Cherries on the Pomegranate Tree by Li Er 李洱

2022-11-17 ☼ books

Translating from Chinese to English, there are three options when it comes to the name of our protagonist, 繁花:

  1. Naturalise: find an English name that has some degree of overlap with the original — “Florence”, for example
  2. Translate: convey the literal meaning of the name — “Blooming Flowers”, let’s say
  3. Transliterate: render the name phonetically in pinyin — “Fanhua”

Choose Florence”, and the juxtaposition of English names against the Chinese setting soon becomes jarring. Unless, that is, you keep going and naturalise the place names, brand names, cultural references, and very quickly find you have strayed beyond the remit of translation. You also the burden the reader with the task of detaching the character from all the irrelevant associations that the name will evoke for them — the remnants left in their subconscious by every other Florence they have ever encountered. And surely no reader would be able to put up with Blooming Flowers” — grating, clunky, and shot through with dehumanising Orientalism — for more than a page or two.

Fanhua” is the least bad option, but transliteration results in a meaningful alteration to the reader’s experience of the book, especially a book with as many characters as Cherries on a Pomegranate Tree: the cognitive burden of keeping track of all the characters is significantly higher when their names are semantically empty shells. The meaning of the name 繁花 is not foregrounded in the same way the meaning of Blooming Flowers” would be foregrounded in English, but the meaning is there, and it constitutes a hook upon which you can hang everything you need to remember about the character. Without the Chinese characters, the name Fanhua” is just a collection of sounds. You only have so much attention you can give a book, and when a chunk of that attention is occupied by keeping track of names, you can’t give so much to the plot, the themes, or the symbolic significance of camels.

Taken from the translator’s note to Cherries on the Pomegranate Tree by 李洱. Available from Sinoist Books