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Lost in Translation

Even through times of persecution, 99-year-old award-winning translator Xu Yuanchong devoted his life to literary translation, bridging cultures and ideas in a changing China

By Bao Anqi Updated Feb.1

When I left here / Willow shed tears. I come back now / Snow bends the bough.” 

The English translation of the ancient poem “Cai Wei” from the Book of Poetry, the first surviving collection of Chinese poetry from the 11th-6th century BCE, is hailed as among Xu Yuanchong’s most elegant works of translation.  

The 99-year-old lives alone in an old house near Beijing’s Peking University (PKU). His room is simple, decorated with traditional Chinese furniture. His desk is cluttered with books, dictionaries, spectacles, magnifying glasses and photographs of his late wife. The only unoccupied space is just enough for him to write. Every day, Xu works from this desk, typing his translations into his computer.  

During the tumult of the early years of the People’s Republic of China, Xu only published four translations between the ages of 30 to 60. Since reform and opening-up started in 1978, he has published more than 100 translated novels, anthologies and plays in Chinese, English and French. Most notably, he translated classical Chinese poems into rhymed verse in both English and French. At 78, he finished his translation of French novelist Romain Rolland’s 10 volume, 1.2 million-word work Jean-Christophe.  

Xu is an advocate of free translation, which puts conveying the meaning of the text over its organization or form within reason. His views made him controversial for decades. Many translators criticized him for being too unfaithful to the original, with some calling him “a sinner throughout the ages.”  

On August 2, 2014, the International Federation of Translation (FIT) awarded Xu the Aurora Borealis Prize for Outstanding Translation of Fiction Literature, one of the highest awards in the international translation field, for devoting his career to “building bridges among Chinese-, English- and French-speaking peoples.” Xu is the first East Asian recipient of the triennial award. 

“Translation is a means of communicating with the writer’s soul. A sudden flicker of a good word or line thrills every pore and every inch of my skin,” Xu told NewsChina. 
‘Cannon Xu’
Xu was born into a literary family in 1921 in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province. His uncle Hsiung Shih-I (1902-1991) was a well-known writer, playwright and stage director who also translated works by George Bernard Shaw, J. M. Barrie and Thomas Hardy. Hsiung also translated traditional Chinese plays into English. His play adapted from Chinese folklore, Lady Precious Stream, was first staged in London’s West End in 1932 and quickly brought him international fame. The play was such a hit that Shaw invited him to meet. 

Xu developed an intense interest in English early in his youth. In 1938, Xu was admitted to the Department of Foreign Language Studies of the prestigious National Southwestern Associated University in Yunnan Province, a temporary merging of Peking University, Tsinghua University and Nankai University during the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1931-1945).  

Xu was called “Cannon Xu” at university, a nickname that would follow him for life not only for his sonorous voice but also for his outspokenness.  

In July 1941, US Major General Claire Lee Chennault and the 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG) known as the “Flying Tigers” arrived in Yunnan’s provincial capital of Kunming to aid China in its fight against Japan.  

During the group’s welcome reception, translators got stuck on how to convey the “Three Principles of the People” (nationalism, democracy and people’s livelihood), a political cornerstone of the Republic of China.  

Xu, still a student, raised his hand and answered in his signature loud voice, “Of the people, by the people, for the people.” The Americans understood immediately.  

Along with dozens of fellow students, the AVG recruited Xu as a translator. For his outstanding service, Xu was awarded a solid silver Flying Tigers Medal, though he said it was confiscated “in a later political movement.”  

From 1948 to 1950, Xu studied French literature at the Sorbonne. In Paris, he and other students started a book club where they passionately discussed Marxism and socialism with the hopes of contributing to the newly formed People’s Republic of China.  

Xu returned to China in 1951 filled with hopes and dreams. He was assigned to the French department at Beijing Foreign Studies University (BFSU) to teach French literature.  

But his new life was very different than he had imagined. His talent was not recognized and his ideas were deemed bourgeois.  

“As young students in Paris, our understanding of socialism was an institution in which everyone does their utmost and takes what they need. But when I returned I became aware that overseas students like us had to transform our ideas,” Xu told NewsChina.  

Suddenly standing up, he grasped two canes and walked to his bookshelves. From the bottom shelf he took a case stuffed with yellowing letters and diaries. He opened his diary and read aloud an entry from September 5, 1951: “Nine months have passed since I returned to my country. I have to criticize myself as I find my ideas haven’t changed that much. Perhaps I am still haunted by nostalgia for the past. While I understand intellectually that my previous ideas and thoughts are wrong, on an emotional level I still feel that they are better.”  

But as time passed, some of his ideas changed. He was taught that “In Western countries, freedom and democracy are the privileges of the bourgeoisie but in China the proletariat enjoys freedom and democracy.” 

Xu Yuanchong (center) gives a lecture at East China Normal University, Shanghai, 2003. On the blackboard is his English translation of “Cai Wei,” a poem from the Book of Poetry, the first surviving collection of Chinese poetry from the 11th-6th century BCE

Twists and Turns
Xu’s outspoken and unyielding character, his translation style and previous work with the AVG made him a political target during the social movements that shook China between the 1950s and the 1970s, including the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).  

In 1956, Xu published his translation of All for Love, the British poet John Dryden’s 1677 epic drama that retells the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra.  

But according to his editors, the romance of the ages was at odds with the political climate, and Xu was asked to translate books with a focus on regular people.  

Xu chose Romain Rolland’s 1919 novel Colas Breugnon, which tells the life of a Burgundian wood carver in the 16th century. It was a favorite of Russian and Soviet novelist Maxim Gorky, who had tremendous influence in China at the time.  

As the protagonist Colas Breugnon fights with a friend for the affection of a woman, the book reads: “It couldn’t be any worse when a friends turn into a foe.” Xu translated it as “A friend who betrays you is more ruthless than an enemy.”  

His translation put him in danger during the Cultural Revolution. The Red Guards accused Xu of hinting at the deteriorating relations between China and the Soviet Union. 
Fidelity or Beauty 
When the Cultural Revolution began, Xu no longer had permission to publish his translations. In private, he translated Mao Zedong’s poems into English and French.  

Xu was particularly proud of a line from his translation of Mao’s 1961 poem “Militia Women: Inscription on a Photograph,” which eulogizes the brave female soldiers who “love their battle dress, not rouge and blush.” Xu translated the line as “They love to face the powder and not to powder the face.”  

The Red Guards accused him of “twisting Mao Zedong’s thoughts and avoiding class struggle” and punished him with a public flogging. Xu was forced to sit under a tree and was lashed 100 times with a branch. He returned home that night, slashed and bruised. Unable to use a chair, he sat on an inflated swim ring that his wife prepared for him and jotted down another translation of a Mao poem that popped in his head during the ordeal.  

Xu sent his translations of Mao’s poems to his teacher and author Qian Zhongshu, one of the most prominent liberal arts scholars of 20th century China.  

On March 39, 1976, Xu received Qian’s reply: “You’re dancing while chained by rhyme and rhythm, but the dance shows amazing freedom and beauty, which is quite extraordinary.”  

“[Free translation] may damage the overall translation, while [literal translation] may harm its prose. Balancing the two is always an issue. Like British scholar and critic Richard Bentley’s famous remark on Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad: ‘A pretty poem, but you must not call it Homer,’” Qian wrote.  

In 1995, Xu’s translation of French author Stendhal’s 1830 novel The Red and the Black stirred debate among translators.  

A major participant in the debate, Xu Jun, a tenured professor of liberal arts at Zhejiang University and standing vice president of the Translators Association of China, recalled this “battle of opinions” to NewsChina.  

Translations of Western classics in China surged after the country joined the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literacy and Artistic Works in 1992.  

The Red and the Black had nearly 10 translations. Xu sent his translated version to Xu Jun, who was then dean of the Department of Western Language and Literature at Nanjing University, Jiangsu Province.  

In March 1995, Xu Jun and Xu Yuanchong corresponded with letters declaring their opposing views on what makes a good translation. Both letters were published in the Wenhui Reading Weekly. Soon, translators across China were joining the debate.  

At an academic conference in Hong Kong that year, leading translator Feng Yidai listed several charges against Xu Yuanchong’s version of the novel. He criticized Xu as being “a sinner through the ages” for “overusing four-word Chinese idioms,” “advocating unfaithful translation” and “shamelessly boasting about his wrong translations.” 

Xu stood his ground. At the conference, Xu argued that literary translation is a contest between two cultures, and four-word idioms are an advantage of Chinese literature. A translator should make the most of expressions in the target language.  

“Chinese readers, who had long been misled by rigid translation, mistook pidgin Chinese and translationese as the right translation,” Xu argued.  

“To translate faithfully is just the starting point, while to translate beautifully is the higher standard,” he added.  

Xu Jun told our reporter that during a private meeting with Xu Yuanchong in 1998, he argued that “a translation that strays too far from the original is a disloyal beauty.”  

“The nature of translation is a kind of communication, so fidelity is the most essential criterion,” Xu Jun told our reporter.  

Xu Yuanchong said that the real enemy is overly literal translation. “Literature is pointless if its beauty has been deprived,” he said.  

Xu Jun belonged to the “surgical” school of translation, he said, focusing more on form, while he belonged to the “holistic” school, which focuses more on essence of meaning.  

“[Xu Yuanchong] said: ‘I’m 33 years older than you... but your ideas are old. What you advocate represents an old time, an old world. Though I’m older than you in age, my ideas are brand new. I stand for a new world,’” Xu Jun told NewsChina.  

Since 1983, Xu Yuanchong has been a professor in the English department at Peking University. As if making up for lost time, he dedicates every available moment to translation. 

For Wang Qiang, co-founder of the New Oriental Group, China’s leading private education company, Xu is his most respected teacher. His long friendship with Xu developed while a student at PKU in the 1980s, when he and another classmate Liu Feng often visited Xu’s home. Wang said he still keeps in touch.  

Wang most admires his teacher’s consistent dedication to translation. “Every day right after he gets up, Professor Xu sits at his desk, pondering the diction, rhythm and rhyme of his translations. He has been doing it for decades,” Wang told NewsChina.  

Zhao Jun, Xu’s wife of 60 years, died in 2018. Wang Qiang and Liu Feng visited him the following day, worrying how their 97-year-old teacher was holding up.  

To their surprise, the elderly translator was sitting at his computer with a copy of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. He was translating Wilde’s famous play “A Woman of No Importance,” which was ironic considering the loving relationship he had with his wife. Her photos were all over the home.  

“Professor Xu told us that after his wife passed, he stayed up all night and sat at his computer for quite a long time. Then he decided to translate Oscar Wilde. He asked us not to worry about him, saying: ‘As long as I’m still able to get lost in the world of translation, I won’t fall apart,’” Wang told our reporter.  

Xu translates roughly 1,000 words a day, working until 3 to 4am, sleeping for about three hours, and getting up at 6am to continue.  

He recently finished a translation of Henry James’s masterpiece The Portrait of a Lady and plans to publish it in December, 2020.  

Though Xu Yuanchong and Xu Jun never yielded to each other’s views, the two have maintained a decades-long friendship. In correspondence, the elderly translator would call his friend “Xu Jun my little bro.”  

“We never wavered on our positions over the years. But I think beneath the discrepancies we are actually the same - we both see translation as a spiritual pursuit. Literary translation expands the realm of ideas,” Xu Jun told NewsChina.

A photo of the faculty of the Xiangshan College of Foreign Languages in Beiijng shot at the Summer Palace in 1955. In 1952, Xu (right, back row) was transferred from the Beijing Foreign Studies University to the college, where he taught French for eight years