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The Art of Translation

Cultivating an authentic voice in a new world.

Dr. Jason Sommer’s campus office is the ultimate professor’s domain, crafted through 28 years of collection and cultivation. Innumerable books — filed, piled, and stacked floor to ceiling — set the tone for the room, but the table spanning the space, blanketed in papers graded and ungraded, completes the effect.

In this office, at that table, Sommer, Fontbonne University professor and poet-in-residence, met countless times with his colleague, Hongling Zhang, a former Fontbonne creative writing instructor and the current director of the Chinese language program in the school district of Clayton, Mo. Their task was to translate, from Chinese to English, a major contemporary Chinese novel by major contemporary Chinese novelist Tie Ning. Her work has never before appeared in English, so “The Bathing Women,” published by Scribner, a division of Simon and Schuster, indicates an important accomplishment and a significant milestone for the author, the translators and cross-cultural literature in general.

Sommer and Zhang met 14 years ago at Fontbonne while she was studying English in an effort to improve her language skills. Already equipped with a law degree, the Chinese native took the literature classes of Sommer and other local professors while simultaneously earning a graduate degree in creative writing from Washington University. Sommer and Zhang became colleagues and friends, sharing a love of the complexities, beauty and challenges of language, and eventually, Zhang would bring to Sommer a book by Wang Xiaobo, a dissident Chinese author. She felt passionately that Xioabo should have an English-language debut, and she wanted Sommer to work with her to translate his work, three novellas that would become known in English as “Wang in Love and Bondage.”

“Hongling was working with a writer she knew and admired,” Sommer said, describing their initial foray into the project. “And I was introduced to a language more in structure than actually learning the language. It’s a fascinating problem to bring a language that’s really very distant from English into English, but also to have the opportunity to collaborate. It’s the closest possible collaboration you can imagine, talking about the tone of each word. It took us a long time.” “Six years,” Zhang confirmed, recalling their many linguistic discussions and debates throughout the process. This word or that? A phrase or a sentence? Placement here or there?

“There are different potentials in Chinese than in English,” Sommer said. “Imagine trying to describe a reference to Buddhist poetry, which appears quite naturally in the novel by Wang Xiaobo; you’re explaining not just a word, but an entire culture.”

In spite of the challenges, both considered the experience an important personal and professional accomplishment, so when Zhang returned to Sommer in 2010 with another Chinese author in need of translation, he readily agreed to the job.“Tie Ning is very well-established in China and became famous at the age of 25 with an award-winning short story,” said Zhang,who first read the author in her native tongue. Ning is a more well-known and popular author in China than Xiaobo, whose work tends toward the artistic and literary. Ning’s work is dramatic, sweeping, epic, and often tackles women's lives and issues, as well as modern China’s cultural shifts.

In 2006, Tie Ning became the first woman — and youngest writer — to become president of the Chinese Writer’s Association, a position she currently holds. Her husband is a primary developer of China’s new economic policy, and together, the two are major public entities in the People’s Republic.

“This is when I ask, how did we manage to get this project?” Sommer said. “This author is a semi-governmental figure... in China.”

Sommer and Zhang marveled at the opportunity. “The Bathing Women” has sold more than one million copies, and in December, the translation was named a finalist for the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize, a recognition showcasing emerging writers across Asia.

“There are very exciting things about doing this translation,” Sommer said. “We’re bringing someone else’s voice into a different world than where that voice comes from. It's more difficult than writing your own work, not only because you're tangling with a piece of art that already exists, but because of the whole culture around it, making this person sound like an authentic voice of the new culture while keeping true to the culture it came from."

So how does the process work? How does someone take a published novel in one language and recreate the same novel in an entirely different language?

Sommer explained: Zhang, fluent in both Chinese and English, created a first draft. She brought it to Sommer, who read it and rewrote it. The two then met, edited and rewrote, over and over and over, until both were satisfied. Sometimes the paragraphs flowed; other times, the partners agonized over a single word. This book, they said, took two years to complete.

"If we do our job correctly, we will weep when the reviews come out, because no one will mention us," said Sommer, who feels that as translators, he and Zhang have a unique task, connecting cultures and countries through the written word, introducing new voices that, otherwise, very few people in the United States would hear. And that, he believes, echoes Fontbonne’s efforts to foster global outreach, connect with the dear neighbor, and offer an olive branch to people who may be different or unfamiliar.

"It all started here in some important way,” said Sommer, looking over the table at Zhang. “There are potentials we don't even dream of when we face our students from across the room. We don’t know who we’re meeting. They could become your friends, collaborators, if only for the intellectual journey you’re taking, but it could be much, much more. Certainly, I’ve had a whole world open up to me; I’ve just learned so much.”