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Sunday, November 2, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Behind the Scenes

Translator Andrea Lingenfelter

Seattle Times book critic

Who is she? Seattle translator Andrea Lingenfelter.

What does she do? The 43-year-old Montlake resident, who holds a master's degree from Yale and a doctorate from the University of Washington, translates fiction and poetry from Chinese. She also did a last-minute subtitling job on the film "Temptress Moon," three weeks before it played at the Cannes Film Festival in 1996.

What has she translated? Two novels by Lilian Lee, "The Last Princess of Manchuria" and "Farewell My Concubine." She also contributed translations to Columbia University Press's "Frontier Taiwan: An Anthology of Modern Chinese Poetry." Most recently she translated Mian Mian's "Candy," a novel about the seedy side of the new China.

Her office setup: Lingenfelter works at home, where she also cares for her three children (her husband works full-time for Microsoft).

Spry, funny and sharp, she somehow manages to field interview questions while tending to her preschooler's needs without becoming completely distracted.

Her quiet office, in a finished basement of her family's bungalow, feels slightly removed from the rest of house. Outside its windows is a stand of bamboo that Lingenfelter, enamored though she is with all things Chinese, insists she didn't plant herself.

How did she get started in translation? And why Chinese? She tried Japanese for two years at the University of California, but "it didn't take, really." In her junior year, she switched to Chinese. "My mom actually gave me a push," Lingenfelter remembers. "Everyone's always intimidated by Chinese: That's the tonal language. Don't go near it! It's too hard. And I was intimated just like everybody else. But my mom said: 'You know, you're in choir, you can sing. Try it, try it!' And I absolutely loved it."

How much time has she spent in China? Lingenfelter first visited China as a student in 1981, for six weeks. "It was so very different then. It was post-Mao — but it wasn't very post-Mao. It was still very agrarian and very much Mao's China.

"Then in 1982 and 1983, I led several tours for a company out of New York. We went all over the country. It was the first time I got to travel extensively and practice my language. In 1984-1985, I lived near Chongqing and taught English for a year."

Lingenfelter moved to Seattle in 1985, and didn't get back to China again until last year, when she made a three-week visit.

How necessary is it to spend time in China to translate from Chinese? "I think it is necessary. To get real facility with the language, you have to use it. And you have to use it in daily life. There's a lot of slang, a lot of expressions that you pick up from people, just by being in a country. I saw Mian Mian in New York this summer, when the book came out. She complimented me on something I was wearing and asked me if it was "ershou" which literally means 'two hands,' for 'secondhand.' That's not an old expression. There are other ways to express that in the standard language, and suddenly this new word comes in. And it must come from English."

What was involved in doing subtitles for "Temptress Moon"? "They gave me what they call a 'dialogue list.' It isn't quite a script, because it's minus all the camera directions. It's just a list of characters' names and what they said. And they give you a videotape."

The film already had rough subtitles when it came to Lingenfelter, but the film's producers felt they were too literal.

Working in subtitles, Lingenfelter points out, doesn't give a translator much wiggle room: "The question is: How many spaces can you use, including the spaces between words, including commas and punctuation — everything counts. The size of the type that they decide to use determines how many characters per line. I did the whole thing," she recalls, "and then they decided that they needed a larger font."

As a translator, are you ever tempted to edit the text that you're translating? Or do you consider that unethical? "I don't feel that's my job. As a translator, my job is to bring into English, as best I can, the author's version of events, including the flaws. I make adjustments on a very low level. I re-punctuate things because I want it to flow, and feel it does flow very well in Chinese. If I weren't working with a publisher already, it would be more appropriate for me to edit a book. But you certainly wouldn't do that without conferring with the author."

Is it necessary for a translator to have contact with the author of the original? "Not really. I didn't have contact with Lilian Lee at all. The books stood on their own. They speak for themselves. And 'Candy' speaks for itself, too.

"But I found that I really liked having personal contact with Mian Mian. I'd send her queries: 'What exactly do you mean by this? What is this reference?' There's a lot of new stuff that has come into the language that I'd ask her about, just to be sure. A lot of loan words. When you see those at first, you think: 'Is this really what I think is?' And it is."

What is more important — being literally true to the original text, or making it a piece of literature in English? "It has to work in English. It has to be able to be its own thing. I try to internalize the voice of the writer, and intuitively the diction comes out of that. At some level, it's highly intuitive, and at another level it's extremely technical. I'm really picky about style."

Does she have writing aspirations of her own? If so, has anything been published?

"Not much, not yet. Not since college. It's on the back burner. I work at it a bit. And translation is sort of an outlet — because it keeps me in practice.

"It's a good exercise for a writer, technically. You have to assume a voice, you have a lot of constraints, but on the other hand your material is completely outlined for you."

Is it possible to make a living as a translator from Chinese? "A mighty good question. I think if I didn't have three children, one of whom is not yet at school, it might be possible to eke out some kind of existence. I can only do one book at a time, and I can't do more than one book a year, because of the kids being so young. But it's a great part-time gig."

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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