For our latest interview, we're delighted to be joined by Austin Woerner, translator of The Invisible Valley 迷谷 by Su Wei 苏炜, published this week by Small Beer Press. You can read an excerpt from the novel, in both Chinese and English, on our blog here, and find out more about Austin and his work on his website.
What got you started in literary translation, and what was it that brought you to The Invisible Valley?
When I was an undergraduate at Yale I got deeply immersed in studying Mandarin Chinese—but secretly, I’d always wanted to write fiction. Students of Chinese at Yale knew that the Chinese department harbored two unusual characters, Su Wei and Kang Zhengguo, both writers-in-exile who earned their daily bread teaching advanced Chinese courses.
In Su Wei’s class we read excerpts from China’s most renowned contemporary novelists, many of whom were friends of his from his time as an aspiring novelist in Beijing during the 1980s “culture fever,” the literary renaissance that followed the end of Cultural Revolution. He would regale us with literary gossip and stories of his experiences as a sent-down youth on Hainan Island during the Cultural Revolution and of his flight from China in ’89. I thought this was all terribly dramatic and interesting. I found any excuse I could to frequent his office hours.
Su Wei frequently mentioned his novel The Invisible Valley, how it involved a “ghost marriage,” a giant serpent, and a polyamorous family living in the jungle. It sounded pretty wild. When he suggested I try translating it, I thought, this is perfect! I can use my Chinese, and write a novel, and be part of this history—not to mention have plenty of opportunities to keep listening to this guy tell stories. So naturally, I said yes.
Has your relationship with Su Wei changed through your translation of his work?
Yes—at the beginning, he was my professor, but as the years passed, we became close friends.
While I was translating the book, I would take the train from New York, where I was living, to New Haven every month or two. I would spend a weekend with Su Wei, going over chapters, clearing up questions, even acting out scenes. Sometimes a detail in the novel would lead us off on long tangents that would prove even more interesting than the detail itself; one mundane question about how kerosene lamps work sparked a long reminiscence that I would later write up as a Lives piece for the New York Times Magazine. I even tagged along with Su Wei on a trip back to Hainan Island to visit the seminal sites of his “re-education.” In a very real sense, I got to physically enter the world of the novel.
When I started this project, I imagined that having such direct access to the author would allow to me animate my English version with something close to the original creative spark. I like to think of this as the “Vulcan Mind Meld” approach to translation.
For the most part, that fantasy proved true—I really do think that befriending the author let me inhabit the world of the novel in a way that let me become co-author, in a sense, of the English version. And it helped that our literary sensibilities, not to mention our personalities, are pretty similar in a lot of ways.
What were some of the most challenging aspects of the translation?
The book is a real slalom course of “untranslatable” features: jargon from the Cultural Revolution, rustic Cantonese dialect, concepts from Chinese folk religion and mythology, classical poetry and prose, and various exotic plants and animals that have no names in English. All these elements give the novel a rich sense of locale. I knew that the way in which the language itself evoked a particular time and place was what made the novel special, and that these subtle flavors could easily be lost in translation. So, I immersed myself in English-language literature that I thought might give me hints of how a novel like The Invisible Valley should sound and feel in English.
I asked myself: How would these characters speak if they’d grown up speaking English, if for generations they’d been talking and writing about the core concepts of their culture in English rather than Chinese? What would that language sound like?
Often, this led me down the road of inventing new words. This was a natural choice, because I grew up immersed in the work of authors like LeGuin and Tolkien, who evoke alternate realities through invented—and inventive use of—English. Because so many concepts in The Invisible Valley are alien to an English-speaking reader, I wanted to use English in a way that would hint at the missing cultural background, point the reader’s imagination in the right direction. Bounty and bliss, bale and ruin, the driftfolk, the Snakeweird, wispwomen, caeloclamation, amaranthine rosewood, the ferrufloral oath, hillflower rice wine… Words like these make up the fictional universe of Mudkettle Mountain, and just reading them should give you a sense of what they signify.
I thought, if invented words can transport us to other planets, to the far future or the distant past, why not use them to transport us to the mountains of Hainan Island—a world just as exotic and alien to most English-speaking readers?
The Invisible Valley combines historical realism with fantasy. How important are elements of the fantastic to contemporary fiction in Chinese? Are there other authors doing anything similar?
My sense is that Chinese writers have often employed fantastical elements to grapple with difficult and traumatic things for which traditional realism might seem inadequate. One example of blending history and fantasy that I like is Sheng Keyi’s short story “A Village of Cold Hearths” (tr. Brendan O’Kane), published in the anthology I co-edited, Chutzpah!: New Voices from China. In this story, a boy befriends a mermaid-like water spirit during the darkest days of the 1950s Great Famine. Mo Yan and Yan Lianke are two prominent writers who use surrealism and magic realism in their writing; surely there are many others.
However, The Invisible Valley isn’t fantasy or magical realism in the traditional sense, though I think it will appeal to readers of both genres. In those genres, magical things really happen; characters slay dragons or storms of yellow butterflies rain down on Macondo. By contrast, The Invisible Valley takes readers into a world where characters believe so strongly in magic that the reader cannot help believe in it too. That’s fundamentally a different kind of storytelling. I see it as having more in common with the work of John Crowley, in which a series of events could have either a magical or a realistic explanation, and it’s up to the reader to decide which to believe. Also, the fantasies of Mo Yan and Yan Lianke can be rather dark and grotesque. Su Wei’s writing isn’t like that; though there are notes of darkness in it, it radiates wonder and human warmth.
How did Small Beer Press get involved?
Through John Crowley, actually; he publishes with Small Beer and was the first person to recommend the press. And as a fan of speculative fiction I kept encountering Small Beer books or hearing good things about them from friends. Originally I’d sent the book to big commercial publishing houses, thinking that with its fast-paced plot and vivid characters, The Invisible Valley might appeal to them. But editors kept rejecting the manuscript, saying it was just “too strange for our readers.” One prominent New York editor counseled me to “domesticate it.” On hearing this, a friend of mine who works in publishing said, “Don’t domesticate it—send it to Kelly and Gavin.”
All the signs kept pointing to Small Beer, so I sent them the manuscript. I couldn’t be happier with how things have turned out!
Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on at the moment?
My next project is to write some personal essays about my experience translating The Invisible Valley and my friendship with Su Wei—there’s so much interesting stuff I learned and did that didn’t make it into the book! And I’d like to write as well about teaching creative writing in China, partly to showcase some of the amazing stuff my students have written. (I’ve taught at Sun Yat-sen University’s Center for English-language Creative Writing, and now at Duke Kunshan University.)
In the long term, if I were to undertake another major translation project, my dream would be to translate a book really beloved by Chinese readers, something that’s already a cultural touchstone but hasn’t yet been translated in a lively and accessible way. With The Invisible Valley, I was able to enter one author’s imaginative universe very deeply. What I’d like to do at some point is to translate a piece of writing that lives primarily in the minds of its readers. I’d like to talk with many different readers and understand what they see in it, and breathe that life into its English version. (And perhaps alongside the translation I could include notes or short essays by readers themselves. I’ve listened to many Chinese friends wax poetic about their favorite books, and I would love to include their voices to show what a well-loved book really means to a reader from another culture.)
If you are an editor and are interested in any of the above, please contact me!
Thank you, Austin!
Such a fascinating and truly brilliant explanation of the creative process that is translation. Shakespeare, an inveterate inventor of words, would love this interview. Thank you.