Translating China at the Cheltenham Literature Festival

The Arts and Humanities Research Council has entered a partnership this year with the Cheltenham Literature Festival, and has sponsored a number of sessions that have allowed researchers whose work the AHRC has funded to present their findings to a wider audience. Earlier last week, I went to two very well attended panels on climate change and Proust, both of which were associated with the Science in Culture theme and the Memory Network at Roehampton University. I was delighted yesterday to be able to chair at the Festival a Translating Cultures panel, focused in particular on China. Here was our remit:

How does the west ‘translate’ China and particularly the role of Chinese women past and present? How do western perceptions relate to reality? Acclaimed author of The Good Women of ChinaXinran, joins the prize-winning ‘Misty Poet’ Yang Lian, and Anne Witchard, lead researcher on the AHRC project China in Britain: Myths and Realities, to discuss the evolution of gender roles in China, especially during the tumultuous events of the last hundred years.

As the theme has evolved, it has been striking to see the clustering of grants around certain shared areas of interest, and I have been particularly pleased — not least given my own research interests –by the projects that have been funded to explore various Chinese themes. These include, based at the University of Leicester, Kirsten Malmkjaer’s network on key cultural texts in translation, which has a major focus on China, and Ruru Li’s network in Leeds on ‘staging China’. Attending events linked to these projects, and learning much as a result, were high points of the first year of my fellowship as theme leader. Michael Heffernan at the University of Nottingham leads a network on ‘Re-Enacting the Silk Road: Transnational Encounters for the 21st Century’, and Chris Berry in Film Studies at KCL has recently been awarded a network grant to study Chinese film festivals abroad. The researcher contributing to the Cheltenham panel was, however, Anne Witchard from Westminster, whose extremely active network on ‘China in Britain, Myths and Realities’ has allowed the organization of a series of fascinating workshops exploring the place and representation of Chinese culture in the UK. Particularly important has been the involvement of this research in debates about the presence of British East Asian actors on the UK stage and screen — and also about the roles they are allocated.

Anne was joined for yesterday’s panel by the journalist and writer Xinran and the ‘Misty Poet’ Yang Lian. Xinran’s work has been translated into 37 languages, and Lian is a major thinker on translation whose poetic practice depends increasingly, as his most recent publication The Third Shore makes clear, on dialogues through translation with other poets. The discussion was lively and wide-ranging, and all three speakers reflected on the place of translation in their work, on the role of translation in challenging misconceptions of China in Western cultures, and on the function on various forms of ‘translating China’ in countering such misconceptions. Anne spoke about the representation of China in British culture, reflecting in passing on the importance of passeurs such as Ezra Pound whose engagement with Chinese poetic practice have had a major impact on English-language poetry. Xinran and Lian both addressed the panel theme from the perspective of writers whose texts have been translated and introduced as a result to a range of different audiences. As exiles, they have also both ‘translated’ China from outside, bridging distance and providing a perspective that is simultaneously external and internal. Translation was presented by the speakers as a means of challenging blind spots in knowledge, as a process of mutual discovery – i.e., as a means of finding out as much about ourselves as about others.

A passage from the introduction to Lian’s most recent volume, in which he describes processes of mutual translation, speaks eloquently to the evolving Translating Cultures theme, and not least to the frustratingly persistent claims that translation represents some form of betrayal of an original, or that cultures remains at heart fundamentally untranslatable:

The translation of a poem must itself be a poem, and must be another different poem. It will be an alloy, jointly forged by the original poet and the poet-translator together. The more elegant and tightly-structured the original, and the greater the difficulty of forging that alloy, ‘Untranslatable’? ‘Lost in translation’? It’s not that simple. We ought really to be asking how we translate poetry, how we might face the impossible—or even, how we might begin from what is impossible.

In such a formulation, we see foregrounded the active role of translation in processes of cross-cultural creativity and thought. Also, translation has an integral place in negotiating links between the local and the global, and reflecting on the links between them – in Lian’s terms again: ‘There is no international, only different locals.’ The panel yesterday underlined the place of translation in understanding both China in Britain and Britain in China. It also illustrated the extent to which translation is increasingly to be seen as constitutive of cultures and essential to understanding their very construction. And perhaps most importantly, it provided a welcome opportunity to share the questions underpinning the ‘Translating Cultures’ theme – and the exciting research to which these are leading – with a wider public.

Cite this blog post
Charles Forsdick (2013, October 14). Translating China at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. Translating Cultures. Retrieved May 27, 2024, from

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