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Sid Sondergard’s New Book

sidDr. Sid Sondergard has completed translating the fifth volume of Strange Tales from Liaozhai by Pu Songling.  Strange Tales are 18th century short stories where “readers will encounter supernatural creatures, natural disasters, magical aspects of Buddhist and Daoist spirituality and a wide range of Chinese folklore.” Dr. Sondergard’s many great insights into literature are exceeded only by his remarkable energy, and at a recent talk about his translations he shared how he became interested in working with Chinese language texts–

I was 48 when I decided it was time for me to learn Chinese.  I immersed myself in Chinese literature in translation, I memorized the radicals, I began learning individual characters, and I began copying them in the kind of calligraphy that would make a Chinese elementary school student giggle out of embarrassment for me.  Then I decided that I needed a project, a focus and anchor for my language study; I ran across references to Pu Songling’s weird stories, discovered that relatively few of the almost 500 stories had been translated into English, and realized that I’d found my project.
Strange Tales from Liaozhai—which wasn’t even published during Pu Songling’s lifetime—is the most beloved collection of short stories in Chinese literature, and has been the basis of hundreds of films, television shows, and other adaptations.
In addition to my English literature coursework, I’d been teaching courses on Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese film, and on two of the great Chinese epics—The 三国演义, or Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and the 水浒传, or The Outlaws of the Marsh.  My enthusiasm for the literature kept increasing, and I began applying for grants that took me to China with students to study the places and figures about whom we’d read with such excitement.  At the perfect time for me, St. Lawrence offered Mandarin language instruction for the first time, and I returned to the role of student for a year.
My practice with the calligraphy and memorization of vocabulary came in handy—I was able to zip through quizzes and absorb modern vocabulary terms along with the words and phrases I’d learned from classical Chinese workbooks that I’d been using for home instruction.  Up to that point, I’d been running on hubris pretty effectively.  And then came the day that I realized 我的耳不不不好极了.

To translate: I have a crap ear when it comes to processing the verbal language live.  The switch that had always been thrown when I’d studied languages before wasn’t clicking “on” this time.

The reality I had to accept as the complement of my becoming proficient in Pu Songling’s seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Chinese is that I would have a frustratingly difficult time (often, but not always) understanding people speaking with me conversationally in Mandarin.  I can make myself understood clearly enough whenever I speak (believe it or not, I starred in a hotel commercial when we were in Sichuan province in 2011—I was in a non-stop state of freakout until the camera stopped rolling since I had to improv the dialogue on the spot), and I can also write notes to people if they have any trouble with my “Beijing-r” accent.

~ by pdoty on February 21, 2014.

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