In the film The Interpreter, we get an inside view of the world of simultaneous translation at the United Nations. Nicole Kidman, who for her part learned an invented African language for an invented African country, has to listen, process and translate as the original speaker talks. For Yu Hua’s appearance at the Philadelphia Free Library, Chinese woman, certainly less tortured than Kidman’s character, and several shades more perky, took on the job adroitly, punctuating her translation with the time-honored time-buying words well and umm. Let's face it, though: I worked as a freelance translator (my specialty: Vietnamese) and totally sucked at it.
So as Yu discussed his newest novel, Brothers, I accepted without complaint long pauses as the translator parsed questions and answers back and forth. Interpreting is a different skill set than translating; interpreting means working on-the-fly, trying to capture mood, tone and nuance in an immediate situation. And I’m not sure all those came through, despite the interpreter’s best efforts. Oftentimes, when Yu spoke, the Chinese-speaking audience laughed, and we English speakers waited breathlessly to hear the joke. (Yu, after all, is known as a great satirist.) And yet, what we heard in English didn’t seem as funny. Perhaps there was some slippage. Or perhaps humor doesn’t translate well—which is often the case.
Still, she cheerfully translated when one audience member asked a long, rambling question—well, less a question and more an observation of how the world works and how the world should work, and why isn’t the world working the way it should?, and wouldn’t it be great if…—stopping the speaker at certain points to digest what he had to say, and possibly saving the rest of us from more grief. Yu himself indulged the question, addressing what he saw as the number one issue facing China today: poverty.
Indeed, Yu spoke eloquently (via cute translator) about the difference between bootlegging his book in China and in the U.S. In the U.S., he said, the issue is rightly one of copyright, and seeing that his hefty tome costs $30 retail (but worth it), recouping those losses is worth it. In China, however, illiteracy is a pronounced problem, so if bootlegging promotes access to reading material, then so be it. It reminded of Connaught Square in India, where I bought a bootlegged copy of Midnight’s Children. Does Rushdie need those few extra cents of royalties? And how would I feel if that was my book being photocopied and poorly bound?
Yu’s talk took place at the Independence Branch in Philadelphia, at 7th and Market, the designated Chinese-American/gay and lesbian branch, as it has sections specifically devoted to those communities. Power to the people, I say. Maybe well-stocked and fully-funded libraries should be the real solution to China’s illiteracy issues.