Shen Shixi: Translation Workshop


As part of One School, Two Books month, grade 9 students took part in a translation workshop. They worked in four groups to translate the opening of《狼王梦》by Shen Shixi (沈石溪). After coming up with four alternative versions of the first paragraph, they took a section of the subsequent story each and then edited the writing of their classmates.
Helen Wang, the translator of Jackal and Wolf, was kind enough to give feedback on their translation, and answer a few questions.

It’s really helpful to see the four group drafts as well as your final version. The four drafts demonstrate very clearly that there are lots of different ways of translating the same text! The four different drafts will appeal to different readers. For example, no.2 is quite plain, while no.4 is much freer in its interpretation and is more descriptive. And, comparing no.1 and no.3, both of these keep the rhythm of the parallel description very neatly, but in different ways (Flowers bloom, trees grow // blooming with cherry blossoms and bursting with willow trees).

Just as you have translated the same text in different ways, so different readers will read your final translation in different ways. In other words, when translating, we can’t just think about the source text and its author, we also have to consider the target text and who its readers are likely to be.

If you’re translating for yourself, you can do as you please! But if you are translating for someone else, then you have to think not only about your personal preference, but also about your readers!  And if you’re translating something for publication, there will usually be an editor, and you’ll need to work together with the editor on the final version. Often, the translator understands the source text much better than the editor, but the editor knows his/her reader better than the translator. So it can be useful to think of translation as two separate processes – translation and editing – when creating the final version.

In the final version, I wondered why you ignored the colours in the first paragraph, as well as most of the onomatopoeia in the middle section about the river? Was it intentional?

Best wishes


Q: How long did it take to translate Jackal and Wolf? (Heelan Jeong)
The translation itself probably took about 3 months, but the whole process from start to finish takes much longer. I think for Jackal and Wolf, it took about 18 months from the first sample translation to the book being in print. It may seem a long time, but publishers work on several books at the same time, and have to schedule everything. In this case, the publisher used my English translation as the source text for translation into another 7 languages. They are a big international children’s publisher and they wanted to launch it in 8 languages at the same time!

Q: Do you only translate Chinese to English? Why not the other way round? (Julian Chien)
I only translate into English. Although some people are very extremely talented and can translate very well both ways, most people translate better into their mother-tongue. The general rule is that you can only be a good translator in the language(s) in which you can also be a good writer.

Q: How did you become a translator? (Niu Mao)
I enjoyed learning European languages at school, and started learning Chinese at university. I like translating, so I used to do it for fun, for myself. A few of my translations of short stories were published, but I stopped translating fiction for a while to concentrate on my work and my family. When my son was little, he loved Hei Mao Jingzhang (Black Cat Police Chief), but the books weren’t available in English, so I used to read-interpret them for him.

Q: How did you translate the human-like images of the animals in a vivid way? (Rendolm Qian)
When I was translating, I did a draft translation that followed the original Chinese text very closely. Then I went back, and reworked it, concentrating on the storytelling. By the time I returned to the first chapters, I could still tell from my first draft how the original Chinese was expressed, but I was much more conscious of things that didn’t work very well in English. Jackal and Wolf is a children’s book, so when translated into English, it has to work for an English reader! Then, I asked friends and family to have a look and give me honest feedback – that was extremely helpful. Occasionally they would all comment on the same place, which usually meant that particular interpretation did not work in English.

Q: What did you like about Jackal and Wolf? (Grace Yang)
I liked that it was an animal story, and that there’s a lot of action and tension in it. It’s different from the animal stories I’ve read in English – and although it sometimes felt strange/uncomfortable that the thought processes behind the animals’ behaviour was explained in human terms, it was interesting to be able to follow those thought processes, especially when the behaviour seems unusual to an English reader. For example, the ways in which Flame tests her potential mate is quite disturbing and self-destructive. I also liked the idea that a novel by a much-loved children’s author was being made available in English. I wish there were more!

Q: How did you translate the names? (Maxim Bembinov)
First, I had to decide whether to translate the names. But the names have meaning and are descriptive, so it seemed sensible to translate them. Flame was the hardest one to name! In the end, her name was inspired by a real horse called Flame!
I wondered how you would translate Violet! There is a girl’s name Jocasta that means “violet-tinged cloud” but is it a good name for a wolf? My first thought was Violet too, but I wasn’t sure (the name Violet reminds me of very old ladies in my childhood, and of spoilt Violet Beauregarde in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). I also tried thinking of wolf-fur and shimmering colours, and came up with names like Velvet. Maybe charcoal rather than coal-black? At the moment, I quite like Amara. I’ve created it by shortening “amaranth” – a purple flower that flutters in the breeze, and which comes from Greek meaning “unfading”. Amara is also a girl’s name in an African language, and means “grace”. Without knowing the meaning, it sounds strong and beautiful to me, and ending in an A indicates she’s female! Would it work to give her the pinyin name Zelan and add an explanation, something like “Her name is Zelan “Purple Mist” – after the rare purple haze that shimmers through her charcoal fur, like the violet-mist that whispers in the mountains?”

Q: How did you translate some of the idioms from Chinese to English? (Dari Temutsilekhu)
I translated them on a case by case basis. I remember there was one that was something like “it was easier than blowing away a speck of ash” which is such a graphic image and so easy to imagine. My sister suggested that I should change it to a well-known English equivalent, but in the end I decided to keep it. I think sometimes it works well to keep the Chinese idioms, and sometimes you have to weigh up whether it’s worth it. In some ways, it’s a bit like deciding whether a joke will work, or whether it will just sound stupid (and not at all funny) if you have to explain it.


Opening version 1:
Every wolf in the world has a single common character. They would gather as one in the winter, and live alone for the rest of the year. Flowers bloom, trees grow, spring is around the corner and under the enormous snowy mountain of Riquka, the wolves, following their natural instincts, separated from their group in winter, which existed no more, and spread around the massive 500-mile across grassland under the mountain.

Opening version 2:
All the wolves in the world share a same habits. During the cruel cold winter instead of staying alone they come together as a pack. Spring has come, the wolves from the Richuka snow mountain came out of the packs and became individuals, spread around in the Gamar grassland.

Opening version 3:
The wolves of the world all share one common trait: they would travel alone, and only when the severe cold came would they pack together. Presently, the snowy peak of Riquika blooming with cherry blossoms and bursting with willow trees, the wolf packs are naturally scattering across the vast region of the Gamar plains [like stars in a dark moony night.]

Opening version 4:
The aggregation of wolves [/lupine population] around the world share a common trait, they would converge as a pack in the brisk of winter, and would go astray when the land awakens. As I open my eyes, the peach blossoms are blushing in content, the willows’ virescent limbs swaying in the wind. The wolves of Mount Richka begin to break free from the pack as the warm breeze exhales like the children of dandelions following a winding course, scattered on the snowcapped land stretching miles and miles across the Gamar grassland.










Lupine Dream

The wolves of the world all share one common trait: they would gather as one in the brisk of winter, and live alone for the rest of the year. The land awakens, and the wolves of Mount Richuka begin to break free from the pack and scatter across the vast region of the Gamar plains.

On the north-eastern side of the grassland, next to a disgusting pond of water shaped like a horse shoe, there was a female wolf resting upon the fan shaped rock. The bright sun stretched her lonely shadow into a long line. She had been lying there since noon, without moving for hours and hours, wishing for a deer or a goat to come for a drink in the salty pond. This way she could suddenly attack and enjoy it for dinner. Her hideout was a good one, wind sending chills down her spine, looking from above waiting… If only something would come, she wouldn’t ever let it out of her sharp claws.

This wolf’s name was Violet, because of her coal black fur slightly radiating with purple, the dark shade of purple that is rarely seen. However, her belly was covered with pure white fur. Her movements were light and agile, like a purple cloud on a windy day.

She was very pretty – in the sense of beauty from a wolf’s perspective. But her once slim body had grown, for her belly was now round as a balloon with little lives growing in it. She was pregnant, about to give birth to little wolves.

Behind a tall snow mountain, at noon time there laid a thin mist of fog that caged the forest.

Next to it laid a river, and a grassland the bloomed with flowers.

Even though there was no wind, the bushes suddenly started to move and make gargling noises.

The wolf nearby was filled with excitement. She had thought there was prey in sight. But, as she looked closely, she then realized it was not a sheep nor a deer inside the bush. But instead there laid a snake who was sluthering its way through with a bird in its mouth. Because wolves hate snakes, Violet was quite disappointed – and afraid.

Although the wolf is a ferocious and carnivorous beast, it also has a very strong sense of maternal love. Violet’s first pregnancy was like any other animal in nature, including humans. The baby’s naughty kicks and punches gave Violet a happy and mysterious feeling that all pregnant mothers know of, and a deep worry about the little babies’ future at the same time. It worries whether the baby can be delivered with success or not, whether its breasts are ample enough to provide enough milk for the babies, for its growth, whether the babies are capable of avoiding hunters, tigers, jaguars, wild boar and golden eagles – any attacks from these natural enemies. Although wolves are the elite of the Gamar plains, the alphas of the forest, killers always engaged in a bloody fight, but until a cub’s spiky paws and sharp teeth have fully grown, he is often other carnivores’ prey.

To Violet, it seemed out of her control whether her cubs could safely arrive into this world. Wolves will remain wolves. Without the advanced technology to safely give birth, they can only place their faith in fate. Whether the young cubs could avoid the attack of predators, was half dependent on the guarding of their mother and half up to fate, though this worry was still far from the present. The immediate problem was to have enough milk in her to breastfeed her cubs. And in order to have enough, she had to have enough to eat herself.

Thinking of food, her stomach started to growl. This morning she ate half of an enormous rooster. However, it was already digested long ago. Since she became pregnant the amount of food she consumed was surprisingly large, she always had this kind of hungry feeling. Her luck seemed to have run out she hadn’t caught any mountain goats, deers, moose or any of this type of delicious prey. Sometimes, after a tiring day of hunting, she was left with a hog and a rabbit, hardly enough to fill her stomach. Sometimes it was even worse, and she would end up empty-handed near the stinking pond till dusk, forced to catch mice to avoid starving.


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