DUNG Kai-cheung 董啟章 is an award-winning Hong Kong fiction writer, playwright and essayist. He also teaches creative writing and literature at various universities in Hong Kong. Among his books published in Chinese are Androgyny: Evolution of a Nonexistent Species (1996), Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City, The Double Body (1997), The Rose of the Name (1997), Visible Cities (1998), The Catalog (1999), A Brief History of the Silverfish (2002), Works and Creations (2005), Histories of Time (2007) and The Age of Learning (2010). Columbia University Press will publish an English translation of his novel Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City in late spring 2012.
Christopher Mattison is a Visiting Fellow at the Hong Kong Advanced Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Studies (HKAICS) and co-curator of its Hong Kong Atlas—an online archive of Hong Kong writing.
Excerpts from Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City at 91st Meridian, the journal of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa
Order Atlas from Columbia University Press
Christopher Mattison: How did you approach the self-translation of early chapters of Atlas?
Dung Kai Cheung: I did translate a few chapters over the years for various anthologies and classes. The main reason for doing it myself is that it was the most convenient option at the time, but I am generally not inclined towards translating my own work. I write a bookish sort of English and have a non-native feel of the language. This is far from the basic requirements for a translator. However, since Atlas in its original employs a pseudo-academic language, my unnatural English may seem not too unsuited to the purpose. When I have the choice, I prefer having a translator other than myself.
CM: Could you then speak about how you triangulated the final translation with Bonnie McDougall and Anders Hanson for the forthcoming Columbia University edition?
DKC: Luckily, I found the ideal translators in Bonnie and Anders. They are excellent and experienced translators, and at the same time scholars, who have an affinity for the intellectual nature of the novel. In order to share the workload, I did the first draft of the “Theory” section myself. This is also the most obscure part of the book and I felt like I was the best person to sort out the complicated interplay between real and fictional cartographic theories. Afterwards Bonnie and Anders did a final edit on that section for me. They then divided up the work on the other three sections among themselves. In the end we all read through chapters translated by each other, so the result is a consensus on every matter, large and small.
CM: Having read early chapters of Atlas that you self-translated, I would concur that your feel for the English language works extremely well in this context. Your use of English adds a layer to the work that is difficult to quantify and integral to the overall feel—everything is right but something is not quite right—which feeds perfectly into the question of how much trust should be afforded the novel’s narrator, who shifts relatively seamlessly between historical “fact” and fantasy.
Was there any metamorphosis in the relationship between you and the Chinese version of the novel during and after the translation process into English?
DKC: I don’t think there were any significant changes during the process of translation. Some minor alterations were made both in the translation and to the original upon publication of a revised Chinese edition in 2011. Some revisions concerned the corrections of careless mistakes or the clarification of a meaning in the original and some did improve the text. For example, in the chapter “Mirage: Towers in the Air,” Bonnie suggested changing the name of the Spanish ship which rescues a Japanese shipwrecked sailor to “Esperanza,” meaning “hope.” I found this alteration highly evocative and the new Chinese version is altered accordingly. Since my way of thinking and writing is deeply influenced by the English language, I don’t see a significant transformation taking place in the translated version of the text. I may even say that, in spite of the complicated ideas and unrestrained imagination of the book, the Chinese original lends itself to translation into English.
CM: Continuing with the practicalities of translation, could you contrast and compare the difference between working on Atlas with Anders and Bonnie and earlier collaborations—with Flora Lam and Simon Patton on your story “The Rise and Fall of Wing Shing Street” or “The Young Shen Nong” translated by Ian Chapman for Renditions. Due to the dearth of work in English translation, a relatively small number of authors have the opportunity to work with a range of translators, and I’m curious if there was anything that you learned when working on the translation of the earlier short stories that you then were able to utilize with the translation work on Atlas?
DKC: On previous occasions, the translators worked by themselves and I wasn’t involved. So there wasn’t any collaboration. The translation of Atlas is the first time that I’ve worked directly with translators.
CM: Could you say something else about how the English language “deeply influenced” this and other work? And what you mean by “lends itself”—which flirts with claims that have been made against certain “international” writers—that their more recent literary work is not so much influenced by, but rather tailored for an international English-speaking audience. I certainly don’t think this is the case in terms of your work. Related to this, of course, is your position not just as someone writing originally in Chinese, but situated in Hong Kong—which is a literary nation unto itself, and one sorely underrepresented.
DKC: I said my language is influenced by English because since I studied Comparative Literature at the University of Hong Kong much of my reading has been done in English. The influence is not just in terms of subject matter and literary forms but also of sentence structure and diction. My Chinese has been regarded by some language purists as “Europeanized,” which is meant to be a criticism for not writing in a proper Chinese. It is in this sense that I said the language of Atlas “lends itself to translation.” By this I mean not that it is simple to translate, nor do I mean that it is written with the intention of being translated, and thus gaining international attention.
CM: Was Atlas written entirely in the handover year of ’97—and did you begin with the framework of the novel’s sections “Theory,” “City,” “Streets,” and “Signs”?
DKC: It could be, or maybe the writing began in late 1996. Anyway, the pieces in the book were primarily written in 1997. The framework appears gradually. I don’t remember when the division into four sections came into being. It came about naturally, without forcing anything in the process of writing.
CM: Three related statements appear in your Preface to Atlas that I would like to hear you expand on:
DKC: Some things may better be left unexplained, but I will try. Firstly—this is the primary theme of the book. Hong Kong as a work of fiction doesn’t deny the historical reality of the people living here from the very beginning until now. We may say that there was a point when the city was “founded”—out of a void. If the British had not chosen this barren southern island practically unknown to the Qing authorities in 1841, I am fairly certain that there would never have been a city called Hong Kong, nor a city in the likeness of the Hong Kong we have, over the past two centuries and in the centuries to come. In this sense, Hong Kong has been created out of nothing and that is what I meant by the word “fiction.” This statement is made against one of the prevailing views, propagated before 1997 and after, that Hong Kong has a history of 6000 years (the number is constantly aged whenever a relic from some prehistoric era is unearthed in the territory), which is meant to “prove” that Hong Kong has always been a part of the Chinese civilization. I find this form of proving Hong Kong’s Chinese roots dubious at best. The truth is, Hong Kong was created by the British, at least at the very outset. I am not placing a value on that; it is simply a fact. And the fictitious or created nature of Hong Kong has its advantages. It has made this city wonderfully open to change and innovation. It is mirrored in the creativity of its people. Ironically, this advantage has been on the decline since the return of Hong Kong to China, a historical event which was supposed to have ended the city’s rootlessness.
In terms of “borrowed places,” this is a statement repeatedly quoted to the point of being tedious. Its standpoint is British or western, the borrower being the British and the lender China. But where are the people of Hong Kong? The people who experience the reality in this time and space are excluded from the statement. That is why I say that the statement is terribly biased.
And finally, by belonging I don’t mean belonging to a geographical place, which doesn’t make sense. Or, to be a place at all that anybody can belong to. The people who inhabit the place make up the essence of the belonging. Since this people must be multiple in number, the belonging that they share is a common thing.
CM: When we first moved to Hong Kong a year and a half ago, I had a nostalgic notion of a hybrid city that had grown from a strong “local” tradition, augmented by waves of colonial influence and immigration. Certainly the layers of influence exist, but rather than present-day, and most likely future, Hong Kong being a “melting pot”—through both lived experience and your novel—I’d now be much more likely to characterize Hong Kong as a shelf of palimpsests that never gets fully erased. There is occupation and displacement of spaces throughout the city but very little interaction between its diverse groups and cultures.
DKC: You mention the lack of interaction between groups and cultures. It is true, in spite of what I said about Hong Kong’s openness and adaptability. I suspect it is even more so over the past ten years. The shared common sense we once had has been disintegrating. The hybrid nature of Hong Kong culture, in some aspects, may be more imagined than real. There are juxtapositions and the co-existence of different things, but little interaction. On the other hand, recent interaction between Hong Kongers and mainlanders has fermented into a form of mutual resentment or even hostility. Most certainly, there is no idyllic picture of a people, or peoples, sharing common concerns peacefully and harmoniously. Yet, “belonging,” I believe, is still the key to understanding the people who live here, but have for so long been rendered non-existent within the political dialogue.
CM: One more question about collaboration and then a move towards influence. Beginning in, I believe, 2003 you started work on a project with Arts Link in which you created 12 short pieces that were published along with work by the illustrator Li Chi Tak, and your “Wing Shing Street” was also adapted into graphic panels by local artist chi hoi for one of the hijacking collections. In the case of chi hoi he was working from your finished story, distilling and transforming everything into a few pages—but what was the exact structure of the collaboration with Chi Tak? Was this, in part, an ekphrastic activity or was Chi Tak simply responding to your writing? And could you please talk about the work in this collection.
DKC: The Artslink project was intended to be a collaboration but it turned out to be a one-way project. In each instance I would write the article first and then Li Chi Tak would read it and work on his own to produce a drawing. The illustrations were linked sometimes literally and sometimes symbolically to the text, and they were great, but not much interaction took place between us. Though I have occasionally collaborated with artists from other forms, I am basically a traditional writer, preferring to write on my own. I am not against cross-media exploration, but for myself as a writer, I am focused on doing what can be done in no other way than writing. Ready adaptation into other forms is something I resist.
CM: In terms of influence, I imagine there will be no shortage of reviews and critical articles citing Borges and Calvino in relation to Atlas. Certainly stellar writers—but could you inform your forthcoming English-language audience about some Hong Kong-, Taiwan-, or other-based influences that may not be so familiar. I’m thinking again, in part, about the relatively modest exposure that Hong Kong writing has received in relation to work from the Mainland or elsewhere.
DKC: As for foreign influence, before Borges and Calvino, I was more fundamentally influenced by Proust. My M.Phil. thesis at the University of Hong Kong was on Proust. This influence may not be prominently reflected in Atlas but certainly in my longer works such as Histories of Time. A point worth stressing here is: no matter whether it is Proust or Borges or Calvino, I read them in English translation. So, they are first of all anglicized, and when their influence shows itself in my writing—in someone who is Hong Kong Chinese, they undergo further translation and transformation.
Writing in Hong Kong and in a Chinese language embedded with Cantonese and English, I am indebted to many Hong Kong writers of the older generation who, before me, had already been engaged with such a social, cultural and linguistic milieu. Liu Yi Chang, Leung Ping Kwan and Xi Xi are the most important sources of inspiration and models for aspiration. Their works are representative of Hong Kong literature in terms of language, literary forms and subject matter. They embody the awareness of and concern for Hong Kong as a distinctive locality of living and existing in its own right and thus its literature as a self-building and self-representing practice. Though the history of Hong Kong literature is relatively short (starting roughly in the 1920s), there is already a tradition which is independent of, though related to, developments in Taiwanese and mainland Chinese literature. In the ’90s I was also influenced by Taiwanese literature. Writers like Zhang Da-chun and Chu Tien-wen left their mark on some of my earlier works; Zhang on the skepticism on the truth of historical narratives and Chu on the feminine voice in my writing. I feel close to Taiwanese writers of my generation, like Luo Yi-jun, who is the same age. I was attracted to some of the most important mainland Chinese writers in their more innovative periods, that is from the late ’80s to the early ’90s, but their overall impact on me was not as significant. In short, my reading of mainland Chinese contemporary literature has been rather irregular.
CM: I’d like to finish then on Hong Kong and how you characterize Hong Kong writing, as something distinct from other Sinophone literature?
DKC: Hong Kong literature never rests on the merely collective or the merely individualistic. It is always in a relationship between the two. This relationship is never simple and is often full of tension, but it is at the heart of the dynamics of Hong Kong literature. The most representative work in this respect is Xi Xi’s novel My City, first published in 1975. The title itself already suggests the duality of the individual and the city. Hong Kong writing has a strong assertion of the self, as a free-acting and free-thinking individual independent of any form of coercion, be it political, social or economic. Yet, at the same time, Hong Kong writers can never forget their existence as belonging to a common world in the form of a city. The “my” and the “city” in Xi Xi’s title isn’t just a personal concern. The “my” is also an “I” in the plural. In the notion of “my city,” neither does the “I” disappear in the generality of the “city,” nor does the “city” become a mere cluster of subjective experience. It is a relationship of mutual belonging. It is this mutual belongingness that accounts for the intimate and yet panoramic representation of Hong Kong in its literature.