Found in Translation

An Introduction to BookPeople’s Lit in Translation Coterie by Gregory Day

There is a phrase that has been jammed in my mind this summer: “Translations are sacred.” For a few years now, I’ve been almost solely reading fiction in translation. These works have brought the world to me (well, as much as they can), helped inform my worldview as well as diversifying my taste. As I enjoy work after work, I always take the time to reflect upon the translation. My endless fascination with global stories may have very well have brought me to my life of bookselling.

Like a good film editor, a translator’s efforts are nearly invisible to the audience. Languages are not always compatible, phrases do not always translate perfectly, and honorifics certainly become troublesome. Nothing 100 % translates exactly but the emotion and ideas must transmit. And that is the plight of the translator.

A slight detour: part of the way through the American/South Korean motion picture Okja, a character purposely mis-translates another character’s statement. This, obviously, is a plot point that causes harm and ultimately brings about the phrase: “Translations are sacred.” And one of the many points the picture makes, most of which we won’t get into here, is that understanding one another despite language barriers is essential to our betterment.


This sentiment is very true of literature. Empathy for others is a just notion that defines so much in this world and with works that help us understand the plights of others or works that simplify our cultural divides continue to captivate me. I can sit in my apartment in Austin, Texas reading a great Russian novel, or a modern masterwork from South Korea, or a South American short story collection and only have to travel to my local bookstore for an insight into the artists and minds of other countries.

Fervor among readers and booksellers alike for works such as Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Trilogy and Han Kang’s The Vegetarian as well as the recent resurgence of interests in authors like Clarice Lispector and Stefan Zweig, prompted BookPeople’s creation of a Literature in Translation section earlier this year. And in our current global climate of populism, rising tribalism, and refugee crises, reading and understanding global stories is ever important.

This is the first of many posts by a group of like-minded booksellers that want to share their love of translated works from around the world and hope to inspire readers of all kinds to come in and join in our discussions and adorations about these works in the store.

To kick off Found in Translation, I will be spotlighting Eileen Chang’s Half a Lifelong Romance, translated by Karen S. Kingsbury. And starting this project couldn’t be more fitting as August is Women in Translation month.

Chang is without a doubt one of the 20th century’s masters. She superbly encapsulates China in her work with precise prose that transports the readers into her world through small details like describing cheongsam collar widths or the clicking sounds of mahjong tiles. She was also a master of melodrama and popularized the “love during war” genre with short works such as Love in a Fallen City and Lust, Caution. Both works and many others have long been highly regarded in the West and it wasn’t until 2014, nearly fifty years after its original publication that English-readers were finally privy to her epic, Half a Lifelong Romance.




Right out of the gate, Chang throws this reflection at us: “That’s all they’d had, from meeting to parting–just a few years together. But in the brief span, they’d had a full measure: all the joy and the sorrow that comes with (as the old saying has it) “birth, old age, illness, death.”” Starting in the 1930’s Shanghai, Chang takes us through adolescent crushes, war, and finally into insolation. Here, like in most of her works, her characters live in times of great strife and thus their emotions exude like ink leaking from a busted pen. Shen Shijun and Gu Manzen spark a romance, but given Chinese customs of the time their budding romance is in coded conversations during work hours or under the cover of crowded lunches. Every word they exchange is a tinge of feeling simmering beneath their facades. Shijun and Manzen walk the streets of Shanghai, too restrained to even touch each other in public view. Chang elegantly leads us through this courtship that is brimming with anticipation, all the while turning the screws of an impending doom. Inevitably, Shijun’s and Manzen’s romance is disrupted by the Japanese invasion of Shanghai as well as the unbreakable social constraints of the times.

Half a Lifelong Romance is an epic of emotions, both of happiness and of longing. Originally titled Eighteen Springs, it spans a decade and a half. It chronicles the matters of the heart, where some feelings may never die, despite how much the world has tried to kill them. Chang bookends her epic with reflections and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to wet the pages with your tears when arriving at one of its final passages:
She’d seen it clearly all along. It was as she said: they couldn’t go back. Now he understood why he’d felt trapped in a daze today. He’d been fighting against time. Their last parting had been so sudden, so unexpected, they’d not had a chance to say goodbye. When they walked out of this room today, they’d be saying goodbye forever. It was completely clear, like death.


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