying’s husband arranged for me to submit it to him chapter by chapter for correction. One interesting issue that arose was that the novel fictionalised historical events and “quoted” the words of real people, e.g. Virginia Woolf. I grappled with the problem of how to deal with text/conversations which verifiably first existed in English.

…my only real wish is that the work should be well written, and I can honestly say I’ve been very lucky in that respect with almost everything I’ve translated.

My next work was China Along the Yellow River. This was nonfiction (sociology) and I did it, again with the aid of a Chinese friend who checked for accuracy, without having found a publisher… When we did find one, they did not pay us for the translation, and sales have been disappointing (typical, I think, of many academic publishers). All the same, I don’t regret it. It’s a magnificent piece of writing, and — who knows — it may have a brighter future as it’s still very relevant.

I continued to teach part-time. This at least kept the wolf from the door as it was quite a while before my next work was published — Han Dong’s first novel. By now I had gained a lot of confidence and was doing whole works without a Chinese collaborator. Of course, it’s always good for Chinese native speakers to check one’s work. Ideally this will be the author, and I’m happy to say I’ve had many fruitful working relationships with “my” authors… That novel was long-listed for the Man Asian Prize… I enjoy translating both fiction and nonfiction. I suppose my only real wish is that the work should be well written, and I can honestly say I’ve been very lucky in that respect with almost everything I’ve translated.

Do you have a personal approach — or agenda — when it comes to literary translation? How does it differ when you translate novels as opposed to poetry (or any other genres of writing)?

I think my personal approach is governed primarily by the source text, and that applies whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, prose or poetry. I’m a bit of chameleon, I suppose, in that I feel that I take on the colouring, or the mood, of the text. That’s part of my identity as a translator and it’s something that happens subconsciously, not consciously. So I would prefer to talk about how I feel about a text, rather than the approach I take to it. As for my different feelings vis à vis prose or poetry, I’m really a newcomer to poetry, but in my limited experience translating poetry gives me a feeling of concentration which is almost meditative. I love the luxury of being able to focus myself on just a few words, the layers of meaning and the rhythm.

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