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There is much that can be lost in translation, as the saying goes, but there’s also plenty that can be found. On the programme of this year’s inaugural Liverpool Literary Festival was an event that engaged the city’s vibrant Chinese community, while bringing the subject of translation to the fore.

On the evening of Sunday, 30 October, we gathered at the Victoria Gallery & Museum for a Chinese Translation Slam, with translators Nicky Harman and Helen Wang. The idea was this: two translators, one passage of text. Their individual translations of the same excerpt would be used to explain some of the vagaries and challenges of literary translation from Chinese into English, and spark discussions about the very practice of translating.

Helen and Nicky (both translation heavyweights with years of publishing experience under their belts) took to the stage with MLC’s very own Dr Lyn Marven as chair. The session began with each translator sharing the difficulties she faced in approaching the passage, with reference to general issues encountered in the creation of an English text from a Chinese source. As Nicky explained, the huge disparity between the structures of the two languages makes it impossible to use the original language as a prop, as can be done when translating, say, German or French into English. The Mandarin language features an ambiguity of tense, and less distinction between singular and plural. Helen added that the concision of Chinese characters (each is loaded with many layers of cultural significance) can pose significant challenges. Both agreed that a direct translation rarely sounds natural.

Talk then turned to the passage of text, which was read out in the original Chinese by Lecturer in Chinese Dr Lingzhi Gu. The passage was taken from the martial arts novel Legend of the Condor Heroes (originally published in 1957) by Jin Yong, and involved an ambush scene in which two men are attacked in a forest by a bandit. Immediately, the two translators’ unique approaches were clear. Nicky had chosen to narrate in the past tense, while Helen had gone for the present. While admitting that such artistic license wouldn’t always pass muster with editors, Helen made a strong case for it adding suspense and immediacy to the passage. Other divergences included Helen’s naming of the two main characters as “our two men” instead of their full Chinese names for the sake of brevity, as well as problems with translating the terms for specialised weapons.

Questions from both Chinese and non-Chinese audience members inspired robust debate, proving that the job of a literary translator – especially from Chinese to English – is certainly no walk in the park.


From left to right: Nicky Harman, Helen Wang, Lyn Marven and Helen Taylor, Director of the Liverpool Literary Festival