152. Jemma Stafford translates the ‘My Cat Hates Me’ series

Before the pandemic, when browsing in bookshops in China, I kept seeing the same book with a willful-looking cat on the cover and a recognisable style of calligraphy. Then, I saw more of these books, sometimes with just the cat on the front, sometimes with other pet characters. They were obviously very popular books and very humorous, but I wasn’t getting the joke! So I was delighted when Jemma Stafford, who is translating these books, agreed to an interview. Thank you, Jemma!

Bai Cha 白茶, Jiu xihuan ni kanbuguan wo you ganbudiao wo de yangzi 就喜欢你看不惯我又干不掉的样子 (Changjiang wenyi chubanshe 长江文艺出版社, 2015) (image source: amazon.com)

Please tell us about yourself. What would you like our readers to know about you?

I’m Jemma! A Chinese-English translator. When I was young, my parents used to house foreign exchange students who came to my hometown to study English. It was a tiny seaside town, and apart from the students there was not much in the way of international influence. A number of our resident students were from Taiwan, and everything they had to tell me about their language and culture was so fascinating! My interest in Chinese language began there, even though I wouldn’t be able to pursue it until into my mid-twenties when I finally attended university following ill-health. Being that bit older, I felt conscious of language learning accessibility, and was acutely aware that as a child, accessibility to foreign language and culture in rural Devon had been extremely limited – something I would like to see change – prompting me to volunteer as an advocate for language learning and a mentor whilst doing my BA. Following my BA in Chinese Modern and Classical at SOAS London, during which time I gained a great interest in translation studies and classical Chinese literature, I undertook an MA in Chinese-English Translation at the University of Bristol. I am now due to begin a PhD at University of Leeds, focusing on Chinese-English translation. I also love videogames, comedy and cats.

The second book in the series (image source: thepaper.cn)

We recently discovered that you have been translating the super popular cat books. Could you tell us about these books?

I am working on a series of five books, all of the same franchise. Authored originally by web-comic artist Bai Cha 白茶 ‘white tea’ (an alias), these books are collections of comic shorts about the life of Bai Cha with his pets and, sometimes, other extra guests, that started out life as a webcomic series. Originally titled “I love that ‘you can’t stand me but can’t get rid of me’ look” 《就喜欢你看不惯我又干不掉我的样子》 , they are being released in English as the ‘My Cat Hates Me’ series. The comic shorts focus on Your Highness (originally Wu Huang 吾皇) and later his pug buddy, Bubba Boo (originally Bazhahei 巴扎黑). The books contain a lot of internet meme humour and young culture born of technology and social media, whilst also describing the struggles and joys of being a pet owner. These books are a runaway success in China, the characters are very well-known and much loved, and the author, Bai Cha [real name Liang Kedong], has won numerous awards including the LIMA Chinese IP of the Year 2018. The humour borderlines adult, better suiting teenagers and upwards owing to its occasionally strong language, but more so, because the internet humour employed will resonate more keenly with them.

Wu Huang 吾皇 and his pug buddy Bazhahei 巴扎黑

What was it like to translate these books?

These books presented some interesting challenges. One particularly huge challenge was maintaining the tone of the humour without overwriting it. In a handful of cases, jokes did not translate at all because they were Chinese puns and wordplay without an English equivalent, requiring some considerable creativity! In other cases, topics that might be regarded sensitive needed to be toned down for the anticipated primarily American audience. A degree of localisation has been used where it was deemed necessary. Sometimes names have been ‘translated’ to retain the humour intended, or in the case of city names, neutralized into generic ‘Cityville’ style names, to help reader accessibility. Deciding on the pets’ names was a surprisingly tough call, as I didn’t want to erase the source culture or language, but did want to convey the intent. The cat’s name is Wu Huang (a form of address to the Emperor of China), so translating it as Your Highness retains the meaning. The pug’s name Bazhahei was rendered as Bubba Boo – Bazhahei is a meaningless sound heard in music, much like ‘Oh boopie doo’, so I tweaked that a little to come up with Bubba Boo, which is not wildly unlike the names given to small dogs like pugs these days!

To give an example of one of the jokes that needed altering, there’s a short that centres around the search for a missing dog. During their search, the dog’s owners drop by a dumpling shop for a break, when a customer comes in and asks for dogmeat dumplings. Although the dog’s owner is angered, the fact that dog meat dumplings are available at all may be troubling for some readers, so in the English version, the customer asks for a Hot Dog instead, keeping a dog-related joke without causing offence.

Another challenge was finding equivalent internet meme humour – the book’s original Chinese title itself is a meme, prominent on WeChat (Weixin) and Weibo (Chinese social media platforms). Memes are, by their very nature, born out of common usage repeated over and over in a particular circle or platform, and it’s only natural that different cultures will spawn different memes. I often found myself plumbing the depths of the Chinese internet to discover usages and origins of memes and how best to represent them in English, either with a similar meaning, common meme or a joke that delivers an equivalent punchline. 

My favourite jokes were always the plays on words, and there is a phenomenal one coming in Book 3 (that I can’t elaborate on too much at the moment), which is a personal name consisting of one character repeated several times. The character sounds like ‘cool’, and looks OK written down, but it sounds terrible when spoken out loud – the absolute antithesis of cool! I can’t say more on that right now but it really made me laugh!

Anyone who had ever owned a cat or dog will love these books, because internet humour aside, many of the shorts cover universal pet owner experiences, things that you will read and feel an immediate understanding and empathy towards. As the series progresses, the author really finds his footing and the jokes just get better and better! You’ll love them!

“I didn’t move a muscle while I waited for you to come back, why don’t you believe me?”
“Play with me”

Are you working any new translations at the moment?

Well, I’m working on the rest of the series, and I also work freelance, translating videogames and researching videogame translation practices and reception. I really love the mixed bag that working in both literature and videogames presents, the combination of humour, drama, sci-fi and fantasy. I have a soft spot for ancient Chinese, so translating stories and games that are themed on ancient China with touches of classical flavour really appeal to me. Generally, anything that allows me the room to be creative with the source is a blessing. There are a great many approaches to how translation should be practiced, but for me, when it comes to anything intended to entertain, a degree of creativity that allows accessibility to new audiences whilst also introducing them to other cultures, building up a gentle familiarity and interest, is absolutely the best. I feel that if an approach is too direct, too word-for-word or too heavy on jargon, it turns off potential new audiences, which is a shame when there is so much excellent international literature out there.

Could you tell us about your own childhood reading?

I loved reading as a child, I was fortunate in that I took to reading quite naturally and had an above average reading age. I loved adventure stories and fantasy books, think the Magician (Raymond E. Feist) and Terry Pratchett novels. But I also read a lot of biographical stories from Eastern cultures, such as Wild Swans (Jung Chang) and Geisha (Mineko Iwasaki), keen to learn more about the other side of the world. As I got older I became more interested in videogames, particularly narrative-heavy stories made in Japan (known as RPG, role playing games and VN, visual novels),which later led me to want to learn more about Chinese videogames. Stories are becoming more interactive with the advent of videogames, and more high-quality stories than ever are now videogame stories. That said, I’m talking as an adult! As a child, I’d have loved to have had more books from and about the rest of the world – when I was in primary school, I didn’t have anything like that, and come secondary school, all the library had was the Arabian Nights tales. As a teenager, buying my own books was my only avenue to global literature. As a young person, my favourite book was any book our foreign guests brought with them! I was a night reader, reading in bed until I fell asleep – nothing is better than being so engrossed that you drift off to dream about it!

Thank you, Jemma. We can’t wait to see My Cat Hates Me, in English!

The first volume of My Cat Hates Me is currently at press, with publication due in October 2022. Keep an eye on the publisher’s twitter feed for details: @BrownBooks

Jemma Stafford on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jemma-stafford/

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