Lost in translation for more than 40 years

Updated: 2015-07-29 11:45

By Tang Yue In Tianjin(China Daily USA)

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An unpublished English translation of the Chinese classic novel Dream of the Red Chamber by the writer and translator Lin Yutang (1895-1976) has been uncovered in Japan, Nankai University in Tianjin recently announced.

The novel, written by Cao Xueqin in the 18th century, is widely considered the pinnacle of Chinese fiction.

Two complete English versions were published in the 1970s - one by David Hawkes, a British Sinologist, with the title The Story of the Red Stone, and another by Yang Xianyi and his wife, Gladys Yang, titled A Dream of Red Mansions.

There has long been talk that Lin had also translated the book.

The work was finally uncovered last year by Song Dan, then a PhD candidate at Nankai University doing her thesis on Japanese translation of the novel at Waseda University in Tokyo.

Song noticed that Ryoichi Sato, a Japanese translator, had noted in his book that he was translating from Lin's English version of the novel, which Lin sent him in 1973.

Lost in translation for more than 40 years

She then tracked down relatives of the late translator, who was the former head of the Japanese Translators Association, and they told her they had donated the manuscript of Lin's translation to a local library.

Song read the original work in the library and took photos. But she could not take the work out of the library or reveal its name at the time, at the request of Sato's relatives, Song says.

"In addition to the typed manuscript of Lin's translation, two pages were in his handwriting," Song says.

"Lin's page-by-page editing is handwritten, which helped in verifying the work's authenticity."

Why Lin's daughter, Lin Taiyi, did not include this piece in the list of her father's work in the 1989 biography of Lin remains a mystery, says Liu Shicong, professor of translation at Nankai University.

"It would have taken a long time to translate such a long novel, and you would think the family would have been aware of it.

"It is also strange that he only sent the translation to the Japanese translator instead of publishing it, given the popularity of his works."

Lin was one of the most influential Chinese authors who wrote in English. His works, such as My Country and My People and The Importance of Living, were best-sellers in the West in the 1930s. So were his compilations and translations of classic Chinese texts into English in the 1960s.

Lin's translation of Dream of the Red Chamber was not a literal one, consistent with his style, Song says. Instead, he rendered the novel into English relying on his own notes, and it was about half the length of the original work.

"Lin's translation style is unique," says Lyu Shisheng, professor of translation at Nankai University. "He is a master of cross-cultural communication. I believe his version will help Western readers better understand the great novel."

Nankai is working on publishing the book, says Liu Yuzhen, Song's supervisor and deputy dean of the School of Foreign Languages of Nankai.


 Lost in translation for more than 40 years

Song Dan, a PhD candidate at Nankai University, shows a photo of Lin Yutang's unpublished English translation of the classic Chinese novel Dream of the Red Chamber. Zhang Daozheng / CFP

Lost in translation for more than 40 years

(China Daily USA 07/29/2015 page9)