NEA Big Read
To Live

To Live

by Yu Hua

Just as a mother beckons her children, so the earth beckoned the coming of night.

Yu Hua (photo: Michael Lionstar)

Music Credits: “Song of the Traveling Daughter,” written and performed by from the CD, Song of the Traveling Daughter.

“Renewal,” composed and performed by Doug and Judy Smith.

Michael Berry: It’s a very Chinese novel, and a certain sense about Chinese history, about the Chinese national character, about the vicissitudes of history, and the suffering that so many people experienced in modern China. And hopefully the English translation can impact people another world away that maybe they can learn something about China in ways that they never expected.

Jo Reed: That was Michael Berry—he’s the English translator of Yu Hua’s epic novel and up-coming Big Read selection To Live and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed.

Over the last ten years, the National Endowment for the Arts has supported more than 1,200 NEA Big Read projects across the country. 4.2 million Americans have taken part in community-wide programs that each explore a single book. Well the Big Read is expanding to include a greater number of contemporary authors and one of the 13 new books is Yu Hua’s novel, To Live. Yu Hua is one of China’s best-known authors and To Live is now considered to be one of the country’s most influential books. This is an extraordinary turnabout for a book that was banned by the Chinese government when it was published in 1992. To Live was also made into an internationally-acclaimed film which won the Palme d’Or at the 1994 Cannes Film Festival.

To Live is a saga that unfolds over four decades of turbulence for 20th century China. It was a time of civil war, revolution, and all the dislocation and suffering that these bring with them. But To Live isn’t a sprawling historical novel. Rather, it’s a spare book. We see these events and their impact through the eyes of one man: Fugui. We follow Fugui and his family as they respond to a constantly-shifting landscape and as we trace the story of this one man, it becomes apparent that the novel is aptly named because it is finally a meditation on what it means to live.

Yu Hua’s novel wasn’t translated into English until 1997. The translation itself was undertaken by 22-year-old Michael Berry. That Berry was able to convey a story that is so Chinese, with such power and delicacy, in English is nothing short of amazing. And this brings up the whole intriguing question of translation, of the intellectual acrobatics needed to move literature successfully from one language into another, and how more complicated it becomes when one language uses an alphabet and the other uses ideograms.

Michael Berry: This is a big difference between, say, translating from Chinese into English as opposed to other Western languages that have similar kind of Greek and Roman, Latin roots. And so because of that if you’re translating, say, into French, or Italian, into German, there are a lot of words that come from the same roots and so it’s kind of a no brainer what your word choice is going to be because there is a very clear equivalent in—not all, but in many cases. In Chinese, it’s not nearly as clean-cut like that. So if you take—I’ll just throw out a term in Chinese like “bēishāng”, which usually is translated something like “sadness” but it could also be translated as “melancholy” or “depression” or any number of other similar terms. And so it’s all about really getting the context right and the register of the language and finding in this context what English term is really best going to express what “bēishāng” was representing in that original Chinese work. And so that means for the translator that we have a lot more leeway to be a little more creative, to have a little more kind of an interpretative intervention into the nuance of the original. It also means there’s more room for mistakes. That if you don’t have a great grasp of the original language you could go the wrong direction and miss that nuance. And so I think it is somewhat different in that sense then when you’re translating from other Western languages.

Jo Reed: What was it about To Live, Michael, that spoke to you so deeply?

Michael Berry: You know, well, I think the language was beautiful. There was a kind of beauty in its simplicity and its introspection of the human condition. Its portrayal of modern Chinese history and all of the tribulations that people had gone through over the past four or five decades. The characterizations were just so true to life and I think really brought that history alive for me. And the other was just something about it that really made me fall in love with that book.

Jo Reed: Can you give us a brief thumbnail sketch of the plot of the book?

Michael Berry: The story spans approximately four decades of modern Chinese history from the pre-1949 years during the republican era all the way through the Chinese Civil War and then all of the various major political movements that the Chinese people grappled with in the 20th century from the Great Leap Forward all the way through the Cultural Revolution. But it does this through the lens of an—kind of an everyday man named Fugui, who started out as a—the rich son of a landlord and through a series of kind of unexpected twists in his fate, eventually his whole life was transformed. And over—and over the course of the novel we kind of see where fate and history interact and are intertwined and the very unexpected turns that his life goes through.

Jo Reed: I was struck by how a book that encompasses so much in terms of time, as you said, four decades. All of the political and historic turmoil that China was going through then and yet I felt the story was so delicate and that juxtaposition really struck me. I don’t know if that’s just my very peculiar reading or you found that to be true too.

Michael Berry: Yeah, I would say there is that sense of the monumental and epic and unavoidable nature of history itself and then the kind of fragility of the individual in the face of that history and how everyday people navigate through these incredibly powerful forces that they found themselves swept up in, and I think that juxtaposition is part of the novel’s appeal is putting those two together.

Jo Reed: To Live is a very popular book in China. An award-winning film has been made out of it. How did you come to translate it?

Michael Berry: I had a professor in college and he actually commissioned me to translate an essay by a contemporary Chinese literary critic. And I so enjoyed that process of translation and kind of having that intimate interaction with a text and working so closely with the language and building on that experience, I thought moving forward I wanted to attempt to translate a novel and I had been applying for grad schools. I had been applying for jobs. And, you know, as a senior in college you’re kind of at this crossroads in life and you don’t know where you’re going to go next and there’s so many possibilities. And in the meantime, I needed a summer job. I needed something to do after I graduated and I thought I could have been a waiter. I could have done any number of things that I’d done in the past, but I thought I really wanted to take advantage of my deep study of the Chinese language and all the time studying abroad in China and Taiwan and my love of literature. And I thought, “Why not translate a novel?” And so To Live seemed to be the real obvious choice because of the very strong affection I had for the novel and how deeply it resonated with me. And so through this professor, I actually got the author, Yu Hua’s, fax number. Okay. This was back in the age where people still used fax machines and I wrote him a letter in Chinese and faxed it over. And I was happily surprised that he agreed. He—at that point, he only had one collection of short stories that had been published in English and that was “The Past and the Punishments,” translated by Andrew Jones. Those are kind of more experimental avant-garde stories. But he wasn’t the kind of literary phenomena in—at least, internationally—that he is now. At least at that time, he was still building up a reputation internationally. Never the less, I was still very flattered and moved and humbled that he agree to let this—I don’t know. I was 22 years old or something. You know, I had never translated a novel and he basically agreed to let me have a stab at his masterpiece. And so I got to work on it and it was actually towards the end of my senior year into the summer—my first summer after graduating college that I completed the first draft of the translation.

Jo Reed: What goes into a translation? What was your strategy sitting down with this particular book?

Michael Berry: There’s a lot that goes into the formula of providing a good translation. And, of course, everybody’s standards and the measuring stick that they use can be very different. I think back then I would often think of it in my mind as walking a tightrope between loyalty to the original and readability to the target audience. And so you are this kind of tightrope walker that, on the one hand, you’re trying to fulfill these two very different demographics or different missions. And there are times there are conflicts between the two of them, but for me I think a big part of it was really getting under the skin of that novel and internalizing the language in such a way that you could produce a work in the English language that would really, as best as I was able to, to kind of capture all of the nuance, and all of the humor, and all of the sadness and provide a comparable reading experience for people who are going to approach this book for the first time in English.

Jo Reed: Well, this book, I mean we’ve already pointed out it’s an epic story but nonetheless, very delicate. It’s both large and small with a focus on one man, one family with all of the upheavals in China. But we also have two narrators. We have the folklorist who’s collecting songs and we have Fugui’s very distinctive voice as he tells the folklorist his story. And they are very separate voices. How do you go about capturing that as you translate this book?

Michael Berry: It’s like being an actor almost you have to kind of mimic the language, and the cadence, and the speech patterns of these different voices. And you have to, at the same time, become invisible. It’s not about you. It’s not about how you speak, how you write, your style. It’s all about trying to capture the style and the voice, and the characteristics, and the personality of the writer, of those characters, and of that—the language of that original work. And so part of it is learning to—there’s a saying in Chinese “wàngwŏ”, to forget yourself, to kind of let yourself go and to really become the vehicle for that work to speak to this other audience. And so over the process of translation there’s all kinds of little tricks you learn to, at least for me, little exercises I would do to try to capture that best. For example, when I would encounter dialogue, I would often read my translation aloud as I was working on it and I would read alternatives back and forth and say, you know, “How’s it going? How you’ve been? What’s going on?” And find really the best register and the best tone that’s going to not only capture the original and the spirit of the original, but sound highly readable, highly colloquial, and really grab onto the essence of that character and how they would speak if they had been speaking in the English language.

Jo Reed: We know with translation there are things that just need to be given up because you can’t capture everything. Sometimes not the musicality. Often jokes have a very hard time translating. How do you deal with that kind of uncertainty?

Michael Berry: You know, every case is different and then every novel is different. And sometimes you have to kind of tweak your strategy a little bit given what project you’re working on. Humor, of course, is a unique challenge. You know, I think one of the reasons that comedies are not as—they don’t do as well, say internationally say comedy films as other genres, because humor can be so unique to a certain location and humor can be so difficult to translate. So this was a novel that didn’t have I don’t think too much humor, but I mean I’ve had cases in the past like I did a novel called Wild Kids, which was just filled with sarcasm and this kind of very wry, witty, stabbing humor and so that would often really require a lot of delicate handling of the language to make sure. You know, you want if a joke lands in Chinese and makes people laugh, you want it to land in English as well and elicit that same response. And so it does require a little bit of tweaking, but, you know, I never try to twist to the words or change them. I just try to always go back to that question, “How would somebody say this in English if they were trying to convey that same thought?” And sometimes it’s just beautiful coincidences that kind of serendipity where things line up. There was one in one other novel that I worked on there had been a pun that the author was making between the word father and the word for dog poo. And, of course, in Chinese the pronunciation of these two was almost identical. It was a tonal difference. So I’m thinking, “How do I deal with that?” And then finally it just came to me, Pop and poop, right? So one extra letter but it was the perfect way to resolve that and it just happened that there had been that kind of similarity in the English language. And sometimes you just have to rely on those kind of moments of serendipity where things come together.

Jo Reed: Did you work with Yu Hua at all as you were doing this at the tender age of 22? Does he know enough English to be able to read to in English and be able to say, “That’s not quite the word”?

Michael Berry: No. Yu Hua didn’t have, at least at that time, any English background. You know, if there was something that was unclear in the text, of course, I could always go to him but I don’t think I had many queries for him over the course of translating the novel. It was—you know, it’s a pretty straightforward narrative and when I did need to consult with people it was more after the fact when the translation had been produced and I would sent it to some friends who were very good English writers just to kind of get their sense of the style, stylistic issues and things like that that I could improve. There was an issue with tenses that I think I grappled with early on with this book. Most Western languages you have very clear past, present, and future tense and that kind of dictates the style, the tone, and you can’t go back and forth. It’s very much set. Whereas in Chinese there’s no really such thing as tense in the Chinese language. It’s all determined by context and so I found myself—I think when I first started translating the novel that there were portions of it that I was translating into the past tense and then other portions that I was translating into the present tense. And then I would go back and read it and then it just felt like a train wreck because the tense was shifting back and forth. And I think what I was doing was I was intuitively reacting to the implied tense shifts that are in the original but you can’t do that in English. You really just have to make a very concrete decision. And so eventually I kind of learned that I had to just make a choice and go with it and maintain that consistency in order for the novel to work better in English and read smoother. That was my first novel so there was a big learning curve and that one of the issues that I think I had to grapple with.

Jo Reed: Yeah, because in fact you’re translating not just words, not just a story, you’re actually translating a culture.

Michael Berry: You are. Anybody who’s studied a second language will tell you that studying a second language isn’t just the hardware, it’s really a key that’s going to open up a door to a whole another culture, a whole another way of looking at the world, another perspective on things. You know, even if you speak another language and you look at say, French language news, or Greek news, or Chinese news, you’re going to see a whole another perspective of the world through that news. It’s not just the language but, that’s one of the things that I think that’s so important, not just about translation but about studying foreign languages. It’s a way to break open the kind of cultural blinders that you have if you’re coming from a monolingual society and to really see the world and see your own culture through radically different perspectives.

Jo Reed: Why did you choose to study Chinese?

Michael Berry: You know, at the time I was 19 years old. I had just started college and I was on a kind of reading binge. I was—I think I had felt like I was this sponge that had been deprived of water my whole life . You know, I was a freshmen in college and discovered the love of reading and I was reading all the classics of world literature and you know the old cliché, “The more you learn, you realize the less you know.” So I started kind of voraciously reading during that first year of college and at a certain point I realized I was missing the experience and I needed to get out there and see another culture, see another world to open up my eyes to what else was out there in the world and, of course, a big part of that was studying another language. And it was my first semester of freshman year in college. I went to the study abroad office and I inquired into programs and I knew that going to Europe and studying, say, another Western language would be great but I wanted something that was really going to challenge me in a more fundamental way so I asked about programs in Egypt, or the Middle East, or Japan, China and I ended up signing up to go to China when I was 19 and didn’t speak a word of Chinese. And that was what led me on that path.

Jo Reed: Did you know any Chinese-speaking people when you went?

Michael Berry: No. I think we had a neighbor down a block away.

Jo Reed: But nobody close or—

Michael Berry: No.

Jo Reed: That had intrigued you or—

Michael Berry: No. If anyone, I would say my older brother, who was four years older than me. And so when I was in high school he was in college and he studied in Japan and he spent probably three years studying in Japan during his undergraduate period and I saw how that experience had radically changed his life and I think that did plant a kind of seed, you know, the value of studying abroad and just how important that is to as a part of your education as a human being and to see this other side of yourself and the world. And so I think that definitely was a big factor.

Jo Reed: How long did it take you to translate To Live?

Michael Berry: The first draft I would say took probably approximately three months. I basically worked full time throughout the summer after graduating college on it and then it went through many versions and revisions, but it mostly sat around for many years and wasn’t published until I think 2003 or so. So there was a good five years or so where it kind of languished.

Jo Reed: And when did you meet Yu Hua for the first time? Did you meet him here or did you meet him in China?

Michael Berry: I met Yu Hua for the first time I believe it was in New York City probably around 19—late ‘90s.

Jo Reed: What was that experience like? That must have been amazing for you. I mean, you practically lived with this man for three months.

Michael Berry: Yeah, it was an incredible experience. It was also instructive in that when you do live with a text like that so intimately and you’re getting under the skin of the language and working with it for hours a day, it’s very easy to slip into this kind of a sense where you feel you know the writer. You feel you really know this person but, of course, it’s a one-way relationship, right? Because I’m spending all this time with him but he’s not spending any time with me. And it’s actually—and it’s not him. It’s his book. But as a young kid, it’s easy to kind of misrecognize that and so I think the first time I saw him I was inclined to jump up and give him a big hug and feel like it was this long-lost relative or something. But, of course, from his perspective I was just another one of his translators and he reached out his hand to shake my hand and I think at that moment I realized how in some sense people talk about the loneliness of translation. And you are. You’re in a room working with a text for hours a day. There are some translators who have very intimate relations with writers and are often sending them messages and queries and questions and sometimes even attending workshops with them where they workshop the translations. But this was really much—very much so just me in a room for a couple of months just hammering out this translation. My contact with him before that had been quite limited. But once we got to know each other, yeah, we—I think during that time in New York I remember his almost childlike excitement at going to Broadway and seeing the neon lights and going to Broadway shows and you know, that was a very exciting time, I think, for him because it was one of his first trips to the United States and China, of course, 20-odd years ago was not the China of today. And so I think that was a kind of valuable experience for both of us, spending those couple days together in New York.

Jo Reed: You translated the book, your first translation. What was it like when you were done?

Michael Berry: Completing it was—you know, that was a very exciting moment and it was a real sense of accomplishment that I took, you know, I created something out of nothing, because, of course, there was this source text, which was, of course, was so incredible, but there was no—nothing in English that was comparable to—there were—nobody had ever done this and—for this particular book. But for me as a kid, it just felt like, I also feel, you know, we have such limited time on this earth. Our life is just burning away. It’s like a candle burning away, and as you get older I think that sense, you feel increasingly pressing. You know, that the one thing you can’t make more of is time. And as a young kid, somehow I was already cognizant of the fact that this time was burning away and I wanted to just grab the moment and do something meaningful with my time and I felt at that stage in my life the best thing I could’ve done was translate this book. At least it felt like that was something, a kind of contribution I could make, something that I felt was meaningful, a way of tapping into the skills that I had invested so much in in terms of learning Chinese and trying to master the language. And so at that moment, yeah, I think there was a great sense of satisfaction, which was quickly followed by a great sense of disillusionment when I started soliciting publishers and sending out query letters. I bought a copy of the Writer’s Market. I drafted a query letter. I sent it out to dozens and dozens of publishing houses. You know, it’s the typical story rejected by—I don’t know how many dozen publisher houses rejected it, but everyone rejected the manuscript initially. That was, I think, pretty depressing for me at the time, because I had put so much of my heart and soul into this book and I really believed in it, that it was a kind of contemporary classic, and deserved to have a wider readership. And it was almost unfathomable to me that no publishers were biting. Nobody was interested in this book.

Jo Reed: Did you feel bereft because you didn’t have these characters under your skin anymore—you weren’t living with them anymore the way you had been?

Michael Berry: You know, the thing is, once it’s done in some ways it’s always part of you, but in the other sense it’s not yours anymore. Then you give it to the readers. But the kind of strange feeling with that novel, that it wasn’t with the readers. And it wasn’t with me anymore. It was just in this purgatory of unpublished manuscript purgatory, which I’m sure a lot of young writers and translators can relate to. And so for me, that was a very frustrating period, because I felt pretty good that it was a solid translation and it really accurately captured the spirit and voice of the original. And I certainly had full confidence in the importance of that original novel.

Jo Reed: At the same time you clearly were convinced that translation was what you wanted to do, because it is what you do.

Michael Berry: It’s part of what I do. These days, I teach. Beginning to teach at UCLA this fall, after 13 years here at the University of California at Santa Barbara. But I also, you know, write my own scholarly books. I’ve done a few books of—I guess you could call them oral history of interviews with Chinese film directors and writers. But I’ve always tried to have a balance between my original scholarship and literary translation. And part of that just came from the simple notion that writing, say, books of criticism about Chinese literature. What’s the point if nobody can read the original novels in translation, you know? It’s one thing to talk about important literary works, but it’s another thing to make them available and have those works directly speak to audiences. And so I’ve always tried to strike a balance between scholarship and translation, and for me they’ve always kind of gone hand in hand.

Jo Reed: How do you choose what translation project to take on?

Michael Berry: I feel very lucky that every novel has been something that I read, I fell in love with, I got in touch with the writer, and we went and did it. And so that’s always been my principle, that I have to really have this passion. You know, Joseph Campbell would always say, “Follow your bliss.” And I try to hold onto that, even now that I’m getting older, you know. You want to take on projects that are going to enrich your life and you’re going to feel are meaningful and that are making a contribution and hopefully will enrich other people’s lives. And so every novel that I took on subsequent to To Live has been something that just touched me and moved me and made me feel it was worth investing six months, a year, two years, in some cases 10 years of my life on a translation project.

Jo Reed: I am sure that all of the books you’ve translated must have some special meaning for you. As you said, you have to fall in love with all of them. And I just wonder what To Live’s meaning might be for you?

Michael Berry: Yeah. For me, you know, in some sense it’s my first love, right? Because it’s the first, you know, and I think of the book and it’s my youth. It’s when I was young and idealistic and there were so many opportunities lying before me and you didn’t know what path you were going to take. Everything was a possibility. And so I think sometimes the novel that you translate or write or a book you’re working on at a certain period of your life, it’s not only about the meaning of the book itself, but it’s kind of also a snapshot of where you were in your life at that moment. And so for me that was my age of idealism. And, of course, the novel, it has some very dark aspects to it. But it always has had a very bright spot in my heart. And I think the inner core of the novel, there is this optimism and this beauty that just transforms this darkness and sadness into something that can rise above and really explore what the meaning of being a human really is, whether you’re in China or whether you’re here.

Jo Reed: Okay, Michael Berry. Thank you so much for giving me so much of your time and giving me your insight as well as this translation. It’s a remarkable book.

Michael Berry: Thank you so much for including me. And it’s an honor to have the National Endowment for the Arts recognize this book. So hopefully it will help additional readers kind of enter this beautiful, scary, dark, fantastic world that Yu Hua has created. So thank you so much.

Jo Reed: Thank you.

That was Michael Berry—he’s the translator of Yu Hua’s novel and forthcoming Big Read selection To Live. You can find out more about the NEA’s Big Read initiative and To Live at

You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog or follow us @NEAArts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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