On Translation: An Interview with Wenguang Huang

April 6, 2020 § 1 Comment

Wenguang Huang is the translator of The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up by Liao Yiwu and Woman from Shanghai: Tales of Survival from a Chinese Labor Camp by Yan Xianhui. In 2012, he published the memoir The Little Red Guard, which revolves around growing up in China and the lifetime reverberations of being selected by his father to guard his grandmother’s coffin.

Brevity’s Associate Editor, Victoria Buitron, who graduated from Hunter College CUNY with a degree in translation and interpretation, talks to Huang about the art of translation and how he became a memoirist.

This interview has been edited and condensed, and will appear in two installments.

The Little Red GuardIn The Little Red Guard, you describe the different jobs you ventured into, including journalism. Could you discuss more about the path that led you to become a translator and memoirist?

 When I first arrived in the U.S. in 1990, I studied journalism with a focus on Congressional politics. I was determined to be a real American, to think like an American, and to assimilate. After graduation, I worked as a PR manager for an international agribusiness company. I hardly had the opportunity to speak any Chinese. After a while, even though Chinese was my native language, I became really rusty. When I occasionally talked to my family members, they thought I had undergone brain surgery because I couldn’t even finish a coherent Chinese sentence without switching to English words. But I was kind of proud of the fact that as a foreigner, I wrote English press releases targeting the American audience, and I composed speeches for American business executives. About four or five years later, I started to feel lost, and began to question if it was truly possible or wise to be cut off from my Chinese heritage. I thought that perhaps I should do something that would both connect to my Chinese background and relate to an American audience.

In 1995, there was an opportunity for me to work as a researcher for The New York Times in Beijing. I went back to China for about two years, and during that time I traveled extensively in the country and became reacquainted with my roots. When it got too tough to be a journalist because of the political climate there, I returned to the U.S., and once again worked in Public Relations. The experience in China prompted me to write about my native country for an American audience. So, I became a freelancer and began focusing on Chinese culture and politics for publications such as The Asian Wall Street Journal, The Christian Science Monitor and Chicago Tribune.

One day in early 2000, I heard a radio program about a Chinese poet and writer, Liao Yiwu. He was jailed for four years for writing a poem in 1989 to condemn the Chinese government’s crackdown on the student protest movement. Upon his release, he became homeless. As he wandered the street as a musician, he met many interesting characters, such as a gambler, a professional mourner, a human smuggler, and a public toilet manager. He interviewed them and collected their stories in a book, called Corpse Walker.

His stories intrigued me. He reminded me of Studs Terkel, whose writing had inspired me back when I was in school. I decided to translate Liao Yiwu’s book, which I believed would help Western readers understand the real China. I contacted Yiwu in China through a friend and obtained his permission on the phone.

When I first started this project, I had no idea whether I was going to get his stories published or not.  At the recommendation of a friend, I applied for the PEN Translation Fund Grant. I submitted some samples, but didn’t get the award. But Esther Allen, a prominent translator and educator, read Liao Yiwu’s stories. She liked them so much that she recommended my translations to Philip Gourevitch at The Paris Review. Philip took the extraordinary step of publishing three of the interviews in his magazine. It was a great feeling to see my first translation in print, especially in this very prestigious magazine. Esther and Philip ushered me into the world of translation. While working as a corporate PR person during the day, I started to translate Chinese books at night or during the weekends. Fortunately, my translations have been picked up by major publishing houses.

WenguangHow has translating influenced your own stories?

Translating books about the tumultuous lives of ordinary people living under Communism in China triggered a lot of my own childhood memories and it gave me the confidence to write my own book. For years, I had thought of writing a story about my grandmother who played an important role in my upbringing.  I used to tell my friends about how my father had bought a coffin as a birthday gift for my grandmother, who was still alive, and that I slept next to the coffin for years. They were often shocked and encouraged me to write my story. But I didn’t feel that I was ready to turn the story into a book.

In 2009, when the financial crisis hit, I lost my day job. The severance package enabled me to take a one-year hiatus. Rather than looking for another job, I decided that it was time to write my memoir.

Oh, wow, so you wrote the memoir within that year?

I finished the writing in seven months. Writing was relatively easy. The hardest part was to organize the stories. The book dredged up lots of old memories. I needed to find a common thread and string them together to weave a compelling narrative. I had lots of sleepless nights.  In fact, my first draft was in the form of a long personal essay about my grandma. I sent it to The Paris Review, which fortunately published it. I have received tremendous feedback and I felt very encouraged.  So, with the help of an editor, I expanded the essay into a book.

While writing the memoir, I came to realize that a translator and a writer have two completely different processes. I don’t know whether you have a similar experience.  When I try to multi-task and do translation in the morning and writings in the afternoon, I find it very hard to transition from one to another. I have to stop a translation for two or three days until my mindset completely changes, and then I can start writing again.

Oh yes, it’s kind of like changing gears in a car but it doesn’t happen as quickly… Like you said, I feel like I need my brain to rest a little bit, and then I have to change gears to something else.

I’m glad you feel the same because sometimes I wondered if it was just me. When I work on a translation, my mind tends to get into the passive mode because somebody else has already created it and my job is to recreate it in a different language. Whereas in writing, you start from scratch. That’s why when I translate a book, I tend to go all the way until I’ve finished a few chapters. If a writing project comes up, I have to stop my translation and spend a few days reading before I can write my own story.

Read PART TWO of this Interview

Wenguang Huang, a Chicago-based journalist, writer and translator, is the author of The Little Red Guard,  a memoir that chronicles his growing up in central China during the 1970s and reveals his family striving to fulfill a grandmother’s last wish during a period of rapid societal change. The book was a Washington Post Best of 2012 pick. In 2014, he co-authored A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel with Ho Pin. The book chronicles the fall of Bo Xilai and depicts the inner workings of the Chinese Communist Party. Huang started introducing contemporary Chinese writers to the West in 2004, when he translated Chinese writer Liao Yiwu’s The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China From the Bottom Up. His other translations include Liao Yiwu’s God is Red and For a Song and One Hundred Songs and Xianhui’s Women from Shanghai. Huang is the recipient of the 2007 PEN Translation Fund Award and his translations and journalistic writings have  appeared in Fortune.com, the New York Times, the Asian Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the Paris Review, and Chicago Public Radio.


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