Translating Afghanistan in China

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Ethnic China Lit has a fascinating article about Li Ji-Hong’s translation of Kaled Hosseni’s best selling English novel The Kite Runner. The article profiles the various difficulties and challenges inherent in such an endeavor. Certain things in the novel are censored for ideological reasons but the story is kept intact. Here is a fascinating excerpt from the article:

In translating this story about Afghanistan and its Muslim traditions, Li Ji-Hong is not working in a total vacuum. For example, there are books available to the general public that delve into the family lives and religious practices of China’s own Muslim population touching on some of the same traditions one sees in “Kite Runner.”

One is “Muslim Funeral” (穆斯林的葬礼) (13), a popular novel about several generations of a Muslim Hui family in Beijing authored by the Hui female writer Huo Da. It has reportedly sold more than one million copies in mainland China, and won the prestigious Mao Dun Literary Award. The book is rich in detail about the history of Islam in China, which dates back to the 7th century and the arrival of Muslims in Chang’an. Muslim customs such as the namaz prayers (five times daily) are described in highly readable, fluent Mandarin, but she also provides standard Chinese transliterations of those terms, which are familiar to many Muslims in China too.

I have also taken some time to compare Li Ji-Hong’s treatment of Afghan terms with the way some of them have been rendered by Ms. Li Jing-Yi (李静宜), the translator of 追风筝的孩子 (14), the traditional Chinese version of “Kite Runner” available in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Below, I point out some of the renderings of Afghan terms that typify Li Ji-Hong’s preference for “domestication”:

Salaam alaykum

Salaam alaykum or “peace be unto you” is an Arabic greeting used throughout the world – and among Muslim believers such as the Hui and Uighurs here in China – on a daily basis. It appears throughout “Kite Runner,” sometimes shortened to salaam.

The significance of this greeting is explained in “Muslim Funeral” (my translation): “This is a mutual blessing offered when Muslims meet one another. It expresses the fact that Muslims possess shared descent and faith. This is a shared expression among the world’s Muslims; no matter which corner of the land or the seas to which they travel, they can use this familiar sound to find their brothers and sisters.” (15)

“Muslim Funeral” uses a fully Chinese transliteration for this phrase, 按赛俩目而来坤.

Li Ji-Hong’s version, 你好 (16), the standard Mandarin “ni hao” greeting among Chinese, ignores the phrase’s origins and worldwide usage among Muslim believers.

Mashallah

An interjection used frequently throughout the Muslim world and “Kite Runner,” it can be translated as “Praise be to Allah.”

Li Ji-Hong’s version, 我的天啦 (“My God!” or “Gosh!” p33) (17), makes no reference to Allah, and replaces it instead with a popular Chinese exclamation, which no longer has religious connotations.

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