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Xu Yuanchong’s 70-year sojourn on the frontiers of translation

By Long Yuan, Bai Le | 2016-09-07 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Xu Yuanchong is a renowned Chinese contemporary translator. Born in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province in 1921, he studied under Qian Zhongshu, Wen Yiduo, Feng Youlan, Wu Mi and other Chinese literary masters at the National Southwestern Associated University. He went to the University of Paris for further study after graduating from the Institute of Foreign Literature at Tsinghua University. Over the course of a career spanning more than seven decades, Xu has translated 120 works to and from Chinese, English and French, with a special focus on poetry. In 2014, he won the “Aurora Borealis” Prize for Outstanding Translation of Fiction Literature, the highest honor in the international field of translation. So far, he is the first and only Asian person to win this prestigious honor.


When welcoming us to his home, Xu gestured to us to have the green tea on the table, but he chose red tea with brown sugar, and said with a self-satisfied smile: “I was always told not to drink red tea—especially with brown sugar—which many say is not good for the health. But I drink it almost every day and now I am 95, which means that red tea is quite suitable for me.”

The day before CSST reporters visited Xu, he had stayed up until two o’clock. In response to the reporters’ joke that “The rule for longevity is ‘early to bed and early to rise,’” he said in a humorous tone, “I have my own rule: rest whenever I want, at my own discretion.”

“For translation, it is the same: Translate as one wishes, so long as it does not violate established norms. But what is important is to do it every day. To me, it’s quite interesting to make my own thinking known to others,” he said.

The most famous translation theory Xu established is “tripartite beauty” which refers to beauty of image, of sound and of form. To some translators, his translation deviates much from the original meaning of the source text since he doggedly pursues beauty in the target language by leaving things out and adding things, which means he inevitably violates faithfulness to the source text. During his translation career, he has been at the center of many heated debates with other translators, but Xu said, “I am not afraid of confrontation because the truth becomes increasingly clear with each debate.”

His resolve to abide by his own principles endows him with exceptional persistence and guts.
At present, he is fulfilling a goal he set for himself after receiving the “Aurora Borealis” Prize: to finish the translation of the Complete Works of Shakespeare within five years.


At the London Book Fair in April this year, Chinese versions of six Shakespearean tragedies were exhibited as well as the English version of the Peony Pavilion by Chinese playwright Tang Xianzu, all of which were translated by Xu. The event marked the 400th anniversary of the deaths of Tang and Shakespeare, so it was a serendipitous time to try to foster new cultural connections between the East and the West.


CSST: Translating as one wishes within the boundaries of established norms—this is an important guiding principle for your translation. For many years, scholars have been debating the rules of translation, and there are diverging opinions as to whether translation should be literal or interpretive. These disputes can be summarized as seeking a balance between two schools of thought. What is your understanding of this in regard to your translation between Chinese and English?


Xu Yuanchong: Being precise, English is more like a scientific language, while Chinese is relatively concise and more artistic. The process of translation is also the process of reconciling the two languages.

To Zhu Guangqian and Qian Zhongshu—two Chinese literary scholars and also translators—the supreme state of art is to “do as one wishes so long as it does not violate established norms.” I derived my translation theory from their views—Translate as one wishes so long as it does not violate established norms—to fully utilize translators’ subjective initiative and at the same time, follow the objective linguistic law.

There is a famous saying of the Chinese writer and poet Wang Guowei: All scenic descriptions are expressions of emotion. Saying one thing but meaning another is what makes Chinese poetry great. Therefore, translating not only the “one thing” but also the implicit and symbolic meaning is the key to utilizing the subjective initiative.


CSST: You often mention the encouragement that Qian Zhongshu gave to you. You both translated the poetry of Mao Zedong but he compared your translation to a “dishonest beauty.” What do you think he meant by this?


Xu Yuanchong: Qian Zhongshu was really eloquent. His daily speech was usually full of wit and erudition. To me, he was really a genius. He was 28 years old when he taught me, so only 10 years older than me. But by that age, he had already published a number of books. Some quite mediocre words, when rendered through the lens of his translation, became even better than they were in the source material.

When I was translating Mao Zedong’s poetry, he supported me and praised my translation in a letter to me: “I marvel at the supple ease with which the author dances in the clogs and fetters of rhyme and meter.” But I differed with him on the question of whether the ultimate goal of translation was faithfulness or beauty. When commenting on my translations, he also quoted the saying from the French scholar Gilles Ménage who compared translation to a woman he once loved, who was “beautiful, but unfaithful.”

I often wrote letters to Qian Zhongshu to consult the translation of Mao Zedong’s poetry, and he compared my translation text to “colored glass” while he himself preferred “transparent glass.” He replied to me in one letter this way: “transparent-glass-like translation in which faithfulness comes first, would offend poetry, but colored-glass-like translation in which beauty comes first, would violate translation itself. I admit that I am in between in a dilemma, and have to regard it an issue of picking the lesser of two evils—a poem that is rendered from one language to another would be either distorted or awkward.”

Actually, Qian Zhongshu loved faithfulness in sense but beauty in sensibility. In order to resolve the paradox, he sometimes adopted a negative approach in translation so as to seek not to be meritorious but only to avoid offense.

Due to the paradox between sense and sensibility, he considered some poems untranslatable. He agreed with a famous saying by American poet Robert Frost that “poetry is what gets lost in translation,” but to me, poetry is what gets regained in translation.


CSST:  You and the famed Chinese translator Fu Lei both translated Jean-Christophe, a renowned novel by French writer Romain Rolland. You once said that Fu Lei’s approach to translation needs to be refined.


Xu Yuanchong: Fu Lei had proposed two principles of translation. One is that similarity between the source and target texts in spirit is more important than similarity in form. The other is that the syntax needs to be maintained as much as possible when rendering a text from one language to another. There was often excellent translation when he stressed “texts being alike in spirit” but poor expression when he stressed the maintenance of syntax. I chose to draw experience from his strengths but avoid his shortcomings in translating Jean-Christophe.


CSST:  You stressed many times that the translation of Chinese poetry contributes much to China’s efforts to make its culture “go global.” But the American Sinologist Stephen Owen holds the following opinion: Now the Chinese government is investing in rendering Chinese classics into English, but no one would read these English texts by Chinese translators. China could make the best of its cultural resources in a more rational way. Translators should always render foreign languages into their mother tongue. How do you view this?


Xu Yuanchong: Such opinion of Stephen Owen was published in the English World journal in 2015. There were also other arguments following it: Has a Chinese reader ever read a literary work that is translated by a foreigner from his mother tongue into Chinese?

The answer is no. But the thing is that Chinese and English language differ each other in their linguistic structure and formation. The former is hieroglyphic, while the latter is alphabetic, which determines that both feature the phonetic beauty the beauty of image, however, the beauty of form is exclusive to Chinese language. In this sense, when rendering English, which is scientific, to Chinese, which is artistic, it is tough for a foreign translator to achieve excellence, both in terms of faithfulness and symbolism. But it is relatively easy vice-versa for Chinese to translate from their mother tongue to English.

The translation of classical works is an issue that determines whether the “cultural dream” of China can be realized. To gain a say in the international translation field, self-confidence is essential. Some domestic scholars even argue that Chinese translation theories lag behind the West by at least 20 years—Such lack of confidence has hindered China’s translation development.


CSST: As you noted, 2,000 years ago, the traditional Chinese culture produced Confucius and Laozi, whose thought provided the basis for China’s translation theory.


Xu Yuanchong: Indeed. The translation theory of China today stems from Confucian and Taoist thinking. For example, Laozi’s saying “Truth can be known, but it may not be the truth that is widely understood to be true” can be used to comprehend the methodology of translation. It can be said the same way that “the way of translation can be known, but it may not be the established way, but rather an innovative and optimized way” since translation is more than mere equivalence between two languages. To innovate and optimize the conveyance of words is the key.

To build a culturally powerful country, you need a foundation built on translation. The philosophies of Confucius and Laozi are full of wisdom. What the offspring should bear in mind is to inherit the cultural treasure of the past and carry on that of today. This is also the basic requirement to become an outstanding translator. Deeply rooted in the richness of Chinese culture, translation needs to valued more and the critical role it plays in bridging cultural divides needs to be recognized.


Long Yuan and Bai Le are reporters at the Chinese Social Sciences Today.