Thoreau’s “Walden”, Translator Li Jihong and the Missing Aliens

As the sun sets here in Antalya, Turkey, by now the controversial English-to-Chinese translator Li Jihong (李继宏, below) should already have delivered his speech today at the Shanghai Book Festival, entitled  ” 经典何以需要新译?” (“Why do the classics need new translations?)

His spiel was part of the official launch event for his newest translation, 《瓦尔登湖》(Thoreau’s Walden).  This is just李继宏 one in a series of new renditions by him that has included, so far, 《老人与海》 (The Old Man and the Sea), 《了不起的盖茨比》(The Great Gatsby) , 《动物农场》(Animal Farm) and《小王子》(Le petit prince).

I describe Li Jihong as “controversial” above because earlier marketing campaigns claimed his series consists of “ the finest translations to date,” which struck a raw nerve with translators, editors and readers alike.  See Translator Incenses Fellow English-to-Chinese Decoders for details on the brouhaha. You can also check out my interview with him—the most popular post we’ve ever had at Ethnic ChinaLit—re: his best-selling rendition of The Kite Runner.

In his presentation, Li Jihong explains that prior to graduation from university, despite being a voracious reader from childhood, he rarely read foreign literature. Why? Because he just couldn’t “get into” any of the translations that came his way. I find this both interesting and amusing, because I’ve had the same experience. Over the years I’ve tried (hard!) to read the Chinese renditions of novels by Kawabata Yasunari, Murakami Haruki, as well as Nobokov’s Lolita, Kerouac’s On the Road, and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (Shi Xianrong’s version), but found them all indigestible. Stilted language, occasional painfully literal translations, and frequent misinterpretations of the culture being translated—you name it.

Li Jihong identifies three key culprits that resulted in past translation sins: Lack of interaction with other societies and cultures prior to the open-door policy inaugurated in 1978; China’s poverty and poor communications that made access to even basic reference tools a major challenge; and the relative inadequacy of this “new” tongue—Putonghua—in rendering the subtleties of a rapidly modernizing world while China remained materially much less sophisticated until recently.

I am in total agreement that new translations of the “classics” are called for. But I am struck by the fact that in his presentation Li Jihong discusses a wide range of translation issues, without seriously exploring one glaringly obvious option to improve quality: Collaborating with Chinese-literate translation professionals whose native tongue is the language of the original text.

I’ve translated five books from the Chinese including two novels, the most recent being Last Quarter of the Moon by Chi Zijian. In each instance, all my initial translations were proofread by native Chinese speakers, and then reworked by me, before I passed the final draft to my editor.  This points out errors early on in the translation process, confirms that my interpretation of the text isn’t too off-base (!), and—perhaps most importantly—allows me to focus on writing rather than fact-checking.

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