English PEN talks to the translators of some of our award-winning books. Next in the series is Gregor Benton, whose translation of Mei Zhi’s memoir Hu Feng’s Prison Years won an award in 2013
Lying on the bed, my lids drooped and my eyes shut, but they wouldn’t close. When I put out the light, the bars on the window looked like fangs. The four walls pressed down on me and scared me. Where was my beloved? I had come all this way but still I couldn’t see him. Why wouldn’t they say anything? Was he alive? The more I thought, the more I worried.
– Excerpt from Hu Feng’s Prison Years by Mei Zhi, translated from Chinese by Gregor Benton
Interview by Grace Hetherington
How did you come across this book, and what led you to translate it?
For many years, the exiled Chinese Trotskyist leader and literary figure Wang Fanxi lived with my family, in our spare room in Leeds. He was like a father to me, and like a grandfather to my children. I was teaching Chinese Studies at Leeds University at the time. Wang would have been arrested if he’d gone to China, where he was considered a counter-revolutionary, so on my frequent visits to the country I used to buy him books and magazines I thought he’d like. The Mei Zhi book originally came out in fascicles, as was often the case in China in the 1980s, and I only managed to get him the first chapter. He’d been at university in 1925 with Hu Feng, and the two shared some views and attitudes on literature and politics. So when I saw the fascicle, I knew he’d want it. After finishing it, he returned it to me and said it was definitely worth reading. I didn’t read it at the time, but several years after his death in 2002, I happened to pick it up from my bookshelf. When I opened it, a note floated to the floor, written in his shaky hand (he had Parkinson’s). It said, ‘Greg, this is a good book, it’s well written and important. I recommend you translate it.’ So I did, after getting the full text from SOAS library.
Mei Zhi’s writing is extremely raw, powerful and honest, and the book constitutes a very intimate portrait of her and Hu Feng’s relationship. Can you describe the experience of translating such an intimate, real-life story?
Translating Mei Zhi’s writing was a labour of love, and of homage to the memory of Wang Fanxi. I sometimes wept at what I read, and had to stop for a while. The communists were sickeningly cruel to her and her husband. Whenever I reached a passage of raw emotion I changed down a gear, stripping the translation to a minimum, avoiding wordiness, and fending off long, abstract, or Latinate words that might distract attention from the flow of feeling. Where possible I tried to use strong verbs instead of adverbs and adjectives which create a moment of wait that can diminish the intensity of feeling by delaying or interrupting it. I tried to keep the sentences short and to restrict each to just one small idea or event, to give readers (and myself) time to breathe. When Mei Zhi paused for a moment of reflection, I switched to a higher, wordier register, to mark the transition. I didn’t just translate, I also edited and shortened the text by around a third. Where possible I removed the author’s frequent stage directions (‘he said’, ‘I said’), signposts, and explanatory asides, as well as comments I found superfluous or obscure. You might say I paid more attention to style than Mei Zhi, who was single-mindedly focused on the facts of her experience rather than on creating literature. But her writing can be very direct and sincere. By profession, she was a children’s author. That shows. Her writing is plain, clear, and unpretentious.
By the way, one reviewer criticized me for not adding a scholarly introduction explaining the circumstances of Hu Feng’s arrest. But this was deliberate. I thought it better to let the story seep out by degrees, as a sort of mystery, which it does, but you have to be patient. Anyone who wants to know more about Hu Feng’s case can read my article on the PEN Atlas.
You’re an expert on Chinese history. Do you think it would have been possible to translate this book if you weren’t? Did you still find yourself doing a lot of research despite your knowledge of the subject?
Yes, I’m an expert on Chinese communism, and also on Chinese dissent and Chinese Trotskyism. Over the years, I have translated three Chinese prison memoirs: the prison chapters in Wang Fanxi’s Chinese Revolutionary and Zheng Chaolin’s Oppositionist for Life, and now this. I’m an old lag by proxy. Since I’m deeply familiar with the facts, I didn’t need to look much up. I only once wrote to Hu Feng’s youngest son with a question, concerning a comment his father made about a detail of the architecture of the Great Hall of the People, which he was allowed to visit after his release from prison. Would I have been able to translate this book without my previous knowledge? Yes, but it would have been a lot harder, and I would have had to consult people, bother Hu Feng’s son more, and look lots up. The main thing was my link to Wang. This book represents more than a year of my life, willingly given for my love for Wang and my support for his and the oppositionists’ struggle for worldwide freedom and socialism.
Describe F: Hu Feng and Our Prison Years in three words.
Tragic, harrowing, redeemed-by-love.
Gregor Benton is professor emeritus at Cardiff University. He has published books on Chinese Communism, dissent in China, and Chinese communities outside China. His Mountain Fires (1992) and New Fourth Army (1999) won several awards, including the Association of Asian Studies’ best book on modern China. He has translated scholarly books from German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, French, and Chinese. He has taught Chinese Studies in Leeds, Amsterdam, Cardiff, Kuala Lumpur, and Barcelona.
You can read about the book and find out more about Hu Feng in Gregor Benton’s PEN Atlas dispatch.