Tuesday, December 1, 2009

New Translation for Lu Xun's Fiction

Prof. Jeff Wasserstrom, editor of The China Beat and author of several books on China, has a very interesting and refreshing article about Lu Xun (鲁迅) titled "China's Orwell" in Time magazine, in which he makes – quite originally – a parallel between Lu Xun and George Orwell, with the insightful point that Lu Xun is not only a great writer, but an essential writer.

I'm also happy to learn from Prof. Wasserstrom's article that Penguin is publishing The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China: The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun, translated by Julia Lovell and scheduled for release in January. Since the book is "the complete fiction of Lu Xun," it must include stories from Lu Xun's collection 故事新编 (or Old Stories Told Anew by my translation – not sure how Julia Lovell would have translated this).  In that collection Lu Xun retells several ancient tales with unique language and twists.

It was those stories – not the officially hailed ones such as "The Real Story of Ah-Q" and "Diary of a Madman" – that haunted me as an impressionable high school student in the 1970s. One story I still remember after all these years is about Meijianchi, an 18-year-old boy who hands his own head to a career assassin in order to kill the king and avenge his father the legendary sword maker. The fighting scene between three severed heads biting each other in a boiling cauldron was quite heart-stirring. I've never read anything like that before or after. I'd be very interested in seeing how this story is translated into English.

The edition I read then had end notes by the editor(s), which quoted parts of the dialogue in Lu Xun's stories that were used as satiric retaliation against "four dudes" ("四条汉子"), a name Lu Xun gave to four underground communists who led the "left-wing writers union" in 1930s Shanghai. Though Lu Xun supported the communists at the time (he was never a Party member), there was quite a bit of discord between him and the "four dudes," and he often felt he was being attacked. As caustic a writer as Lu Xun was, he did not openly fight back, instead he chose to mock their attacks in his fiction. I don't know if Julia Lovell has included any notes on this history – it might be very hard to make sense of it all for a Western audience anyway.

Later during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, the "four dudes," who had become high ranking Party officials then, were ruthlessly "struggled" by the Red Guards because of their historical "crime" of "opposing Lu Xun." I'm not sure that, had Lu Xun not died of sickness in 1936 and instead lived to the time of the CR, he would have been able to escape denunciation himself. Given his scathing nature, it is hard to imagine that he would have placated the Red Guards or Party officials.

In China's literary world, Lu Xun actually was the most famous for his satirical essays, which far exceed his fiction in quantity. His scathing style was extensively mimicked by the Red Guards for faction fighting during the Cultural Revolution, a consequence he wouldn't have dreamed of.

Lu Xun also translated quite a few English works into Chinese, and he advocated direct (verbatim) translation (直译), as opposed to free translation by meaning (意译). Though some of his translation did not work IMO, for example I remember in one story he translated "good morning" as "好早晨" instead of "早晨好", I agree with him in principle. This is to say, to the extent it does not confuse the reader, verbatim translation often lends more vivacity and color than free translation.


wuming said...


The story "Forging the Sword" hunted me as well. There are literary and art works that leave me feverish afterward, this is one of them. The collection title is translated as "Old Tales Retold" by Old Tales Retold, whom you must be familiar with.

I remember reading the stories from the collection the first time and found them boring, but years later, when I reread them, I was rolling on the floor laughing. The sharpness of his language is very unique. I somehow feels a non-Chinese sensibility in his works, but that could have been because I have not read enough Chinese literary works.

Xujun said...

Hi Wuming, actually I didn't know about the "Old Tales Retold" blog until you mentioned it. Thanks for the heads up! I'll take a closer look at its posts when I get the time.

"Old Tales Retold" is certainly an idiomatic translation, and compared to it, again my translation "Old Stories Told Anew" is more a verbatim one. I guess it is really a matter of taste in going for either. I must admit though, for a blog header their translation works better.

It is interesting to hear that you had a similar experience with "Forging the Sword." And you may be right that Lu Xun indeed displays a non-Chinese sensibility in his work, given how strongly he endorsed reading foreign novels instead of Chinese novels.

wuming said...

Old Tales Retold has made many comments on China related debates on the internet. I think he is a labor activist. In my opinion he is one of the most rational voices in such debates, although quite often I didn't agree with him.

jenyunzi said...

Just finished a bilingual edition of Lu Xun Selected Short Stories (with the Gladys Yang translation) that ended with Forging the Swords. While I had strong physical, emotional, and intellectual reactions to many of the stories in the collection, Forging the Swords had my heart racing throughout. I've been scouring the internet for thoughts on it since I finished it and came upon these here. There's something very chilling about it - underneath the drama and suspense it makes a strong statement about poverty, decadence, and the fundamental equality of human beings. Looking forward to reading the Lovell translation as well.