Anna Holmwood

Interviewed by Yilin Wang

Anna+HolmwoodAnna Holmwood translates from Chinese and Swedish into English. In 2010, she was awarded one of the first British Centre for Literary Translation mentorship awards and has translated novels and short stories for publication and samples for agents and rights sellers. She co-founded the Emerging Translators’ Network to support early career translators in 2011 and served on the UK Translators Association committee in 2012. Anna was the editor-in-chief for Books from Taiwan from 2014 to 2015, and has previously worked as a literary agent, representing some of China’s top writing talent. She is now the Foreign Rights Manager at DKW Literary Agency.

Most recently, Anna Holmwood translated A Hero Born, the first volume of Jin Yong’s martial arts novel series Legend of Condor Heroes, from Chinese into English. The series has a huge readership among Chinese readers across the world, so this is a milestone translation. As a writer, a fellow translator, and a fan of martial arts fiction, I reached out to Anna to interview her about how career and her translation process.

Can you describe the behind-the-scenes process for how you obtained the English language rights for A Hero Born and found its English publisher?

I met with a UK agent, Peter Buckman, to talk about working on Chinese books together. We decided that martial arts fiction, and Jin Yong, in particular, had great potential. I negotiated the right to represent Condor Heroes with Jin Yong’s representatives, and then we set about producing the pitch and a long sample. This was crucial; the UK editors would only have the sample to go on initially to make their decision. Several editors were interested, but Christopher MacLehose at MacLehose Press was determined to be the one to publish Jin Yong in English. Christopher MacLehose is an extremely well-respected editor who is known for having a great eye, so the thought of working with him was extremely exciting. This first stage took about a year in total, and after that, I was commissioned to work on the translation for the publisher.

The process you described sounds both challenging and rewarding. What advice do you have for emerging translators trying to navigate this for the first time?

So much of publishing operates on trust and personal taste, so when you’re first starting out, the biggest challenge is often getting the gatekeepers to trust you. Getting to know other translators is crucial. Firstly, because it can be a lonely job without a network of peers, and because so much vital information is shared in these networks. This was why I founded Emerging Translators Network along with Rosalind Harvey and Jamie Lee Searle. We want to collect that energy in a positive space where we could pass on our knowledge to those trying to get a foot in the door.

Let’s discuss the art of translations itself. In this NPR article, you spoke about the “emotional, instinctual aspect” of connecting to a language and that “it’s far more important for a literary translator to have had relationships … in a language than to be certified as a translator.” Can you speak more about your emotional connection with Mandarin and the emotional journey of translating A Hero Born?

In the beginning, studying Mandarin was an intellectual exercise for me, borne out of a fascination with China’s history and literary culture. But as I started making friends in Chinese, I realized that there were concepts and words I started using with them which I simply wouldn’t think about in English. A good example would be 缘分. I really don’t think or talk about “fate” in English, but somehow I took onboard 缘分 in Chinese because it seemed to connect with how I felt about certain connections I made. This became far more potent to me as I met my husband, got married, and then had our first child. I speak three languages now to my child—English, Mandarin, and Swedish. He can feel my love in all three, and that is a profoundly different kind of linguistic relationship than one borne predominantly of books and the classroom. Many big life events, including marriage and giving birth, happened in the background while I was working on A Hero Born, so this book will always be associated with my own maturation as a person and as a translator.

One of the challenges of translating A Hero Born is working with unique diction, such as martial arts terms like wulin (“the martial forest”) and jianghu (“river and lakes”), the honorifics (shifu) and titles of characters (Seven Freaks of the South), and the martial arts moves that are both descriptive and filled with allusions (Lazy Donkey Roll, Drive the Boat Downstream, Soaring Phoenix Rising Dragon). When translating these, how did you navigate the balance between domestication and foreignization?

The balance between domestication and foreignization is the fundamental tightrope any translator has to walk. Some of the terms in this book have been translated elsewhere and have long entered English through martial arts communities. The concept of shifu, for example, is familiar to anyone who has taken a class in some form of martial arts in the west, whether in its Mandarin form or through the Cantonese term sifu.

Wulin and jianghu have entered parlance through the gaming community, but I did feel that adding some extra information in a prologue, to set the scene, would help to evoke the unique linguistic and cultural meaning behind those words. They are not just their literal translations; these concepts contain a world of meaning. Their translation occurs over the course of the whole book, rather than as one word or phrase.

When it comes to the martial arts moves: I have had feedback from Chinese speakers that people would have preferred me to use pinyin, because any attempt at their translation is futile. But I think that attitude is a real shame. These weird, quirky names are just that in Chinese, and they’re so much of what people love about Jin Yong. I have faith that English readers can and want to experience that part of Jin Yong’s writing rather than have it locked off from them through the use of pinyin. It’s precisely the fact that there is no genre of fiction like it in English that makes translating and reading Jin Yong’s work so exciting.

Since martial arts fiction doesn’t exist as a genre in English, did you look at western narratives such as epic fantasy or heroic sagas for inspiration during your translation process? Or did you consciously go against them?

I did read things like The Three Musketeers, some of Walter Scott’s work, and Lord of the Rings in the early stages of the translation process, just to place myself a bit in the western tradition. I especially looked at them for their fight scenes. The thing that struck me the most, however, was that these western classics often didn’t go into as much detail in a fight—they were more likely to build drama into the moments before and after, and not say as much about the physical combat. This made me aware that the aesthetics of a fight scene is crucial to martial arts fiction, but also makes it uniquely challenging to translate. Many people assume it’s all the specialized diction that is hard to convey, but for me, the pacing and the fight scenes were the things I really had to get right.

The novel also quotes a number of classical Chinese poems. How did your process for translating those differ from translating prose?

I did a lot of research, which included looking up glosses in Chinese as well as, where relevant, previous translations of the poems. Classical poetry in Chinese is so different from modern English in terms of syntax, structure, and imagery. Comparing and contrasting other people’s versions is very instructive for a translator. There is a fantastic book, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, which I think should be compulsory for every translator of Chinese literature.

What other resources and tools did you use when translating?

The Internet is my biggest friend. I made extensive use of fan forums where people discuss names, vocabulary, and weapons that are unique to Jin Yong. Even things that are not unique to Jin Yong, such as historical weapons, are discussed in detail there. I used a lot of online dictionaries from all over the Chinese-speaking world. The Taiwanese government has a fantastic online dictionary, for example. Then, I also asked my husband, who is a native Chinese speaker, and friends.

To make a generalization, the Chinese language seems to be more accepting of ambiguity than English. (E.g. Lack of conjugated verbs, tense, prepositions, plural nouns, or articles like “a” and “the”.) How do you navigate these ambiguities when translating from Chinese into English?

Ambiguity functions differently in different languages, yes. As a translator, I ask myself, is the ambiguity here artistic and stylistic in nature, or does the Chinese reader in fact know the tense and number because of context. If context is providing key information, then I think it is appropriate for a translator to build more certainty about that into the English version. Just because Chinese doesn’t conjugate verbs for tense or person doesn’t mean that a reader doesn’t understand or know the tense or person. It’s important that we don’t essentialize too much about a culture based on some grammatical quirks of language—yes, they can and do shape expression, but often you can achieve similar or “equivalent” effects in a new language. 

Anna+HolmwoodYilin Wang’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld and What If? Magazine, while her poetry has appeared in The Best of Abyss & Apex Vol.2, Grain, Contemporary Verse 2, and Cerebration. Yilin is as an assistant editor for Room and the Volunteer Coordinator for Growing Room: A Feminist Literary Festival. She is currently writing a novel inspired by Chinese martial arts fiction.

Carol Shaben

Interviewed by Peter Takach


Photo credit: NT Photo

Carol Shaben is an award-winning nonfiction author and journalist. Her first book, Into the Abyss, is a national bestseller and was selected as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick, a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, and an Book of the Month. Her most recent book, The Marriott Cell, co-written with award-winning Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fahmy, was named one of the Globe & Mail’s 100 Best Books of 2016, and won the Ontario Historical Society Huguenot Award. Of Lebanese Muslim heritage, she is a former CBC writer/broadcaster, and at twenty-two worked as a journalist in Jerusalem.

I am a huge admirer of Carol’s work and was lucky to sit down and chat with her about how she finds and plots a story and the advice she has to offer up-and-coming writers. The interview has been edited for length.

Carol, what are you reading right now?

I’m reading Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers. And I’m also reading Tara Westover’s Educated.

Do you find that your reading seeps into what you are writing? Do you seek out books with an eye to study form or content?

I’m always reading for language. When I read and the language is so perfect and lyrical and elevated, that’s a high bar that inspires me. When I’m writing nonfiction, I tend to read for plot devices, character arcs, for how to make a real story as compelling as fiction can be. But I also want to be true to my own voice, so when I’m writing intensively, I try not to read work that is going to take me away from my own voice.

What books have you found the most helpful in improving your craft?

I’ve gotten a lot from screenwriting books, especially Robert McKee’s Story. When you are trying to animate nonfiction, craft is really important. McKee changed my game by getting me to think at a more conscious level about scene, and to cut any scene that does not “turn” or have a value shift for the character. That to me makes propulsive writing, really thinking about scenes and beats. Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat talks about what should happen at various points in the arc of a screenplay, and to me, having that global sense of story, of midline, of turning points, has been helpful in plotting an entire book.

So what does your drafting process look like?

When I’m writing a larger project or a work of nonfiction, I really work with structure. First, I develop an overall arc to get a sense of chapters. Within each chapter, I figure out what the scenes are and within each scene, what the value shift is. If a character is happy at the start of a scene, what shifts for them to keep the tension? Another thing I do in both fiction and nonfiction that sounds cliché is to figure out what my character wants. If the character wants something, they will do something. You have to have the motivational piece nailed down.

There are four storylines in Into the Abyss, and for each of those characters, I knew the conflict (man against nature, man against self), and what each character’s arc was. And also, right out of McKee, you need to identify the gap between where each character is and where they want to be. If you look at a character’s journey as a broken staircase, the interesting stuff in fiction and nonfiction happens where your character is standing on a stair just below a broken or missing section, and knows they want to be higher up, and how do you get them there? That gap is where risk and conflict lie, where the real creative and compelling work can happen. I map those staircases out for each character.

When you read Into the Abyss, you can see how carefully you’ve woven these threads into a gripping story, one of only a few books that have ever moved me to tears.

Well, as long as you’re not crying over the language! I felt like that was a good story well told, but I have regrets about the prose because I had just a year to deliver a manuscript. If I’d had more time, I would have elevated the language. To me, there are two elements to exciting and memorable writing: one is the execution of the form and structure, and the other is language. And that is the luxury of being able to polish and to redraft and in my mind, that’s the difference between me, who I consider to still be a novice and someone whose writing slays me. Time is a really important part of the equation, giving yourself time to really work the language.

I was going to ask how you know when a book is complete. So this was a case of external deadlines?

Yes. Deadlines drove the timelines for both books and both were intensive to write. For The Marriott Cell, we wrote it in ten months and I was working fourteen to sixteen-hour days. I really work well to deadlines, but I also think there’s a feeling when things are falling into place. After all the hellfire and the gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair, there’s kind of an organic place where you feel intuitively that things are working in the way that serves your story. If you can get to that point, you’re either plain lucky or you’ve done the work. I also think you can polish language forever, but there’s also a time to let a book go and just know you’ve done as well as you could in the time period.

Do you have any tips for a writer muddling through the middle of their project?

One thing that helped me to write both books was to get off my screen, and use another form, like large index cards. Once, when I was stuck and had written myself into a muddle, Nancy Lee, who’s in my writing collective, suggested I go out and buy myself the biggest bulletin board I could find and start putting scenes on that board and moving them around. Getting away from the limitations of a computer screen can be really creatively liberating, because you see different possibilities. Some people use Scrivener or whatever and can do it all on a screen, but I really like that bigger canvas.

It feels a bit more tactile to have those, like you’re actually making something.

Yes. And you can get those moments when you say, “I’ve cracked the nut!” You’re digging around on this hard shell of a story with no idea and all of a sudden it cracks open for you and something is revealed and how that process happens creatively, I have no clue.

You have a magic touch for finding and telling stories of, in your words, “overlooked or underrated individuals who, through their courage, heroism and conviction, deeply move and inspire us to be our best selves.” What is the importance of telling these stories?

We’re so into this mindset of our public personas, of how many followers we have, and I think we miss that there’s power and potential in people who seem powerless or who we dismiss because they don’t tick off the boxes that we define as making them successful or worthy. Those kinds of individuals can sometimes offer stories not only about human potential but about humility, about compassion, about ignoring the artificial barriers that race or politics or economics or social status create. I feel particularly strongly at this time of rising fascism that the key we all have is to look for those stories that make us see each other in a more humane and compassionate way.

Where do you find these stories?

Talking to people, reading. Just being open. I am currently researching a longform piece on a woman who’s working in the cacao industry lifting Central American farmers out of poverty. She’s from Texas and she’s changing the way the chocolate industry operates. I think the most interesting stories are those where you can find a person who can take you inside a world that you would never otherwise have access to. Those kinds of stories are exciting. I also think that if we pay attention to others and to our environment, as writers and as human beings, we all resonate at the same level. When there is a story, we instinctively know it. We understand what heroism or courage looks like.

The world can seem rather dark these days. How do you keep your positivity and mission in the face of what can feel like insurmountable adversaries?

I look for the people and stories that move me and I try to get out of my comfort zone. Last June, for example, I went to an event called The Shoe Project featuring refugee women who had fled war in their countries. Vancouver writer Caroline Adderson had helped them write their stories of fleeing and coming to Canada. I was so moved that I invited these women to dinner, because they inspired me. And so I had fifteen women from everywhere from Eritrea to Somalia to Mexico in my home, and we broke bread together.

I think being open and reaching out across a boundary or what feels like a barrier, these small acts of humanity, open up whole worlds. And when you take a moment to look at those worlds, to get to know a person who you think is “other,”, you’ll find inspiration in the human condition on an individual level. Sometimes when you watch the news and you think of things on a global level, it’s overwhelming. But a conversation with someone who has struggled or who is different, and seeking to understand, that feeds me and fills me up. It shows me my own privilege and reminds me of our human potential. And that’s worth writing about. Also, I try to limit my consumption of CNN.

We’ve spoken in the past about the differences between fiction and nonfiction. What is the most powerful thing for you about writing creative nonfiction?

I think it’s how flawed and perfect and inspiring and courageous and heroic and terrible we can all be. It’s this range of human action and emotion that’s fascinating to me. We can all choose to walk in the world in a different way. If I can write a story that causes a reader to pause and think differently about another person or their own actions, or how they live their lives, that would be the greatest reward of writing I could hope for.

What are you currently working on, if you don’t mind talking about it?

Various smaller projects. I was hollowed out after doing The Marriott Cell. It was really intense and hard work, and then I got blocked for quite awhile. The block came from feeling like I had to have the next big idea in hand, and that it had to be fully formed so that when it came out of my mouth, other people would say “Wow! That’s amazing!” I think that’s part of the reason why some authors don’t talk about their current projects.

If there’s one thing the last few months of mucking in my own writing has taught me, it’s that we can sometimes defeat ourselves by looking around and seeing how everyone else is doing and taking a count of publications. It can be very destructive for the creative muse. We need to find the joy that got us here, that made us take the leap into believing we could do this crazy thing. Right now, I feel fortunate and excited and happy, and I’m jotting down ideas all the time, whereas when I was pushing before, there was nothing. I’m full of a sense of possibility, which I think is as good as it gets when you’re in a creative realm.

So I’m writing poetry very badly, I’m working on a kid’s book, I’m jotting down ideas for short stories. I’m researching this long form piece on cacao—it’s got its hooks into me. I’m just trusting, and enjoying the privilege of this vocation we call writing. I’m letting myself enjoy it rather than thinking it has to be a certain way, and then something will happen, something exciting.

One final question. What is the best piece of advice, writing or otherwise, that anyone has ever given you?

A writer once told me four words key to writing: put ass in chair. It’s hard work, it’s discipline, it’s just doing it. It’s not magic. The magic comes from putting your ass in your chair everyday. The best thing writers can do for themselves is not let life take them away from that one shining priority. It should be the most important thing on your to do list for the day. Nothing has served me better than that advice.

Peter Takach is a writer and teacher whose works have surfaced in some of the nation’s finest magazines, literary festivals, and recycling bins. Banished from his hometown for crimes against humanities, he can be found at the University of British Columbia toiling away at MFA in Creative Writing or perched on driftwood staring out at great Neptune’s ocean.