Dream of the Red Chamber: Translating Chinese Literature
From the 1950s to the 1970s, many translation projects of Chinese works were supported by the authority of mainland China. Translators and western experts were invited to join these projects. Among them was a very well-known translator: Yang Xianyi (杨宪益). Over the course of his career, Yang contributed more than 100 translations of Chinese literature. He worked alongside his wife Gladys Yang, an English woman from Oxford University who came to China with her husband in the 1950s.
Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang
Yang Xianyi was a Chinese literary translator known for rendering many ancient and a few modern Chinese classics into English. Yang and his wife returned to China in 1940, and began their decades-long co-operation aimed at introducing Chinese classics to the English-speaking world. Working for the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing, a government-funded publisher, the couple produced a large number of quality translations. These included classical Chinese poetry, as well as such classic works as Dream of the Red Chamber, The Scholars, Liu E’s Mr. Decadent: Notes Taken in an Outing (老殘遊記) and some of Lu Xun’s stories. Yang was also the first to render the Odyssey into Chinese (prose) from the ancient Greek original. He also translated Aristophanes’s Ornites, Virgil’s Georgics, La chanson de Roland and Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion into Chinese.
Translating Hong Lou Meng (Dream of the Red Chamber)
Dream of the Red Chamber (also called The Story of the Stone), written by Cao Xueqin, is one of China’s “four great classical novels”. The 120 chapters of this novel provide a detailed record of life in two branches of a wealthy aristocratic clan; the romantic rivalry and friendship among three characters against the backdrop of the family’s declining fortunes form the main story of the novel. Apart from the Yangs’ full-text translation, titled A Dream of the Red Mansions and published in the 1970s, another pair of translators, David Hawkes and John Minford, also translated the whole novel as The Story of the Stone, published in 1973. In contrast to the freedom enjoyed by Hawkes and Minford to select and translate the novel, Yang Xianyi, who was commissioned by the Beijing Foreign Language Bureau, had to accept the task, though he himself was not especially interested in this classic novel. According to his autobiography White Tiger (2002), he did not think much of the numerous descriptions of banquets in the novel. The couple were also required by the bureau to remain extremely faithful to the original text. Also, the Great Leap Forward in mainland China in the 1960s affected their translation: “During the Great Leap Forward movement of 1958, we translated books like mad, churning them out day and night and producing them very fast. Naturally the quality of our translations was affected.”
At times, Yang Xianyi was able to resist assignments from the political authorities, as with his refusal to translate the poetry of Mao Zedong. In his autobiography, Yang wrote: “it was considered to be a most prestigious job for a Chinese intellectual to translate the works of Chairman Mao and we would get the highest salary a Chinese university professor could get.” Nonetheless, he refused the work.
In translating the original novel Hong Lou Meng, the translators were also constrained by the norms of the original culture. Take an example in the main text. Yang and his wife deliberately adopted a zero translation strategy when dealing with explicit words in the original novel, due to the ideological limitations of the time.
Yangs: “It’s a long story,” answered Pao-yu, then told his dream in full, concluding with his initiation by Disenchantment into the “sport of cloud and rain”. His-jen, hearing this, covered her face and doubled up in a fit of giggles.
Hawkes: After much hesitation he proceeded to give her a detailed account of his dream. But when he came to the part of it in which he made love to Two-in-one, Aroma threw herself forward with a shriek of laughter and buried her face in her hands.
The “sport of cloud and rain” (“云雨之情” in the original text) in the Yangs’ translation is a Chinese euphemism for sex, but this phrase does not have the same meaning in English. The Yangs’ translation here can be categorized as a sort of word-for-word translation, in Saint Jerome’s words, since the four characters and two images in the Chinese phrase are fully rendered. Compared with Hawkes’s sense-for-sense translation (“made love”) the Yangs’ version elicits the reader’s imagination and adds some aesthetic elements to the language itself.
Sexuality has been regarded as a taboo at various times throughout Chinese history, including the period from the 1950s to the 1970s. Explicit sexual references were allowed in neither oral nor written language, particularly for educated people. The Chinese language instead employed elegant expressions to describe sexual concepts, using images such as “flower”, “cloud”, “moon” or “willow”, to make abstract expressions more picturesque.
Norm, Ideology and Translation
Norm, as a concept in social and political studies, has long been central to translation practice and theory. According to Theo Hermans, “norm” coordinates the relationship between the individual and society, between personal intention, choice and behavior and collective ideals, values and preferences. Sometimes, translators have to compromise due to the prevailing social and political norms.
In Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang’s translation, a complex connection between translators and political ideology or norm can be discerned in their selection of the original text through to their translation strategy and editing. Ironically, the other full-text translation by Hawkes and Minford, which reads more like an English novel, enjoys a better-known position and greater influence in the West than the Yangs’ work, despite the fact that the Yangs’ translation was initiated by the authorities specifically to raise awareness of Chinese literature abroad. It could be that including more native-language and culturally specific elements in translations of Chinese literary works would result in a more enthusiastic reception.