“On the Train of Autumn ” is a powerful collection of essays written by Zhang Huaicun, the renowned British Chinese painter, poet, children’s author and illustrator. Originally published in Chinese in 2017, the book is a beautiful narrative of memories that transcend 2 very different countries and cultures. It begins with her childhood in the Mobei grassland of Qinghai in northwest China in the first chapter “Childhood scenery”. The latter two chapters “Between the river Yellow and river Thames” and “The world is still sunny” cover her experiences living in international cities like Guangzhou, in south China and her travels across the world to London, England.
Zhang writes about her childhood with elegance and nostalgia. Her anecdotes are filled with joyful humour, a touch of mischief and pure kindness. For example, she recounts how her parents were sometimes concerned about her mischievous and disobedient behaviour, like the time her father caught her stealing steamed buns from the kitchen. Zhang had been taking the buns regularly to give to road workers after she had noted how hard they worked yet only had a few small pieces of potato to eat at the end of the day. Her sincere desire to help others was evident from a young age. Both Chinese and British readers will find her childhood memories relatable and endearing. Her tender humility and wise, reflective nature are reflected in her writing style.
The river Yellow in Qinghai, China and the river Thames in London are separated by nearly ten thousand kilometers. Zhang’s memories of crossing this vast distance as she travelled across China and across the world to the UK are described with exquisite detail and rich language in this book. Her reflections of a journey that involved crossing mountains by train, flying across a star strewn sky and over an endless sea, are thought-provoking and moving. Many years later, Zhang’s daughter requested they take the train instead of their usual flight back to their hometown so she could experience such a significant memory from her mother’s childhood.
Despite the differences in history, culture, and nature between the two rivers, the author treasures both rivers deeply. She appreciates the beauty of her new home by remembering her first home. When she picks up her paintbrush to paint by the river Thames, a vivid image of the river Yellow flowing through her hometown always flashes across her mind.
“On the Train of Autumn” is not the first book Zhang Huaicun has translated into English. In 2015, Zhang signed a landmark translation agreement with British publishing houses to help deliver famous Chinese children’s literature novels and poetry anthologies to an international audience. Most of these books have won the national Bing Xin Children Book Award. Under the terms of the agreement, Zhang will translate 20 Chinese books into English with the approval of Chinese publishing houses. So far, Zhang has completed the translation of 15 books including “On the Train of Autumn,” “Fleeting Years in a Small Town,” “Red Tiles, ““Red House,” “One Hundred Beds of the Old Spider,” and “Fish in Candlelight.” These books are available in many mainstream bookstores and online. At the upcoming London Book Fair later this month, Zhang will sign a contract to translate the legendary Chinese fairy tale series “The Story of Stupid Wolf” (ten volumes in total).
Recently I have discussed with Zhang Huaicun about her astounding achievements in literature and art across two very different countries and cultures.
Sun: “On the train of Autumn “ won the prestigious China Bing Xin Children’s Book Award in 2020. Now that the English-language version has been published here in the UK, what kind of response do you expect? How do you think British readers will understand your book and what do you expect them to take away?
Zhang: The first part of translating any Chinese book is to understand the context – so I needed to learn and understand British culture and societal values. In my translation of “On the train of Autumn” I described how the weather and environment in my hometown in Qinghai resembled the Highlands in Scotland. The two regions are very far apart yet their mountains and rivers do share lots of similar features. I received very positive feedback from local schoolteachers and parents. They invited me to do a talk with young readers.
Sun: You have described how you have made the prose and content in your book resonate with British readers. Did they understand all the Chinese elements in your book?
Zhang: As a writer, my goal is that my work is understood and appreciated by all readers, no matter their age, background, nationality. This applies for all my work – whether it is children’s poetry, stories, or paintings. I always want to express and share the beauty, elegance and sincerity that I see in the world through my writing and my art. We communicate via different languages, which originate from different histories and cultures. The power of literature and art is that they connect us all together despite these barriers.
Sun: You have successfully completed the translation and publication of more than 15 books in less than 10 years. At the same time, you are still writing your own children’s literature and painting new pieces to show in international galleries. That is an incredible reflection of your artistry and work ethic. What inspired you to take on so much translation work when you came to the UK?
Zhang: When I first arrived in the UK, I noticed a lack of Chinese children’s literature on bookstore shelves. As a Chinese children’s literature author, I believe there are many excellent children’s novels and poems in China that should be introduced to British audiences. I took on this important challenge to form a new bridge between two cultures and play my part in delivering English versions of Chinese children’s literature to British bookstores. However, this was a significant undertaking. British publishing houses are very interested in authentic and native Chinese stories, particularly those that are based on real events rather than fantasy. They usually ask for my recommendation and I will send them translated extracts of titles and chapters. If they like it, they will prepare a contract and I liaise with the original book’s Chinese publishing house to obtain their approval. Then I begin to translate the full book. It is a lengthy process and usually takes four to five years from my recommendation to publication.
Since 2018, there have been English versions of famous Chinese children’s books in mainstream bookstores and libraries in the UK. For example, “Fleeting Years in a Small Town”, “On the Train of Autumn”, “Pencil Tree” and “One Hundred Beds of Old Spiders” etc. are all available to buy in many bookstores or online. “Fish in Candlelight” and “Children Counting Stars” are my most recent translations and were published at the end of last year. It is incredibly exciting and rewarding to see how British booksellers are keen to sell Chinese children’s literature and how libraries have welcomed Chinese children’s literature to their collections.
Sun: Your dedication to translating Chinese children’s literature is remarkable. Do you agree that due to differences in languages, it is challenging to translate one book from its original language to a different language whilst remaining true to the original style and meaning? How do you overcome this challenge?
Zhang: I am passionate about translating and introducing outstanding Chinese children’s literature to British readers. Obviously, translation isn’t just about changing the word directly as there may not even be a directly equivalent word in the new language. It requires imagination and creativity to adapt the words and meaning of the original work to a new context, a new culture. There is a balance in translation between respecting the authenticity of the original piece and adapting it to fit into a new context, honouring the new culture. It is challenging. When I was translating “Red Tile”, I initially struggled with a story about a child whose skin is described as red sandalwood in colour in the original Chinese version. I first translated the skin literally as ‘purple’ however the editor’s feedback was that this could be considered unintentionally as racial discrimination. Therefore, I changed the description of skin to the colour of wheat. Another example is when I translated a story about “Punish Dog” which contained a scene about killing the dog. The editors explained we could not include this story in a children’s book as violence towards animals is not tolerated and all life is considered equal in the UK and other western countries.
Sun: You have been living in the UK for 20 years now. I have noticed all your writing so far has been related to China and contained only Chinese elements. Would you consider including British elements in your writing in the future?
Zhang: Perhaps I will write something with British elements in the future but not now. Having lived in the UK for 20 years, I still feel that many British people and westerners have very limited understanding and awareness about Chinese culture, history or current modern society. This pushes me to continue to write and translate the best of Chinese children’s literature into English so that they can be enjoyed and treasured in the UK and other western countries. Through writing and translation, we can find ways to overcome barriers and divisions between different countries, cultures, and societies. The beauty and power of writing brings people from different backgrounds together and encourages us to respect diversity. I sincerely want British families to have a place for Chinese children’s books and international literature on their bookshelves at home in the future, just like Chinese families already have British children’s books on theirs.
Sun: Indeed, we can see how your mission to promote Chinese children’s literature in the UK and build new cultural bridges between the two countries is represented by a train travelling full steam ahead in “On the train of Autumn”.