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.

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