(Courtesy of the movie Piano in a Factory 《钢的琴》)

My project is named “Detachment.” In it, I present a collection of narratives on China’s late 1990s nationwide lay-off during its reform of all state-owned enterprises. Millions of workers were suddenly detached from the factories they called their “units” (where their social existences lie), and released into a new society with their new identities. In this collection, both government newspaper articles and workers’ interviews collected by a personal researcher are presented and translated in order to tell a more complete story.

I have encountered many difficulties during my project. Firstly, primary sources were difficult to find: the period of history is not close enough to the present, so sources from that time period are not yet digitized, but the period is also not far enough from the present, therefore, people have not worked on collecting the sources because it is not yet a “history.” 

Translating this piece was challenging. It surprises me that although the period is just over 20 years from now, I could already feel a dissonance between my Chinese and the Chinese spoken at the time. The Chinese spoken in early 1990s is characterized by people’s frequent uses of four-character idioms, the slangs inherited from the generation before with war-time references, and the incorporations of time-specific national slogans into personal speeches. Meanwhile, there are unique qualities of the modern Chinese language that almost resists translation into Latin languages. Mandarin Chinese is a language with freer grammar structures than most Latin languages; for instance, commas can be used to separate many full sentences without the need for connectives or immediate logic connections. In the interview transcripts, the interviewees make use of this grammatical freedom to evoke prolonged struggles or intertwined feelings and emotions. Their commas spoke the series of dauntless attempts required for a family man after lay-off to find a living, the chain of observed rapid, recursive social transformations in 1990s China, the complex, multiple, ambivalent yet strong feelings toward the old factories that unemployed them… The parts of the speeches connected by commas all urgently needed to be in one sentence, but for English grammar’s sake, I had to break them down into a few sentences, adding connectives or constructing parallel structures to maintain the sense of connection. Besides, words in every language carry both their applicational (what the word means today) and historical meanings (where the word comes from). I believe the historical meaning has a higher daily relevance in Chinese because of its character-based system, where every word is made from meaningful, recognizable single characters. In translating from Chinese to English, one would usually have to abandon the character composition of words and focus on their applicational equivalents in English. For example, in Chinese the word “country” is made up of a character that means “country/nation” (国) and a character that means “family” (家), but I chose to abandon this layer of meaning for the sake of clarity and concision. I made a different choice in another situation: the term “Red Flag Bearer” refers to a high honor given to outstanding individuals–the honor to carry and hoist a red communist flag. In this case, I chose to preserve the word as written by characters because of its contextual relevance, while accepting the risk of confusion and using footnotes for clarification.

FactoryAnother challenge was to be  mindful of my editor-translator’s voice. With the purpose of improving an international understanding of Chinese history, I was the first to misunderstand—I thought that the workers were resentful, and that the resentment was ignored. Immersing myself in the texts, I grew to understand not only their frustration but also their gratitude, joy, sense of belonging, and their still-present attachment towards the places they worked in. In the interviews, interviewees described the factory as their “home”, their “school”, their “cradle”: “[T]he factory is like a cradle… The time changes, people grow up, but the cradle cannot grow… I think of myself like a child who accidentally came out of the cradle… My classmates who really spent a long, long time in it can’t get used to standing on their feet and legs when they come out… How can you hate your cradle?” (Interview with Gang Zhao). In my close reading of their narratives, which I discovered myself engaging most intensely in as a translator, I saw that their third person narratives dominate their first person ones (“What story is there in me to tell?”)—their national identity comes before their personal identities, and their national empathy directs their behaviors and attitudes. Maybe this understanding is just as significant as knowledge about the historical event itself.

It was in these aforementioned difficulties that I learned the most. In diving into the massive online information pool, I heard strikingly different voices and perspectives which led me to choose a collection of articles instead of a singular piece. In struggling with the unfamiliar language, comparing my understanding with my parents and grandparents’ understandings, and trying to “speak the language of others,” I had an immersive experience of late 20th century China and felt that I gained some access to their senses of living and of being. In carrying the responsibility for a translator to have a neutral voice and fair representation, I put down my personal prejudices.

Over the process, I kept asking myself, why should I translate

For one, I believe in the value of universal access to culture and history. On the academic level, languages sometimes create a fatal division among scholars (historians, sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, etc.). Generations of scholars have strived to overcome the language barrier in order to communicate with each other in an equal and open way, to include more diversity in discussions and to work towards bettering human knowledge. Meanwhile, there is a level of humanitarian concern that is relevant to every one of us. We are brought closer to one another when touched by the urgent voices of others, even if we cannot be physically together. In this project, I heard cries, pains, perseverance, calmness, and hope, too. I think these small pieces could illuminate broader questions of international concern. What is it like for an individual to be part of a social reform? Is China’s economic reform only about economics? Are individuals merely vulnerable recipients of national policies, or are they nation makers too? I think it is unfair to assume that a nation’s internal history is of less interest to other countries than international affairs—human histories connect, because humans connect.

Translation is also a form of creation. The act of digging out various hidden but reliable articles among the mass of online information, the act of organizing articles, even the act of presenting them in a designed sequence with selected images, are acts of care. Yet, for economic or political reasons in the field of translation, sometimes it is not easy to work purely out of care. “Less significant” writings like the ones I have collected can go easily unnoticed. Providing a translation is not simply providing access to information from texts. It is also, in this case, providing a way of reading the texts and reading the complex and mysterious history of China.