Translator moves between worlds

Author Jeremy Tiang is one of Singapore's most prolific Chinese- to-English literary translators despite growing up in an English- speaking household and having no formal training.

He has translated Chinese works by Cultural Medallion recipients such as Yeng Pway Ngon, Wong Yoon Wah and You Jin, as well as authors from other Chinese-speaking territories such as Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Born to a Sri Lankan father and a Malaysian mother, he attended The Chinese High School, where he had his first brush with Chinese literature, which he loved. He also encountered plays by academic and playwright Quah Sy Ren, who was teaching at the school then.

"Seeing his plays was a formative experience for me while growing up. My first work of translation was a play written by him and playwright Tan Ing How, titled The Assassin, The Medium And The Massage Girl," he recalls.

He read English at Oxford University in Britain and trained as an actor at Drama Centre London.

"Having lived overseas for a lot of my life, I've become good at moving between cultural contexts," he tells The Straits Times in a Skype interview from New York, where he is based.

He declines to reveal his age and marital status.

"Growing up in Singapore, I had to constantly move in and out of English- and Chinese-speaking worlds. I discovered that I understood both well and could make one legible to the other - a necessary skill for a literary translator."

Tiang, who won the National Arts Council's Golden Point Award writing competition in 2009 for his short story Trondheim, attended a translation workshop when he was enrolled in the University of Iowa's International Writing Program in 2011.

In Iowa, the United States, he met Chinese writers such as Su Wei-chen from Taiwan and Zhang Yueran from Jinan in Shandong, China, whose works he ended up translating.

He says: "I learnt translation by doing it and by working with good editors. To be a good literary translator, you need to look at the original language and unpack the deeper purpose of what the writer is doing and go beyond meaning and style to uncover his mindset and attitude."

His latest short story collection, It Never Rains On National Day (2015), was published by Epigram Books and nominated in the English fiction category at this year's Singapore Literature Prize.

When he translates a work, he immerses himself in the context in which it was written.

For instance, he spent a day in Tainan, Taiwan, when he was working on Su's books.

He says: "That experience gave me an insight into how people spoke and informed how I was able to understand the text.

"Web forums are also useful. If I get stuck while translating slang, I Google it and look it up on sites such as Weibo to see how it's used, to figure out the context. Many things are not in the dictionary, so you've to see how people use it."

In January, he adapted the Chinese classic Dream Of The Red Chamber for theatre, which was staged by Pan Asian Repertory Theatre in New York.

He has also translated Hong Kong writer Chan Ho-Kei's detective novel The Borrowed, due out in January, and is working on a couple of other translations, including Yeng's Opera Costume, which received a merit award at this year's Singapore Literature Prize.

He says: "Singapore has good translators, but I'm surprised that we don't have more, given how multilingual we are.

"To have truly Singaporean literature, we need translation."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2016, with the headline 'Translator moves between worlds'. Print Edition | Subscribe