Translating Across Languages: Craft Interview with Ying Chen

By Abby Brunt

AB: When did you first decide to become a writer and what inspired you?

YC: I dreamed to be a writer, and have always been writing. Whether or not we “become” and also remain a writer in term of status, publishers and readers decide it for us, having enormous power upon those who write hoping to reach a public audience. This is to say that all we can decide is only to write. To consider the act of writing as a way of existence, driven by our inner necessity.

AB: In reading Skeleton and Its Double, I noticed that you do not follow a typical narrative structure with regards to establishing things like plot, time and place, etc. but that your language has more of a poetic sensibility, weaving in elements of image, lyricism and the surreal. Can you comment on how you came to write within this style and what the process was like for you?

YC: Thank you. Some of my books are more long poems than novels. But “Skeleton and its Double” is a long dialogue. There is even a plot: one of the two women, half buried, is dying following an earthquake. The whole story is about whether or not the other will help her. Time and space are not indicated. With this approach I wish to focus on some fundamental questions, because time and space could be distractive and limiting.

 When I wrote this piece, I saw a theater stage divided into two, I saw a skeleton laying on a chair in a handsome room with bright sunlight at one side, and a woman under a table in the dark at the other side. I hear them quarreling.

 Such a situation looks surreal, presented this way, and yet it is happening everywhere every day, and such dialogue is happening between people and within our self.

AB: Skeleton and Its Double is your most recent book. Can you talk about the ways in which your style has/has not changed from your earlier books?

YC: It is the most recently translated book. The novel has an original version in French, published about ten years ago. It belongs to my “ghost series” where the main character often dies in one story and comes back in another one. The first novel of this series is “Immoble”. “Immoble” is a novel radically different from my three early books where ethnic-geographical references are clear.

 However, most themes in my recent books can be found in the early three books: the repetitiveness of history, the uncertainty about truths, perspectives, migration and related issues, problems with traditions, with change, etc.

 AB: You write predominantly in French, but are fluent in Chinese and English as well. How does language and the learning of different languages inform your writing?

YC: Chinese is my mother tongue. I cannot say I am fluent in English, in this language, I read better than I speak. Learning each language is for me to open a window, to follow a path even, into a civilization. Sometimes it’s as if you’re going into a house where you can see, probably only vaguely, details, from the least desirable to the most beautiful. Knowing the language allows you to see things with more subtleties. And because you are not born in it, you tend to put this house side by side with other houses, and look at it with perspectives. For me, even China is not a home, but a house among others.

 To write with distance is important for me. And being able to read some literary masterpieces in their original version is a privilege.

AB: You have self-translated some of your books to both Chinese and English. Can you comment on translation? What challenges does this present?

YC: I find translation a very interesting exercise. A game with words, which have everything behind them. At least in China– I am not sure on that about other cultures – translation plays an important role at some turning points of history. Translation not only promotes understanding between people, it literally extends human heritage. Lots of writers are also translators. When a writer self translates, she or he has more freedom to interpret, sometimes even to rewrite.

 The challenge is the lack of time. It is not easy to write and translate at the same time, not easy to write simultaneously in several languages. Plus, our knowledge about each learned language, in general, cannot be even. And the gap between languages is also different from one case to another. For example, translating from French to Chinese almost means rewriting.

AB: What advice can you offer to an aspiring writer about the craft of writing?

YC: We need to read more than we write. In Chinese there is a saying: “Anybody who knows very well three hundred poems of Dynasty Tang could be poet.”

AB: Is there anything else you’d like to say about the process of becoming a writer?

YC: I think you can never emphasize enough reading deeply and widely, including poetry and drama, classics and contemporaries, literature and others.

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Born in Shanghai in 1961, Ying Chen studied language and literature at the University of Fudan and McGill University. She has published thirteen books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, including her most recent book of essays, The Slow Mountains, which received the Gérald-Moreau Award for Francophone Writing. She has received numerous other awards including a France-Canada prize, a Quebec Librarian prize, and Elle Magazine’s Readers Prize. She was named Chevalière en Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture in 2003. She lives in Vancouver. Ying Chen will read in French with an accompanying translation by ODU Professor Peter Schulman.

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Abby Brunt is an MFA candidate in Poetry at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. Her favorite poetry often incorporates lyrical and formal stylistic elements, but she can also appreciate zany thought provoking experimentalism.  She has a deep love of art and ekphrasis.  She works as a certified massage therapist and has been practicing for seven years.  When not writing and reading, Abby enjoys cooking, spending time at the ocean and traveling to places she’s never been before.  In everything, she is motivated by her desire to experience the world broadly and to question it deeply.