THE TRANSLATOR’S (INTER)VIEW. NICKY HARMAN ON WHITE HORSE (HOPEROAD)
A gripping psychological tale, enlivened by wickedly sharp insights into a contemporary small-town life in China: we present you White Horse by Yan Ge, translated by Nicky Harman, with illustrations by James Nunn. A tale about the excitements and the problems of adolescence.
White Horse is published by HopeRoad, who promote inclusive literature with a focus on Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.
“[…] White Horse really is a novella for young adults, with the emphasis on adults. […] The world of Yun Yun, the young teenager, is readily understandable to teenagers anywhere, and that’s the appeal of the story.” – White Horse’s translator, Nicky Harman
White Horse (HopeRoad, 2019), front cover.
For our first blogpost focusing on translation for a younger audience, we interview White Horse’s translator from Chinese, Nicky Harman.
“[…] As soon as I read the story in Chinese, I loved Yan Ge ‘s insights into the pains and pleasures of adolescence. I was also intrigued by that ghostly horse. What does it mean? […]” – the translator Nicky Harman
Can you summarise White Horse in a few sentences?
“It’s the story of young teenager Yun Yun (we never know exactly how old she is, perhaps twelve, perhaps thirteen), growing up in a small West China town. She’s been told that her mother died in a mental hospital soon after she was born, but her home life is secure and warm – her father loves her, her older cousin, Qing, is her best friend, and her aunt mothers her. Then, along with the excitements and discoveries of adolescence, family tensions build. Qing falls out with her mother and runs away with her boyfriend, and the girls discover terrible secrets that threaten to tear everyone’s lives apart. As things come to a head, Yun Yun herself finds herself haunted by the apparition of a white horse. As soon as I read the story in Chinese, I loved Yan Ge ‘s insights into the pains and pleasures of adolescence. I was also intrigued by that ghostly horse. What does it mean? Yan Ge explained it to me like this: ‘Well, it clearly represents the bizarre. Horses, especially white ones, are a real rarity in Sichuan but, in any case, this is clearly something that exists in her imagination. You could say it’s a kind of release for her, a seductive escape from the humdrum reality of small-town life. I actually think that the girl feels it as a protective, stabilizing influence.’”
The translator Nicky Harman. Photo credit: Julia Schoenstaedt.
What challenges does a translator face when specifically writing for a younger audience?
“I think that all translation is a balancing act, that is, the translator has to achieve a balance between recreating faithfully what the author wrote, and making the book a good read in a new language. But when translating children’s books, maybe the balance has to be weighted in favour of giving the young reader an entertaining read, and if that requires a degree of re-writing, then so be it. That said, White Horse really is a novella for young adults, with the emphasis on adults. There was nothing I needed to change. The world of Yun Yun, the young teenager, is readily understandable to teenagers anywhere, and that’s the appeal of the story. (I should also add that I don’t have personal experience of translating for children. I have, however, read some fabulous translations for young readers.)”
An illustration from White Horse. Illustrator: James Nunn
What is in your opinion the importance of translating texts for younger readers?
“To give them a good read! Some of the best-loved children’s books, ones which have really stood the test of time, are translations. Are the children, or even the parents, aware of that? Possibly not. Does that matter? Absolutely not. Translations are important because they add to the great wealth of stories out there for people of any age to read and enjoy. And they introduce us to new and different writing. But, of course, they also have to be an enjoyable read. No one, child or adult, should read a translation out of a sense of duty.”
Author Yan Ge. Photo credit: Lisa Whelan.
Do you have a favourite book in translation that you'd like to recommend?
“There’s a children’s novel that I very much admire: Bronze and Sunflower, a prize-winning novel by Cao Wenxuan, in a prize-winning translation by Helen Wang. Set in the late 1960s, during the Cultural Revolution, it’s about the friendship between Sunflower, a young city girl resettled to a poor remote village in the marshlands, and Bronze, the village mute. Soon the pair are inseparable, and when Bronze’s family agree to take Sunflower in, it seems that fate has brought him the sister he has always longed for. But life in Damaidi is hard, and Bronze’s family can barely afford to feed themselves. Will the city girl be able to stay in this place where she has finally found happiness? It’s intended for slightly younger readers than White Horse (9-12 years is the publishers’ recommendation) but, like White Horse, it’s a great read for the young at heart of any age.”
We kindly thank the translator Nicky Harman and HopeRoad for their contribution to this blog.
Nicky Harman lives in the UK and translates full-time from Chinese. She focuses on fiction, literary non-fiction, and occasionally poetry, by authors such as Chen Xiwo, Han Dong, Hong Ying, Jia Pingwa, Dorothy Tse, Xinran, Xu Xiaobin, Yan Ge, Yan Geling and Zhang Ling. When not translating, she works for Paper-Republic.org, a non-profit website promoting Chinese literature in translation. She organizes translation-focused events, mentors new translators, gives regular talks and workshops on translation, and judges translation competitions. She was co-Chair of the Translators Association (Society of Authors, UK) from 2014 to 2017. She blogs on Asian Books Blog, and tweets, with Helen Wang, as China Fiction Book Club @cfbcuk.