Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Back in Chinatown

Today Memoir Project coaches met with translators and participants in Chinatown to begin he process of turning the notes and story fragments from class into full essays for the second volume of "Born Before Plastic." Because their notes are written in Chinese, we need translators to help us along. The process of getting Cantonese stories about pre-war China, pre-Revolution China into English essay form is cumbersome. Do we translate what's on the page, which will cost a fortune and take weeks? Or what they say out loud that has been translated roughly into English by our live translators? Do we ask questions about content and ask them to provide written responses and then get those responses translated into English? Or do we just listen to their answers as translated and then add the English into the half made essays we have? And if we use an oral history component to this, how do we translate the English parts back into Chinese so that we can have bilingual text in the book? Glad I'm not the one deciding any of this. I plan to limp along as best I can. 
The students who showed up to this morning's meeting were exuberant, as always. Most of them are in their mid-80s and they will not be quelled. Alexis, our head coach and book editor, had asked how to communicate with the group. "Do you talk and then pause for the translator to translate?" Yeah, pretty much. I'd forgotten, though, what a chatty group this is. Every time you say something, Douglas or Kwan will translate it. Then someone in the group is going to have a comment. Sometimes all of them will start talking at once. And there's Douglas and Kwan nodding and answering them. And there you are in storm of conversation, not one syllable of which is understandable. They're laughing, acting out some bit of business. Big hand gestures, shouting, laughter, lots of eye rolling. This can go on for a long time before one of them will look over at you and take pity. "She's asking about how long before the book comes out." Or, "She's saying that her grandfather was a minor." During last year's class, it began to eat at me, this ignorance. So, I took some Pimsleur tapes out of the library and soldiered through a few hours instruction. When Larry came to bed at night he would find me with the headphones on, doing the little call and response. He snickered at this, at least the first time. "Stop it," I said. "This is serious."

I tried out some phrases on them in class last year, and Kwan said she could actually understand me. She seemed stunned. One lady, Kim, patted my arm and taught me a word. She approved of this effort. Now I can hear some words. May-EE-Gwa-yan, is American. YING-man is English.  NGO is me or I, but you have to say it all the way back in your throat. HIE denotes being or location. Putting an Mmm sound before a verb negates it. DOH-Jay is thank you. I know baby stuff like that, but it allows me to hear at least some things, including the startlingly high number of English words and phrases they've folded into their everyday speech.

It's good to be back in Chinatown.


Irene Tsai said...

Cool! I have always wanted to write a memoir, but something else always distract me from doing it. Instead, I wrote this Chinese-English bilingual book, The Frog in the Well, and will be out next month. I would love to hear your thoughts.

Michelle said...

Everyone should try writing a memoir. Why not? Teaching children about folklore is wonderful, too.