‘She makes her readers think, sometimes jolting them.’
Can Xue, Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping speak to us about the International Booker Prize-longlisted book I Live in the Slums.
Hi Can, what has it been like to be longlisted?
Very excited and happy! Because the prize is so prestigious.
How would you summarise I Live in the Slums in one sentence?
I Live in the Slums is a panorama of the brave advance of the fiction writers in today’s world.
Which story from the collection is your favourite?
Actually I love all my stories. But if I have to choose only one, I would choose Old Cicada. This story is perfect and beautiful, and most important, suffused by heroism.
Why was I Live in the Slums chosen as the title story?
I think I Live in the Slums was chosen as the title story because it depicts a real picture of our writers’ creation. And it reveals what a poet’s heart is like.
We like to look at Can Xue’s stories as analogous to some of the twentieth century’s most intriguing abstract art, symphonies, and dance— Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping
What has it been like to be longlisted?
Karen Gernant: I’ve been euphoric – I love surprises, and this was a very special one. We also feel honoured and humbled to be in the company of so many fine authors and translators.
What did you enjoy about translating I Live in the Slums?
KG and Chen Zeping: It’s always a delight to translate Can Xue. We particularly enjoyed translating these stories because many of them can be read on several levels, thus making them – we think – more accessible than some of her other works. We saw an emphasis on the “Other” that seems to speak to some of today’s most troubling and universal issues, despite Can Xue’s insistence that her writings are not political. We believe her; nonetheless, we empathise with the loneliness and despair of some of the characters.
On another level, we like to look at Can Xue’s stories as analogous to some of the twentieth century’s most intriguing abstract art, symphonies, and dance. Can Xue provides new ways of looking at the world and at our surroundings. She makes her readers think, sometimes jolting them. Like other forms of artistic expression, Can Xue’s works invite readers to enter into them and thus complete the stories.
Describe how you worked together to translate the stories.
KG: I produced the draft translation of each story, polished it a little, and then emailed it to Chen Zeping for his revisions and comments. He not only caught my errors in translation, but frequently also came up with more colloquial English than I had used. He then sent the revised translation back to me. I read through it, asking him about some of his revisions and revising some of his English. We continued this process until we were satisfied with our translation. We then sent it to Can Xue for her comments. (She rarely asks for more than a few revisions. But she has insisted on this process ever since we began translating her works almost 20 years ago, and her English is good enough to suggest changes in our text. We don’t always agree with her, thus necessitating more discussion back and forth.) After this, we put the translation aside for a while, and then returned to it once or twice more to make any additional revisions that seemed necessary (at this point sometimes tightening the writing, altering sentence structure, or choosing different words to render the translation more readable).
As the stories within I Live in the Slums stray from the norms of plot and characterisation, did this make translating the work more difficult than a conventional text?
KG and CZP: Probably not. In her fiction, Can Xue’s language and structure are straightforward and generally clear. (This is not always true of her essays.) As we mentioned above, sometimes her narrative is jolting. And when that is so, I ask Chen Zeping: ‘Is this really what she’s saying?’