During my last holiday (a busman’s holiday, but never mind), I read The Beijing of Possibilities by Jonathan Tel. It’s a collection of short stories with an interesting premise.
His preface talks about how he was in touch with the Chinese poet Helan Xiao and then lost touch. But then she contacted him “to assist with the translation of her acclaimed collection of stories set in contemporary Beijing…Helan has contributed a foreword to this edition, and I have taken the liberty of adding a concluding chapter, narrating certain episodes in her life. For any misrepresentations, and for any errors that may have crept into my adaptation of her work, I alone, of course, am wholly responsible.” Helan’s foreword is a short two-page introduction to Beijing.
Yet, surprisingly, only Tel’s name appears on the book. If it is a true translation, shouldn’t Helan Xiao’s name also be there? So is this translation or adaptation? Well, in fact, it is even more complicated than that. The Beijing of Possibilities is not a translation or an adaptation; it is a pseudotranslation. This is to say that there is no Helan Xiao and Tel had no contact with such a Chinese poet. He is the sole writer.
Such a framework could make a collection of stories a lot of fun – reviewers have compared Tel to Calvino or Sebald, though I personally didn’t see such connections. My final opinion was that not enough was done to play with the idea of translation and adaptation and cultural exchange. People often discuss whether someone from outside a given country have the ability or the right to write about that country and culture, and this book could have been a good intersection point for such a conversation, if only the quality were higher.
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