Translating Chinese Works (2): Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio
On 17th August 2017, The Economist published a commentary on China’s recent revival of its traditional culture, a trend enthusiastically sponsored by the government. Alongside schemes and events such as calligraphy summer schools, this is also leading to the greater promotion of research into the translation of Chinese literature. As I talked about Dream of the Red Chamber (Hong Lou Meng) in the previous post, I would now like to explore the 19th-century translations of another classic literary work: Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio (Liao Zhai Zhi Yi), a collection of classical Chinese stories by Pu Songling comprising close to five hundred “marvel tales”. While the various translations of Cao Xueqin’s classic were shaped primarily by political norms and pressures within China, it was the religious and cultural prejudices of Westerners that influenced the way Liao Zhai Zhi Yi was translated.
The translation of Chinese works reached its peak in the 19th century, very possibly due to the work of missionaries. Their first concern was to popularize Christianity in China, but they soon realised, when their missionizing was not as effective as they had expected, that they needed to learn more about Chinese culture. As James Legge (1815–1897) explained in his Chinese Classics (1861–1872), only a thorough grounding in the Chinese classics and a detailed examination of China’s moral, social and political philosophy would put them in a position to truly win over the Chinese populace.
The first translator of Liao Zhai Zhi Yi was Karl Friedrich August Gützlaff (1803–1851), a German sinologist. Since then, more sinologists and missionaries have translated or retranslated this collection, including Samuel Wells Williams (1812–1884), William Fredrick Mayers (1831–1878), Clement Francis Romill Allen (1844–1920), Herbert Allen Giles (1845–1935), Walter Caine Hillier (1849–1927) and George Soulie de Morant (1878–1955). Most of these translators were not professionals, but served as missionaries, ambassadors, Consulars and the like. They all shared, however, a willingness to engage in liberal manipulation of the source text in their translations, making lots of adaptations, deletions and additions to facilitate their missionizing and increase their governments’ influence in China.
Let’s take Gützlaff’s translation Liau Chai I Chi, or Extraordinary Legends from Liau Chai as an example. The translator’s chief aim was to single out reasonable theoretical evidence for his missionary work in China. Gützlaff selected nine stories from the original book that served his purpose. Though Liao Zhai is in essence a literary work, Gützlaff regarded it as a kind of Paganist text. He explained in his translation that, “although many of the tales refer to the Tau sect, Buddhists are sometimes introduced; but it contains also account of elves, fairies, ghouls and spirits of all sorts, with wonderful narratives of animals imbued with spiritual power, and surprising tales.”
At the very beginning of his translation, Gützlaff argues in detail that the Daoist and Buddhist faiths followed by the Chinese people are superstitious and misleading; only Christianity can rescue the Chinese from superstition:
Their [the Chinese people] superstitions, however, are thus nourished, and they can never free themselves entirely from the incubus. There is nothing that can liberate man from this thralldom except true Christianity, which in all its bearings produces a healthful state of mind, and whilst it makes us acquainted with bliss eternal before the throne of God and of the Lamb, it introduces us likewise to an innumerable company of saints and angels in light. When we are familiarized with these sacred objects, we feel indeed the utmost contempt for such superstitious fables. Otherwise no faith in fate, or in the laws of nature and destiny, which is frequently disguised under the name of Providence, can permanently rescue us from error.
The values and intention of the translator can be seen quite plainly in this introduction, which epitomizes the attitude of the missionary community in this period.
It is not reasonable, I believe, to deny so blithely the merits and the significance of traditional Chinese culture and moral beliefs. And yet, a similarly dismissive attitude has characterized much of Western discourse on China ever since Gützlaff’s time. Evidently, it is not easy for the West to fully understand Chinese society and its values, which have always derived more from a collection of classic texts and philosophies than any particular religion. The Economist article, for example, asserts that the policy to revive the national culture “constitute[s] an attempt to infuse daily life with a sanitized and government-sanctioned version of Chinese culture”. According to the commentary, “the intention, as in so much that [President Xi Jinping] does, is to secure the enduring power of the Communist Party.”
On the surface at least, this wholesale dismissal of the programme does not seem very different from Gützlaff’s rejection of Chinese culture, and may have its roots in similar prejudices. It’s difficult to judge or conclude, but is it quite possible that the manipulations of Gützlaff and his contemporaries in their translations have had a lasting effect? How do we bridge the gap between such markedly different cultures if political or religious purposes are inscribed in the texts that we are using to understand each other and these issues are not discussed?
Feature image: Illustration (1886) of a scene from ‘The Painted Skin’, one of the stories in ‘Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio’ (public domain image via Wikimedia Commons).
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