Lost in Translation

White-Horse

My third foray into young adult literature has been less enthusiastically positive. Having read books translated from loads of different languages, I have to say the most difficult to get right is by far those translated from Mandarin and its dialects. Having spent 14 years trudging through the language in school, I do have some understanding of it. Perhaps that is why I feel translations from Mandarin are not as good, but I don’t think so. It’s in the structure and nature of the language. Mandarin being so, extremely different from English it is virtually impossible to capture the exact tone and lyricism of the original. I should probably read those books in Mandarin, but then that would take me about a year and I still wouldn’t understand it!

So it is with White Horse by Yan Ge. Set in a small town in China, the plot follows ten-year-old Yun Yun. Through her older cousin, she is introduced into the ways of love, while learning to live with her single father and his various love affairs. This culminates in an explosive scene of revelations and mild violence.

White Horse plunges its reader right into the thick of Chinese culture with all its complexities and societal idiosyncrasies. This can be good and bad. While you get a sense of how a small Chinese community would behave, it’s delicate nuances can be lost on those not already familiar with the culture. For example the white horse could be pointing to the one in the Buddhist story, Journey to the West, where the horse symbolises mental will. Or it could refer to Gongsun Lu’s White Horse Dialogue, reading which gives me a headache.

Yet acclaimed author, Yan Ge’s literary skill does emerge in certain aspects of this snapshot of Yun Yun’s coming of age, which is vivid and believable. How she deals with the emotional turmoil surrounding her is poignant and easily related to. The imagery of the white horse, with or without the background historical information, is powerful and well done.

With the language, it definitely does not flow as well as if it were read in Chinese (I imagine) and Chinese idioms directly translated into English always sound ridiculous and totally out of context. Also, a warning that it contains one very explicit swear word.

Despite its flaws, it’s an interesting read that makes you think and would appeal to some. Particularly those going through similar situations (single families, older siblings becoming sexually active). I would recommend this for mid to late teens.

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