2010 Books in Translation Other Prizes

Three Sisters – Bi Feiyu

 Winner of 2010 Man Asian Literary Prize

Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin

Five words from the blurb: sisters, China, power, society, family

Three Sisters gives a fascinating insight into the life of Chinese women in the 1970s. By observing the differences between three sisters we see how the status of their birth position affects everything that happens to them.

The Three Sisters

  • Yumi uses her status as the eldest daughter to gain the respect of all those around her. This power ensures that she easily finds a favourable marriage and so has a far greater chance of achieving a happy life.
  • Yuxiu, the third sister, must use as much charm as possible to negotiate opportunities for herself.
  • Yuyang, the seventh sister, must rely on her talents alone, having none of the power that being an older sibling brings.

The book showed each sister in turn, allowing us to connect to them completely. It did a wonderful job of showing the Chinese culture, particularly by explaining their inner thoughts and fears.  The importance of ‘saving face’ was high on all their agendas and this book was great at explaining their actions in an easy to understand, but vivid way.

….everyone in town knew Yuxiu’s secret. She assumed that no one knew, but they all did. This is generally how private matters are treated. It is as if they are screened by a sheet of paper so flimsy it cannot withstand a simple poke but so sturdy everyone will avoid it. Only country folk are so uncouth and impatient that they need to get to the bottom of things at once. Townsfolk aren’t like that at all. Some things are not meant to be poked open; exposing them spoils the fun. What’s the hurry? You cannot wrap fire in paper; sooner or later it will burn through and everything will be exposed. That is more spectacular, more appealing.

I found the last section to be less interesting than the others, but it was still enjoyable. My only complaint is that the book did not end well. I don’t mean that it was sad, just that it was abrupt and didn’t come to any logical conclusions. I would have liked to see all three sisters mentioned on the final pages, not just a slightly odd scene containing only the youngest. This is a minor quibble though. It is a beautifully written book and I’m sure it will be loved by many people.

As an introduction to Chinese literature, this is an ideal choice. It is well paced and contains a depth of emotion. I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in Chinese literature, but I think the focus on family relationships will mean that it will be appreciated by women more than men.

2010 Booker Prize Books in Translation

The Boat to Redemption – Su Tong

 Winner of the Man Asian Literary Prize 2009

Translated from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt

The Boat to Redemption focuses on the boat people of a Chinese River. The central character is Dongliang, who was once the revered grandson of a revolutionary martyr, but when his ancestry is questioned his life quickly deteriorates.

The main theme of the book is the relationship between Dongliang and his father. It is essentially a coming of age story showing how hard it is to adjust to adulthood, but although it is a very Chinese novel, similar in style to Brothers, the themes of love, heartache and fear are universal.

The book was interesting at the beginning, but the pace was quite slow. It picked up at is progressed and by the half way stage I was captivated – the characters were fascinating and so different from those in Western novels as their superstitions and respect for authority add a different dimension to their problems.

I don’t have a big knowledge of Chinese culture and so I felt that some things went over my head – there were several points where there appeared to be a wise saying, but it didn’t translate well into English. This wasn’t because of a translation problem (I think Howard Goldblatt did a great job) but because there wasn’t an equivalent phrase in English.

‘If your mother finds you, then you’ll be a drowned ghost too, with moss growing all over your body.’

As with many other Chinese novels there was an obsession with genitalia in this book. I found that some of the scenes put me off my food for a few hours, but there was no explicit sex or extreme violence, so most people will cringe rather than be offended.

I’m sure that this book would be even more impressive if read in the Chinese, but even with a limited knowledge of the culture there is still a lot to enjoy.

Recommended to fans of Chinese literature.