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Julia Lovell on translating Lu Xun's complete fiction: "His is an angry, searing vision of China"

Julia Lovell. Photo by Martin Figura

Julia Lovell teaches at the University of London's Birkbeck College in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology and has translated Serve the People by Yan Lianke and Lust; Caution by Eileen Chang amongst other Chinese literary works.

Lovell's new book of translation is modern fiction forefather Lu Xun's The Real Story of Ah Q and Other Tales of China, published by Penguin.

Soon available in shops in the mainland and abroad, an excerpt of the Preface can be read at the China Beat. Below is a Q&A with the translator (note: Eric Abrahamsen at Paper Republic also interviewed Julia Lovell).

Danwei: What significance do you think Lu Xun's work has for the younger generations of Chinese people today?
Julia Lovell: Plenty, I think. But I would distinguish between two Lu Xuns: between, on the one hand, the heroic revolutionary Lu Xun (invented by Mao), whose works generations of schoolchildren have been forced to memorise (down to the punctuation, I believe); and on the other, a spikier, tirelessly critical, more realistic Lu Xun. I think that Lu Xun’s legacy of cosmopolitanism and intellectual independence – which comes through in a good deal of his dark fiction and polemical essays – is an important and useful reminder of modern China’s traditions of dissent and extraordinary receptiveness to the outside world.

Lu Xun's complete fiction. Photo: Penguin

Danwei: When you were approached to translate the book, did you factor in how it would appeal to English-speaking audiences? Did you think that it could appeal? Once you have translated the work, was there the feeling that you'd helped to bridge the gap between something that was distinctly culturally Chinese (Lu Xun) and a modern, 21st century western audience?
JL: I had the hope, of course, that I could try to explain to contemporary English-speaking readers why Lu Xun is seen as such an important author in China; I think it’s true to say that up until now Lu Xun has been barely known among general Anglophone audiences (I think the situation is different in other European languages, such as Norwegian, which have a more flourishing translation culture than, say, Britain or the US does).

I thought that Lu Xun could appeal to English-speaking readers for a few reasons. First of all, for his acute commentary on the era that he lived through - to read Lu Xun is to capture a snapshot of late imperial and early Republican China. (As we all know, this year is a big birthday year for China, and Lu Xun’s scepticism is still a useful antidote to the fizzy hype that came out of the PRC on the 60th anniversary of the Communist revolution.) Secondly, he’s a sharp stylist, with a command of tone (surrrealism, irony, black humour) that gives him an appeal beyond China specialists. Anyone who works on modern Chinese culture encounters Lu Xun – he’s kind of James Joyce and Dickens rolled into one. And I would suggest that anyone who wants to get a handle on modern Chinese literature and culture - and particularly on the sense of crisis that gripped 20th-century writers and thinkers – can’t do better than start with Lu Xun, because his characters and themes have established themselves so firmly in China's national imagination.

But as to whether I managed to convey all this in the translation – I don’t know; I’ll have to see what readers think. My mum told me she quite liked it.

Danwei: In terms of working on his language, parts of the fiction were in classical Chinese ("Nostalgia" for example), and other parts in bai hua (vernacular). How did you create a sense of continuity between the two literary styles, and do you think it would be difficult for readers to transfer between the two?
JL: Where Lu Xun used classical Chinese to make a contrast with the vernacular elsewhere, my translation style for these excerpts became less comfortable, more stilted. There’s a good reason for this in, say, “Diary of a Madman”, where Lu Xun deliberately frames the Madman’s terrible discovery of Chinese cannibalism (written in vernacular) with a mock-pompous classical Chinese preface – the classical Chinese here is meant to sound artificial and mannered, to contrast with the “truth” that the madman has discovered. Lu Xun’s doing something similar in the facetious opening to “The Real Story of Ah-Q”, poking fun at the flatulence of Confucian literary convention. But in “Nostalgia”, I don’t think that Lu Xun was necessarily making a particular political or stylistic point by using classical Chinese – he was using an idiom he was familiar with, and so when translating it I too tried to find a natural-sounding idiom in English.

Danwei: Was it a relief to be done with the book?
JL: I must confess, yes. Of course, it felt like a great privilege to have an excuse to spend so much time rereading Lu Xun, to be reminded why he’s such an important figure in the modern Chinese canon. I think it’s true to say that translation pushes you to study a text more deeply than any other type of reading does. But at the same time, Lu Xun’s is an angry, searing vision of China – where he uses humour, it is decidedly black, and designed to underscore the darkness that he saw about him. Translating him was never relaxing, and some stories (especially those about dying children) I found deeply upsetting every time I returned to them – it was impossible to become blasé about their message. However many times I’d read or polished my translation, Lu Xun’s original vision still unsettled me. After finishing the book, I took a holiday in some truly sappy romantic fiction. At the moment, I’m reading Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City – the misadventures of Mary Ann Singleton in 1970s San Francisco – which I’m finding excellent.

There are currently 9 Comments for Julia Lovell on translating Lu Xun's complete fiction: "His is an angry, searing vision of China".

Comments on Julia Lovell on translating Lu Xun's complete fiction: "His is an angry, searing vision of China"

would be interested in hearing more of her thoughts about the depiction of lu xun by the CCP

What an irony it is that it is CCP who made Lu famous and an household reader. In "Free China" alias Taiwan, which is backed by the Free World, Lu has been unavailable to the general public for a long time. Even today when he is again available in "Free China" alias Taiwan, he is generally considered a commie shill and a bad writer.

Ah, Maupin. Interesting to see it mentioned here. :)

Whilst I appreciate your endeavour to translate
Chinese into English. Do you concede that in
essence; it is most unlikely that you will get
an accurate translation.

It is well known that if you (try) to translate
A chinese poem, it is lost in translation.

Did you find the translation seemed to be control.


Kind Regards.

G E Turton.

I look forward to reading your translation. Anything not "dumbed down" to a 9th grade reading level, as so many literary works are today, is a welcome relief.
You shouldn't worry about the readers ability to know the subtle differences written "between the lines" that may get lost in translation. Those of us intelligent enough to be reading works such as yours, and those interested in Chinese literature, especially historic works, will know to how to recognize it.

If the references go 'over ones head' then the reader is obviously attempting to comprehend material beyond their present capacity, and should return at a later time to re-read it, or learn to read Chinese and do their own interpretation, not blame the interpreter for the loss.

I'm sure your honest attempt is much preferable than anything coming out of any "official" work(s) from China today.

you made me watch this again... the old good lu xun bashing from Li Ao. This time on his terrible use of diction and grammar. link, link

lu xun's writting is not easy to translate for sure.

Leo, I think the only people that still use the phrase 'Free China' are US House Republicans. In the time I lived in Taiwan I did not here it once, except as a sarcastic comment on the Martial Law era.

Gerald, I'm not sure if you are right about it being 'impossible' to translate a chinese poem - I don't see what standard there is to judge if something has been lost? How do you measure that? Is there a single 'correct' understanding of the poem that we can judge the translation against?

In any case, inaccuracy can be equally productive: Ezra Pound's 'translations' of Chinese poetry in 'Cathay' kick-started 'imagism' as a literary movement and helped to change the course of 20th century Anglophone poetry. (The appropriation of 'Chinese' figures by Williams, Snyder and many others followed).

One last thing. What on earth does, "Did you find the translation seemed to be control" mean? Can you translate that into English for us?

Try Cyril Birch's translation of Peony Pavilion. Very good. As for the ability to translate Chinese, or anything else, let's consult Derrida.

I'm reading this at the moment. What comes across is a bleakly hilarious personality, somewhat akin to Gogol perhaps, with "Chinese characteristics"?

Lovell is a wonderful knowledgeable translator and has great psychological and cultural insight. The books she has translated make a fabulous reading list.

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