More Chinese people read Xu Yuanchong than foreigners, perhaps

On the morning of June 17, 2021, Xu Yuanchong, a famous translator at the age of 100, passed away in Beijing.

In today’s world where the status of translators is gradually declining, Mr. Xu Yuanchong Sr. is perhaps the last translator whose influence is out of the circle. Not surprisingly, my circle of friends was swept up, with countless people leaving comments saying that his old man was a god forever, and that they should buy his works back to study them properly.

Looking at the fervent analysis of Xu Yuanchong’s translation by those who could not even manage to translate from Chinese to English, I could not help but have a question: if you do not read Chinese, can you read one of Xu’s most appreciated translations, “To face the powder and not to powder the face”? To face the powder and not to powder the face” means “not to love red clothes but to love arms “?

In fact, there are controversies in the translation community about Xu Yuanchong’s translation, but the first few pages of Baidu’s “Xu Yuanchong Translation Problems” are all full of praise, and the only post analyzing Xu Yuanchong’s translation problems is 404. The only post analyzing the translation problem of Xu Yuanchong has already 404. The only post analyzing Xu Yuanchong’s translation problem has been 404. Here we recommend an answer under the question of “How to evaluate Xu Yuanchong” in Zhihu, welcome to click “Read the original article” at the end of the article. In the midst of all the answers, this article is valuable in that it points out the perceptions of native English speakers who do not know Chinese about the translations of famous Chinese authors, and raises a question that many Chinese translators have not thought through: “Who is the Chinese to English translation for? “

When I first started studying translation, I was so amazed by Xu’s translations that I wrote a paper comparing Yang Xian Yi’s and Xu Yuan Chong’s English translations of The Song of the Long Hatred, and reported my insights to my British teacher Brian Holton (at the time I thought Xu Yuan Chong’s translation was better and more poetic than Yang’s).

Mr. Holton is the royal translator of the Chinese poet Yang Lian, and you can find his information in Wikipedia. I was a bit surprised by the veteran British translator’s response, saying that he had never read Xu Yuanchong’s translation, and implicitly expressing this meaning: “Why should I read a Chinese to English translation done by a Chinese person? “.

This sounds a little bit Versailles, and even a little bit suspicious of “literary people belittling each other”, but when you think about it, the logic behind his words makes perfect sense. Thinking about it differently, in the area of literary translation, who of us has nothing to do with reading English to Chinese translations done by the British and the Americans? Most of us publish foreigners’ strange translations on our public websites for our own amusement.

The target readers of foreign to Chinese translation are Chinese people, and the target readers of Chinese to foreign translation are foreigners, and literary translation is a reader-centered translation. Therefore, the international practice for foreign translations of literary translations, such as English translations of Chinese literature, is for native English translators to do so. Whether the translator is a famous translator or not is not that important. Even foreign sinologists, you only look at their Chinese to English translations, not English to Chinese translations.

Chinese people do Chinese to English translations, even if they are done by experts, and if they want to publish overseas, they need to be reviewed by foreign experts, because English is not our native language.

When Xu Yuanchong became famous, the Internet and information were not as developed as they are now, so it might not be easy for these old-timers in translation to find foreign experts, first-hand English materials and the latest dictionaries at any time (People magazine reported that Xu Yuanchong did not use the Internet to do translation, but was still looking up dictionaries from decades ago), but we are different, we can.

Having been commissioned by a client to translate lyrics for a rock band’s album and to translate a poem by Xichuan, I am deeply convinced that it is too difficult for a non-native English speaker to do poetry/lyrics translation. I spent a lot of time figuring out the lyrics and had them proofread by a native English speaker, who pointed out some wording problems to me, saying which words would have the same meaning in English if they were changed.

The biggest difficulty for Chinese to translate literature from Chinese to English is that we may be able to find the rhyme/rhetoric, but whether it is acceptable in the target language and whether it is really as poetic as we think it is, remains to be proven.

Therefore, I dare to say that Xu’s translation, even if it is excellent and beautiful, can only be used as a reference, not as an “unquestionable” textbook.

Sadly, so many learners of translation and foreign languages are still the same as when they first learned English, reading only Chinese translators’ Chinese to English translations, absorbing the English materials processed by Chinese people, and worshiping them on the altar of gods.

Blindly enshrining gods is not conducive to the progress of the translation industry

The self-confidence of Xu Yuanchong’s predecessor stems from his rich translation experience and life experience, but imitating this self-confidence of the translation veteran without thinking about it has indeed caused some misleading to the translation industry.

First of all, translation learners who seldom read the original English materials, do not read English poems, and start to do Chinese to English translation indiscriminately without learning translation for several years, and even come to a conclusion that “Chinese culture is more profound than English “, “I know Chinese better than foreigners, so I can translate better than native English speakers”, “My translation is so good than English”. I don’t need a foreigner to proofread my translation”, which is worth warning.

In addition, it is recommended that we ordinary translators should check the new version of the dictionary more often, learn to use the Internet correctly to look up the corpus, and not to create translations indiscriminately, because English is not our native language, and Chinese to English translation is not as good as you think it is, or as passable as you think it is, you have to respect the objective laws of other people’s languages. Chinese people have limitations in translating from Chinese to English, and there may be many mistakes or Chinese English in the highly acclaimed translations of famous writers, while a native English high school student who is bilingual and has literary attainments may really be better than a Chinese expert in translating from Chinese to English.

Admittedly, Xu Yuanchong is definitely credited with promoting Chinese culture and the translation of Chinese poetry. The deification of Xu Yuanchong is partly a result of the need for foreign propaganda and the promotion of cultural self-confidence, but whether it should be accepted in its entirety, translation learners should keep a clear head and make their own judgment.

After reading Xu Yuanchong’s translation of The Red and the Black, French literary translator Shi Kangqiang wrote an article pointing out that the translation added many elements that the original author did not write, such as adding “rough work” after words that originally meant “rough work For example, after the word “rough work”, he added “very hard”, and in the last sentence of the book, the original words were “Elle mourut”, which literally means “she died “. In Xu Yuanchong’s version, the phrase is translated as “the soul returns to the sky of hate”.

The most controversial part of this academic discussion was Xu Yuanchong’s translation, which received zero votes in the voting, and his proposal His translation is the return of a corpse,” and other ideas also sparked discussion. More than one of his peers commented against adding the translator’s ideas and advocated respecting the original author’s intention. Zhao Ruifang carefully cross-referenced all the translations of The Red and the Black, the original French is Elle mourut, the English is She died, the Italian is Ella mori, and the German is Verschied sie, each language is “She died “, the Chinese should also retain this style, “This is what Stendhal “.

This kind of academic criticism makes it hard for Xu Yuanchong to calm down. He saw the discussion against the translation as an opposition to himself and engaged in a polemic with different opinions. He described the academic debate as “a big issue in the struggle over the line of literary translation,” with opponents He criticized his opponent for not understanding that his translations were “rough work” followed by “very hard work. He criticized the opponent for not understanding his intention of adding “very hard” after “rough work”. “I didn’t go through labor reform during the Cultural Revolution, so I don’t know how hard it is to make thousands of nails with a hammer. “I have been oppressed for 30 years, but I still have the day of my life, how can I not ‘tail’! “

–Character “Xu Yuanchong Battles Mediocrity

What should we learn from Elder Xu?

In fact, Xu Yuanchong, who was born in 1921, had a time lag with the outside world. He believes that the core issue of translation is the pursuit of beauty, but the real problem of this industry today is survival. The average salary of 80 yuan per thousand words makes it difficult for literary translation to become a full-time occupation, and poetry translation is a rare field. The most important criterion for translation and publication is speed, and who translates a foreign-language original depends on who can grab the rights first and complete the translation fastest, not always who translates it most beautifully. Many books are no longer signed by the translator, as an increasingly common translation operation is to chunk the text, outsource it to different people to translate it simultaneously, and assemble the text into a manuscript to be published as a book.


He only remembered that he had published more than 100 books and printed them on his business card. The book was sold to more than 100 books in China and abroad, and later how many books were circulated in the market, do not know. “As long as it is said to him, the dissemination of Chinese thought, the dissemination of his translation, he authorized, granted a large number of rights, after their own legal risk is extremely high. “Fu Shuai tried to explain this risk, but only he and Zhaogun at home, the two elderly people can not understand.

–People “Xu Yuanchong fighting mediocrity

From all reports, Xu Yuanchong is such a lovely old man – diving into research, not caring about gains and losses, even losing a lot of translation fees because of this, simply simple and heartbreaking.

As the corpus is being updated and translation theories are being updated, how many people have chosen to retire from their work, and even a considerable number of teachers engaged in translation research do not translate at all themselves. There is absolutely no need for a person who has achieved fame and fortune to work until he is over 90 years old. Compared with his translations (all of which have been carefully read and really evaluated by few people at a high level), this persistence of Mr. Xu is more touching.

He really kept his passion for translation all his life, seriously promoted his juniors, translated the complete works of Shakespeare himself when he was nearly 100 years old, and could still swim and ride a bicycle in his 90s.

One of Xu’s regrets was that he did not have a successor. He also wanted to leave the opportunity to the young people, but the young people can’t catch it for a while, even the contemporary foreign literature he wanted to translate, the editor said there is no market. Nowadays, it is hard to produce translators in our book market, and too many excellent translators choose to be interpreters (because it is too hard and poor to be translators), which is really worth sighing.

When I was 16 years old, I set my mind to make translation my lifelong career. Nowadays, I have been tormented by the market repeatedly, and I often doubt whether this choice is correct. When I was young, I had the insolence to try to translate, but now most of my classmates have changed careers, and a few have become simultaneous translators and no longer translators. Among my contemporaries, it has been difficult for me to find a reference for my life, and this is probably the reason why we have extra respect for Xu Yuanchong’s predecessors.

Xu Yuanchong has achieved so much, but some of his peers say that his works are actually full of clichés, that is, mediocrity itself. I am too uneducated to judge the translations of my predecessors, but I just quote the comment of a translator friend in my translation studio: When I look at Xu’s translations (mainly poems), I find some of them exquisite, but also some of them forced. All in all, the biggest feeling is that “translation is really too difficult”, which is also my feeling in the field over the years.

I also share the feeling that “translation is too difficult”. Especially Chinese to English translation. Because there are too few native speakers to do Chinese to English translation, so many things still have to be done by Chinese people.

It’s too easy to feel this way about being a translator: fighting against mediocrity all your life and still not being as good as you want to be. But at least we’ve fought.

There is no standard answer to translation, so even if it is a myth in the translation world, we can still look at it rationally.

I think the report in People is very well written, better than 100 pieces of praise and raw academic papers on Xu Yuanchong. We should look at the human side of Xu, exercise well, take our work seriously, and live and learn.