Meet the ’17 Fellows: Bonnie Chau

Each year, ALTA provides four to six $1,000 fellowships to emerging translators to attend the annual ALTA conference. This year’s winners were selected by Dick Cluster, Sara Novic, and Sebastian Schulman. We are excited to feature Travel Fellow Bonnie Chau:

IMG_4230Though she grew up in Irvine, California in a bilingual household speaking both English and Mandarin Chinese, and many of her job experiences revolved around multilingual or interlingual interactions, translation somehow never seemed to be a particularly relevant aspect of her life.

In 2011 while living in France and traveling abroad, Bonnie read a horrible error-ridden English translation of Madame Bovary—there was no translator’s byline to be found anywhere at all in the book. In fact, it was the first time she could ever recall even looking for a translator’s byline. Months later, newly arrived in New York, she came across Lydia Davis’s essay in the Paris Review, “Some Notes on Translation and on Madame Bovary.” It felt like a revelation. A year or two later, she was completing her MFA at Columbia for fiction, when she somewhat spontaneously decided to try out a translation workshop. It was taught by the inimitable Susan Bernofsky, and Bonnie was immediately enthralled.

In the Literary Translation at Columbia (LTAC) program, Bonnie had the privilege of studying with faculty including Mónica de la Torre, David Hinton, Alyson Waters, and Matvei Yankelevich. At the beginning, she translated more from the French than the Chinese—she had taken French in high school and a bit into college, and spent two years living and teaching in France. She’d bitterly and resentfuly attended Chinese school on Sundays from elementary school all the way through high school. French was her chosen language; Chinese had mostly been a burden. She eventually started leaning more toward translating from the Chinese, though initially mostly because there seemed to be many translators from the French and much fewer from the Chinese, both in her classes and out in the larger world. She also began noticing the political nuances that exist in the spaces between languages, between first and second languages…the elements of race, class, identity that are connected to language acquisition. Translating from Chinese then became a way not only to arrive at English from a different angle, but to get at Chinese, to reclaim Chinese. To enact the experience of living in the in-between space that is bilingualism, but also more specifically, the space in which the language of neoimperialism exists side by side with the language of the colonized Other.

Bonnie’s translation poetics are particularly informed and inspired by the writings and translations of Don Mee Choi, Johannes Goransson and Joyelle McSweeney, Jen Hofer, Yoko Tawada, and Chantal Wright. Many questions that she is committed to exploring in her translation practice arose while preparing for a roundtable at ALTA 2016 (“How to Sound Brown: Crossing (Out) Borders & Bodies in Translation” with Jennifer Hayashida and Ida Börjel): How is it that she hadn’t read a book of translated Chinese fiction until 2011? Why does it matter that almost all notable translators of Chinese fiction are white? As we call for more women translators and more women authors being translated—are we also progressing toward more translators of color and authors of color being translated? Where are the heritage speakers or translators from the diaspora?

Last year, she began translating short internet fiction pieces by the Chinese writer Anni Baobei, written mostly in the late 1990s/early 2000s, many of which explore the lives of lonely and isolated young women living in industrialized urban centers. A year or two prior, Bonnie’s sister, a scholar and professor of modern Chinese literature and film, had suggested Anni Baobei as a possible author to translate, with the qualifier that perhaps Bonnie would find her work “not literary enough.” Bonnie took a quick look and agreed. In the last few years, however, she began to think more critically about these notions of literariness, of awards, of power and the canon. She has been changing her mind.

Bonnie attended the ALTA conference for the first time in 2015, and is very much looking forward to the 2017 conference. She is extremely grateful to ALTA for providing her with this fellowship support.

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