Nicky Harman is one of the most versatile and enthusiastic translators of Chinese literature, and a few months ago we were delighted to hear that she had been commissioned to translate Huang Beijia‘s 黄蓓佳 much-loved novel I Want To Be Good! 《我要做好孩子》. Huang Beijia is a well-known author in China, with many books to her name, and was China’s nominated author for the Hans Christian Andersen Award this year. At long last, she is being translated into English! Thank you, Nicky, for agreeing to be interviewed!
Please tell us about yourself – what would you like our readers to know about you? Is I Want to be Good your first encounter with children’s books, and with children’s books from China?
Well, I suppose the first thing I’d like readers to know about me is that I’m passionate about translation because I want readers to have the same chances to read great stories from the other side of the world that I have. Translation is opening a window for them, and it’s a privilege to have the key to the window! I also happen to love the process of translating and I can’t exactly explain why. Perhaps because I love writing and playing with language, English and Chinese, but I have no desire to write my own stories. Up until now (and I started translating in the 1990s) I have focussed on literature for adults, partly because that was the work on offer. So I Want to be Good is my first excursion into children’s books.
I can’t wait to read your translation! It’s a much-loved children’s book in China. Please tell us what it’s about!
Here’s the blurb (I feel entitled to quote it, because I wrote it myself!):
Ling is an average sort of kid: cheerful, kind, brave when she needs to be, good at writing stories, but––no matter how hard she tries––hopeless at maths! In their last year of elementary school, Ling and her friends get ready for their middle school entrance exam, and the pressure piles on. I Want To Be Good is full of heart and humour. We share Ling’s adventures and misadventures, enjoy her small triumphs, and despair with her over her math scores. Then, just before the exams, something really special happens to Ling, something she is determined to keep a close secret…
As the school year comes to an end, Ling has learnt a lot about life, and herself, and is ready to face the next stage of growing up.
I’m curious to know how you feel about the title “I Want to be a Good Girl”. (I’ll admit that when I first came across this title, I found it off-putting and dismissed it. I’m happy to say I have changed my mind since!)
The title in Chinese is literally ‘I want to be a good child’ 《我要做好孩子》. I had no hesitation in telling the publishers that I thought translating it literally would not do the book justice. It was going to put people off even opening it, let alone reading it, just as it put you off. So I suggested, I Want To be Good. And that’s what it will be called. It works on various levels: she wants to make her parents happy (especially her mother), she wants to improve her maths, and last but not least, she wants to succeed on a personal level. She has ambitions, and resilience, she’ll go far, that girl!
What struck me about this novel is the relationship between mother and daughter. Although the blurb doesn’t mention her, the mother is an important figure, and I felt almost as much for her as I did for her put-upon daughter. Mum is complicated. She has the task of pushing Ling through her school exams and she applies the pressure relentlessly. But she is uncomfortably aware that she is at times making her daughter’s childhood fairly miserable. She doesn’t want to be a tiger mother, but she is forced to be. The father is much more laid-back, but that’s because he knows his wife will do the dirty work for him.
Could you tell us about Huang Beijia’s writing/style?
Huang Beijia writes effortlessly. There’s laugh-out-loud humour, often when you least expect it, and there are moments that make you go ‘Ouch!’ Here’s one passage:
Nana [Ling’s grandmother] did have one big regret in life: she couldn’t ride a bike. After she retired, Nana liked to shop, go sightseeing, and drop in on old friends. She and Gramps lived comfortably on their combined pensions, but calling a taxi every time she went out would cost far too much. Their pensions would soon be swallowed up. Then, when Ling’s uncle came on a visit from Shenzhen, he had a brainwave: he went out and bought them a tandem bicycle. Gramps sat on the front seat and steered, and Nana sat on the back seat and pedaled for all she was worth. They were a perfect pair. After this, they could go wherever the fancy took them, to the market, shopping, or the park. Wherever they went, they attracted quite a bit of attention.
Ling was actually quite jealous of her grandparents’ leisurely lifestyle. She told Mom a few times, “I wish I was sixty and retired. I wouldn’t have to study, and I could ride my bike every day. I could go wherever I wanted.”
Mom’s reaction was, “Well, that’s a real shame. You want to go from being a child to being old? You’d miss out all the good bits in between, your youth, your best years. Your life wouldn’t have any meaning, would it?”
“I don’t need meaning,” Ling said. “I just want to be happy. I’m not happy going to school and studying all the time. I hate all these endless tests. I’d be better off dead.”
Mom was appalled. She went pale and grabbed hold of Ling, as if afraid she was going to disappear from this world right then and there. “Don’t say dumb things like that! You wish you were retired like Nana and Gramps, but you have no idea, they’re even more envious of you cos you’re young. If you don’t believe me, go ask them. If they had a choice, they’d much rather be you any day!”
“Whatever. I just don’t like school,” Ling muttered.
I’ve underlined the ‘Ouch!’ moment. It’s just dropped into the conversation and it takes a moment to realize that Ling, the girl who bounces back smiling from every setback, is really feeling the strain deep down.
But of course, the novel is not all sad. There are a lot of hilarious incidents, and some uplifting moments too. I particularly loved the old lady roaring up on a motorbike at the end. But you’ll have to read the book to find out who she is…
I Want To Be Good is coming out, or is already out, in French (Editions Philippe Picquier), German (Baobab Books), Korean (Grimm-Young publishers Inc.), and Vietnamese (Le Chi Culture and Communications Co.,Ltd). So far, in English, the only edition is GBD Books, which distributes in India. Phoenix, the Chinese publishers, are actively looking for a UK or USA publisher.
I hear you are translating another novel by Huang Beijia – any chance you could give us a glimpse of what this story is about?
It’s about a girl growing up in Chengdu during the Anti-Japanese War — her father’s university has evacuated teachers and students from Nanjing, which the Japanese are bombing, to a safer location in West China. More than that I can’t tell you because I’ve done what I sometimes do and started the translation without reading the book. You can argue that either way, as a translator. If you don’t read the whole novel in advance, the narrative unfolds just as it does for the reader, and that can be quite fresh and interesting. I’m loving it, by the way.
Any more children’s books in the pipeline? Or is this a temporary diversion from the more adult subject matter you translate?
I do hope to get more of Huang’s novels to translate. I love them and I think young readers will too.
Huang Beijia was author of the month at the Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing in Dec 2019/Jan 2020, and included her short story 《心声》”From The Heart”, translated by Helen Wang.