As good as her word

Updated: Oct 17, 2022 China Daily Print
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Translator's skills allow readers to experience the world's top writers, Yang Cheng reports in Tianjin.

French writer Annie Ernaux won the Nobel Prize in literature earlier this month and the Chinese versions of her works, A Woman's Story and La Place, have seen orders surging on leading bookselling websites, such as Dangdang.

Publishing house Shanghai People's Press announced that it will soon reprint her books, which were originally published in Chinese in 2003, and new copies are expected to hit the market late this month.

The translator of A Woman's Story and La Place, Guo Yumei, a 65-year-old professor of French language and translation at Tianjin Foreign Studies University, has seen her mobile phone become a hotline. This is because her elegant and top-notch translations are appreciated by local readers and her introduction of Ernaux to China has been hailed by both her counterparts and the media.

Commentators note that it is no coincidence that Guo has a deep insight into contemporary French literature — in 2000, she was the translator of Poisson d'Or, a book written by the 2008 Nobel laureate in literature Le Clezio.

Guo says she teaches French and translation, and putting words into another language helps in her work.

She says she appreciates the works of Ernaux because of her use of autofiction, a genre of fictional stories that are heavily influenced by the life experiences of the author.

"Ernaux wrote in the 'first person', and described her own experience, while combining it with fiction … it seems like a 'paradox'," she says.

Invited by the French embassy in 2005, Guo met Ernaux in Beijing during a seminar focusing on her books, where the writer confirmed that her mother was "still alive", while in her books, she wrote that her mother had "passed away".

In her writing, Ernaux consistently examines a life marked by strong disparities regarding gender, language and class. Her path to authorship was long and arduous, the Swedish Academy, the body that selects the literature laureate, said. Ernaux's work is "uncompromising and written in plain language, scraped clean", and when she reveals "the agony of the experience of class, describing shame, humiliation, jealousy or inability to see who you are", she has achieved "something admirable and enduring", the academy said in a news release.

Moreover, the professor says: "Ernaux, born in 1940, belongs to the generation that grew up after World War II and the founding of New China … also after a series of wars including the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45) and the War of Liberation (1946-49), so we (readers and the writer) share certain common ground.

"When I was translating, I couldn't help crying … to a certain extent, I feel she was writing some of my own experiences," Guo says.

Sometimes she has a resonance with Ernaux, for example, "when she wrote that her aged mother was in a nursing home, I shared her agony as I also felt sorrowful when seeing my mother in sickness".

Guo's translated versions of Ernaux are not the only ones attracting attention. A teacher at her university, Chen Shuting, translated another book of Ernaux, Memoire de fille, which is expected to hit the market this month.

Guo says Tianjin Foreign Studies University boasts a strong faculty and many teachers have developed a research competence in French teaching. In particular, the translation capability of the young teachers is lauded.

Apart from translating leading French works, Guo has also conducted in-depth research on French translations of leading Chinese literary works.

Her research on the stylistics of the French version of A Dream of Red Mansions received widespread recognition in China.

There is no doubting Chinese readers' enthusiasm for Western literature and contemporary works, but Chinese literature, be it ancient classics or modern works, have not seen such wide acclaim in countries with a French-language background.

Guo says the reasons behind this are comprehensive.

French Sinologists focus more on areas like philosophy, religion and economics, rather than literature. There are some Eurocentric perspectives that are biased toward overseas cultures, she says, expecting that more Chinese literature will be embraced by French-speaking countries.

In addition, "ancient Chinese literature is not easily understood by foreigners and Chinese translation circles have not contributed many works — from both ancient and contemporary literature — in French", she adds.

She expects that more leading Chinese literature works will achieve a greater presence internationally.

Apart from daily teaching, research and translations, Guo says she is fond of needlework, including hand embroidery and dressmaking. She says she has found that she is "gaining weight", so she personally designs and tailors clothes for herself and enjoys the process.

"Sometimes it takes a whole day to design and make a dress," she says.

Guo received the title of "March 8 Red Banner Pacesetter "in Tianjin, the top award honoring leading women in the city. She also received a renowned teacher award in Tianjin, granted to top-notch educators in the city.

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