The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai

September 8 was the 10th anniversary of the death of Eileen Chang (see The Tenth Anniversary of the Death of Eileen Chang).  On this day, via express mail, I received the copies of the new book from Columbia University -- The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai by Han Bangqing, first translated by Eileen Chang and revised/edited by Eva Hung.

My skepticism about the reception of this work is in the record already (see Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai).  Anyway, it would be far for me to say that there is no redeemable value.

At the very minimum, there is the approach to how to translate the names.  One of the major difficulties of reading Dream of Red Chamber in English is trying to remember the names of the large number of characters.  After a while, who knows who is who, especially if the translator chooses to use romanization.  It is hopeless.

In the case of The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai, there is a cast of major characters:

The Zhao Family

Simplicity Zhao, a first-time visitor to Shanghai who falls for high-class courtesans and cheap prostitutes alike.

Second Treasure, sister of Simplicity who comes to Shanghaiin search of him and ends up as a courtesan.

Madam Hong, mother of Simplicity and Second Treasure, sister of Benevolence Hong.

Clever, originally a servant girl at the Wei house in Generosity Alley, she later joins the Zhaos' establishment and strikes up a relationship with Simplicity ...

In the afterword to this book, Eva Hung explains:

Chang's approach to the translation of personal names is one that may arouse objection: she decided against the transliteration in favor of semantic translation of all personal names.  While this approach makes perfect sense in the case of the prostitutes -- whose names were given to them by their owners when they entered the profession and were chosen to convey various aspects of feminine allure -- it may be more problematic in relation to other characters.

The primary objection is that such names may cause each character to be perceived as a representative of a certain human trait, suggesting a kind of allegory similar to The Pilgrim's Progress.  The obvious and simple solution is to adopt a bifurcated approach (as David Hawkes did in The Story of the Stone), with semantic translation for names of prostitues and straightforward romanization for other characters.

After careful consideration, however, I decided that Chang's decision was backed by sound reason.  Chinese personal names in general carry a much more obvious semantic and cultural load than English ones: to put it in the simplest way, they reflect the background, good wishes, and ambition of the parents or name givers.  In the case of fiction, they are of course one of the easiest means of characterization.  Indeed the majority of names in this novel serve more than the simple purpose of identification: they also tell us something about the background or personality of the characters concerned.

Unlike what occurs in The Pilgram's Progress, however, names are not used uniformly in this novel.  Cases such as Simplicity Zhou and Juvenity Zhang are direct and obvious; they are young and unsophisticated men whose personalities and lack of experience are central to their roles in the novel.  In cases such as Prosperity Luo and Dragon Ma, their names mainly indicate their circumstances in life, while those of Devotion Yin and Second Bai Gao are indicative of certain personality traits.  Then there are the somewhat ironic cases, notably Constance (how despite her apparent good nature is not constant) and Benevolence (who is good to his friends but fails to look out for his kin).  Finally, some names characterize through literary reference: Green Phoenix bears more than a passing reference to another "phoenix" -- Wang Xifeng in Honglou meng -- and Water Blossom reminds us of Lin Daiyu, who is represented by a water lily in the same novel.

As long as a reader remembers that this is a Chinese novel, where the webs of relationships -- cultural, semantic, and social -- are different from English ones, the translation of personal names should be a bonus rather than a distraction.  After all, besides all the reason stated above, translated names -- unlike many romanized according to pinyin -- are pronounceable and easier to remember.