The author and translator answer your questions on Jiang Yitan’s ‘Convince Me’
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Editor’s note: The author and the translator join us here to answer questions about December’s Story Club selection, ‘Convince Me.’ Read Jiang Yitan’s tale of love and death, then come back and hear what he and Alexander Clifford have to say about vampires, crocodiles and the meaning of life. A new story drops tomorrow and we can’t wait to get your questions about it. – Anne Henochowicz
Olivia Humphrey asks Jiang Yitan: How do you think through the tensions between the emotions and physiology that play out so beautifully in your work? For example, Chen is told off for crying in front of the mice because it will “affect their mood.” And of course, that wonderfully disconcerting quote: “It’s no wonder my professors in England said that it’s much harder and more time consuming to dissect a woman than it is a man.”
Yitan: The inspiration for ‘Convince Me’ came from a small article describing the dissection of a crocodile. Suddenly I knew the identities of the two main characters in the story. I have always believed that every animal has a spirit and that animals are the observers and witnesses of humanity. They are unable to change humanity but their presence is enough to show people their selfishness and ugliness.
Jeff Wasserstrom asks Yitan: A lot of writers have toyed with analogies between human beings and animals, from the anonymous creators of folk tales and fables to Orwell. Some authors also make literary moves that blur the lines between species: a theme, for example, in vampire tales like the ones that inspired the films you have a character mention watching. Did you have any particular animals-plus-people stories of the past in mind while you were writing? If so, which ones?
Yitan: Vampires are a part of traditional culture of some countries in the West, while evil spirits, demons and fairies are part of traditional culture in China. The youngest generation in China is very familiar with vampires (through films and shows like “The Walking Dead”), so the female lead in my story is familiar with them. The image of vampires is a memory that can’t be wiped away.
Anne Henochowicz asks Yitan and Alexander Clifford: I sense Daoist undertones to this story, both in the quest for longevity and in musings on the relativity of time. Director Peng’s comment on the Methuselah tree reminds me of Zhuangzi’s parable on the cicada and the old man Pengzi – the cicada “knows nothing of spring and autumn,” while to the ancients like Pengzi, thousands of years go by in a flash. It’s hard to believe sometimes that Zhuangzi is lumped into the same tradition as priests who seek the elixir of life. Is this top-secret laboratory experiment in some way a modern-day fable that draws on the Daoist philosophical and alchemical traditions?
Alex: I know what you mean: it felt to me like there was a bit of everything in this story. That’s part of what made me want to translate it in the first place. I have to say, I think the Daoist elements are well quashed by the end, when two bloodthirsty, frigid mad scientists set off for a scalpel rampage. But it’s a testament to the power of those ancient images and ideas that they are still being refracted through modern stories like this.
Steve Bewcyk asks Yitan and Alex: One aspect of the story I enjoyed after reading was that the male protagonist (Mr. Mouse) had a physical/sexual attraction to his female coworker (Ms. Mouse) but the story never mentioned his perception or description of her physical attributes. Many authors who grew up during the Cultural Revolution wrote “scar literature,” but this story didn’t seem very scarred at all. Is this an example of the pendulum swinging the other way? Or just an example showing that not everyone was traumatized?
Yitan: I like how you call the main characters Mr. Mouse and Ms. Mouse, it is both intuitive and funny. Mr. Mouse’s life is not going anywhere and when Ms. Mouse appears, his life has some color in it. He is unwilling to push himself to take things further, preferring to take one step at a time. I think that if I write about his desire for a woman too early in the story, it seems like he is hatching a plot for the second half of the story. I believe that although the two characters might come off as a little cold-hearted, they are authentic and believable.
I was born in 1969 and I do not have memories of the Cultural Revolution while growing up. Therefore, I don’t consider myself a writer of the Cultural Revolution generation. The Cultural Revolution scarred the hearts of the Chinese people, but with time people forget. People are good at forgetting things; it is part of human nature. I hope that in my stories and in my characters, you are able to see different scars, the ones from present times. Some of my stories are set in China, others in the US or in Israel. People’s emotions are intertwined, but in order to be able to understand each other, we have to put in a tremendous amount of effort.
People are good at forgetting things; it is part of human nature.
Alex: I haven’t read enough contemporary literature to give any kind of answer to this, so I’ll just use this opportunity to advertise my favorite novel in Chinese, which is set in the Cultural Revolution but is a joyful, scabrous comedy: Wang Xiaobo’s Golden Age [available in English in Wang in Love and Bondage]. Occasionally it seems like China and Chinese literature must sink under the weight of all the seriousness attached to it. Wang Xiaobo is the antidote.
Alec Ash asks Yitan: Could this story have been set in New York, Beirut or anywhere else in the world, as a universal tale of mice and men? Or is there some quality to the characters and themes that mean for you it could only take place in China?
Yitan: This story has two parts. The first part talks about the difficulty of making choices. People want to solve the basic problems of survival but sometimes they are forced to make a choice. The second part could take any country as its setting as well, and it’s talking about how the gap between knowledge and science can put stresses on people’s psychological well-being and survival.
Alec asks Alex: How much creativity goes into translation for you? Do you try to inhabit the minds of the characters, for example, even if you didn’t invent them – and how can those decisions, however small, alter the essence of the story?
Alex: On the surface of it, it seems like translation is less creative than writing your own original work. But the process of translation doesn’t feel lacking in creativity. It can be just as joyful, or full of angst, as any writing process. I think the reason is that most of the hard work of creative writing goes into getting the expression right – and that’s exactly what translators spend our time doing, as well. I suppose you could say that the “spark” comes from the original author, but all the hard work that the author put in to turn that spark into a successful story has to be repeated by the translator in order to create a successful story in the second language. So in terms of the working process, I feel like we work in the same creative way as original writers: we sit mulling over an idea, thinking about how to convey it best to the reader. What is the mot juste? What devices can we use to pace the prose right, so that the reader speeds up and slows down as we (the original author and I) desire? Are we using too many rhetorical questions? That sort of thing!
To the second part of your question, I think that the essence of good writing is generally robust enough to cope with the little pinches and punches that a translator inevitably gives it. If we lose a level of meaning here, we can try to reinsert it in the next paragraph. If that bit of wordplay won’t fly, perhaps I can create some in the previous sentence to preserve the right level of playfulness. So long as the translator perceives and understands the author’s ideas – what the author is doing with the story, the sentence and the individual word – then she can deliver it to the reader. And all she has to do along the way is surf the whirlpools of linguistic interference, whack the moles of cultural difference and defeat the end-of-level boss of the publishing gatekeepers. Simple! (By the way, thanks for publishing this story, boss!)
Anne asks Yitan: Did your father also “cut his ham with a scalpel”? What inspired you to write ‘Convince Me’ – personal experience, a story in the news or something else entirely?
Yitan: No, my father didn’t cut his food with a scalpel. Still, ever since I was a child I have had a fascination with sharp knives and glass. The inspiration for this story came from a poem that I wrote on the idea of needing someone to tell me that the path I was taking was the right one.
Olivia asks Yitan: Right at the start of the story, you reference a “one-line description of our project that sounded like some inspirational motto.” But you never share what that motto is. I’d love to know your reasons for this, given the title is ‘Convince Me,’ and your characters are both looking for something to help them make sense of their lives.
Yitan: Slogans are one of the characteristics of contemporary Chinese culture. If you have an opportunity to travel to China, you will see many large banners with slogans on them, on walls by main streets and on bridges. The slogans can be maxims, reminders, warnings or words urging the Chinese people to do something.
When people arrive on this earth, they are unable to choose their parents. In life, they are unable to control their fate – this is a basic reality. A few days ago, I watched the American television show “This Is Us” and there was a line that said “you took the sourest lemon that life has to offer and turned it into something resembling lemonade.” I think that people need to develop two abilities while they are on this earth. First, they must develop an awareness and not be afraid of death. Second, when people encounter painful experiences, they should not transfer that pain to someone else. ∎