The Great Debate Over Translation

One of the most interesting and important issues in literature is that of translating works from one language into another. Which translation is the most enjoyable to read? Which is the most faithful to the original text? This critical issue was the subject of several comments on Tim Galleher's* Lu Xun website. The debate is over the translation of Lu Xun's works into English and goes as follows:

* Who wouldn't answer my email.

Excerpted from TG's website...
The translators of the books by Lu Xun mentioned here are Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang. They seem to have done a good job. The book also contains numerous footnotes that are helpful to understand the references made in the stories, but also contain some of the silliest communist-tinged drivel you'll ever hear as well.

I talked to a true scholar/translator in this field about the Yang and Yang translations. I asked about the integrity of their translation and recieved this answer:

Regarding your question about the translations of Lu Xun's works, I would like to say that the older translations are fluent but not faithful, since those translators aimed to make the reading easy. There are many instances in their translations when wrong words are used, phrases omitted, and sections taken out. Still, the existing translations are acceptable. My collection contains three of Lu Xun's stories, i.e. "The Diary of a Mad Man," "New Year's Sacrifice," and "Kong Yi Ji." My translations are much more faithful, so much so that I think they may seem hard to read, but without being faithful it is almost impossible to convey the tone and style of his writing. Some people have read my translations and have really enjoyed the distinct styles and tones in the stories.
This was from Fang ZhiHua. Thanks for the input. Fang has translated a number of Chinese stories including some of Lu Xun's. For info on Fang's book see the above section.

Alternative Opinion

I received mail from Feng Xu concerning this Lu Xun site. Included was a comment on the above paragraph by Fang ZhiHua. It read:
The translators are Yang Xianyi and his wife Gladys Yang. In addition to Lu Xun, they have translated into English the Dreams of Red Mansions, the best of the best Chinese classic literary works, and many other Chinese classics such as Selected Plays of Guan HangQin, Shui Hu. Based on what I have read and remembered, their translations are not only faithful, but also fluent and elegant. By any measure their work should be considered as a landmark and the best representative of Chinese translation art. Their extraordinary talents are manifested in the English translation of the Dreams of Red Mansions, which are filled with translators nightmares: puns, poems, proses...(You may have been aware of the rich associations, colorful symbolic language used in classic Chinese poetry, hence the difficulty of translation).

My point here is that I don't agree with the 'true scholar' on that Yang's translation is only on the 'acceptable' level, as quoted in your homepage. And we should bear in mind that Lu Xun's works, like many Chinese literature masterpieces, have many different versions, which could give rise to some discrepancies in translated versions....

And I have received yet another opinion. This one from Lin Dai-yu.

As regards the Yang Xianyi / Gladys Yang duo, I would only say that I can second your opinion, and make it a bit more severe. Their translation of "The Dream of the Red Chamber" was particularly disappointing, and goes to show you how much more important it is to be a native speaker of the language that you are translating a work into. In fact, the translations coming out of Beijing are of such a uniformly low quality that I wished there were more translations of books I need outside of that agency — the only thing impelling me to buy their books is the fact that I can't find them anywhere else.


I thank these three people for commenting. Translation is a tricky thing, especially with a writer of the caliber of Lu Xun so its not unexpected to get differing ideas and opinions.

If anyone else wants to comment please do so.

And so here is my comment. From Autumn Floods in the Chuang Tzu:
Chuang Tzu and Hui Tzu were strolling along the dam of the Hao River when Chuang Tzu said, "See how the minnows come out and dart around where they please! That's what fish really enjoy!"
Hui Tzu said, "You're not a fish—how do you know what fish enjoy?"
Chuang Tzu said, "You're not I, so how do you know I don't know what fish enjoy?"
Hui Tzu said, "I'm not you, so I certainly don't know what you know. On the other hand, you're certainly not a fish—so that still proves you don't know what fish enjoy!"
Chuang Tzu said, "Let's go back to your original question, please. You asked me how I know what fish enjoy—so you already knew I knew when you asked the question. I know it by standing here beside the Hao."

Of course, it must be pointed out that this is only a translation of the Chuang Tzu. Therefore, whatever insight you feel you may be experiencing may not be your own.

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