Writing (and Translating) The Surreal, part one: Dorothy Tse – by Nicky Harman

Today’s piece is by Nicky Harman of Paper Republic:

Surrealist fiction, as exemplified by Franz Kafka and his Kafkaesque absurdities, feels like a very western phenomenon. But it is also a kind of story-telling that some excellent Chinese writers have taken to and given a style and a twist all of their own. Blair Hurley has a nice definition in her writer’s blog: ‘The most chilling or ominous surreal stories are where everything seems normal — until it gradually becomes clear that something is wrong, something is inescapable out of your character’s control.’ In a two-part blog, today and tomorrow, I’ll look at Dorothy Tse and Sun Yisheng, two contemporary Chinese writers who manage that feeling of ‘wrong-ness’, that juxtaposition of the normal and the weird, to perfection. In other ways, however, they are very different from each other and from classic western surreal writing.

Part 1: Dorothy Tse

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Snow and Shadow, by Dorothy Tse, tr. Nicky Harman (East Slope Publishing)

Dorothy Tse is from Hong Kong and combines writing with teaching at the Hong Kong Baptist University. She is also a co-founder of the literary magazine Fleurs des Lettres. Her collection of short stories, Snow and Shadow, translated by me, came out in 2015. I had one particular favourite, ‘Bed’. As I wrote in the Translator’s Preface: ‘[This story] stirs our emotions in a disquieting way: a girl, driven from home when her sister and father begin an incestuous relationship in the only bed in their home, dreams obsessively of finding another bed and accepts sexual exploitation as the only way to get what she wants. This does not, however, convey the complexity of the story, which has a pervasive sense of menace that is reinforced by the helplessness of the girl. Dreamscapes interlock with a narrative which, though superficially realistic, feels quite unreal. Reading ‘Bed’ is rather like moving through layers of hanging veils.’

But enough of descriptions. To give you a real flavour of Dorothy’s writing, here is the opening paragraphs of another story, ‘The Mute Door’:

The door is constructed in such a way as to conceal the fact that it does not exist. Precisely because entering and leaving leaves no trace, it becomes necessary to suggest it by means of this pantomime. Thus all doors are symbolic, and we can only grope our way blindly. Nothing limits us, nothing protects us. Decisions are impossible.

Among all the doors that I have come across, it is only the invisible doors of mime artists that capture the essence of a door. Whether in streets occupied by the language of thecolonizers or in a red square in the month of June, mime artists can always silently create a house that is theirs alone. All that is needed is a pair of hands and a posture that implies the actor is walking close to a wall, and an enclosure instantaneously appears and disappears, according to the actor’s abrupt footsteps and sudden spins. No groundwork is necessary for a house like that, no foundation on rock — this house is built from the poetry of the body and the mystery of bones and flesh in motion. The room has no boundaries, nor does it have cracks to let anyone in. It dawns on the audience that a door is no more than a fish slipping constantly out of their grasp. One of the sayings of mime artists is, “A door is not outside of you.

Snow and Shadow, was longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award [BTBA] 2015. Christine Zoe Palau wrote, in ‘Why This Book Should Win…’: “Dorothy Tse’s collection of thirteen stories will force you to experience life in ways you’ve never imagined. While often outlandish, the stories make perfect sense on a metaphysical level. Her paragraphs are paintings that transport you to bizarre places (bartering amputated limbs for sex, why not?). You don’t necessarily want to become a part of these worlds, but you do recognize the truth in them. You will want to read these stories aloud to hear the rhythm of the language. And that rhythm, no matter how gruesome the image (an elephant-sized fridge filled with bird corpses), will make you feel as if there could be no other way to say what was said. Absurd, surreal, and morose. Kafka, Gogol, and Cortázar might pop into your head. A wife turns into a fish; a father donates his head to his son; and another father can’t distinguish between reality and a cop series he’s obsessed with. Maybe this sounds familiar, but I assure you it’s not.”

What’s it like to translate surrealism? I asked Natascha Bruce, another translator of Tse’s stories. She sent me an interesting response: “Dorothy uses words very sparingly and very precisely (and occasionally, not finding an adjective quite precise enough, makes them up entirely), and I worry even more than usual about accidentally glossing over a rhythm, or a deliberate repetition, or some tiny turn of phrase that — to a more astute reader — would add a whole new layer of meaning to the story. There’s a kind of tension there, because Dorothy’s stories are designed to disorientate readers, which means they disorientate translators, too. But the translator, somehow, has to be orientated enough not to spin things in ways Dorothy doesn’t intend, and to notice the clues she’s laid for piecing things together.” She also feels that the characters get under your skin as you translate them. “…her imagery can be very dark! There are characters gnawing their own faces off, embryos grasping for toys that stain their tiny webbed hands green, dismemberments. I find the images seep into the rest of my life more than other stories I’ve worked on, so that I’ll be in the supermarket and have the sudden thought, What if this cashier’s head is really a balloon, or what if I drop this carton of milk and there’s actually blood inside?”

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‘January: Bridges’ by Dorothy Tse, tr. Nicky Harman

On a visit to the UK in 2015, Dorothy and I and Dave Haysom were invited by Leeds University’s Writing Chinese project and Leeds Writers Circle to debate the role of writer, translator and editor at a panel discussion about her short story ‘January: Bridges’, number 3 in the Read Paper Republic series of 52 free-to-view translated short stories. Dorothy talks engagingly and lucidly about her writing. If you’d like to hear what she said, there’s an event video, ‘The Story of a Story’, which can be viewed on the website of London’s Free Word Centre.

[Written for the GLLI – Paper Republic collaboration, Feb 2017]

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