The BTS Interview: Bruce Humes 徐穆实

 

 

S.Ye:   Bruce, in your interview with Fan Wen back in 2009, your question to him. "One key recurring motif of the novel is “disharmony” among different peoples and their faiths....", from his answer: "It’s just that China doesn’t do as is done in the West: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.... and Isn’t that what literature is for — providing people with a vision of an ideal world? "  Do you agree with Fan Wen's notion of what literature is for? 

Bruce:  That’s just a sound bite, and probably oversimplifies Fan Wen’s “notion of what literature is for.” You need to understand where he is coming from. He is a devout Catholic living at a time when the authorities require believers to register, to attend worship services only at government-approved churches, and in regions such as Zhejiang, is forcing congregations to remove the cross from the outside of their churches, and even demolishing some of the newer and better equipped churches, claiming they violate building regulations.

Although things in Yunnan are less oppressive — at least as I experienced when I lived there in 2012-13 — he cannot be immune to this reality, and therefore it makes sense that he hopes to provide “people with a vision of an ideal world.” Such a vision can soothe and empower many readers in a sometimes heartless and imperfect world, regardless of our faith. But there are many other things that good fiction writing can do for us. Personally, I look to literature particularly for insight into how various peoples adapt to the challenges of modernization, as well as for the simple pleasure of experiencing how well-crafted words can capture the subtler aspects of human existence.  

S. Ye:  Can you tell us more about your experience in translating Fan Wen's 'Canticle to the Land' ?

Bruce :

I enjoyed the process of becoming familiar with Fan Wen and his work, which actually took place over three or four years. While still living in Shenzhen, I interviewed him by e-mail about the first novel in the trilogy, 水乳大地 (Shuiru dadi), recently rendered in French by Stéphane Lévêque as Une terre de lait et de miel, whom I interviewed too. I later moved to Kunming in Yunnan, where Fan Wen is based, and met him several times to discuss his trilogy. A very hospitable fellow, he is fascinated by southwest China, particularly the history of the multi-ethnic settlement in Lancangjiang Canyon (gateway to Tibet), which he portrays in the novel as beset by battles between arrogant French Catholic missionaries, incompetent Han officials and their marauding troops, Naxi Dongba Shamanists, and the dominant Tibetans, not all of whom lead pacific, vegetarian lives in the local lamasery.

 

My translated excerpt from Canticle to the Land features a 20th-century, romance-prone itinerant Tibetan minstrel. I had fun recreating his romantic escapades, including rendering a few lines of verse from Tashi Gyatso’s Creation Story. This required a bit of research into Tibetan culture, and although I’ve recently tried to specialize in translating fiction by and about non-Han peoples, I have to admit I’m quite ignorant about things Tibetan. 

 

As we discussed his trilogy, I was struck by the impact of the censorship process on his creativity, and no doubt, on authors throughout China. I don’t recall which of the three novels he was citing, but he told me that his “editor” identified over 300 problematic passages. I assume there were so many because he is writing about sensitive topics such as the activities of foreign missionaries, and sometimes violent interethnic rivalries. He was not forced to rewrite or delete them, but where he was unwilling to accept the editor’s suggestions outright, he did have to spend valuable time negotiating an acceptable solution; otherwise, the novel could not see the light of day. One can imagine that after a certain amount of time, most any author would practice some level of self-censorship, if only to avoid wasting precious time and energy.

 

S. Ye: Do you wish to see others pick up what you've started and finish translating the entire trilogy by Fan Wen for English readers? 

Bruce:  As I mentioned, the first novel has been rendered in French, and more recently, Shelly Bryant translated the second, Land of Mercy (悲悯大地), into English. Sure, I’d love to see all three in English, but I don’t see myself taking part. 

S. Ye:  I came to US in 1992 on Thanksgiving day. I returned to my hometown Shanghai once in the winter of 2006. I won't go into length about cultural shocks I had and am still recovering from it. Now at the point of no returning to be Chinese, I came to the realization that my attempts of learning/mastering English language with lingering Chinese sentiments, effectively doubled my chance to have misspoken in English and speechless in Chinese.  Is it ever a problem for you? 

Bruce:  I have had two very intense experiences becoming immersed in a foreign language to the point where I found myself tongue-tied in English. The first time with French, the second with Chinese. The amount of mental energy I injected into both was, looking back on it, astounding. I must have been young then! 

 

Although I studied in Paris just 10 months, I spoke to myself incessantly in French throughout and refused point black to deal with English speakers. Unsurprisingly, I ended up quite fluent. But when my Anglophone father came to visit and expected me to interpret for him as we visited churches, chateaux and vineyards, it proved to be a nightmare. I remember trying to tell him what was on one menu: The flesh of birds that were raised on a farm expressly to be eaten by human beings. He disdainfully reminded me we call this ‘fowl.’ No, I thought (but didn’t dare say, my father being hopelessly monolingual), we call this ‘volaille’. 

I’ve lived almost 30 years now in Chinese-speaking environments, so in some way this blockage is worse. Perhaps my mind works differently than other bilingual or multilingual people, but I don’t have too much “interference” from competing languages. For me, Chinese and English exist in different universes, and they don’t really overlap. Building bridges between them is bloody hard work, and not something I can do in real time. Thus I am utterly useless as an interpreter, and find translating written Chinese into English rewarding but never easy. 

S. Ye:  Don't we all have 'Tongue-tied' frustration? And my solution is to take up poetry translation! For me, translation is the closest thing imaginable to any religious conversion, and to recover from my own little quarrels in this world. Do you still see translation as your personal calling?

Bruce:  I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen Chinese-to-English literary translation, in and of itself, as my “calling.” I’ve just felt at various times that I wanted to share a world I’d discovered, one that English speakers were unlikely to be familiar with. This is why I launched a blog focusing on “writing by & about non-Han peoples” back in 2009, and since then have tried to concentrate on translating China’s “ethnic” writers. But it’s not as if I am an avid reader of fiction, dedicated to fine literature, or that I derive deep satisfaction from “converting” words between one linguistic system and another.

S. Ye:  Hmm.. why not derive deep satisfaction from 'converting' and be converted in one worldview embodied in mother tongue to another?  Human language is a miracle, as some linguists believed adamantly. So, do you write poems/songs/lyrics?  

Bruce:  I did write free verse in my teens, and I’m sure that helped me develop an ear for language that is very useful in translation. My favorites were Ezra Pound, Cummings, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, and Baudelaire — though I doubt I had a clue what the latter’s ear-pleasing poems actually meant. Sometimes when very moved I do write a poem, and it comes very naturally. But I don’t feel a strong desire to pen verse regularly.  

S. Ye: That's a pity. You need to be daring and young at heart again. Can you give me two or three western translators or their translated work that you admire most? 

Bruce: The more translated fiction that I read, particularly from the Chinese, the more I feel that what I’m looking for isn’t a good “translator.” First and foremost, I want a talented writer, capable of writing compelling prose in English, who happens to know the source language (very well) too. Two that come to mind are Eric Abrahamsen and Cindy Carter, who both translate contemporary Chinese fiction. 

S. Ye: Is your approach to translation changing over the years? 

Bruce:  Certainly. First and foremost, I’ve learned that I have a rather limited palette. This means that I should concentrate on those works that really speak to me; that requires saying “Sorry, but no” to publishers and authors — even those whom I like personally — when, for whatever reason, I feel I couldn’t do an outstanding job for a given literary translation.

Secondly, I have come to understand that professional literary translation is a collaboration. It’s not a one-man gig. I prefer to hire a native Chinese speaker to proofread my draft, and if I can afford it, I also have a native English speaker polish my rendition before I pass it to my client (a literary agency) or a publisher.  At the moment, I’m experimenting with co-translating a novel by a Uyghur author. My partner translates a chapter and I proof and edit it, and vice-versa. This drastically reduces translation errors, speeds the process and gives me feedback early on in the process. But there are downsides, one being that I no longer “own” the manuscript and must negotiate changes, and of course, the already meager earnings have to be split!

Thirdly, and I think this is perhaps the most significant development, I have begun — just begun — to sense the importance of creative writing in shaping a literary translator. When I first heard someone suggest that translating prose, and particularly poetry, is like a musician interpreting a sheet of music, I thought it was a ridiculous comparison. But it does make sense. If you want to hear how a piece of written music sounds on a piano, feed it to a supercomputer and “generate” the piece exactly as it was annotated; one day, if not today, this will be quite feasible. 

But we don’t go to a piano concert for that kind of machine-like “accuracy.” We go to hear the musician “interpret” the piece in his or own unique way.  And it seems to me that if that is the case, then plenty of training and hands-on practice in various types of creative writing will go a long way to preparing the literary translator what is, after all, a very creative endeavor.  

S. Ye:  Bruce, marvelous insight, I owe you $100 for transmitting such insight to others right there.  So after you have completed your piece, do you compare your translation with the work of other translators?

Bruce: Not normally. I’d be more than happy to do so — there’s so much to learn — but since I work almost exclusively on 21st century novels that haven’t been published, it’s rare that the same text would have been done by someone else. I’ve had the chance to compare my renditions with the French, however, and that’s great fun. Generally speaking, French renditions of Chinese and Japanese fiction are superb. I do normally hire a Chinese person to proof my translations, and I am currently co-translating a novel by Uyghur writer Alat Asem with a native speaker of Chinese, and it’s fascinating to see how differently a phrase can be understood, depending on the reader. 

S.Ye: Our Haiku editor Kevin read 'Tao De Jing' by 5 different translators simultaneously.  Studying classical text is a richer experience in that way. Bruce, I learned that your friends tried to cajole you to become a writer in your own right. Is that advice still appealing? 

Bruce:  I do see myself as a writer in my own right. But I’ve concentrated on certain types of writing that are perhaps less prestigious than fiction. I worked as a trade journalist covering the East Asian pan-electronics industries for many years — which took me inside hundreds of factories in Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and mainland China — authored a guide on how to import from Taiwan, translated two 21st-century Chinese novels, co-translated several books on traditional Chinese arts, and host a blog that has at various times focused on Chinese-language fiction by ethnic writers in China, Altaic storytelling and most recently, literary connections between Africa and China. 

I’ve never been keen to write about my two decades in the PRC for the outside world. There are plenty of good “China books” out there already, and in order to make mine unique, I’d have to get personal; I just don’t want to do that. I value my privacy.  

There was a time when I toyed with the idea of writing a book about my China experiences. It would definitely have been in Chinese and targeted mainland readers. I did have some things I wanted to say, actually. I might have dictated it rather than written it on a PC, because I find most contemporary Chinese writing staid and unnatural, and that approach might better express my personality. But that window has closed. The days when I experienced life “in Chinese” — dreamt in the lingo, spoke to myself in Mandarin constantly and interacted almost exclusively with Chinese colleagues and friends — are past. Without that sort of consciousness, dictating such a book now would be a chore.  

S.Ye:  I am sorry to hear that the era of you and I both dreaming  "in Chinese' has passed. We missed our chance appearing in each other's dreams. Well, don't give up hope entirely.  Only God knows what awaits us in our next re-incarnated life-time experience :-) 

S. Ye:  My impression, from sipping thru your online writings as much as I can, is that you are very keen at experiencing 'other' cultural imprints to its peoples by putting yourself 'totally' in the midst of it. Do you regret of not putting on a barrier, somewhere, for self preservation and protection ?  I was quite shocked at the brutal attack and subsequent ill-treatment in the hospital on your welfare in 2000. Besides the scars left in your hand and lung, what was THE most enduring revelation you had after all these years living in Chinese/Cantonese speaking world? 

Bruce:

That’s a tough question! I’ve spent almost all my adult life living in various Chinese societies including the PRC, Hong Kong, Taiwan and most recently, Malaysia’s Penang, which is two-thirds ethnic Chinese. So limiting myself to just one “enduring revelation” is a challenge. 

During my years on the mainland, I was deeply struck by the sense that the vast majority of PRC citizens perceive there is a huge gulf between themselves and other peoples of the world. For the most part, this doesn’t lead to a sense of innate superiority or inferiority, or hostile behavior, or irrational fear of dealing with foreigners. But it is a stubborn obstacle to natural interaction, and it is surprisingly deep-seated. Many acquaintances, and even friends I have known for years simply cannot imagine me — or most any non-Chinese — shorn of our “foreignness.”

I am not certain exactly where the origins of this sense of separateness lie. But it’s patently obvious that it has been purposely drilled into society’s consciousness ever since the founding of the People’s Republic. The media never stops reminding its citizenry about all the different ways — the food we eat, the language we speak, our 5,000-year recorded history, our form of socialism with “Chinese characteristics” — that make “Us” different from “Them.” This propaganda that saturates the media, plus the fact that the vast majority of Chinese are monolingual, have never traveled outside the country, and (outside the major metropolises), rarely count a foreigner among their circle, all combine to exacerbate this sense of separateness.

 

Briefly put, I couldn’t help but regret the unnecessary walls this erected between me and many of the people I met all over the mainland. They can be circumvented, but life is short . . .

S. Ye:   Life is short, "Carpe Diem". So what are your plans for the next 4 years or so? Do you see yourself working as an expatriate Chinese writer, somewhere in a corner of the world?  

 

Bruce:   Plans for the next four years or so? Can’t really think that far ahead. But one thing is for certain: It’s time to move on. After almost twenty wonderful years (1992-2012) residing in Shanghai, Shenzhen and Yunnan, I spent 14 months in Turkey during the Gezi Protests (2013), and that really affected me. I was moved to see people on the streets protesting against an increasingly authoritarian government.  When I came back to China, it somehow no longer felt like “home.” I’m not sure exactly why. I do know that in Turkey I had caught a tantalizing glimpse of a vibrant civil society, while today’s Chinese authorities are actively trying to prevent its creation by closing down NGOs, arresting lawyers, harassing feminist activists and monitoring social media for any sign of critical commentary. 

 

I want to check out RoW— the Rest of the World! Am hoping to get to West Africa in 1Q or 2Q 2017. I’d like to explore various cultures there, particularly French-speaking Africa and Nigeria. I know next to nothing about the region, but things I’ve read about griots, marabouts, oral storytelling, the lively music scene that fuses ancient musical traditions of countries like Mali with rap, the mixture of indigenous tongues and français populaire, and Sufi-inspired Islam in Sénégal are part of what is pulling me in that direction. The idea of playing an active role — literary agent?— in introducing contemporary African fiction to Chinese readers also appeals. 

 

S. Ye: I wish you the best of luck on your pending out and about in Africa journey and continuing your ever arduous gathering and trading of other worldly fresh and strange fruit from the mind to the Chinese and the world.  It's always One circle of life to those with loving and open hearts and mouths. Thank you for taking your precious time to share with us  your insights and memorable life-time experience! 

More on " Canticle to the Land" please see links:

http://bruce-humes.com/archives/3588

http://bruce-humes.com/archives/841

Copyright  Better Than Starbucks 2017, a poetry magazine

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