Review of ‘A Hero Born’ & some thoughts on wuxia translation

A Hero Born. Hailed as the Chinese ‘Lord of the Rings’, 300 million copies of series have been sold in Chinese. To the great excitement of the world, this masterpiece received an official translation that was published in 2018.

It’s 2019. Why is this review coming out only now?

Straight off the bat, I must apologize. MacLehose Press was so gracious as to send me a review copy and I never got around to it. I happen to be a Chinese fantasy translator myself, running in a cohort of likeminded folks. We were naturally tremendously excited to see an emblematic work come out in our sphere, and I personally looked forward to putting the novel up on my shelves as a reference guide for my own work.

Then, one of my colleagues got his hands on a digital review copy before my physical one came and our happy expectations came crashing down. More on that later.

So as a forewarning, parts of this review will be highly critical, as evident in how long it took me to eventually get to it.

Off topic: I like the cover design very much so. Michael Salu marries well the Chinese elements with English reader appeal. Covers sell books, and I definitely would’ve stopped in the bookstore when seeing this. I also love the insert art within the pages. They’re the perfect touch to bring the scenes to life.

So what kinda punk am I to not see Mt. Tai?

I belong to a group of online wuxia/xianxia translators, and have been in this scene for almost four years, witnessing firsthand the rise of online Chinese pulp fiction around the world.

We’re a bunch of wuxia fans, bookaphiles, or drama addicts who started out just wanting to share these awesome stories with those who didn’t know Chinese. We grew up binging on Jin Yong novels under the covers or cooing over the male leads in a wuxia drama. Some of us even take martial arts lessons, or tuned into the online Chinese literature scene when it took off more than two decades ago.

As the scene grew to a more developed, mature industry, some of us turned from hobbyists into full-time translators. I personally left behind a M&A consulting/corporate finance job to walk the jianghu full time.

Most translators work with web novels and churn through anywhere from 6,000 to 9,000 Chinese characters a day. While high literature and web novels aren’t typically mentioned in the same sentence, it’d be no hyperbole to say that those of us who’ve been around have handled several hundreds of millions of characters in a few short years. To quote what a friend in the scene once said, at some point, quantity becomes quality through sheer force of volume.

In short, we’re some uber fans who live and breathe this material daily. Naturally, we’ve got some opinions on translation styles and principles, yours truly included.

You say tomato, I say tomahto. So what’s in a name?

So we come first to one of my primary gripes about the translation — the names. Names are an absolutely crucial part of a novel, if not part of the heart and soul. They can make or break the audience resonating with a character, or turn an awe-inspiring fighting move into one with the force of a limp noodle.

In ‘A Hero Born’, we have male lead Guo Jing, son of Skyfury Guo, and female lead Lotus Huang.

A simple one-liner about the cast was enough to send me into paroxysms of horror when I first picked up the book. Some readers might look at me blankly and go what’s up? It’s all pinyin and Chinesey, ergo it looks fine in a Chinese fantasy novel?

There is so much wrongness here, but let me raise Harry Potter as an example. Since it’s originally written in English, that make it more apparent just how jarring the naming scheme is.

We have Harry Potter, son of James Potter, and a student in house Gryffindor (but could’ve gone Slytherin). He eventually marries Ginny Weasley.

Or rather, what if we had Harry Potter, son of Potter Zhanmusi, a student in house Gelanfenduo (but could’ve gone Slythern). He eventually marries Weasley Ginny.

And that, right there, is my biggest beef with the translation of ‘A Hero Born’ and why I couldn’t bear to read it. There’s a smattering of translated names in Western syntax. There’s pinyin names in Chinese syntax. There’s partially translated names in… an east-meets-west-and-they’re-still-fighting syntax.

To be clear, I’m not saying that translating the names into English is wrong. That’s a translator judgment call and reading about Skyfury Guo and Ironheart Yang is certainly much more intuitive and descriptive than Guo Xiaotian and Yang Tiexin.

However, consistency is key.

For non-Chinese speakers, is it readily apparent that Guo Jing and Skyfury Guo are related? I might just think they share a same name, like James Marshall and Marshall Lee, but they have nothing to do with each other. It’s an enormous cast to keep track of, and wouldn’t Guo Jing and Guo Skyfury be more intuitive that there’s some sort of familial connection?

Does that syntax feel weird? Sure, but these aren’t Western culture characters. It’d be stranger still if their names made perfect grammatical sense in English.

And why on earth do the two main leads have different name syntaxes? Guo Jing vs Lotus Huang. Was Lotus adopted by a Western family or raised in an English speaking world to justify the mish-mash of syntaxes?

This is often a judgment call to be made in wuxia translation. We’re dealing with a ton of pinyin, which is absolutely exhausting to keep track of in an epic-length novel. ‘Forefather Qianye’ makes much less of an impact than ‘Forefather Thousandleaf’. I chalk up the use of pinyin in names and honorifics as a stylistic choice, but the principle underpinning it all has to be consistency. The syntax and style must remain consistent.

For further reading on pinyin in translations, please refer to a semi-diatribe I once wrote.

Setting aside the fact that I don’t like Huang Rong being English-fied, interactions between characters that wasn’t present in the original had to be added in the translation to illustrate the use of ‘Lotus’. If a step like that had to be taken to explain a translator decision, doesn’t that hearken to the notion that this might not be a good idea?

I understand that Anna needed to indicate that the ‘Rong’ was a character used only in girl’s names, but alternatives would’ve been a footnote or (what I usually do) clarification of the character within the dialogue. The ‘rong’ character is also generally understood as a reference to the hibiscus flower…

Y’all need to get off your high horses!

But perhaps me and my colleagues are a bunch of purist translation snobs. Just as food doesn’t have to be prepared by a Michelin chef to be delicious, neither does a translation have to be the most accurate one in the universe for a novel to be enjoyable. We are hardly the authoritative experts when it comes to translation.

Ready to eat humble pie, I introduced the book to bookaphile and Chinese drama friends when it came out. I especially pointed it out to ABC friends with enthusiasm. These are folks who grew up watching the dramas with their parents and couldn’t fully read the originals due to the language barrier. They were absolutely perfect target audiences who would respond favorably to this masterpiece finally getting translated.

I ran into similar feedback, and noted the same with other online reviews. How the names are handled throw so many people off. I was bombarded with complaints from those I’d recommended the book to, with some going more in-depth in saying that the writing lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. To which, I wonder if Anna Holmwood’s background factors into it.

Anna Holmwood is a wonderful writer — despite my immense gripe about the names, the prose itself was lovely to read. Given her work with the Emerging Translators’ Network and previously as editor-in-chief for Books from Taiwan, her expertise and abilities are not to be doubted.

However, I don’t see many wuxia, xianxia, or xuanhuan works in her resume. For all we characterize wuxia as Chinese fantasy, it’s very much a genre and world of its own. Notions like the jianghu and wulin are completely absent in other genres and fantasy at large. It’d be similar to having a romance author write a litRPG novel. The end result would still read smoothly, and it’d be a great story, but the tone just wouldn’t be quite right.

…this all further reinforced my inertia to crack open the book.

You really are just a snob, etvo. Fite me with your kung fu.

What does wuxia experience matter? Literature is literature is literature.

Alright. Wuxia knowledge is imperative when it comes to naming martial moves and referring to quintessentially wuxia concepts.

Martial methods, weapons, and treasures are the bones of a wuxia novel and critical for the story’s structure. I found the translations in ‘A Hero Born’ to be very literal. ‘Bare Hand Seizes Blade’ or ‘Open the Window and Push Back the Moon’.

The Nine Yin Skeleton Claw, though I personally might’ve replaced Skeleton with ‘Bonecrusher’ or reworked the name entirely.

While those can barely work, something like ‘Twice Foul Dark Wind’ is off the mark. It’s a reference to a couple who practices the famed move Nine Yin Skeleton Claw. And the translation places the focus on the entirely wrong subject.

I’m really, really sorry, but a dark wind that’s twice foul… makes me think someone is letting loose with one helluva fart due to the ‘breaking wind’ idiom. More accurately, the translation should’ve been something like ‘Twin Devils of the Dark Wind’ or something like that. Tweak as one will for style and preference.

Whenever qinggong is mentioned, it’s done as ‘lightness qinggong kung fu’. I understand the struggle to translate this, I hate doing this term as well and opt for levitation skills (with a footnote) or immense leaps/jumps or qinggong. But so many words to describe one martial concept illustrates the ongoing struggle throughout the novel to accurately define the notion. In the end, the reader gets bogged down in the redundancy.

Being literal VS localizing more in the target language is a translation debate that will likely rage forever on. I fall on the latter side of that argument, and feel that it’s part of the translator’s job to translate the essence and meaning behind a phrase, rather than just parse a singular Chinese character into an English word.

Literal interpretations breaks immersion into the story and cuts into the flow of a fight at the very least, at the worst we get something that sounds kind of right, but isn’t. This is when knowledge of wuxia plays a role, especially in the world of xianxia that I play more in, where golden cores, nascent souls, and internal manors play a role in cultivation levels and dao.

For example, the ‘Supernova Point’ is a move that comes up in one of my own novels. Translated literally, it would be ‘Explode Star Finger’. Using that in a fight would be almost hysterically comical, not to mention the localized translation paints a more vivid picture on what the move actually does.

And this, this right here, is the bones of a wuxia novel. Treasured weapons clanging against each other in the pursuit of justice and revenge. Magnificent moves with immense schools of thought behind them being executed in their refined glory.

And in the midst of all that, an incredible farting villain dashing in and out of it all. Oh dear.

Incidentally, why is the Wades-Gilles spelling of Taoist used in the novel, but hanyu pinyin for all other Chinese words?

Here comes the rest of the kitchen sink…

Speaking of fights, some of the sound effects in them are straight up pinyin. I’m curious as to why ‘sha, sha, sha‘ was chosen over ‘whoosh, whoosh, whoosh’ in some aspects, but not all. Additionally, I might’ve missed the definition of wulin when it first comes up, but this critical wuxia term is referred to over and over again without immediate explanation. There’s a nod to the metaphor of ‘martial forest’ in the intro — who reads those though?

The moves in general are often referred to as kung fu in the novel. Though Anna gives the technical definition of kung fu as anything that takes dedicated practice or time to study (possibly to head off the exact point I’ll make, heh!), it’s hard to get away from the popular culture conception of the term.

Whether it be Jackie Chan, breaking bricks with one’s head, or high pitched screeching while bouncing on the balls on one’s feet, it seems to me that the term has moved slightly away from the notion that’s being referred to in ‘A Hero Born’. Language is a moving, breathing concept and it’s important to factor in its changes.

Translating the measurement units of jin, li, etc would’ve enhanced understanding of the novel without taking away from its authenticity.

I’m also not a fan of how all the titles were capitalized. “Only bad Emperors keep bad Chancellors.”

Suppose the bad Emperor only became bad because he lost his Sword to the bad Chancellor, who took it because his Teacher was secretly a Spy from another Nation? The Emperor was a good Emperor before!

When everything is capitalized, nothing is special. These are just little nits that would’ve gone a surprising distance to making the novel more accessible and digestible.

PS. The irresistible urge to giggle visits whenever I read ‘devilnuts’ flying around. Was there really no better alternative? Perhaps Chinese caltrops? That would’ve been a perfect subject for an illustration.

This Jin Yong guy seems kinda famous huh?

At the end of the day, why should one pick up a 400+ page book when there are so many adaptations, reboots, remakes, and remakes of the remakes, each with their own delectable cast and increasingly lavish sets to choose from?

And that brings me to a tangent. The dramas.

I’m not joking when I say that even the remakes have remakes. Jin Yong is SO beloved and SO iconic that there are nine versions of the Legends of the Condor Heroes drama alone. The last one was greenlit just this year. There’s three movies, an animation, manhua (comics), computer games, musical theater, even broadcast theater. This is all for just one of Jin Yong’s series.

There is so much history established with this series that it’s baffling for ~50 years of precedence to be bucked when it comes to naming. Surely it was foreseen ahead of time that the backlash would be enormous, yet the editors still decided to go with the executive decision of an inconsistent naming scheme. For being most concerned about the reactions of Chinese diaspora and Jin Yong fans, as Anna expressed in a CNA interview, this just seems odd.

Plus, this also comes across a missed marketing opportunity. Generations of Jin Yong readers are already out there, setting the stage for success from day one for the English series.

We get it, you obviously hate the novel.

At the end of the day, it’s a very well written novel. I thoroughly enjoyed the prose, especially compared to the web novels I usually have to wade through. Anna’s writing flows smoothly, and I really got vested in the pacing of the scenes.

If one is going into it without much knowledge of wuxia and is looking for a solid introduction to a Chinese classic, this is a solid pick.

If one wants to first read up on the Legends of the Condor Heroes before diving into one of the billion adaptations, this is also a solid pick. If one wants to revisit childhood nostalgia, this is fantastic.

If one is an opinionated bilinguist who counts themselves a ‘xia fan, this would not be the novel for you. You’d be spending too much time nitpicking over name translations and wuxia concepts to enjoy the work, and you’d still be unhappy at the end of the day. This here grouch is going to get off her soap box now, thank you for tuning in.

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