93. Interview with Jennifer Feeley

J Feeley Headshot August 2018

Photo: Shi Lessner

We asked Jennifer Feeley, translator of White Fox, for an interview, and to our delight she agreed!

Could you tell us a bit about yourself, how you came to learn Chinese and start translating?

I attended an arts high school, where I majored in Creative Writing, and we were encouraged to read as many books of poetry as we could get our hands on, so I spent a lot of time in the school library. One day, I stumbled upon Kenneth Rextroth’s One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, which then led me to One Hundred More Poems from the Chinese, and then two volumes he co-translated with Ling Chung: Women Poets of China and Li Ch’ing-chao: Complete Poems. On the same shelf, I also found Rexroth’s One Hundred Poems from the Japanese and One Hundred More Poems from the Japanese, as well as David Young’s Five T’ang Poets. I fell in love with these poems and wanted to be able to read them in their original languages.

When I started my undergraduate education at Oberlin College, I was torn between studying three different languages—Chinese and Japanese because of the above books, and Russian because I’d taken a Russian literature course in high school and become smitten with the writings of Dostoevsky and Anna Akhmatova (in whose translation I can’t recall). Chinese happened to best fit into my schedule, plus I’d been told it was the most difficult of the three languages (though I’m not sure if I agree with that assessment now), so I decided it made a good starting point. I double majored in Creative Writing and East Asian Studies, which worked together rather seamlessly, as I was able to fulfill many of the literature requirements for the former by taking courses in Chinese and Japanese literature.

Literary translation has long been a key component of Oberlin’s Creative Writing Program, and in fact, my very first Creative Writing course there was entitled The Poet as Translator. Many of our faculty members were poets who also translated (including the above-mentioned David Young). Even in our general poetry writing workshops, we did exercises in poetry translation, so literary translation naturally felt like part of creative writing to me. I went on to take workshops in literary translation, as well as independent studies, where I ended up translating poems by a Shanghai poet named Lu Yimin. I saw literary translation as a place where my interests in writing and Chinese literature intersected, and I knew early on that this is the career path I wanted to take.

I took a bit of a detour, however. After living in Kunming, Yunnan, for two years, where I taught English at Yunnan University, I decided to apply for doctoral programs. I ended up earning a PhD in East Asian Languages and Literatures from Yale and working as an academic for six years before I realized I wanted to spend more time translating (and writing non-academic works). Although I’d been working at a university that boasts a renowned MFA program in Literary Translation, my translation work counted for very little in terms of tenure and promotion, so I quit.

How did this particular translation come about? Were you contacted by the publisher or did you suggest the book to them?

Initially, I was contacted by an agent from Andrew Nurnberg Associates, the literary agency that represents Chen Jiatong (both within China and abroad), to translate samples from two of his series: The White Fox and The Dream Makers. It was my first time to translate works that felt like true page-turners, particularly in the case of White Fox—as you may recall, the first chapter ends with Dilah falling off a cliff, so it’s literally a cliffhanger. I wanted to keep translating both books so that I could learn what happened to the protagonists. It’s the first time that I thought of being a translator as being a sort of “literary detective.”

Not long after, Barry Cunningham, the Founder, Publisher, and Managing Director of Chicken House Books, expressed interest in acquiring Chen’s work, and he seemed fond of my translations, so Nurnberg put us in touch, and we spoke on the phone. Knowing that he had signed on J.K. Rowling and published Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone back when he was at Bloomsbury, I was intimidated, but I needn’t have been. Barry was incredibly kind, curious, and funny, and he was enthusiastic about Chen’s work. I also appreciated that he was interested in knowing my background as well. I also learned he’d worked closely with the great translator Anthea Bell, as he’d published her translations of Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart series from the German. From the way he spoke about Bell with such admiration, I could tell he appreciated literary translation as a craft. After I hung up the phone, I crossed my fingers and toes that he’d decide to take a chance on either series, and I hoped that he would bring me along for the ride. Needless to say, I floated up to cloud nine when I heard he’d negotiated a deal to publish White Fox and wanted me to be the translator!

As a side note, I’d like to put in a good word for The Dream Makers 造梦师. It’s a series about a young girl, Meng Qiqi, who conjures up fantastic dream worlds. I have no idea what’s happening with any potential translations of this series, but I hope it makes it into English one day. It’s truly delightful, and I love the character of Qiqi so much! She’s quite spunky and a great role model for young girls.

Personally, I very much enjoyed the sense of humor in the book, not to mention the names (I’m from Sweden, and Ulla and Jens are quite common here). Were there any particular challenges with that?

Figuring out how to render proper names was probably one of the most interesting, and at times challenging, parts of translating the book. Though Chen is from China, this is a very global book, as our protagonist, Dilah, embarks on a quest that takes him around the world.

Many of the names in Chinese appear to be transliterations of Western names, especially a lot of Scandinavian names. The book starts off in Finland, near the North Pole. In the first chapter, Dilah observes a human family living in a fictional Finnish small town. The name of the town in Chinese is 拉布尔 Labuer. I checked with the author and learned that he made up the name, so I realized I needed to invent an equivalent name that sounded like it could be an actual Finnish town but wasn’t. I ended up consulting my friend Johanna, who is from Finland but speaks Chinese—we were in Kunming together. She and her daughter came up with the name Lapula. As she explained it to me, the pronunciation is very close to that of Labuer, but the name itself doesn’t mean anything, though she pointed out that it sounds like the way a person who can’t pronounce the letter “r” would pronounce the Finnish word for “hangover.” I also asked for her help with naming the family. For example, the parents’ names—乔恩 Qiao’en and 玛丽 Mali—
generally would be rendered as John and Mary, but after talking to her, I decided to choose Jon and Mari, since the characters are Finnish. Alas, we ended up cutting the parents’ names out of the final version, since we didn’t want to overwhelm young readers by naming minor characters who only make one appearance in the book.

The examples you mention, Jens (金斯 Jinsi) and Ulla (乌拉 Wula), were fairly straightforward, though I did go back-and-forth between Ulla and Ura for the latter—ultimately, since the literary agency used Ulla in their catalogue description, I went with that. They’re also the ones who came up with Dilah (迪拉 Dila), Ankel (安可Anke), and Little Bean (豆丁Douding). Egg’s name has a story behind it. His Chinese name, 丹尼尔Danni’er, is in fact a transliteration of Daniel. However, when he first meets Dilah, he tells him that one of the syllables in his name, Dan, is a homophone for a word that means “egg” (蛋) in Classical Animalese, and that his mother gave him this name because he was naughty (a “bad egg”) when he was little. We decided to call him Egbert in English and nickname him Egg in order to retain the humorous wordplay.

Sometimes, the name in Chinese was clearly a transliteration (or pseudo-transliteration) of a foreign-sounding name, but I couldn’t always identify what the name was supposed to be. In those cases, I’d message Chen and ask him if he had a specific name in mind; sometimes he did, sometimes he didn’t. For example, the Great Sage of the Arctic foxes is named 梅勒 Meilei. I didn’t know if Chen wanted me to keep her Chinese name or if he had a certain non-Chinese name he wanted to use. When I talked to him, he told me he wanted a female version of Merlin, so we went with Merla. At other times, he didn’t necessarily have a name in mind, so I had free rein to create something based off the Chinese. There are a couple of instances where following the transliteration would’ve resulted in a long, cumbersome-sounding name. My editor was worried that our readers might be put off by those names, so in such cases, we ended up shortening them. For example, there’s a giant rabbit in the book named Lord Lund; originally, I’d called him Lord Lundgren. Another example is the villain in Chapter 3, whom I’d originally called Archelaus, and was renamed Klaus. These changes are understandable, since our target demographic is readers ages 9–12.

As for the book’s humor, I’m delighted that you enjoyed it. For me, much of the humor is found in the dialogue, which was so much fun to write. One of my favorite scenes is when Dilah and Ankel first meet, and Ankel (a weasel) is dragging a sack of green apples that’s bigger than his body. I love their encounter so much—Ankel playing dead, Dilah calling his bluff, Ankel’s passive-aggressiveness when he tells Dilah to go ahead and eat his apples, and then how he pouts about it afterward. You can really glean a sense of their personalities in this scene, and I think that’s part of what makes the humor so effective.

I know you’ve translated poetry and fiction from Hong Kong before. Was this your first translation for children, and if so, what were the main differences compared to translating for adults?

I’ve translated poetry and prose by mainland and Taiwanese authors as well! For example, I have a book of translations of stories and essays by Shi Tiesheng coming out either later this year or early next year from Polymorph Editions. It is true though that I’ve been translating a lot of Hong Kong literature recently. I tend to be drawn to works that are regarded as being “on the margins,” which initially is what drew me to contemporary Chinese poetry. That’s also what partially drew me to Shi Tiesheng, as we don’t have many works about disability translated from Chinese into English. Even though Hong Kong literature increasingly has gained recognition over the years, I still find that it’s largely overlooked, which is unfortunate, because there are so many phenomenal writers from Hong Kong, many of whom are women. One might say the same about Chinese children’s literature being overlooked, both in scholarship and in translation. I’ve been told—and I’m not 100% sure whether this is accurate—that White Fox is the first modern middle-grade series to be translated from Chinese into English. Let’s hope it’s the first of many.

Indeed, this was my first experience translating actual children’s literature. However, I have translated literature that adopts a child’s perspective. For example, I have translated fiction and poetry by the Hong Kong author Xi Xi 西西, who, in many of her writings, draws on fairy tales and other works of children’s literature, describing her surroundings with a sense of child-like wonder and curiosity. Xi Xi is very clear to point out, however, that her work definitely is not intended for children. Similarly, I’ve been translating fiction by a younger Hong Kong writer named Wong Yi 黃怡—she has this marvelous short story collection, The Four Seasons of Lam Yip 林葉的四季, whose protagonist is a ten-year-old boy, and the stories are told from his point-of-view. I think for both Xi Xi and Wong Yi, exploring the world through a child’s eyes creates a sense of defamiliarization, encouraging readers to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. It also allows them to tackle serious issues in a deceptively simple manner that avoids didacticism.

I wouldn’t say that children’s literature doesn’t deal with serious issues, however—quite the contrary. In fact, White Fox has several heavy scenes, beginning with the death of Dilah’s parents in chapter one. I cried at several points when I was translating this book, and there were times where I found myself wondering if younger readers could really handle some of this stuff. One of the things I’ve learned through this process, however, is to give children more credit.

When I started translating White Fox, I assumed that the main difference in translating for children, as opposed to adults, would be the language. While there were times that I ended up simplifying the language, there were also other issues to consider. At Chicken House, I am fortunate to work with a brilliant editor, Kesia Lupo, who is also an author, and she’s taught me more than I could have imagined about crafting a compelling story and making my writing more vivid. Some of the things I have learned from her include adjusting the tone for a younger readership, simplifying not just the language but also the action, improving clarity, and ultimately creating a story that will captivate young English-language readers. For example, Chinese can be an extremely ambiguous language, which authors often use to their advantage. In this case, however, I had to resolve such ambiguities. Another example is in the chapter when Ankel and Dilah first meet Little Bean. Ankel has swallowed polluted water and is deathly ill, and while Little Bean is in the process of treating him, he starts telling Dilah a story about a legendary rabbit in the folklore of the rabbit clan. The story goes on for several pages. We decided to condense that passage and move it to another part of the book, as it interrupted the narrative flow, and young readers would be clamoring to know whether Ankel survived. Of course, we cleared any major changes with Chen Jiatong.

Will the sequel be translated? I really want to know what’s going to happen to Dilah and his friends!

I’m thrilled to share the exciting news that Chicken House will publish the second book in the series in April 2021. You only have to wait a few more months to see what adventures are in store for Dilah and his friends in the next installment of their journey! I should warn you, however, that another cliffhanger may be awaiting you…

And I have more great news! The first book will be released in the US on October 6 of this year, published by Scholastic. There will be a jacketed hardcover edition available for $17.99, and an affordable paperback version for only $4.99 sold through Scholastic Book Clubs. I’m over the moon about the latter, as I remember ordering tons of books from Scholastic Book Clubs when I was in elementary school. I’m sure the process has been updated, but when I was a kid, we’d get these paper order forms with a list of books, bring the forms home, and check off the books we wanted, then return the forms to our teachers, along with our payment. When our orders came in, it was liked Christmas! It’s really heartwarming to imagine children marking White Fox on their order forms.

Thank you so much, Jennifer! We’re all looking forward to reading more of your work!

Read more about White Fox in this earlier post!

2 thoughts on “93. Interview with Jennifer Feeley

  1. Pingback: 92. White Fox | Chinese books for young readers

  2. Pingback: Feeley interviewed at Chinese Books for Young Readers | Notes on the Mosquito

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