7 Apr 2024

The art of being a cultural translator

From Culture 101, 2:30 pm on 7 April 2024
Yang Fan

Yang Fan Photo: Supplied

What does it take to be an effective cultural translator? Yang Fan will tell you that the language is just the beginning. 

Originally from China’s east coast province Jiangsu, Yang moved to Aotearoa New Zealand in 2001. He studied art and art history at AUT University and for more than a decade worked at the Auckland Art Gallery in the visitor experience department, communicating with Chinese artists and translating projects.

Culture 101’s Perlina Lau met Yang Fan when he acted as translator for an interview with Chinese haute couture designer, Guo Pei in December. 

Yang describes Chinese culture and New Zealand culture as "two mutual friends who have heard of each other but have never met”. With the ability to bridge that gap, he proceeded to study a masters degree in translation studies. 

Yang describes himself quite particularly as a ‘cultural translator’; introducing the intangible, emotional and philosophical side of Chinese culture to Kiwis. 

“Chinese philosophy and Chinese ideology should be for everyday Kiwis. 

“It’s not something that should be confined to the academic field for sinologists and to write articles for journals,” Yang explains.

Yang doesn’t believe understanding of Chinese culture has evolved enough since the late 19th century. The images and ideas are still simplistic and tangible - such as noodles, lanterns, or the Chinese zodiac.

“I feel like I have a responsibility to introduce a different perspective on Chinese culture. For example the philosophies or ideologies, or poems or lyrics from the Tang dynasty.

“Those are the things that shape how we do things, how we communicate and the collective character of Chinese people.”

On both a syntax and lexicon level, the phrasing and structure of the Chinese language is completely different to English.

Yang describes the translation process as quickly demolishing Lego bricks to rebuild a new piece. It’s the same bricks, but looks different. 

In a spoken interview “time is not your friend”, laughs Yang. 

But being bi-lingual isn’t enough and the language is just the surface. It requires understanding of context and cultural norms.

“Speaking both languages is different from conveying the emotions and the meaning of one language to the other,” says Yang.

The use of metaphors and similes are common across both languages and it’s about being able to identify quickly which phrases would be equivalent or evoke the same feeling and response. 

As an arts and culture translator, Yang is often translating for creators whose ideas are abstract and conceptual. So while listening, Yang says he splits his brain into two parts. One side listens to what’s being said, while the other starts to transform and rebuild the information. 

“A lot of the time, I’m not focusing on the linguistics of the message. I’m focusing on the narrative, the context and the emotions that are hidden in the message.

“You need to be able to identify the bigger picture.”

Yang believes art and culture can reach the deepest parts of people and while working at the gallery, he was able to meet people from all over the world. It was there he developed the desire to communicate with people on a deeper level.

To ensure his translations and understandings remain up to date and relevant, he says it requires staying tuned into news, social media and pop culture. Yang endeavours to keep across contemporary culture and the language and colloquialisms used by youth in China.

Having lived now in New Zealand for longer than he lived in China, Yang says he feels he’s in a surreal space. He considers himself “100 percent Kiwi and living a Kiwi lifestyle” but remains a strong advocate for Chinese tradition.

He has and continues to write articles in Chinese about Chinese art history and paintings and traditional culture, published on various Chinese websites.

“I’m proof that you can have both cultures. It’s an aged-old debate whether you have to sacrifice a portion of your original culture to assimilate into mainstream society.

“Nothing needs to be sacrificed. You can enjoy a full Kiwi lifestyle but at the same time, be fully immersed in Chinese culture.”