Michael Berry On the Art of Translation and Wu He’s Experimental Novel Remains of Life

Yesterday on the blog we shared an excerpt from Chi Pang-yuan’s memoir The Great Flowing River that recounted the beginning of our “Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan” series, as part of our ongoing feature for National Translation Month. The experimental novel Remains of Life by the writer known by the pen name Wu He (Dancing Crane), translated by Michael Berry is one of the most recent titles published in the series.

On October 27, 1930, during a sports meet at Musha Elementary School on an aboriginal reservation in the mountains of Taiwan, a bloody uprising occurred unlike anything Japan had experienced in its colonial history. Before noon, the Atayal tribe had slain one hundred and thirty-four Japanese in a headhunting ritual. The Japanese responded with a militia of three thousand, heavy artillery, airplanes, and internationally banned poisonous gas, bringing the tribe to the brink of genocide. Nearly seventy years later Wu He investigates the Musha Incident. A milestone of Chinese experimental literature, Remains of Life is a fictionalized account of the writer’s experiences among the survivors and descendants who live their lives in the aftermath of this history.

The novel has been praised, like in the literary journal Cha, which called it “a literary and translation feat,” and was a finalist in the fiction category for this year’s Best Translated Books Award.

A literary and translation feat. . . . Remains of Life is an important novel that touches upon the most profound aspects of life, with a depth and commitment that are all too rare in contemporary literature.
Cha: An Asian Literary Journal

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Next month at the Toronto International Festival of Authors (TIFA), Remains of Life author We He and translator Michael Berry will participate in a panel on writing about themes of colonial history, genocide, and reconciliation. Below is an excerpt of an interview TIFA recently released with translator Michael Berry, as well as an excerpt from Remains of Life.

As a Festival that celebrates international literature, many of the titles we present on stage derive from original works in languages other than English. We spoke to translator and author Michael Berry about the role of the translator, the most challenging book he’s translated and more.

There has been a lot of discussion in recent years, especially on social media, with regards to the role of the translator in the telling of a story. We posed this question to Berry and for him, the answer has and still is evolving.

MB: I think my view of translation has changed over time, and continues to evolve. But at its core, the role of the translator is to serve as bridge between cultures and languages. One of the most important roles I play as a translator is internalizing the prose of the author and rendering it into English in a way that best captures the style, voice, and uniqueness of the original work.

Part of that process is about letting yourself go—it isn’t about your voice or your style, but instead allowing yourself to be a vehicle that allows the author’s voice to break through the sometimes seemingly insurmountable rift of languages and cultures.

What would most readers be surprised to know about translation?

MB: I think a lot of people think of translation as a work-for-word exchange; almost mechanical in nature. However, there is a lot more that goes into the art of translation; it is (or at least can be, in the right hands) a very delicate process involving endless choices, subtle decisions involving tone and feeling, and often a lot of creativity and inventiveness.

This is especially true of Chinese where, unlike many western languages that share common linguistic roots, there are often not clear cut equivalents for many terms and concepts. So a big part of my process involves a level of internalization, fully taking in the original text, and then asking myself, how would someone convey that content in fluent English prose, leaving as much of the style, voice, and subtle connotations of the original intact.

[Remains of Life] pushes the boundaries on nearly every level—content, form, syntax, and even vocabulary.

Michael Berry’s most recent translation project is Remains of Life by Taiwanese author Wu He. Written as an ongoing stream of consciousness with no paragraph or chapter breaks, it’s truly an experiment in form. So how did Berry approach translating this story?

MB:Remains of Life was, hands down, the single most challenging book I have ever translated in the course of my 20 plus years as a literary translator. The novel pushes the boundaries on nearly every level – content, form, syntax, and even vocabulary. It was as if the only way for the author to capture and convey the horrific nature of the history being discussed was to contort the nature of language itself.

The translation process also presented numerous conundrums to me as a translator: for instance, what Romanization system to use for Indigenous names? To what degree is it the translator’s job to make highly contorted prose more “legible” for English readers? Ultimately, I decided against half measures – the book presents great challenges for native Chinese readers and I wanted English readers to confront those same challenges. So I tried to make portions of the prose that appear “nonsensical” in Chinese just as “nonsensical” in English, fully aware that some readers might think it was simply a “bad translation.” Because of the myriad challenges the book presented, it also became an extremely slow process, with many stops and starts over the course of more than a decade.

Read the interview in full here.


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Find out more about Wu He and the novel Remains of Life in translator Michael Berry’s introduction to the book.


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Read an excerpt from the beginning of Remains of Life: A Novel.


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If you haven’t yet, enter our drawing for a chance to win a copy of this book or any of the other titles we’re featuring this week!



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