More Than A Useful Exercise
Approaching a work through translation, transcreation and adaptation hatches many successes.
By Shelly Bryant
In the twin volumes Clan and Diasporic, Yeo Wei Wei and Balestier Press have undertaken the task of presenting a collection of Soon Ai Ling's short fiction (originally written in Chinese) in English, approaching the work through three different avenues: translation, transcreation and adaptation. Clan presents some adaptations and some transcreations, while Diasporic offers more straightforward translations. Most of the stories appear in both volumes, as a translation in one and either a transcreation or adaptation in the other. The exercise of treating the same story through these different approaches is in itself of interest, at least to those of us in the translation field. But even more importantly, Yeo has created stories that are engaging not only as an exercise, but as stories. It's often easy to lose sight of that fundamental objective when caught up in comparative work, especially when a sort of obsessive energy starts to kick in. The fact that Yeo has kept the overall goal of creating engaging fiction in sight – not only through the translation process, but even through the comparative translation process – is to her credit. Anyone who has worked as a literary translator knows how easy it is to get caught up in the game, getting lost in the exploration of seemingly infinite possibilities. The restraint required to complete this project and produce such readable stories should not be overlooked.
It is perhaps useful to define terms here, to get a better idea of the differences involved in the processes of translation, transcreation and adaptation. Translation is, in some ways, the simplest of the three. It is focused on bringing a text from one language to another with as little variation or alteration as possible. Transcreation, as the term implies, is a more creative process that self-consciously merges the translation and creation of a text. Adaptation is a more extreme approach that includes significant editing or even rewriting of the original in order to convey a specific message to the new audience. In general terms, it might be said that translation is more clearly focused on the original text, while transcreation and adaptation put more emphasis on the target audience of the new text, with transcreation still placing emphasis on a general accuracy or faithfulness to the original and adaptation allowing for changes that may seem to make it wander quite far from the confines of the original, even to the point that it is more of a reimagining of the original story than a retelling of it.
In the volumes of Clan and Diasporic, we see one story get all three treatments, what we might call the story of Chef Tham (but which is more accurately described as the story of Sister Liu). It is perhaps useful to look at all three approaches to this text, as it has been brought into English in the translation 'Chef Tham', the transcreation 'The Talented Chef Tham' and the adaptation 'Table Manners'. The three titles of the stories already hint at the different approaches, but the real differences can only be truly felt in the reading of each story. The opening paragraphs of the translation read:
The transcreation of the same story opens with the paragraphs:
The adaptation of this story begins:
In reading the transcreation, someone who is not familiar with how translation works might feel that it goes too far to still be considered a translation at all. It clearly sounds quite different from the translation, and it rearranges, omits and introduces information (not) found in the original. But even in this short extract, it is clear that we are still reading the same story, which is even more evident when one continues to read beyond the opening paragraphs.
A look at the transcreation alongside the adaptation immediately makes clear that the transcreation is indeed closer to the original than it might have seemed at first glance. When looking at the adaptation, it is not so readily evident that it is the same story as the translation, with the complete change of perspective and even the somewhat jarring use of the second person (which continues through to the end of the story). This use of the second person narration in 'Table Manners' foregrounds the real story – that of Sister Liu – which is the hidden centre of the original, the translation and the transcreation. All three of the other versions appear to be stories about Chef Tham. He appears in the title, and the descriptions of him are the starting point in the tale, while Sister Liu remains in the shadows, only becoming the "point" of the story at the very end. In the adaptation, the more indirect title, 'Table Manners', moves the attention away from Chef Tham, and with the first word, attention is placed squarely on Sister Liu, the "you" who is addressed and whose story is told.
I'm not sure I would have opted for the second person narration in this case; it's not a device I am particularly fond of. But frankly, my preferences are irrelevant. What does matter is that the use of this device works well in this instance, communicating an important point in the story. In some ways, one could argue that it communicates this important point (the centrality of the female, serving class perspective) more effectively than does the original. I also like that the use of "you" to tell a story – as if the narrator is speaking to the central actor – takes on an almost accusatory tone, befitting the treatment Sister Liu's actions would likely receive from those around her in a society such as that depicted in the story. For this reason, I find it to be a very apt device for re-envisioning this story – one that I readily admit I would have not been likely to land on myself, due to my own dislike of its use more generally. This is one of the joys of reading translations produced by others: it reminds me that my rendering of a text is not the rendering of it, but merely one of infinite possibilities for bringing it into the new language. And that is a huge part of the value of a work like the collected stories in Clan and Diasporic, in which multiple voices tell one story, even when – as in this case – those multiple voices are employed by the same translator.
When I first heard about the project Yeo and Balestier Press were undertaking, presenting the same stories as translations and transcreations/adaptations, I could not help but wonder whether the reading experience would drag. I suspected the volumes might be of interest to specialists in the translation field, but perhaps feel too repetitive for a more general readership. Happily, that is not the case here. In 'The Phoenix of the Big House', an adaptation in Clan, we read, "The hardship and suffering of his boyhood was a family tale that got told so many times we couldn't be sure how much of it was true. Auntie La wasn't the only one who liked to tell the story. All the women in Big House, all of them talkers like Auntie La – though their mouths weren't as famous as hers – went on about this." Reading Clan and Diasporic has the feeling of living in this big house where the stories get told over and over, often from different perspectives and with the variations that inevitably occur in such circumstances. Rather than feeling repetitive or draggy, it is intimate and warm, and it offers a diversity of perspectives on the same places and people that we meet over and over.
Any time I read or review another translator's rendering of a text from Chinese to English, it is easy to point out what I could have done differently. In this case, I could point out that Yeo has a much higher tolerance for odd renderings of names, which grates on my anti-colonial sensibilities. But, much like the use of the second person, I can see how the choices Yeo has made work to achieve a specific vision of these stories. While I might have opted for something a little different, due to my own preferences, I thoroughly enjoyed the versions Yeo has produced in both Clan and Diasporic. The exercise of viewing the work of translation from so many different angles is intensely interesting for me as a translator, but even more fundamentally, being presented with good stories to read really draws me in as a reader. In my mind, that is all that really matters; and that is what makes these translations/transcreations/adaptations so successful.QLRS Vol. 22 No. 3 Jul 2023