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Borderless Book Club – Strange Beasts of China

11 February 2021

Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge, translated from Chinese by Jeremy Tiang, (2020) Tilted Axis

It’s been a while since I blogged about the brilliant Borderless Book Club, but fear not, I’ve continued to criss-cross the world with fellow bookworms. First launched in March 2020, this book club for translated fiction from indie presses has continued to lift my lockdown blues and broaden my literary horizons.

In February, enthusiastic host Maddie Rogers, whisked us off to Asia with Yan Ge’s Strange Beasts of China, masterfully translated by Jeremy Tiang. It wasn’t an ordinary trip to explore modern-day China though, this time we were transported to a strange world where all manner of beasts live amongst ordinary humans. I was just as intrigued by the fabled creatures as our cryptozoologist narrator tracking down each species and piecing together her own mysterious past. The style and setting were quite unlike anything I’d ever read before, so I looked forward to hearing what had inspired Yan Ge and how she had worked with Jeremy Tiang to bring the story to readers in English. It was also the perfect read to mark the start of the Lunar New Year!

After a brief introduction by Tilted Axis Press, a non-profit press publishing mainly work by Asian writers translated into a variety of Englishes, Maddie was keen to hear more about how Strange Beasts came to be translated into English. First published in Chinese in 2006, Strange Beasts is one of Yan Ge’s early works. The English translation felt like a miracle, she said, pleased to reconnect with the energy she felt when she first wrote the book. Jeremy agreed that it seemed like a miracle. It had taken a long time and, looking back, the process felt like a fragmented dream.

Yan Ge published Strange Beasts not long after her mother passed away, writing as who she was as opposed to a writer following certain rules. The emotions were much rawer than in her later work written with more distance. Praising Jeremy as a dream translator for any Chinese writer, it was clear that their close friendship was key to the successful collaboration on such an emotional and personal book. Yan Ge was able to trust Jeremy and the process was much smoother than other translations. The key for Jeremy seemed to be the opportunity to hang out together in Norwich—Yan Ge’s home and a translation residency for Jeremy—and eat lots of cake. There may also have been a few questions about classical Chinese too.

Digging deeper into Jeremy’s craft as a translator, Maddie asked what it was like to tap into the voice of a 21-year-old. Like time travel, Jeremy said. Like going on a psychic journey, not to a real place, but rather a process of inhabiting the frantic energy of a younger Yan Ge before they had met. It was important to remember that, like the narrator, Yan Ge also wrote Strange Beasts in serialised form. "It is a youthful fantasy of what it’s like to be a writer," Jeremy explained. "An adventure where the writer constantly lives by the skin of their teeth—far removed from my own life as a writer in New York."

Like Maddie, I was dying to hear about the inspiration behind Strange Beasts. Yan Ge explained that she had drawn on the Chinese classic Shan Hai Jing, an encyclopaedia of mythological beasts. She borrowed the format of entries with brief explanations and short anecdotes, a popular form in Chinese literature. The first chapter, Sorrowful Beasts, came naturally and was written in a single day at a time when Yan Ge was living in a dingy student flat, playing in a rock band, and reading lots of poetry. The other chapters, however, took longer. Flourishing Beasts was written during a period when Yan Ge thought a lot about her mother. The rest of the chapters were produced under stress as her own editor chased her, just like the editor in the book.

When asked about specific translation challenges, Jeremy began by describing the book as a very intense read. The narrator is at a constantly high emotional pitch, unlike his own natural temperament, so he had to find a similarly expressive tone in the translation. The visceral nature of the text and the somewhat violent and graphic passages also required special consideration. It was important to be true to what was depicted without becoming too gory. Maddie asked about the mix of genres and Jeremy agreed that the range of tones melting together had been a challenge. It was also interesting to hear how Jeremy translated the first chapter on its own, without knowing what was coming next, in order to recreate Yan Ge’s own writing experience.

Has Yan Ge’s style changed since she wrote Strange Beasts? Yes, was the simple answer to Maddie’s question. Yan Ge now writes in both English and Chinese and feels like a very different writer today. Her writing is much more realistic now. She often uses Sichuanese dialect, for example, and sets stories in small towns or rural areas. Peace and happiness are also common themes. Looking back, Yan Ge sees a younger writer who wasn’t playing by the rules, someone who was writing out of the box because she simply didn’t know what the box was. Perhaps she has gradually learned how to be a human since then, she suggested. Re-reading Jeremy’s translation, she was shocked—horrified in fact—at the implied image of the writer in Strange Beasts. She also felt that she had let go of a lot of things since then in order to please others and accommodate the critics. If she had to pick, Yan Ge said she would describe herself as a Sorrowful Beast because she probably still has those sharp teeth in her belly.

The Borderless Book Clubbers had plenty of questions for both Yan Ge and Jeremy.

Would the book be adapted for TV? A young team in Shanghai had indeed worked on an adaptation which had entailed several major changes to the original story: the government became a big corporation; and the beasts become robots because the censors deemed human-beast relationships too unethical. A conclusion that had puzzled Yan Ge. The show has yet to be aired.

When asked about including illustrations, Yan Ge explained that the first Chinese edition had contained illustrations of the beasts at the end of each chapter and postcards had accompanied the third edition. Jeremy added that illustrations could actually run the risk of drawing a greater distinction between humans and the beasts than the text suggested. Weren’t they beasts that looked just like us?

Jeremy shed more light on how writing and translation interact in the creative process. Earlier training as an actor had been good preparation for embodying—and interpreting— someone else’s text as a translator. "It’s not a matter of putting aside my own voice, it’s about saying here’s my voice, here’s Yan Ge’s voice, and this is what it’s like when you put them together."

To wrap up the conversation before the breakout rooms were opened, Yan Ge and Jeremy shared their own favourite beasts. Flourishing Beasts for Yan Ge because she wrote about them whilst thinking of her own mother. Heartsick beasts for Jeremy because of the careful way in which they were constructed and how they carried everything that happened in their bodies.

It was then time to hear what others thought and make some new friends all over the world. Maddie always does a great job of sharing a few links with interviews and articles in the invitation, along with questions to help guide the conversation in the breakout rooms. There was no doubt that Strange Beastswas a huge hit in my room. We ran out of time for discussion, blown away as we were by the range of themes covered in the book: families, absence, searching, romance, gender roles, genre hopping and so much more! The favourite beasts were also a great conversation starter with different readers connecting in different ways with different beasts.

One of the top books this season? Strange Beasts of China is definitely front runner for me!

Curious about the backstory to a book that has been translated into English? Fancy meeting fellow bookworms from across the world. Then why not join us? Borderless Book Club meets every other Thursday, 8pm on Zoom. No charge. And don’t worry if you haven’t read the book (I admit I haven’t always finished in time!). Just sign up for the Borderless Book Club mailing list here and you’ll receive the invitation every fortnight!

And if you feel like supporting Maddie and the team now that the arts funding has ended, why not buy a crowdfund Ko-fi here. The good news is that the target for the Winter was smashed. But what about the next season?

Johanna McCalmont is a bookworm and literary translator based in Brussels, Belgium. She translates from French, German, Dutch and Italian and also works as an interpreter.

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