Nelly Arcan, the talented and beautiful novelist who committed suicide in September 2009 (see my Globe Books post here) has published a posthumous story called Shame (La Honte) that is creating a stir.
Nelly Arcan on the cover of her second novel, Folle.
Mr. Pretty Much, by Hu Shih, translated from Chinese by Jennifer Quist
Mr. Pretty Much
Who is China’s most celebrated person? You know him, don’t you? Everyone everywhere knows his name. His surname is Pretty, his given name is Much. He is in every province, every county, every village. You’ve certainly seen him, certainly heard it said of him, “Mr. Pretty Much represents all of us in China.” Everyone says it.
Mr. Pretty Much has a face pretty much like yours and mine. He has two eyes, but cannot see clearly; two ears, but cannot hear well. He has a nose and mouth, but isn’t particular about smells or tastes. His mind is not small, but his memory is not very good. He does not have a head for details.
He is known to say, “There’s no need to be so fussy. Everything is pretty much fine.”
When he was little, his mother sent him to buy brown sugar, but he brought home white sugar. His mother scolded him, but he shook his head and said, “Brown sugar, white sugar—aren’t they pretty much the same?”
He went to school, where the teacher asked him, “Which province borders Hebei to the west?”
Mr. Pretty Much answered, “Shaanxi.”
The teacher replied, “Wrong. It’s Shanxi, not Shaanxi.”
Mr. Pretty Much said, “Shaanxi, Shanxi—they’re pretty much the same, aren’t they?”
Later, he became a clerk in a money lender’s shop. He had learned to write, had learned to work with numbers—it’s just that he was never meticulous about doing either. In printing the character for the number one thousand, he often missed a stroke, making it into the number ten. The lender would get angry, reprimanding him as Mr. Pretty Much smilingly, obsequiously explained, “Between ten and one thousand there’s only one small stroke too many. They’re pretty much the same, aren’t they?”
He once needed to make an important business trip, a trip by train to Shanghai. Rambling all the way to the station, he arrived two minutes too late. The train had already left. Wide-eyed, staring into the distance at the trailing coal smoke of the train, shaking his head, Mr. Pretty Much said, “It’s all the same to me if I leave today or tomorrow. It doesn’t matter. But how could the railroad be so exacting? An 8:30 departure and an 8:32 departure—aren’t they pretty much the same?” He slowly, slowly walked home, muttering his disbelief that the train would not linger two minutes.
When Mr. Pretty Much fell suddenly, deathly ill, he sent his family to East Street to fetch Mr. Yang, a doctor who could treat his illness. His family scrambled to help, but after a quick search, Mr. Yang was not found. However, on West Street they did find Mr. Wang. He was not a doctor but a veterinarian, a doctor for cows. They brought him back to their sick loved one all the same. From his sickbed, Mr. Pretty Much knew Mr. Wang was not the man he had called for, but sick, in pain, afraid, unable to wait any longer, he thought, “It’s a good thing Mr. Wang and Mr. Yang are pretty much the same. Let Wang have a go at treating me.”
Cow doctor Wang approached the bed, using veterinary medicines and methods meant to cure Mr. Pretty Much. An hour had not yet passed before Mr. Pretty Much, alas, died. When Mr. Pretty Much was pretty much dead, able to breath only in faint, fleeting gasps, he said, “The living and the dead are pretty-pretty-pretty much the same—if everything is—pretty—pretty—much the same—then—everything is fine. There’s no need—to be too—too fussy—is there?” He spoke his motto one final time, and breathed his last.
After his death, everyone praised Mr. Pretty Much, studied his example, wondered at it. All his life he was never fussy, never exacting. He was truly a man of the finest moral character. He became a saint among the people, known as “Master of Flexibility.” His reputation spread farther and farther, became greater and greater. Countless, countless people studied his model behaviour. From then on, everyone—all of China—became a careless nation full of people like Mr. Pretty Much.
Jennifer Quist's Comments on the Translation
I began the task without any sense of its irony.
The task was my first literary translation of a canonical work of modern Chinese into English, my native language. As a humble beginner, I chose a text that was short and fairly simple. It was Hu Shih’s ?????. Some of my English-speaking classmates called it “Mr. Almost.” I’d seen it rendered in writing as “Mr. Close Enough,” which is a poor translation, and as “Mr. More or Less,” which is the best translation. I suppose I was too vain to give my translation the same name as anyone else’s, and as I sat at the table where I was supposed to be minding the coffee urn at a university conference, I opened my notebook to a blank page and called Hu Shih’s story “Mr. Pretty Much.”
Hu Shih has been called the architect of literary reforms in China in the early twentieth century. His 1917 “Suggestions for a Reform of Literature” validated and promoted Chinese writing, criticism, and scholarship in common rather than Classical language. He called for changes in literature and also in Chinese society. “Mr. Pretty Much” is one of those calls. It’s a fable, a lesson, a warning against the dangers of failing to safeguard details, especially when carelessness becomes widespread, as Hu Shih believed it was in China.
See it—the irony of a first-time translator choosing as her text a cautionary tale about the need for precision and exactness? From the translation of Hu Shih’s very first line—the title—precision falters, details slip away, the untranslatable emerges. In this story, the cliché of material becoming lost in translation doesn’t wait one syllable before it disturbs the entire endeavor.
Translation may be the most strange and fraught of literary projects. I have never tried to do it between any other pair of languages, but perhaps there is something in the exceptionally vast space between Chinese and English that highlights the problems common to all translation. There is no shared root language here—nothing providing hunches. The Chinese-English translator cannot, like Walter Benjamin, accomplish her task by standing outside a wood, calling into it, listening for the echoing back of her own voice. In translating Chinese into English, she walks into the wood, moss between her toes, leaves in her hair, branches snagging at her clothes, other voices in her ears, feeling and smelling her way forward, opening her mind and heart to what she may come to understand in pure but too often unspeakable language. There may be no shared hunches and very little shared history but there is always shared humanity. Here, it must be made to be enough.
It isn’t easy. Hu Shih’s story is written in a jovial, teasing tone, mixing formality with familiarity. I like it, tried to preserve it, but worried it might seem like my voice—the self-conscious translator’s—was inconsistent, not quite invisible enough. In the eight paragraphs of text, untranslatable puzzles come one after another. The foreshadowing in the play on the word ?, inadequacy, vanishes with the translation of the title. A little watered-down Hanyu Pinyin used to romanize the script salvages what would have been lost in a comparison between the pronunciation of the provinces of Shaanxi and Shanxi. But in the next paragraph, there is a distinct loss of elegance with the need to over-explain a plot-point that revolves around a misplaced stroke in the writing of simple numerical characters—the easiness with which the number ten ? could be misspelled in Chinese as ?, one thousand. The most difficult problem yet arises with the question of how to convey a subtle visual difference between the characters ? and ? to readers who know nothing about how either character is pronounced or written or what the words means. I resolved it by degrading it, equating the subtle, sophisticated difference to the rhyming of the names Wang and Yang. Hu Shih’s original story has no Yang in it. I know it. All of China knows it. The Anglophonie does not know—will never know—and I don’t know how to tell them without breaching the story, falling into a footnote, introducing it with an essay like this one, a translator’s commentary like a buzzing fly on the face of the prose.
Thank you for this forbearance—for waiting this long without swatting me away. Please enjoy Hu Shih’s story, or at least, the version I have rewritten—pretty much a translation.
Comments and Translation © 2017, Jennifer Quist
Jennifer Quist is the author of Love Letters of the Angels of Death (LLP 2013) and Sistering (LLP 2015), both of which have been honoured nationally and internationally. LLP will publish her new novel, The Apocalypse of Morgan Turner, in Spring 2018.