Thoughts on Writing

Setting the scene

The scene is to be filmed in a diner in Los Angeles, but the story is set in Manhattan. Solution? Place neon signs outside the eatery and drizzle down artificial rain, so that the illusion of being in the Big Apple is created by bright shop logos glimpsed through wet windows.

This is the kind of problem Hollywood set designer Judy Becker deals with as a matter of routine. Filmgoers aren’t a blank piece of paper; they come to the theatre pre-programmed with a complex set of visual associations.The best in the set design business have a knack of knowing which reaction this or that prop would trigger.

I think the better writers, too, excel in stage-managing their readers’ response. Take for example the telegram British soldiers in World War Two sent home after being stranded in Dunkirk, where the Germans could ambush them anytime. The cable comprised only of the words “but if not,” but it resonated deeply with British public all the same because the then church-going nation could immediately tell the phrase originated from the Bible’s Book of Daniel: after King Nebuchadnezzar warns Daniel and his friends that if they don’t bow to his idols he will burn them to death, they say if they’re thrown into the furnace their God can rescue them, “but if not” – but even if God doesn’t save them – they still won’t prostrate before the king’s gods. By invoking this biblical tale, the British soldiers were pledging even if their country left them to their own devices at Dunkirk, they’d rather be slaughtered by Hitler than surrender. Their three-word telegram had the effect of galvanizing their compatriots back home into action; civilians who owned boats promptly took part in a coordinated effort to ferry back the troops.

Perhaps nowhere is an eye for ambience-building details more important than in the field of Chinese-to-English (or English-to-Chinese) translation: native Chinese speakers are in possession of their own culture-specific repository of knowledge, so a Chinese text that hits the right notes with the Chinese won’t rouse western readers the same way if only a literal translation is provided.

By way of illustration: I once wrote a Chinese piece on how I use hair-styling as a means to decompress. I’m adept at recreating on myself most of the signature hairstyles dated from the1920s to the1960s, so when I set my hair each night, I have a wide variety of styles to choose from. What I’ve discovered is the sense of agency I gain from choosing the day’s look goes a long way in offsetting the helplessness I feel in present-day politically fraught Hong Kong. I expressed these thoughts in Chinese as follows:


To convey the respite working on my hair can bring me, I called upon a scene most Chinese people have seen in Chinese costume dramas on TV, comparing the freedom an emperor has in bedding whoever strikes his fancy to the way I get to indulge in my caprice when choosing which hairstyle to sport.

Now, imagine translating the above passage into English word for word. Westerners who are unfamiliar with Chinese costume dramas will be confused instead of amused by the emperor analogy. Alternatively, I can take cue from what good film set designers do: create a setting one’s target audience would feel at home in by strategically drawing on references that would fire up their mental wiring. This was exactly what I ended up doing. My English translation of my Chinese copy:

“The gratification a woman gets from styling her hair, you see, are two fold: first, combing, curling and crimping require such a degree of concentration that no other thoughts can intrude and she is quickly induced into a state of tranquility. The second brush with well-being occurs when she removes her curlers one by one and waits for a cascade of sculpted waves to frame her face. At this point, however, looking good holds different meanings for different women. On one end of the extreme, you have someone like Nora Ephron, who so took for granted the civil liberties her society bestowed on her that she once quipped ‘everything is copy’ – someone like her could afford to say in jest that a beautiful hairdo is ‘cheaper by far than psychoanalysis, and much more uplifting.’On the other extreme, you have women whose lives have been disrupted by politics. To them, personal grooming is a somber affair: the ability to summon up the energy to maintain a polished image is an act of triumph, a signal to the world that, for this woman at least, complete disaster is still being kept at bay. It was this connection between personal appearance and public morale that British Vogue grasped in 1941 when it exhorted readers who were coping with The Blitz ‘now, if ever, beauty is your duty.’”

Judy Becker, the designer who used neon signs and rain to communicate “Manhattan,” quickly takes notice when things aren’t working: “when my attention is drawn away from the story and into the design, that’s not a good design.” The same principle applies to writing too. I’ve just mapped out the deliberations that crossed my mind when I was working on the above Chinese and English copies. Had you just read the copies alone, you probably wouldn’t have guessed that behind the scenes, so much thought was involved. This is why many writers often complain about how hard writing is: the act of writing is hard, but the act of hiding your effort, harder still.

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