A translator finds inspiration to overcome language barrier


作者:Mei Jia



A book cover of Unravelling the Mystery Chinese Faces by Li Xia, which was translated by American Jerimiah Willhite.

Words have meaning but the trouble facing translators is that the same word can mean different things. Translation is not just about transporting one word into another language, it is about the essence, the context of the moment.

American translator Jerimiah Willhite knows about essence and context.

"Forget your fate! I'm the master of my own fate! I'm the one who decides if I'm an immortal or demon!" Willhite translated these widely circulated lines from the animated film, Ne Zha. Based on a legend about the self-awakening of a naughty boy, it was China's second highest-grossing movie in history, with box-office takings of 5 billion yuan ($706 million). Its English subtitled version for North America theaters was released in August. The dubbed version came out in February.

The 32-year-old Seattle-based translator says that he had fun working with the film's subtitles and screenplay. Dealing with a typical chanted charm from a Taoist master, of which the possible English translations aroused huge interest among the domestic audience, Willhite's version in the film is "Qiankun Hoop, spanning the ends of the earth, be quick to obey my command".

He is familiar with Taoist knowledge thanks to his early reading.

"What initially drew me to China was practicing (the martial art) Wing Chun a long time ago. What kept me engaged was reading various Taoist and Buddhist texts, and seeing how much truth there was in them," he says in an interview with China Daily, pointing out that there are so many schools of thought stretching back across Chinese civilization that each has unique, valuable insights.


Willhite tours the St Vitus church in Prague, Czech Republic in 2017. A graduate who majored in Chinese language while in college, he has been active in both the film and television sector and in literary translation, including Chinese children's books and web fiction.

Born in Auburn, Washington, he was drawn to the written world as a teen, and enjoyed "experiencing the majestic adventures that could take place in my mind". He was fascinated after reading English translations of classical Chinese texts like Tao Te Ching and Sun Tzu's The Art of War. Later he would be able to revisit the classical texts in their original Chinese.

"The idea that there is so much we don't know, and that we should question the things that we think we know, is really powerful," he says. "Another idea that impressed me is that we should remember that there are things that might seem negative at first, but really we don't need to worry about."

He had a knack for languages in high school, where he learned Spanish. He found that he "enjoyed it, and had a good ear for things". He chose Chinese as his major while at the University of Washington, believing that learning the language spoken by such a large population would be "both useful and challenging".

He avidly read works by Chinese authors such as Lu Xun, Lao She and Eileen Chang, and felt the urge to bring their words to a larger English-speaking audience.

One of his favorite pieces of Chinese fiction is A Madman's Diary by Lu Xun. "There's something about an irrational or insane character being a foil to highlight certain issues with society that I really enjoy. The story is a great example of how he could adapt his writing style while still being critical of society."

When he graduated from college in 2009, he became a medical interpreter for several hospitals in Seattle, then moved to China and studied for his master's at Peking University.

Once, he walked about 1,000 kilometers from Lanzhou to Dunhuang, in Gansu province, traveling along the ancient Silk Road. At night, under a starry dome, he saw shooting stars in the Gobi desert. He realized from that experience that "people have so much more in common than we think, regardless of nationality, age, class or gender".

He did film and television translation. His works include The Grandmaster, a film directed by Wong Kar-wai, and the television series, The Battle to Save Our Marriage.

In the past five years, he turned more to literary translation, including web fiction.

"The flow for TV and film is different compared with literature. With literary texts, you have longer, more complete passages, sometimes with subtle meanings, metaphors, or context that you have to convey," he says.

Willhite works closely with notable children's writers Shen Shixi, Liu Xianping, Yang Hongying and Zhao Lihong. He believes their plot-driven stories of a faraway land with strange creatures will be appealing to younger readers of the English versions.

Willhite says that after a decade translating Chinese into English he has established a firm financial footing in what he views as an expanding sector. "I see a growing market there, as well as China's stronger cultural influences," he says. "And we have a growing number of students majoring in Chinese. There are even a few more schools focused entirely on teaching translation theory now."

Xu Baofeng, professor with the Beijing Language and Culture University, and also director of the Chinese Culture Translation and Studies Support Network, says that more native English speakers are joining the scene. They tend to be younger and well-trained, according to the network's experience working with 5,000 translators worldwide.

"It does show that Chinese culture is gaining momentum among a global audience, but it doesn't mean that Chinese works taking to a global audience is any easier. Quality is always the key," Xu adds.