"Obama Found in (Chinese) Translation"
By Luo Xuanmin
The editor and translator of Obama's "Audacity of Hope" is the director of the Center for Translation at Tsinghua University, Beijing, widely known as the "M.I.T." of China. In translating this book, now a best-seller in China, Prof. Luo states that "Obama always narrates in a unique way. He is a reformer and innovator. This is what we should keep in mind in transferring his language from English into Chinese."
Russell Leong: You had mentioned to me that the publisher of then-Sen. Barack Obama’s memoir had a difficult time finding a good translator, or translation team. So, how and when did translating Obama’s The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream come to your desk?
Luo Xuanmin: Oh，that is an interesting question. When the Law Press at Beijing got the copyright of the Chinese version of Obama’s book, to find a suitable translator was a headache. The translation project was treated as the key project for 2008 by the Law Press so the head of the press was very particular with the translator. Though the Press could not offer a fair price for the translating, the editor wanted to find to find a competent translator.
After failure of the tests of one or two translators, the editor finally came to my office for help. He told me that besides recommendations from other people, he also searched my information on the Internet and decided I should be the right person for the project. I thought he was right on this point. But I didn’t agree to accept the task, despite how much emphasis he had laid on the project. I told him, “Leave your book here and I’ll get back to you in a week!”
I didn’t agree to accept it immediately for two reasons: First, I had just finished The God of Jesus Christ, a book by Walter Kasper, which is a huge and important book that took me eight years to finish, so I was a little bit tired of translating. Second, I don’t like books written by today’s politicians, since most of them were written with the help of others. But when I went over one-third of Obama’s book, I decided to take it, just like an actor who found a new play that suited him very well.
R.L.: What was your first impression in reading the book, and what initial challenges and difficulties did you think you would find in translating it into Chinese and for a Chinese readership?
L.X.: My first impression was that the book is more of a political declaration than a biography, with each chapter dealing with an important issue in people’s lives, religion, the Constitution, race, etc. This declaration shows to readers a true statesman who is as different as “chalk and milk” from other politicians. This genuine trueness was reflected in Obama’s ideals for a better world and in his kind attitudes towards people, especially to those who are suffering.
The initial challenges were two: time for translation was short and the text was difficult. The Press wanted to publish the book two or three months before the U.S. election came to an end. I was given only four-and-a-half months for the translation because the Press needed time for editing. In order to achieve a good translation in a limited time, I invited two of my graduate students who had demonstrated their reliability in their previous studies at Tsinghua University under my supervision.
R.L.: Obama deals with a number of experiences and ideas that might be somewhat foreign or unfamiliar to Chinese readers, including ideas around: his mixed racial and cultural background and identity; ideas around multiculturalism; ideas around constitutional law, and the rule of law within an American context; together with specific references, e.g., “pork barrels,” “Christian coalition,” “moral majority,” etc.
(The bilingual English/Chinese index is extremely useful for grouping ideas, terms, in relation to specific personages like Thomas Jefferson, or George W. Bush.). What’s the process (steps) of translating these types of terms and issues?
L.X.: Yes, his father was a Kenyan, his mother a white American. He had lived in Indonesia for some years and later in Hawaii with his maternal grandparents for some years. In his childhood and youth, America, Asia, and Africa were blended into one man, Obama. When we say America is a nation like a mosaic, Obama has a mosaic background, which gives him a legendary color. For this reason, Obama’s ideas are multicultural instead of being ethnocentric. It accounts for why people from different backgrounds voted for him during the presidential election in 2008.
Of course, the biggest challenge is the difficulty of the text itself. Obama tried to write in a language which can be read by the majority and which has a rhetorical structure that demonstrates his systematic thinking at all times, with confidence, assurance, certainty and idealism. His psychological feel for others, his opponents and his relatives as well, was so keen and so penetrating that it made translation very challenging.
R.L.: The Chinese translation was published at least three months before Obama became the president-elect of the United States. What was the initial readers’ response to the book — and to Obama — before and after the presidential election in November of 2008?
L.X.: The initial response was strong. The book appeared in the bookstores Aug. 25 (the next day of the closing of Beijing Olympics)，and in early September the book became the No. 8 bestseller on the list as was indicated by New Beijing Daily. People supported him but were not sure if he could win in the end.
My translation of Obama’s book, in a certain sense, helped in attracting overseas votes by Chinese Americans working in China who read my translation. A friend from the American Education Association at Beijing had an inclination to vote for John McCain, but he changed his mind after reading my book, he said, because he got a better understanding of Obama from reading my translation. This was true with many other Chinese Americans who happened to come across my translation amidst the election campaign between Obama and McCain.
R.L.: As a translator and scholar in China, what is your personal impression of Barack Obama — his character and his ideas — that you garnered from reading and translating his work?
L.X.: He is cool, but he is also charming. He is a man of ideals and principles, though I am not sure how much he could bring them into his power in the White House. He looks serious, is always ready to argue and convince, that is because he is living in a world full of turbulence and corruption. But when you read those chapters about his affection toward his wife, his daughters, you can find a true man through those personal accounts.
He was raised in the generation of 1960s, and may have been contaminated for a while, e.g., he used drugs, but he also inherited the best of that generation, to exert and to go after an ideal. It is for this reason we can expect his “thoughts on reclaiming the American Dream.”
Though I am a few years older than Obama, I think Obama and I share some similarities. I was born to a so-called landlord family in the 1950s and was badly treated with my parents and brothers and sisters during the Cultural Revolution. I was sent to work in the countryside when I was only 15 upon the completion of my junior middle schooling.
One year later, I entered a small local factory and worked there for seven-and-a-half years. I used to think that I would be there all of my life. However, I had never given up hope. No matter how bad the situation was, I had tried hard to cultivate myself in mind, with an ideal of being a noble man for a better world. Through my constant efforts and struggles, I have succeeded and am now a professor in China’s best university. The only difference between us is that there is only one president of the United States at a time but many successful scholars in the universities. A man engaged in politics faces greater pressure in mind and in physics and admits no failure, as we can read in Obama’s book.
R.L.: If you had a chance to meet President-elect Obama, what is the one question you would like to ask him?
L.X. : Hi Barack, do you know the man who has shared his contribution with your 2008’s presidential campaign? He has translated your book Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming American Dream. His name, in fact is Luo Xuanmin (), in Chinese, it means “to win the campaign by gathering the voters”.
R.L.: What’s your hope for U.S./China relations in terms of the new president?
L.X.: The United States and China are two big nations; their cooperation could contribute tremendously to the world peace and prosperity, despite of their different social systems. The influence and importance of this cooperation is especially apparent in terms of anti-terrorism, survival in financial crisis, environmental protection, etc. There are many common interests between the two nations. Just like appealing for a mutual understanding between the Republicans and the Democrats, I hope the president-elect also appeals for a mutual understanding between different systems on the condition that all are striving in progress for the good of their people and their nations, which in turn does good for the world. This is my hope for Obama’s policy of U.S./China relations.
R.L.: Could you give us a particular example of a passage, phrase, or idea (in Chinese and English) that was most difficult to convey in Chinese? ; (Please feel free to use both Chinese and English here).
L.X.: There are too many challenging examples in my translation, from the first page to the end. Obama always narrates in a unique way. He is a reformer and innovator. This is what we should keep in mind in transferring his language from English into Chinese. Let us see following two passages of translation:
Ex. 1: “After the family and friends went home, after the receptions ended and the sun slid behind winter’s gray shroud, what would linger over the city was the certainty of a single, seemingly inalterable fact: The country was divided, and so Washington was divided, more divided politically than at any time since before World War II.”
Ex. 2: "Not only did we disagree, but we disagreed vehemently, with partisans on each side of the divide unrestrained in the vitriol they hurled at opponents. We disagreed on the scope of our disagreements, the nature of our disagreements, and the reasons for our disagreements. Everything was contestable, whether it was the cause of climate change or the fact of climate change, the size of the deficit or the culprits to blame for the deficit.”
There are also a lot of phrases and proper names, e.g., Iran-Contra (), Ollie North (), Gingrich Revolution (), Whitewater (), Starr investigation (), etc. Even given the Chinese translation for the above English phrases, readers still have difficulties in their understanding for the lack of background knowledge. To solve these problems the best way is to make translator’s notes. We have made more than 200 notes in the translation of Obama’s book hoping to help readers to get a better comprehension of Obama’s ideas.
Unfortunately these notes had been deleted when the manuscripts was sent for publication. It was said that the agent from Obama would not allow anything irrelevant in translation. I guess in the end of June when I finished the translation job and sent the manuscripts to the Press, the presidential campaign was still on its way, so keeping clear of translator’s notes was a wise decision. In this way misunderstanding or manipulation from the side of translator was avoided.
R.L.: Translation of foreign works into Chinese remains crucial to facilitate transnational communication and East/West understanding. In your career as both a scholar and leading translator, what do you consider the three most important Western books you have translated which contribute to this understanding? Why?
L.X.: The three most important books of my translation career are: Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry; The God of Jesus Christ; and, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream.
The first one was written by Jacques Maritain, who had been invited to give Mellon Lectures at Princeton University in the 1950s. It is a book of comparative poetics written in English but with a lot of French texts. It covered a wide range of arts and poets in the East and the West. The second book is written by Walter Kasper, which gives a reinterpretation of Christianity in contemporary context from the perspectives of anthropology, sociology, linguistics, history, etc. The author is said to be one of the most-learned scholars in Europe. And this book is a charter for people in theology and modern thought. This is a huge book and took more than eight years in translation. The third one, also the most recent one, is Obama’s political autobiography. I even think it is a very good book for Chinese officials and scholars to read, because those problems in America mentioned by Obama or will occur in China. They can learn a lot from this book. Of course, I also like my translation of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But the three I mentioned above are first and only translations in Chinese.
[keywords: interview, Barack Obama, book, translation, Chinese]
© Copyright 2009 by Luo Xuanmin