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Anna Holmwood: A word from the translator - 'nihilistic, raw, crisp'

English PEN talks to Anna Holmwood, translator of A Yi's psychological thriller A Perfect Crime (July 2015), about character, China and the lingustic and emotional differences between translating from Chinese and from Swedish. 

I had a hundred yuan left after buying the pliers. Might as well buy the rope and knife while I was at it. You had to get a certificate to buy a combat weapon, so at first I thought of purchasing a fruit knife, but the shopkeeper gave me a conspiratorial smile and I realised I needn't be so careful. He led me into the back room and took out a box of army switchblades. I chose the cheapest one. I was going to strangle my victim with the rope, but if they fought back I might need a knife. Plus, a switchblade would lend the whole event a ceremonial feel.

I hid it in my bag and threaded my way through the crowds.

Extract from A Perfect Crime by A Yi (Oneworld Publications, 2015), translated from the Chinese by Anna Holmwood.

Interview by Georgina Norie.


The book is told in first person and from the point of view of the male protagonist, who remains unnamed throughout. The style and tone of the writing depicts a cold character, but also a contradictory one as we read glimpses of poetic observations, witness emotional outbursts and watch as he experiences inner conflicts, such as wanting to 'protect' his victim. Is this how you perceived him in the original text and what was it like to translate such a character?

Indeed that's exactly how he seemed to me in Chinese, I'm glad that came across! Needless to say, he is a troubled young man, isolated and angry. He has internalised a social prejudice that is becoming more prevalent in Chinese society as it becomes more capitalist, namely against those from poorer rural families. To me, our narrator is taking the myth of the 'Chinese dream,' much lauded by the government at present, and exploding it in our faces. Here is a young man on the cusp of adult life and he doesn't believe in any future for himself. He is a deeply nihilistic character. The whole point of committing such a horrific act is the need to be caught and destroyed, knowing as he does that he will face the death penalty. He is using the system, its rules of justice, to achieve that. What makes him a threat to society is the fact that he is using our sense of justice to eradicate him, to make us murderers just like him. While he has a cold, cutting tone, I don't see him as emotionless. The poetry of his voice also makes us question why he wants 'us' to destroy him. His choices are not borne of 'ignorance' or a lack of sophisticated thought, but rather a reaction to society he sees around him and its hypocrisy. He was a very unsettling character to translate, as much for his desire to die as his ability to murder.

Early on in the book, the narrator contemplates how prisoners learn a vocation, like carpentry, so that they have a trade when they’re released from jail. In comparison, as a law-abiding citizen, the narrator feels the only thing he has learned is 'how to masturbate'. What is the relationship between boredom and extreme violence in A Perfect Crime – is it a necessary relationship in A Yi’s view?

In some ways, our narrator is a familiar teenager, not uniquely Chinese in the fact that he is bored with the pressures and constrictures of a life dominated by deferred reward. 'Study now and you will have a bright future.' But is the knowledge that a formal education gives us actually useful? Could it be that the 'depravity' of instant self-gratification in this way is actually more meaningful than the kinds of lessons society decides we need to learn? I think a comparison with the terrible poem the journalist writes is an interesting one. Our narrator's poetry is brutal and ugly, but it gives us more to think about than her trite attempt at summing up the consequences of his crime. If all he knows is how to masturbate, he might still understand human nature better than the most educated citizen. Extreme violence, as I read this novel, is a kind of carnal knowledge in some ways akin to masturbation, much like the prospect of his own death. This is our narrator's challenge as presented to us. I daren't claim any philosophy on behalf of the author, A Yi, but I think we can speculate about our narrator's thinking and views on violence.

Author A Yi’s writing is notorious for its consistently dark subject matter. To what extent do you feel this book is an exposé of sorts of China’s ‘darker side’ while it is going through major social, political and economic change, especially from a rural perspective?

The 'darker side' of China's reform and opening up is becoming a familiar trope in the west, and while there are indeed many aspects to the rapid social changes going on that are troubling, I think we as readers must be careful of taking literature coming out of China too literally. Ultimately, every society has a dark side, as does every individual. I prefer to read A Yi's work in terms of his creative imagination rather than what it might 'reveal' specifically about Chinese society. This is a rather inadequate answer, because of course literature is produced by writers reacting to the society and world around them, but that relationship is complex, nuanced and personal. A Yi's work is a product of his own concerns and I wouldn't like to call it an expose, because I think he would feel this rather flattens the potential readings we might make, and also the potential to let what he's saying affect the way we see ourselves, as citizens of many different countries besides China.

You also translate from Swedish, your mother tongue. What are the similarities and differences of translating from Swedish and Chinese into English?

My mother is Swedish, so indeed it is my mother's tongue, although I consider it my second language. I wouldn't like to translate into Swedish, but working from a language I grew up speaking with my family is very different to translating from Chinese, which I learned after graduating from university. I could talk about all the ways that Chinese is different from European languages and the various cultural and linguistic challenges those differences present, but even more than that, for me there's an emotional difference. I am distinctly not 'Chinese' from birth, although I have married into a Taiwanese family so that does make me connected emotionally now. But Swedish is a language in which I can comfortably express what I'm feeling, that I use to convey certain emotions even more without translating them than in Chinese. It is not a language I learned in a classroom. So rather than relate to the literature I'm translating through what I've learned formally, as I do with Chinese, I understand it in a more intuitive way. I am reminded of things I saw my grandmother do, not of what a teacher has told me is a common custom. While I have lived for a few years now in Asia (China and Taiwan), I am still more of an outside observer here than when I'm in Sweden. This creates a difference in my approach, perhaps I am a little less intellectual about translating from Swedish and a little more poetic? I am a subtly different Anna in English, Swedish and Chinese, so that cannot but affect the ways I read and write too. Mostly, I think these differences are evident to me more than anyone else.

Describe the book in 3 words.
Nihilistic, raw, crisp.


About the translator

Anna Holmwood translates literature from Chinese and Swedish to English. She was awarded one of the first British Centre for Literary Translation mentorship awards in 2010 and has since translated novels, countless short stories for publication and samples for agents and rights sellers. She is currently working on a major series of Chinese martial arts novels by Jin Yong for MacLehose Press. In 2011 she co-founded the Emerging Translators’ Network to support early career translators, and was elected to the UK Translators Association committee in 2012. She lives in China.

Read about A Perfect Crime and its author A Yi on the World Bookshelf.

Posted by Rebekah Murrell, Friday 26th June, 2015

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