For this interview I’ve done something a bit different. It is a two-part interview, with the first half featuring Deathblade (a translator at Wuxia World), and the second half featuring Wuxia Rocks (a longtime wuxia fan and writer who posts on the subject online).
Brendan Davis: Can you tell me a little about your background and your work at Wuxia World?
Deathblade: I'm a Californian born and raised (not of Chinese heritage) who started studying Chinese in around 2007. Believe it or not, one of the main things that got me interested in Chinese culture was the release of the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Eventually, I even moved to China, where I still live right now. As the years went by, I decided to try my hand at translating some wuxia fiction into English. Initially I did it to improve my reading and vocabulary, but then it turned into a hobby. I started out with some lesser-known Gu Long books, and eventually even tried my hand at a modern novel by Taiwanese novelist Giddens Ko.
Later, I was contacted by the owner of Wuxiaworld, translator RWX, who was looking for someone to work on translating a popular Chinese web novel called I Shall Seal the Heavens, or ISSTH for short. ISSTH is a classic xianxia novel about a young Confucian scholar named Meng Hao who gets caught up in the world of Immortals. The novel was incredibly popular in China, and has also become one of the most popular web novel translations currently being released.
BD: Web novels seem particularly popular with Chinese audiences. I’ve seen a number of series that started as web novels. Can you talk about some of the more well known web novelists and the place web novels have in the culture (which seem to be taken more seriously there than over here)?
DB: Honestly, as far as the popular authors go, it's a huge topic. Some of the top authors known to the English-speaking world are I Eat Tomatoes, Tang Jia San Shao, and Heavenly Silkworm Potato. I Eat Tomatoes is probably the most well-known. It was the translation of his novel Stellar Transformations that started the entire Chinese web novel translation scene. The author of ISSTH is Er Gen, and although he's relatively popular in the English-speaking world, he's actually a newcomer to the web novel scene, and is sort of a rising star.
Actually, I think web novels are popular in China the way that comic books or pulp sci-fi/fantasy novels are popular in America. They are are highly profitable and have huge audiences, but aren't necessarily viewed as "literature." For however many people love them, there are plenty of people who ridicule them.
BD: Wuxia is used somewhat broadly in the US to mean a range of genres, can you speak a little about the definition of wuxia and talk about related martial arts genres that are popular in Chinese media?
DB: Wuxia generally refers to martial arts stories that do not take place in modern times. Usually they feature fantastic martial arts abilities and skills that make the heroes capable of performing feats similar to western superheroes. Although there are occasionally magic and fantasy elements to wuxia, the most typical and classic wuxia is a bit more grounded in reality. Although the heroes accomplish impossible feats by means of manipulating the Qi in their bodies, they usually do not possess powers of high magic.
A genre very similar to wuxia is xianxia. Whereas wuxia literally means "martial heroes," xianxia means "Immortal heroes." The protagonists practice magical cultivation techniques, with the goal of becoming Immortals, or even beyond. Many times the characters literally become gods. Have you seen movies with guys flying around on giant swords, shooting energy out of their fingers, summoning dragons, etc.? Chances are you were watching a xianxia movie.
In addition to these two, there is another popular genre called xuanhuan or "alternative fantasy." These stories take elements from wuxia and xianxia and mix them with Western fantasy, sci-fi and other genres to create a mash-up genre that is incredibly popular.
BD: What genre is of most interest to you?
DB: Wuxia always has and always will hold a special place in my heart. I specifically prefer stories with wandering swordsmen who have adventures in Jianghu. Recently, I have been draw to xianxia, mostly because my current translation is considered classic xianxia. Xianxia transports you into a mythological world that far exceeds the bounds of the usual fantasy, or wuxia, setting.
BD: Why are official translations of wuxia and similar genres so scarce in English? Do you think we will see more printed translations of writers like Gu Long and Jin Yong in the future?
DB: I think there are a many, many reasons. Perhaps the most obvious is that these stories are difficult to translate. You either end up with something that differs in many significant ways from the original, with the goal of making the novel more readable to general audiences, or you end up with something awkward-sounding in English, but more accurate to the original Chinese. The easy-to-read translation misses out on a lot of the "heart" of the original Chinese, and angers dedicated wuxia fans, whereas the accurate version is not something wider audiences would be attracted to.
|Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils
Another reason printed translations is scarce is that the wuxia genre itself is not relevant to the general English-speaking audience. In China, wuxia stories are like stories about knights, pirates, or Robin Hood in Western countries. It clicks culturally. For English-speaking audiences, wuxia is exotic and strange, sometimes even unbelievable or silly. Without explanations of why the wuxia heroes can fly, shoot needles out of fans, immobilize people by hitting pressure points, etc., many Western readers tend to pass it off as "not realistic."
After the release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon there was a surge in popularity in wuxia, which is one of the reasons a handful printed translations appeared. That popularity has long since dwindled. Without something in mainstream popular culture driving an interest in wuxia, xianxia and other Chinese genres, I think it will be difficult to create a demand for printed books.
BD: I’ve often found explaining the reasons for the powers goes a long way toward getting American viewers to give the wuxia genre more of a chance. Could you elaborate on some of these elements and maybe discuss how some of them have been misunderstood in the west?
DB: I agree, and one of the problems is that in wuxia movies or books, the powers and abilities usually aren't explained in detail. Such things are so deeply ingrained in Chinese culture that it's not necessary. Take, for example, "qinggong," the ability to make the body lighter and faster to the point where flight and other superhuman abilities are possible. This is a martial arts skill based on real techniques, exaggerated in Chinese fiction to superhuman lengths. However, such abilities can be read about in Chinese books thousands of years old!
Essentially, the source of the wuxia special powers comes from manipulating the Qi and energy of the body in various ways. Again, this is an actual practice in martial arts, just exaggerated in wuxia.
It's easy to make the argument that wuxia heroes have powers that are no different from many comic book superheroes. While that is true, there is a major difference between the two that tends to cause Western audiences to be put off. In comic books, there is always an explanation for the super powers. A spider bite, a mutation, cosmic rays... there is always a "logical" explanation for the powers. In wuxia, there is no "explanation." The powers are just there, the result of "practicing martial arts" or finding that "secret manual." Because wuxia is generally presented as taking place in the "real world," Western audiences find it hard to reconcile. Like you said, I think the only way to solve the problem is for wuxia lovers to do their best to provide explanations and be passionate about sharing what they like with friends and family.
I think a third problem is special effects. With a very few exceptions, the visual portrayal of wuxia abilities has been poor. In some of the blockbuster movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers and Hero, the flying and other special abilities was portrayed in such an artistic way that it seemed more like dancing than fighting. Alternatively, in other movies where it was supposed to be "cool," the effects were so poor it just looked stupid. All of this leads to further misunderstandings and distaste on the part of general audiences.
BD: How long does it take to translate from the original language into English and what are some of the challenges that may not be obvious to readers?
DB: For the current story I'm translating, each chapter is about 2,500 or so Chinese characters, which tends to result in an English translated version of 2,000-2,300 words. Considering I've already translated over 600 chapters, I've gotten quite used to the author's writing style and quirks. I translate a lot faster now than in the beginning. Currently, if I focus and work quickly, and no difficult passages come up that I need to research, I can finish a chapter in 1.5 hours. Sometimes I run into Chinese characters, expressions, slang etc. that require further research, which can lead to a chapter taking 2 or even 2.5 hours. After that, the chapter gets proofread by my proofreading team, then I edit it, which takes about 20 minutes. Therefore, the total time from when I begin translating a given chapter to when it is ready for release usually costs me about 2-3 hours.
The ISSTH translation started out relatively slow, with only 5 chapters being translated and released per week (the author usually releases 3 chapters per day in Chinese!!) As the translation gained popularity, I began to increase the chapters per week, first to 7, then 12, finally to 14. Recently, I made the decision to leave my regular full-time job here in China to focus solely on translation. Right now I release between 14-17 chapters of ISSTH per week, and expect to increase it a bit more in the coming months. The novel has a total of over 1,600 chapters, and I just recently passed the 600 chapter mark, which means that at my current rate, I should be able to complete the translation in a little over a year.
Many readers are probably unaware of how different Chinese is from English. There are no formal grammar rules in Chinese, which often makes it difficult to figure out what any given paragraph is talking about. Chinese writers don't use periods except at the end of paragraphs. Usually a paragraph is a bunch of sentences connected by commas, which makes it hard to figure out where one thought begins and another ends.
Chinese has no true past, present or future tense. You have to rely mostly on context to figure out when something happened. Generally speaking, there are no plural nouns. Does the sentence mean "the most powerful warrior in China" or does it mean "the most powerful warriors in China." Big difference in English, but in Chinese, you have to rely on the context to figure it out.
BD: I am curious about some of the translation issues you’ve raised in the interview, in particular, humor. As a viewer, one thing that sometimes troubles me is I don’t know when something is intentionally funny or when it is due to translation difficulties. How do you find humor translates from Chinese to English and what did you think are some of the biggest misconceptions here among American readers/viewers?
DB: Whether you're talking about movies or written stories, there will be two types of humor. One is situational, the other has to do with language. The situational humor (into which I would lump physical humor for movies and such) seems to come across well regardless of culture. ISSTH is filled with a lot of funny situations that the English-speaking audience tends to find completely hilarious.
In contrast, language-based humor is often hard or impossible to translate. Chinese is so full of idioms and expressions, complex characters, homophones, etc. that it can make it very difficult. However, a clever translator should be able to overcome that challenge. In novels, it can be handled with clever translating or use of footnotes. In movies or TV shows, the translator might have to be a bit more creative.
In my opinion, the audience shouldn't be left wondering if something is supposed to be intentionally funny or not. Although misunderstandings are bound to crop up, a good translator should make the humor come across for the majority of the audience. And of course, things that aren't supposed to be funny... shouldn't make the audience want to laugh.
BD: For English speakers reading this interview who may be interested in learning more about these novels and web novels, but not sure where to find them or where to begin, what do you recommend?
DB: Well of course they could go to wuxiaworld.com which is the home to some of the most popular translations out there. One good place to start is the novel Coiling Dragon, which is one of the only completely translated web novels out there. Some of the other popular translations are Against the Gods, Tales of Demons and Gods, and Desolate Era.
Other than that, I would recommend the website novelupdates.com, which features reviews, ratings, and rankings that should help newcomers find a title that is a good fit. There is also a very active Reddit subreddit /r/noveltranslations. Every few days, someone on the subreddit asks for recommendations of novels to read, making it a good place to start the search for a novel.
You can find out more about Deathblade at:
WUXIA ROCKS INTERVIEW
Brendan Davis: Can you tell me a little about your background and experience with wuxia?
Wuxia Rocks: Yes. I was born into a family who enjoyed watching Wuxia series. At the time we were friends with the owner of an Asian video rental store, so my family would pick up various Wuxia series. That's pretty much how I got into Wuxia. My first introduction to the genre was a series called The New Adventures of Chor Lau-heung 1984, by TVB, an adaptation of Gu Long's Wuxia novels. Of course at the time I didn't even know what the genre was called. I was a kid entertained by all the colorful costumes and martial arts sequences. I was hooked. And from there I would watched just about every Wuxia series as they were release. Interestingly, I moved to a different state in the early 90s, but we somehow ended up making friends with another owner of an Asian rental store. So we continued to get Wuxia series throughout the 90s. Even now, I still watch Wuxia and still keep up to date with each series, even as early as they get in production.
BD: Can you talk about your family and why wuxia was important in your household?
WR: I wouldn't say it's important, it's just that when we first moved to the state, we didn't know English very well, so we just watched Wuxia for entertainment.
BD: As a kid, did you watch the shows in their original language or with English Subtitles?
WR: Neither. At the time the only options I got were dubbed. Thankfully, it was in another Asian language I understood, so it's fine. There were no English Subtitles for these shows back in those days.
BD: How do you define wuxia?
WR: Martial Arts Adventure. Or as it is define, 'Martial Hero.' I would describe Wuxia as stories set in ancient China, with people who practiced Martial Arts for various means, whether to protect the weak and oppressed, or to become the world strongest.
BD: What do you think are some misconceptions about wuxia?
WR: I haven't spoken to many outside of the Wuxia fandom, but the most recent misconceptions I came across were some who think Wuxia is about Ancient heroes in fantastical settings, with magical elements, such as spells, summoning, sword riding, and mystical beasts. The reason for this misconceptions is because they are not very familiar with Wuxia to begin with, and they only caught glimpse of recent Mainland China series. The genre is 'Xianxia', 'Immortal Hero', which is different from Wuxia, as it is more fantasy base. But the genre has become very popular in recent years, thanks to series like 'Chinese Paladin'. Of course the genre has been around long before that. But Mainland China has been producing a lot of them now, and to those who is not familiar with Wuxia, they might think that is Wuxia.
BD: For English-speakers who are interested in learning more about wuxia series produced in the 80s and 90s, before the boom of mainland series, what shows and resources might you recommend?
WR: Too many to list. But majority of them were produced in Hong Kong by TVB. While I enjoyed them growing up, I don't think they'll be as great to modern viewers, especially those who enjoyed the newer Mainland produced series. Not to directly compare them since they were made in different era, but those older series are low in production quality. Though they made it up with plot and acting. For anyone interested, I would recommend checking out their adaptations of Jin Yong stories. Demi-Gods, Semi-Devils 97, State of Divinity 96, Legend of the Condor Heroes 94, Return of the Condor Heroes 95, Duke of Mount Deer 98. As for the 80s, The New Adventure of Chor Lau-heung 84, Legend of the Condor Heroes 83, Return of the Condor Heroes 83, The Return of Luk Siu-fung 86, New Heavenly Sword and Dragon Sabre 86. There's a lot more, too many to list. For where to get them, that I don't know. Maybe some online sites. If you can find an English sub version, you're in luck. As they are pretty rare.
BD: For those who might not be familiar, can you give an overview of some of the different genres beyond wuxia?
WR: Beside Wuxia and Xianxia, I don't know as many. Historical is among them. They're mainly focus on historical events and figures. With a mix of martial arts sometimes.
BD: What kind of wuxia series, movies and books do you enjoy?
WR: Honestly, I enjoyed any Wuxia, as long as the story is good to me. The ones I loved most are stories written by Jin Yong; Legend of the Condor Heroes, Return of the Condor Heroes, Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber, Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, Smiling, Proud Wanderer. And a few Gu Long's stories as well.
BD: What makes Jin Yong in particular so popular? How would you compare his stories to those of Gu Long in terms of style and focus?
WR: I think what made Jin Yong's stories popular are their universal themes. Such as family, loyalty, right and wrong. They are relatable. His stories plays heavily with ironic tragedy and poetic justice. Example being, one character who uses poison all his life, in the end dies by his very own poison. Another one, the most vicious man ends up dying by the hands of the most innocent. Men with straight face carries hidden agendas. There's a well balance of action, drama, humor, romance, intrigue. I think it's these elements that made Jin Yong stories so well loved. They're filled with adventures of heroes and heroines going through trials and tribulations. Where as Gu Long's novels they are mostly about mysteries and crime solving detectives. His characters usually starts out powerful right away. Also his novels are often split into several different arcs. These are some the differences between Jin Yong and Gu Long's stories.
BD: What aspects of wuxia do you think sometimes get lost in translation?
WR: Probably the terminology. Sometimes not every words can be translated accurately. Or at least convey the exact meaning. I don't usually get bothered by these little things though. Wuxia are hard to come by as is already, any decent translations is better than nothing.
You can find out more about Wuxia Rocks at: