Literatures, Languages & Cultures

The art of translating culture and place

Teaching Fellow Esther Tyldesley tells us about her PEN Translates award-winning work on The Sacred Clan by Liang Hong.

Esther Tyldesley’s English language translation of Liang Hong’s The Sacred Clan has been published by Sinoist Books.

Photo of Esther standing at the foot of the steps to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing
Esther in Beijing. Before coming to Edinburgh, she spent four years in Guizhou Province.

Funded by a PEN Translates award, Esther has brought Liang’s collection of short stories to audiences in the UK and beyond who are unable to access the Chinese original.

Ever since a chance encounter with the writer some years ago, Esther had hoped to work on something by Liang Hong who chronicles contemporary Chinese rural life in both fiction and non-fiction.

We spoke to the Teaching Fellow in Asian Studies and Translation Studies about why The Sacred Clan is so important to her and what she brings from her role as a literary translator into the classroom.

Vivid characters and memorable situations

Before coming to Edinburgh, Esther spent four years in Guizhou Province working at a rural teachers' college for Voluntary Service Overseas.

“When I first read The Sacred Clan” she tells us “I expected a strong sense of place and a focus on the real-life issues that country folk who live far from the mainstream have to deal with.”

“The countryside is a complex place, where old rules and traditions that died out in the cities can still have a powerful influence. Farming work is hard and exhausting, and small town life can be claustrophobic and limited, but people know each other well, and strong friendships and ties help people through difficult times. There is space for solitude, and sometimes a hint of the uncanny as well.”

“What came as a surprise was how funny and human Liang Hong’s writing is – she draws the reader in with vivid characters and memorable situations, and this is so much more than a sober attempt to Educate the reader. She has a wicked sense of irony and a gift for dialogue.”

Pride and shared ownership

Asked about the translating process, Esther reflects that the most enjoyable aspects of working on The Sacred Clan were also the most challenging – “sharing a great story and a fascinating place that is a very long way from anything the average UK reader has experienced.”

“As someone who knows the Chinese countryside quite well, it was mostly easy for me to get a mental picture of what happens in these stories, but conveying that image to someone who does not know China is harder.”

“There is a strong urge to explain everything with brackets and footnotes, but this slows the story down and unbalances the reading experience, so in the final polishing stage one has to think like an editor, and convey as much as possible of the meaning and context without losing excitement or flow."

“When everything is done, there is a feeling of pride and shared ownership in a good story that makes all the hard work worthwhile.” 

The right word in the right place

“Much of Chinese-English translation in any genre boils down to culture and place, and this book has huge quantities of both things” says Esther, who has been teaching Chinese language and Chinese-English translation at the University of Edinburgh since 2004

It is hard to find one particular instance in this book of something that definitely will be teachable in the future, but there are skills in literary translation that are relevant to all forms of translation – clarity, readability, the right word in the right place.”

“Translations are often judged on whether they read well, and working on literary translation can help a lot here. As can raising awareness of how publishing works among students of translation. In particular, the role of the editor."

"Plenty of students have no interest in translating literature, and that is fine! But for those who do, it is useful for them to meet someone who translates books and gets paid for it – getting into literary translation work is not easy or well paid, but neither is it impossibly far away or out of reach. If I can translate books, so can plenty of other people."

As part of the Edinburgh Book Fringe, Esther will be reading from and discussing her translation of The Sacred Clan at Typewronger Books on Thursday 24 August 2023. The event is free and open to all.

Are you interested in Translation Studies?

The University of Edinburgh is an official Higher Education (HE) Language Partner of the Chartered Institute of Linguists and a member of the RWS Campus - Trados Academic Partner Program. With a wide range of languages offered, including Chinese, our one-year taught Masters programme will enhance your practical skills in, and theoretical understanding of, translation as an activity.

We also offer one of the most flexible PhD programmes in Translation Studies in the UK, enabling you to enhance your translation practice while gaining an intellectual and philosophical perspective on the activity of translation, developing you as a self-reflective and theoretically-minded researcher or​ translator. 

Find out more about Translation Studies at Edinburgh

Related links

Read more about The Sacred Clan on Sinoist Books' website

Find out more about our undergraduate programmes in Asian Studies