Interview: Bonnie McDougall on translation

Fruitful exchanges: Bonnie S. McDougall on translation

Translator Bonnie S. McDougall is an Honorary Associate in Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney and Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh. She has spent long periods teaching, translating, and researching China and Chinese literature. Her celebrated translations include numerous poems by Bei Da, The King of Trees by Ah Cheng, and the innovative Atlas: The Archeology of an Imaginary City by Dung Kai-cheung. We talked in her office at Sydney University.

Jeffrey Errington: What was your introduction to the Chinese language?
Bonnie S. McDougall: In 1958 I entered Peking University as a Chinese language student. I spent about year and a half there. The running joke among the foreign students was that we were taught to order an army into battle but we were unable to order an egg for breakfast. The reality wasn’t as bad as that and I became fluent in written and spoken Chinese. I left Peking with no serious desire to continue with Chinese but a year or so later ended up at the University of Sydney doing Chinese as my main subject. This lead to a BA Hons in Chinese then a Masters degree then a PhD and onwards.

Your supervisor was A.R. Davis who was in turn supervised by the magisterial figure who is Arthur Waley.
Yes, there is no doubt that Waley influenced Davis’s attitudes in translating Classical Chinese literature. And it was a very distinguished inheritance which also made him a wonderful teacher.

Tell me about your time working for the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing in 1980s.
After starting to publish I married Anders Hansson (who is Swedish) and we went to live in the United States. When our son was born there we had to decide which country we wanted to live in. So I wrote to the body that was responsible for employing foreigners in China and told them that I wanted a job but I didn’t want to teach and requested that I work at the Foreign Languages Press. They then offered me a teaching job. I declined the offer and then contacted the FLP directly, got a new offer and with my husband and 5-month old child I went to live in Peking. My husband and son left China in 1985 and I left the following year. I had worked full-time for three years at the FLP and another year and a half at the College of Foreign Affairs. The FLP, at that time, still had lingering remnants of a leftist Cultural Revolution identity, whereas the College of Foreign Affairs was known to be more right wing. After all of that we decided to decamp and went to Oslo for four years then Edinburgh for fifteen years then Hong Kong. I finally returned to Sydney in 2010.

Did you meet Bei Dao at the Foreign Languages Press?
I had published a book of poetry and essays by the 1930s writer He Qifang and this book, somehow, reached Harbin in North China where a young woman read it and, in response, sent a letter to me via my publisher. When I went to China we finally met. Her journalist husband asked me, ‘would you like to meet the best young poet in China?’ This was Bei Dao, and it turned out that he was also working at the FLP, in the Esperanto office. He was obliged to study Esperanto and scour literary magazines to find writers to be translated into that language. Around 1980-81 a lot of the young men and women who were sent to factories or the countryside returned to Peking and other cities at the end of the Cultural Revolution and started to work for educational and cultural institutions such as the FLP. This included Bei Dao. It was a good job: reading through magazines and recommending works to be translated and published. As we worked in the same institution we were able to meet without attracting unwelcome attention—or so we thought. After some time the FLP told my office in the English section, rather bluntly, that Bei Dao needs to stop wasting my time as I was paid a rather large salary while his was less. So they tried to put a stop to us working together.

So the Chinese set up, building upon the Soviet model, an institutional body that translated and spread Chinese literature. Did this operate according to what you call in one of your essays ‘the authoritarian model?’
Yes, although that authoritarian structure really collapsed during the Cultural Revolution. But by the 1980s there were a lot of new ideas and practices and a need for new possibilities for government, for culture, for a personal way of living. There were so many choices going around in the very late 1970s and early 1980s. These new ideas were then halted, stopped by the ‘Spiritual Pollution’ campaign of 1983 and then in 1989, of course, they were smashed. After this I stopped translating contemporary Chinese literature from the mainland.

In the same essay you talk about the ‘gift-exchange model.’ Is it correct that you were officially employed to translate and so were functioning under the authoritarian model, while, unofficially, you were translating the subversive poetry of Bei Dao under the ‘gift-exchange model’? Were you doing both at the same time?
Yes, and I wasn’t the only one. There were lots of foreigners either employed in China or able to visit for long periods who wanted to translate Bei Dao into different languages. For instance, Wolfgang Kubin was very close to Bei Dao and was actively translating him into German. This was an open and exciting period to be in China.

How did you hear about Tiananmen Square?
I was living in Oslo and we first heard about it on the news and then personal messages from the Chinese students who were living there. Bei Dao was living in Europe at that time but many others including me all urged him not to try to return to China. He did not return, at least not until many years later, and he subsequently expressed regret that he did not.

Can you connect the ‘Obscure’ or ‘Misty’ poetry aesthetics with the student uprisings of the 1970s and 1980s?
I don’t like ‘Misty’ as a translation of the Chinese term used to describe this poetry. It’s the wrong metaphor. I prefer ‘Obscure.’ Did this poetry have any relation to the uprisings? Bei Dao’s poems would have helped inspire a lot of young Chinese people to a kind of life that allowed for more freedom. The students were quoting his poems in the streets and writing them on their banners. These poems were a part of the discussion of who they could be and what they should do.

In the student uprisings of the West in the 1960s folk musicians were a primary engine. People would listen to Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell, quote their lyrics and the music was a key part of imagining possibilities for what a society should look like. Was it a similar relationship between the ‘Obscure’ poets and students at that time or is it a different model that the Beijing students were following?
I think it’s a different model. I’d also like to make the point that the protests were not just in Peking but were all over the country. They started with mass student demonstrations in 1987 in Kunming, Yunnan and spread from there. By June 4 1989 almost every major city in China had an uprising. In the June 4 movement (as the Tiananmen Square incident is known in Chinese) Bei Dao’s poems certainly played a role. I wasn’t living in China at the time, however, and there weren’t that many young Chinese people that I was familiar with, so I don’t have firm grounds for speculating on the influence.

But this in an example of how poetry has fed street politics. We don’t see much of this these days.
In China, at that time, the kind of popular music that was allowed was not as robust as it was in the United States. On the other hand, the level of literacy among politically active people was very high. This means that poetry and politics were very closely linked together. So if you were a young man or woman in any of the major cities at that time and you wanted a different kind of life, you may have thought that the end of the Cultural Revolution had opened up the possibility of destroying the old system and getting a different system where you could write poetry expressing your private wishes and you would practice politics to the same end. There was no real distance between the two. If we can go back to the May 4 movement in the late 1910s and 1920s, just about every educated man and woman wrote poetry. It was a popular form of expression in a way that it has rarely been in most European or American countries. From the perspective of people here in Australia that coupling seems a bit odd. But from the perspective of Chinese cultural tradition it is not so unusual.

Herman Broch once wrote that ‘in every work of German literature there is an echo of the world of German poetry and fairy tales. This echo must be carried over into the translation’. Benjamin identifies this as a ‘wind’ from the source language. Now when translating that Chinese poetic reality into English is some of that context coming with it?
Maybe. I don’t actually think in terms of literary or theoretical positions when I translate. Especially at that time, I just remember how, emotionally, I was very much affected by these poems. From 1981 to 1984, in the daytime hours I would dutifully sit in my office translating some really dreadful stuff. And then in the evenings I would go home and read Bei Dao, and translating it brought me to tears, literally. So it was emotionally very highly charged and I assume that this is expressed in the translation. Each translation expresses the feelings or state of mind of the translator whether they intend to or not—or at least that describes me.

Were Bei Dao’s poems published through official networks?
At first they were published in underground journals. But around 1982 he started to have his work published in official literary journals often based at long distances from the urban centres of Peking and Shanghai. At that time these far flung literary journals were staffed by people who had been sent there during the Cultural Revolution and had stayed on. And these people were delighted to publish these poems. From 1978 he had become very widely known among politically active and poetry writing young men and women. As I mentioned before, when I met him he was introduced as the ‘best young poet in China.’ It’s amazing how far your poems may reach even in a country with censorship. But at that time censorship was relatively light. It got very harsh in 1983. Then it was relatively open again and then after 1987 the rot had started to set in.

In your essay, ‘Ambiguities of Power: The Social Space of Translation Relationships’ you write, ‘Now in the twenty-first century, commercial and academic translations prevail. It remains to be seen how their record of achievement will compare with the authoritarian or the gift-exchange model.’ You wrote that in 2011, would you like to update your observation of the record?
In 2011 it seemed that China would just bumble along as a bureaucratic but reasonably efficient economy with censorship but in practice a certain looseness in society. But this situation is so much worse now. I don’t think the authoritarian model is of much use anymore for anyone with any genuine commitment to creative writing. But I also don’t think that the gift-exchange model works now because the society is too repressive.

The great scholar of Translation Studies, Theo Hermans writes that ‘translation is irreducible: it always leaves loose ends, is always hybrid, plural and different.’ The more I think about that quote it seems as if the act of translation is a great model of what Australian culture could be in the future. If we swap the work ‘translation’ for Australia it would be: ‘Australia is irreducible: it always leaves loose ends, is always hybrid, plural and different.’
I think the key word is hybrid. Hybridity leads to all kinds of unexpected outcomes. And biologically it is the secret of life. Perhaps that’s what Theo was talking about. Translation, by mixing things up, leads to this hybridity. One of the things I like most about living in Australia now is the way in which it is so different from the Australia that I grew up in. The Australia of my earlier years was inward looking, conservative and dull. Back then it was a thrill to go into town and get a cup of coffee. Now it’s so lively, with the arts—literature, painting, music— exploding with energy, and restaurants everywhere bursting with exotic even bizarre fusion dishes. Of course, social and economic inequalities have also grown more severe.

So when you get the world of a Bei Dao poem and bring it into English is it a Chinese reality that we are getting or by being reconstructed using English words is it an English-language reality — or is it swinging back and forth?
I think maybe swinging is one way to put it. There was not such a wide gap between educated young men and women in China and the young foreigners who flocked around them in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The young men and women who grew up in Cultural Revolution China were able to get books by foreign authors including works about foreign writing. So to some extent they were self-educated in twentieth-century English or French or German writing. So the lack of supervision was a major factor in the life of someone like Bei Dao, who for several years was working in a factory. Not surprisingly he was not a very effective factory worker as he was no good at pouring cement. He just sat in a corner and read. So they were self-educated in a way that produced a fairly good understanding of early twentieth-century British and American poetics.

Who was Bei Dao reading at that time?
I’ve forgotten now! But there was a lot of translation that had been going on since the early twentieth century and during some periods in the Cultural Revolution someone like Bei Dao could walk into a library that was supposed to be closed down and take one of these books off the shelf, or from the homes of his parents or his friends’ parents. They would read them in translation. I don’t even know that he was particularly aware of the names of the people that he was reading as it was in translation. But his fiction, also, when you read it you might think that it was by someone in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s. It didn’t have much in common with traditional Chinese writing. So the distance between foreigners like me and Bei Dao wasn’t so great. This is especially true as the cities that he was writing about were not so different. In his work there are iron railings to stop people wandering out in the streets. He writes metaphors about false teeth. There are lots of references to a modernising civilisation that had been underway in modern China since the 1920s. It was not Paris or New York. But it could have been Sydney in the 1950s.

You’ve argued that ‘the history of Modern Chinese intellectual development can, to a large extent, be explained as a reaction to the intrusion of the West into China.’ But in terms of Bei Dao he welcomed the intrusion. He wanted new models.
That is true in the 1910s and 1920s, and again in the late 1970s and early 1980s but not necessarily throughout the century. There is a time when, if people continually criticise your country and your circumstances, if both your fellow countrymen and foreigners are all united in saying, ‘China is a bloody shithouse’ then you can get a bit aggressive about it and just say, ‘fuck off.’ And I suppose with Bei Dao there were different forces striking him at different times. People aren’t terribly consistent in emotionally destructive times like that. You don’t think things through in a considered and philosophical manner. In some ways foreigners were intrusive, even in the open atmosphere of the early 1980s. And foreigners often got people into trouble. They interfered with things that were going smoothly at the national level. They didn’t understand what was really meant when certain things were said. Foreigners demanded a lot but they didn’t give a lot back in exchange.

So it wasn’t a gift-exchange?
Not always. Let me go back to the example that I mentioned earlier of Wolfgang Kubin as he acted in an exemplary way. When Kubin started to translate Bei Dao’s work into German there was a genuine gift-exchange model functioning. This model implies a reciprocal relation. You give and someone gives back. And you may give again and continue the exchange. But for it to function both parties need to give and both Kubin and Bei Dao were giving and receiving so it was a very fruitful exchange for both of them.

So to flip that assertion on its head: in Australia how do we react to the intrusion of intellectual developments from non-Western countries?
It’s been a very mixed picture. I wasn’t living in Australia at the time when there was a really strong reaction against cosmopolitanism amongst writers, artists and intellectuals.

When was this?
In the 1980s and 90s. What I’m talking about is the ‘proud to be Ocker’ culture. Maybe it was only fully expressed by a small minority of people but it got the headlines. It was an aggressively Australian response to the rest of the world that was very different to the time when I was growing up, the 1960s and early 1970s, which was much more like the 1980s in China. Then both countries eagerly welcomed foreign influences; Australians in the 1960s and 1970s had been very open to the rest of the world. In the following decades there was a reaction against that. Now I think with a huge migrant population it has opened up again. Sydney is fantastic. And probably the other major cities in Australia as well but it strikes me that Sydney is particularly good at this hybridity.

In 1999 you wrote that ‘China’s failure to gain a Nobel Prize for literature has been debated by the PRC supporters and detractors over the past few years, although the reasons have more to do with the nature of the Swedish Academy than the merits of Chinese writers or China’s international standing.’ Can you please speak further to this in light of the recognition of Gao Xingjian and Mo Yan.
The politics of the Nobel Prize for literature are very complicated, including clashes of interest at personal, national and international levels. A fair amount of gossip circulates in Sweden about it, but it’s rarely certain which bits are true, which are partly based on fact and which are total fiction. Opinions outside Sweden are likely to be even more confused. It would be easy for me to claim that Bei Dao is a better or more important writer than Gao Xingjian, but fair-minded people could justly claim that I’m biased, and no one would be any the wiser about what actually happened in the meeting room. When Mo Yan received the prize there was an even more heated response, for and against the award, especially in the US. China’s response to the award to Gao Xingjian was that it showed an anti-China bias; the award to Mo Yan a few years later led many people to claim it was due to pressure from the Chinese government. In the end, it seems to me, literary prizes are by nature controversial, and the task of adjudication is a messy and often conflicted one.

What are you working on now?
Anders and I have just finished translating another work by Dung Kai-cheung, The Catalogue, and hope it may be published later this year. I’m also writing a long article about this work, how it describes a moment in modern Hong Kong history: Retrocession in 1997. In recent years I’ve also written about literary censorship in China, and I’m continuing to revise and update this research. It’s not an easy subject to write about.