Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Shelly Bryant
By Yeow Kai Chai
"Think global, act local" was a concept attributed to Scottish town planner and social activist Patrick Geddes in 1915, and a century later, it rings truer as the world risks becoming more homogeneous.
American writer-teacher-translator Shelly Bryant exemplifies this adage: She is acutely aware of shifts in meanings as she flits between worlds. First a poet and a writer, she has in recent years gained a reputation for being a translator in demand. She is noted for her English translation of Chinese author Sheng Keyi's Northern Girls, which was long-listed for the Man Asia Prize in 2012.
A daughter of a preacher from Alvin, Texas, she moved to Singapore for a teaching stint at the Church of Christ churches in the early 1990s, and picked up Chinese from a family she's been staying with since.
Her knack for regional nuances means that she is adept at translating works by Singaporean writers and Cultural Medallion recipients, In Time, Out of Place by You Jin, and Other Cities, Other Lives by Chew Kok Chang as well as Sheng's two other novels, Fields Of White and Death Fugue.
Besides writing travel guides and a book on classical Chinese gardens, she is also an accomplished poet in English, with her latest and seventh collection, Unnatural Selection, an intriguing sci-fi narrative, published by Math Paper Press in 2015. Next up is her participation in Words Go Round, the Singapore Writers Festival's school/public outreach programme, where she will conduct a series of workshops on the technique of Chinese-English translation.
In the works are a new poetry collection, Numina; and more translations of works such as You Jin's Life is Text and Rainbow Days; Li Xinfeng's Following Zheng He's Footsteps through Africa; and a memoir by General Lu Zhengcao.
Bryant takes time off from her busy shuttling between Singapore and Shanghai, where she has set up a translation firm, to take on our Proust Questionnaire.
1) What are you reading right now?
I am currently reading Greg Bear's The Forge of God, Yeow Kai Chai's Secret Manta, the latest issue of Scifaikuest, and Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
2) If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play or poem, what would you be and why?
Probably someone like Caliban, Gollum, or Frankenstein's monster, since these are the characters for whom I always have the greatest sympathy.
3) What is the greatest misconception about you?
That I am not shy.
4) Name one living writer and one dead writer you most identify with, and tell us why.
The living writers I most identify with are probably Sheng Keyi and You Jin, which I think is a natural result of translating large volumes of their work, identifying with them as writers being a fairly large part of the job description. The dead writer I most identify with... that's harder. To some degree, Khoo Seok Wan, for the same reason mentioned above, but a better answer is probably Diana Wynne Jones or Ray Bradbury, because I share certain sensibilities with them in writing fantasy/science fiction.
5) Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
I don't believe in writer's block, just in various challenges to concentration on one's work. The best method I know for addressing these challenges or working around them is just to set aside time to work – if not on new writing, then on editing, polishing, organising, or submitting.
6) What qualities do you most admire in a writer?
I admire intelligence and fearlessness in a writer almost as much as I admire compassion. The willingness to think and engage deeply with a topic is an absolute must.
7) What is one trait you most deplore in writing or writers?
I probably get most irritated by mindlessness and pompousness, which often seem to come in a perfectly matched set.
8) Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
'If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me.' - W. H. Auden (I like this for the thought contained in these two lines in isolation, but love it more in context.)
9) Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I...
have gone from being a bit of a tech junkie to an absolute Luddite over the past 20 years. I thank the touchscreen for pushing me firmly into the realm of the fountain pen.
10) At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy, or an action thriller to watch, which will you go for, and why?
It would probably depend on the day. I've been known to watch all three on a single day, but that was a long time ago.
11) What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
My favourite word is understanding. I'm not sure what my least favourite is, but I am sure it ends with 'ism'.
12) Write a rhyming couplet that includes the following three items: kampung, preacher, cyborg.
to each kampung travels the new-age preacher
a cyborg wired with the Missionary™ feature
13) What object is indispensable to you when you write?
Oh. This one is tough. Pen or paper? Or my favourite ink? OK. I guess I'll have to say a cup of tea.
14) What is the best time of the day for writing?
I have always loved keeping late nights, but found it taking a toll on me as I aged. Usually now I try to block out 3-4 hours in the morning and 3-4 hours in the afternoon every day for writing and translating.
15) If you have a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
John Donne (the poet/persona rather than the historical person) because of the balance of deep insight and quick wit. And because he would probably be quite content to take the spotlight instead of making me do so. Hamlet, because a little gallows humour would fit the occasion, and I think he'd be up for that. King Hamlet's Ghost, just to see how Hamlet would react.
16) How do you approach translation? What boxes do you tick, and what pitfalls do you look out for?
I think of translation as a profoundly literary act – first a solid act of reading, then a faithful act of writing. There are pitfalls everywhere, both on the side of over-interpreting and on the side of being so literal that one misses all the artistry of the original. It is a process that requires very intense concentration, so another pitfall is overworking to the point that the mind (not to mention the eyes) is no longer fresh. Good literary translation won't happen under those sorts of conditions. I don't think of ticking boxes per se. Literary translation isn't task-oriented enough for that sort of approach. I suppose there are phases or steps in the process that one must hit that are something like boxes to be ticked. I would say the key phases are listening (i.e., reading), processing and thinking, finding the right voice, translating the original text into that voice in the new language, then polishing the work so that it reads well in English. When I've done all of that, I feel it's time to send the translation to my editor.
17) What would you write on your own tombstone?
QLRS Vol. 15 No. 1 Jan 2016