Travel Information

British translator shows foreign readers the charms of Chinese dialect

For British sinologist Robin Gilbank, taking the No. 311 bus in the northwestern Chinese city of Xi'an is as enlightening as attending a lecture on Chinese literature.

During the bus rides to and from Northwest University, where he is an associate professor, Gilbank is always able to pick up some idioms and expressions from the chattering commuters, helping him build his vocabulary in the local dialect.

The scholar has translated 1.5 million words of Chinese into English in the past decade.

A native of North Yorkshire, Gilbank developed an interest in Chinese culture during his college years at Aberystwyth University in Wales, and started reading Chinese literary classics such as the "Book of Poetry."

When he first came to Xi'an to apply for a teaching position in 2008, he immediately fell in love with the city.

"The locals are friendly and hospitable. and they speak in dialect, just like the way people in North Yorkshire do," Gilbank said.

Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi Province, is located in the Guanzhong Plain, a cradle of Chinese civilization. The region has a long tradition of producing prominent writers.

But the difficulties of translating their work -- often rife with obscure idioms and local dialect -- have been the main barrier to attracting Western readers.

Gilbank decided to give it a shot. He began to work with Hu Zongfeng, professor of literature and translation at Northwest, who provided him with great help in gaining a more precise understanding of the original text.

To gain more first-hand experience, Gilbank traveled widely with Hu across the province, attending all kinds of events from weddings to funerals in remote villages.

"These trips offered me more perspectives on literature in Shaanxi as well as China," said Gilbank.

In 2010, Gilbank and Hu translated Jia Pingwa's novel "The Country Wife" into English and published it in New Letters, an American literary journal. Since then, the two have jointly translated more than 30 Chinese novels.

Gilbank said with the development of China's economy, a growing number of Western readers are keen to learn about a more realistic and multidimensional China through novels.

In May 2017, Valley Press, a UK-based independent publisher, bought the world English-language rights to a collection of seven translation titles called "Shaanxi Stories." Three novels in the collection have been published.

In 2018, Gilbank also plans to publish two bi-lingual books about his experiences in Shaanxi -- "Explore China" and "An Englishman in the Land of Qin."

Since Chinese writer Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2012, Gilbank is often asked whether helping Chinese writers win another Nobel Prize is his goal.

"That's not the principal purpose. I think the first purpose is to try to select the right books which the foreign readers could understand," he said.