On Translation: An Interview with Wenguang Huang (Part Two)

April 7, 2020 § 2 Comments

WenguangWenguang Huang has worked as a teacher, public relations specialist, literary translator, reporter, memoir writer, and more. In part two of the interview, he talks with Brevity Associate Editor Victoria Buitron about how his creative nonfiction and literary translations are intertwined and offers advice to memoir writers. Read part one of the interview here.

You came to mind during my last MFA residency because a poet who translates from Portuguese into English was invited, and she said she would never translate poems without access to the writer. What’s your stance on that?

I totally agree. Before I accept a translation assignment, I always propose certain conditions or rules. My first rule is that the writer has to value my work as a translator. When possible, I always try to meet with the author or at least talk with the person on the phone. In this way, I can gauge if he or she is easy to work with. Otherwise, you put so much of your life into it, and the author might not even appreciate it. Sometimes, when we’re given an opportunity to translate a book that we truly like, or to work with a famous writer who can greatly enrich our resume, we tend to ignore our incompatible personalities or working styles. From my own experience, such collaboration always ends up badly. The whole process could be miserable for both the author and the translator. I’ve been there and done that. At times, I think writers—when somebody translates their work and they’re not the translators themselves—they don’t appreciate our work or give us enough credit.

Secondly, I always request direct access to the author when I run into questions during my translation. In this way, we can save time and avoid unnecessary misinterpretation. Also, because of the cultural differences, one cannot simply translate something word for word. In many instances, the translator has to work with the author to do some adaptations, such as adding some background information and adjusting the narrative structures. The author certainly has to be willing to make the changes.

I know your trajectory into translating and writing is very unique, but what suggestions would you provide to someone that is interested in becoming a literary translator?

I think you need to be a writer first or at least receive training in creative writing in order to be a good literary translator. Oftentimes there’s a misconception both by writers and the general public. They say “oh, he speaks Portuguese very well,” and they think if you speak the language very well you’ll be a good translator, which is not the case at all. Translation is not just about knowing the language very well. It involves recreating a piece of literary writing in a different language. In my case, I don’t have any training in creative writing, but I was trained as an English-language journalist and have written for various newspapers and magazines for many years. My journalistic experiences have taught me how to tell a good story.

After I read your memoir, I began reading Woman from Shanghai: Tales of Survival from a Chinese Labor Camp by Xianhui Yang and translated by you. Both your own stories and the translations you’ve worked on have to do with China’s history and the Cultural Revolution. Could you share what draws you to this topic?

I was drawn to nonfiction works by independent writers such as Liao Yiwu and Yang Xianhui because they have truthfully documented ordinary people’s lives under Communism, and chronicled the brutalities of the totalitarian rule under Mao.

As China is now emerging as a world economic powerhouse, the Communist leadership has tightened its ideological control by systematically whitewashing history and using the powerful state-controlled media to brainwash its citizens.  Nowadays, if you ask a young person born after the 1980s about the Cultural Revolution, the Anti-Rightist Movement, or the student pro-democracy protest movement of 1989, it’s highly likely that he or she hardly knows anything. You can’t get a lot from the internet in China because of the censorship.

In other words, I consider my translation as a feeble attempt to preserve history and to help Westerners understand China.

Preserving memory is really important.  At present, people in China are obsessed with .  The government encourages people to forget the past and move on. My point is, if you don’t confront the past, you’ll never get over it. You can never move on without facing your past. It will come back to haunt it.

What is one of the toughest aspects of translating from Chinese to English?

One of the difficulties I have encountered is the narrative structure.  Many Chinese writers do not follow a linear line and their storytelling can be winding and go in circles. As a result, Western readers might find them hard to follow. To me, this has presented a huge challenge. In 2005, when I first submitted my translation to a magazine, an editor turned it down because he said the narrative was not straightforward. This was a great lesson for me, so I decided to reconsider my strategy. Instead of just being the translator, I also became the editor. I consulted with the author and we reorganized some of the contents to make sure that the story line is what English readers are accustomed to.  By doing this, translators also run the risk of altering the original and stepping into the area of adaptation, rather than translation. So, it’s a fine line.

The second tough thing for me is the translation of Chinese idioms or proverbs, which imbue Chinese writings and conversations with local flavor. They’re so vivid and cultural-specific that it is very hard to translate. Sometimes, when I do find an English equivalent, the flavor of the original writing is lost. For example, I once encountered a Chinese phrase “An ugly toad is lusting after the flesh of a swan,” which describes a man who pursues a beautiful and intellectually superior woman.  I initially translated it as “ask for the moon.” As you can see, the translation has lost the vividness and vulgarity. What is the solution? I just do a direct translation. Of course, in cases where a proverb has a story behind it, that’s a bit hard.

Can you discuss any works of translation or a book that you’re currently working on?

I have just finished translating “1566,” a Chinese bestseller that revolves around a series of fictional events that unfolded during the last five years of Emperor Jiajing’s reign in the 16th Century. The book, a page turner, offers an unflinching look into the brutal power struggles inside the imperial court, and the deceitful alliances between politics and business.The book was adapted into a popular TV series in China and the public see it as a parody on current Chinese politics.

In addition to translations, I’m also working on an autographical novel, which is based on a murder story that I had heard of long ago. The story depicts the dramatic political and cultural transformation in the aftermath of Mao’s death in 1976. In a way, it’s a sequel to my memoir.

What do you recommend to people who want to dive into memoir writing? 

My first advice to people who think they have a great story to tell is to find time and write it. After my memoir came out, I’ve met a lot of people who have shared their incredible family stories with me and asked how to go about writing them. I always tell people to stop talking about their ideas and get them down in writing. Jot down whatever comes to you mind. There’s no need to worry about the logic or the narrative structure. Once you have a first draft – no matter how bad it is, in this way it becomes real and more productive. If you don’t write it down, you end up talking about it for ten years and it’s simply an idea.

The process of memoir writing, especially the initial stage can be arduous because it brings up all your old memories and repressed feelings. When I first started, I had problems sleeping at night. For about a month, I would go to bed at six in the morning. The writing dragged me back to my past. A lot of the memories are quite unpleasant. There are a lot of regrets.  Sometimes, the feelings were so intense that it felt like I couldn’t even breathe. The process forces you to face your past honestly.  Look back, it’s really a self-healing process.

Once you go through this self-examination stage and get a draft down, you should step back for a few weeks. Then, you can gradually improve on your first draft, restructure it, delete or add more stories. Often times, your second draft might be completely different from the first draft but it gets you going.

For those who are not sure if you can find an agent or publisher for your memoir, I would recommend that you pick segments of what you have written and turn them into short personal essays. Send them to a newspaper or magazine. If the essay is about your parents, submit to a magazine during Mother’s Day or Father’s day, when the publications always need good stories. Getting it published will give you the attention and the confidence you need.

Lastly, get a real job first and do your memoir writing or translation in your spare time. That’s just my experience.


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.

Brevity’s Associate Editor, Victoria Buitron, graduated from Hunter College CUNY with a degree in translation and interpretation. She is currently an MFA candidate at Fairfield University’s low-residency program. Find her at atravelingtranslator.com and on Twitter at @kikitraveler30.


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