Translating the Lives of Slackers Drifting on the Margins of Beijing

Eric Abrahamsen and Jeremy Tiang on capturing the voices of young Chinese men in Xu Zechen’s collection "Beijing Sprawl"

Photo by Psk Slayer on Unsplash

In a cold, cruel city indifferent to your fate, an acquaintance from your hometown can be a lifeline, as can the three guys you happen to bunk with. You feast on donkey burgers and rooftop views of the city. You watch your friends forced out of the city, then befriend others to take their place.

These are the days of distraction for the young men in Xu Zechen’s Beijing Sprawl. The stories are razor-sharp, exuberant, and heart-rending, conveying so much life squeezed into the characters’ cramped circumstances.

Living on the margins of Beijing, the young men dream about building cars, meeting their soulmates, forming rock bands. They come together, fall apart. Sometimes they prop up each other’s fantasies. Other times, they scheme to cheat one another out of beers or birds, perhaps taking their cue from the city about how nothing ever lasts.

I spoke to co-translators Eric Abrahamsen and Jeremy Tiang about transient but intense friendships, and being Beijing outsiders.

YZ Chin: The first-person narrator in this book is not what we usually encounter in contemporary Western fiction, where he’s not really a detached observer, like in Cusk, but he’s also not really directly influencing events. He’s something in between. Can you talk a bit more about that?

Eric Abrahamsen: I think this may come partially out of how the stories originated. Xu Zechen came to Beijing to go to school, and there were these other people who came from his hometown, people not so fortunate as him—basically people in situations similar to the characters’. He kept in touch with them over the years, and followed their stories. So there’s a sense where the author himself is an observer of these people. He didn’t live this exactly, but he was with these people. He knew them, he knew their stories. So when he comes to tell the stories I think it’s very natural to adopt a stance of being among them but also being an external observer.

YZC: I find the stories very funny but also very brutal. When you mix these two very different tones together, there’s a powerful and disconcerting effect. Did you translate a lot of slang?

Jeremy Tiang: There’s definitely the sense of a group of people who evolved their own language. I was very much following Eric’s lead, because this had to match the voice of Running Through Beijing. That has quite a slangy, zippy tone to it. 

EA: I think it was not so much slang or specific vocabulary, but very much this tone of voice—ribbing, ribaldry, making fun of each other. It was really important to make it sound like this was a group of young, shiftless guys shooting the shit, basically.

YZC: I also really like how the stories paint a picture of the different ways people come to Beijing, and then leave, or have to leave Beijing. Many of the ways of leaving are tragic. There’s death, there’s serious injury…

EA: There’s giving up and going home. It’s such an emotionally important thing: going to Beijing, and then leaving Beijing again. It’s such a dramatic figure in the lives of all these people—the city, and what it represents. The possibilities it holds.

YZC: But even the ways of arriving in Beijing are so different. Muyu is sent there because his dad says “you have nothing better to do.” Seems like a relatively neutral way of going. But there are also tragic ways of arriving, like the person whose wife basically says “I’m divorcing you if you don’t go to Beijing and make something of yourself.” It’s fascinating to see how, despite arriving in different ways, whether with a lot of hope, out of despair, or seemingly neutral, they end up in the same cycles of drifting. 

EA: Right. There’s something very hopeless about the whole thing. Even the people who come with big plans or big dreams, there’s something hopeless and almost passive about the gravitational force of the city. People get there and they just piao [drift] like Jeremy said. There’s a sense of being held in suspension, of floating. You’re there but you can’t get traction or footing, you’re just hovering over the city. There’s a lot of despair, I think, under the surface of the stories.

YZC: Despite that, people still come. 

EA: Because there’s nothing else to do! It would be worse to not go. What a horrible situation. I think there’s a whole segment of China’s youth who just don’t have any good options. You can’t stay, you can’t go. If you go you’re not gonna have a job, but you can’t go back because that’s shameful. They’re economically and socially screwed. They don’t have any choice but to float around.

YZC: So Beijing becomes a goalpost in itself. But the goalpost moves. Like the character in “Wheels Keep Turning,” he has big dreams at first. Then it becomes: “I’m happy if I can build a car here.” Then: “I’m happy if I can keep looking at the car.” The goalpost keeps shifting further down.

Beijing is such a dramatic figure in the lives of all these people—the city, and what it represents. The possibilities it holds.

EA: Right, the dreams become more and more modest. 

JT: There’s also the flip side of that. Despite the contempt that respectable society has for these people, they’re the ones who keep Beijing running. If they did all leave, the city would fall apart. There would be no one to do any of the actual work.

YZC: Is there an analogy to “domestic” migrant workers here?

EA: Internal migrants? Yeah. Though when I think of migrant workers, I think more often of laborers who have jobs and send money home. Whereas these guys are more like vagrants. They would like to have jobs and send money home, but they’re barely managing that.

JT: I don’t think it maps well onto the conception of the migrant as in the Western imagination. I’ve been using the Chinese description “jingpiao,” it means being adrift in the city, not having a place in it despite living and working there.

YZC: How did this co-translating project come about? How did it work?

EA: Because I didn’t want to do it alone. Whose idea was this collection? 

JT: Well, you were translating the collection. But I had done one of the stories for Pathlight [magazine]. And one other story, I can’t remember why now. So at that point, a co-translation made the most sense. I think initially you were still going to do most of the stories, and then it evolved into more of a 50-50 situation. That was a better way to do it anyway.

YZC: This book is very much about outsiders. What is your relationship to Beijing? Do you also feel like Beijing outsiders? Was that a factor in translating these stories?

There’s a whole segment of China’s youth who just don’t have any good options… They’re economically and socially screwed. They don’t have any choice but to float around.

JT: I’ve never lived in Beijing, so in that sense whenever I am in Beijing I do feel like an outsider. I don’t know how anything works. I don’t know how to pay, so I’m the one trying to pay for things with cash, which makes you a pariah. I do see how, obviously from a relatively privileged position, how trying to get to Beijing, and trying to make it without the right hukou and connections would feel near impossible. So even though I’ve never led remotely anything like the life of the jingpiao, I get enough of a sense of it from just being there and seeing how hostile the city is. It’s like a city that actively hates its inhabitants.

EA: I lived there for 16 years, from 2001. And obviously as a foreigner I don’t fit into any of the domestic social categories. I wouldn’t call myself a jingpiao at all. I lived in the hutong, so I was sort of in the milieu Xu Zechen is writing about. His characters are selling pirated DVDs, I was buying pirated DVDs, you know? Ate the kao hong shu [roasted sweet potato] on the streets, lived in the crappy pingfang [single-story house]. It’s obviously completely different when you’re there by choice, not the life-and-death desperate grab for future that it was for these people. So it was really familiarity with the environment, the language, the speech of the Beijinger, that sort of thing. These stories felt super familiar to me. It was like: Ah, this is the city I know! What originally drove me to translate Xu Zechen was that writing, about the city that was right in front of me.

YZC: Can you explain a bit more about hutong, for those of us who might not be familiar?

EA: Geographically, historically, structurally, Beijing is just a very odd city. There’s the center of the city inside the Second Ring Road, which is the historical part of the city. That has the formerly nice, wealthy hutong neighborhoods, which are not so nice anymore. Then around that there’s a huge belt of horrible, faceless post-Communist Soviet-style apartment buildings (which are now nice apartment buildings). Farther out, there’s another belt of pingfang, crappy rundown houses that are not the historical ones. There’s a couple of little ex-villages around the city where you can find old houses, but for the most part it’s pretty dire, just recent construction that has the feeling of the hutong: small alleyways, courtyards with attached houses. Most things are single-story or two stories.

So if you are poor, your options are often either to live in the middle of the city, in some of the crappier hutong neighborhoods, or else way out in the pingfangs, where you’re far enough away that you can afford it. 

The people in these stories are mostly living in the suburbs around the city. The nice thing about these neighborhoods is that they are very human-scaled. Whether you’re in the nice old neighborhoods in the middle of the city or on the outside, everything is one or two stories, there’s a lot of open horizontal space. Weird and terribly inefficient use of space. Right in the center of a massive international capital, there’s a lot of open space and short buildings. But if you live there, it actually feels very neighborhood-y. There’s just a small number of people. You know those people. You’re walking around, doing your business in full view of everybody else. It’s really cheek by jowl, but the density’s low enough that it really feels like a neighborhood. It’s a unique thing, I think it’s very rare for a city of that size to have an area of low population density right in the middle. But it’s rapidly getting gentrified. Inside the Second Ring Road, places are getting fixed up and reclaimed by the wealthy. They’ve driven out the poor residents. That’s a recurring theme. They don’t want those people there. They’re essential to the city, as Jeremy said, but they’re unsightly. A lot of urban policy is driven by what the leaders personally see when they walk out their doors, and what they find repulsive.

YZC: Going back to what you said about the sense of community—a lot of the characters who should feel despair have a lot of fun, they feel pretty good. They prop up each other’s dreams.

EA: Yeah, at least you know other people in the same boat. And at least you can get together, get drunk and complain. There’s whole neighborhoods of people who are not native Beijingers. You’re cheek by jowl with people from Guangxi, Sichuan, you can hear all kinds of dialects in the hutongs. Everybody’s come from somewhere else.

YZC: Maybe a side question—Eric, you just spoke at length about Beijing geography, and Jeremy, you wrote an introduction for Electric Literature providing background and context. Sometimes it seems translators take on the roles of historian, anthropologist, or just all-around expert for the works that you translate. Is that a role that you take on with relish?

Despite the contempt that respectable society has for these people, they’re the ones who keep Beijing running. If they did all leave, the city would fall apart.

JT: For me it’s part of the translation process. One of the things I find necessary is ensuring that the reader of the English has the same context the reader of the Chinese would. And a reader of the Chinese text would probably already have some sense of what it means to be in the outer ring of Beijing, to be in the suburbs. Some sense of Beijing itself. So for us translating outside of that, I think we can take for granted that the English language reader has some context for Beijing, but maybe less specificity. Then I consider how much of that can be conveyed by the translation itself, how much of it needs to be in a paratext or an introduction. For me it’s not a particular methodology. I will do whatever works. I look at each situation and find the best way to make sure the information is conveyed to the reader in as unobtrusive a way as possible so they can appreciate the stories in the way the author intended.

EA: For me, this has been my whole career for ten or fifteen years, such as it is. We started this group, Paper Republic, largely in order to introduce Chinese literature to publishers. We were trying to get hired as translators. As a translator you can have a double educational role. On the one hand you want a publisher to pick up a novel and let you translate it. In order to do that, you need them to understand what the thing is. You end up going to great lengths to explain what the novel is and why it’s worth you translating it. And then over time, the Paper Republic website turned towards general introduction of Chinese literature also for readers.

Then at a certain point it seemed less necessary—there were more voices, more outlets, more sources of information. In the mid-2000s it seemed very difficult to get any of this information out there. We would talk to editors and they would be like, “We know nothing about Chinese literature at all. We know about Mao’s Little Red Book?” You felt like you were just starting from zero. And that’s not the case anymore. It’s really nice to see. I’m happy not to play that role anymore. But we were still focused on the publishing industry. I was running publishing fellowships in Beijing up until I left in 2018, where we were inviting editors from around the world to come to China and learn about Chinese literature. I’ve probably spent more time explaining Chinese literature than I have translating it. But I’ve mostly focused on publishers.

YZC: Along those lines, earlier you mentioned there’s a real sense of distaste for jingpiao. What has the reception been for this book? Do you see a difference in reception toward Xu Zechen’s work in Chinese versus English?

EA: He let slip early on that he had gotten some pushback on Running Through Beijing for depictions of the illegal underworld—pirated DVDs, and so on. Obviously it wasn’t so bad that he was censored, but I think he missed out on some literary prizes that he might have been eligible for. There was recognition that this is good and important literature. The Chinese post-Soviet point of view on the arts is that they’re supposed to represent the lives of the common people. Well, this is it! This is the lives of the common people. But also it does make Beijing look like a mess. In terms of his relationship with the authorities, I think he had a bit of a rocky period there. But I think everyone recognizes that these are important, valuable stories not previously told about the people.

JT: I think there might also be more tolerance for mess in the Western world. The Chinese perception of these stories might be that they are straight-up critiques of the way Beijing treats these people, whereas at least some of the reception in English has been that this sounds like kind of fun and adventurous, even whilst acknowledging that the characters lead obviously really hard lives, rooted deep in the inequalities of society.

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