I am a China aficionado. I love the curved roofs, the twisting rivers, tales of ancient emperors and dragons, pandas, hanzi, kung fu, chow mein, chopsticks, cone hats, lanterns, tanggu drums, guzhengs, gongs, nunchucks, the great wall...
Awesome. All of it.
There's a character in my book named Chef Kung Pao. He owns a critically-acclaimed restaurant in Chinatown, San Francisco called New Shanghai.
Chef Pao is from China, and I wanted his speech to reflect that. Accents are hard to convey in print, so I focused on grammar instead. My plan was to use English words and Mandarin sentence structure. I adore Mandarin, but I don't speak it. So I studied the rudiments of the language: omit "the," avoid plurals, etc. The dialogue turned out pretty good, but I wanted awesome. I needed help.
I went to the BYU library, in Provo. I started in the Asian Studies wing. I approached students who appeared to be of east Asian descent. I said, "Excuse me. I need translation help. What languages do you speak?" I met a lot of lovely and kind Koreans and Japanese folks before finding one Jennifer Wang, from Beijing, who agreed to help me.
Jennifer and I sat down at a table. We went through each and every line of Chef Pao's dialogue. Jennifer would write a line in hanzi (Chinese characters), then translate that, exactly, into English.
Much of Chef Pao's lines were already consistent with mandarin sentence structure and grammar. But Jennifer suggested many changes. For example, in Chinese you don't "make" a dumpling, as I had written; you "cook" it.
Near the end of my story, Chef Pao says something in his native Mandarin tongue. This something is paramount to the story's ending. It's the cornerstone. The apex. I had used Google Translate to write it, and Google Translate -- brace yourselves for this one -- got it wrong.
Jenny taught me the correct Mandarin, and that's what's in the book. I cringe to think of the Google Translate version of that line going out to the world. Thank goodness for Jennifer Wang.
I hope to see my book translated into many languages. I hope one of those languages is Mandarin Chinese. If it is, then Chef Pao's lines in English will translate seamlessly.
Photo by asianinspirations.com.au. Used with permission.