“Chinese youth, growing up in our Socialist Motherland and benefiting from the enthusiastic care and concern of organizations such
as the Communist Party, Youth League and Young Pioneers, possess high-minded Communist ideals, and a rich, colorful and dynamic intellectual life. Therefore, reading a book like Catcher in the Rye, and comparing one’s own fortunate living environment with the odious environment under capitalism， opens one’s horizons and enriches one’s knowledge. Of course, if certain individual youths cannot distinguish the boundary between these two utterly different social systems and do not cherish Socialist Spiritual Civilization, and therefore blindly worship or imitate Holden Caulfield’s thought, actions or behavior, that would be completely erroneous. We should also be on guard against this.” (Foreword, 1982, Catcher in the Rye, Chinese edition)
Would you recruit a Shakespeare scholar to translate Catcher in the Rye?
Yilin Press, long China’s leading publisher of translated fiction, apparently did. And it’s hard to argue with that move, since the Chinese translation reportedly went on to sell almost one million copies, if Big Apple Agency is to be believed.
Thanks to renewed interest in Catcher in the Rye in the wake of the recent death of author J. D. Salinger, the Chinese translation of Catcher in the Rye (麦田里的守望者，插图本) now ranks 17th on the China Best-selling Fiction List. That version was translated by Shi Xianrong (施咸荣), also the author of several scholarly treatises in Chinese, including Shakespeare and his Dramas (莎士比亚和他的戏剧) and the editor of Complete Works of Shakespeare (莎士比亚全集).
But think about it. We’re dealing with a congenitally foul-mouthed adolescent named Holden Caulfield, whose narration begins like this:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap…
And progresses to several rather awkward scenes, including a vignette with a call-girl, all recounted in a persuasive imitation of contemporary slang. Devotees of the novel know that it reads just as well, if not better, when read out loud.
Over the last two years, I’ve taken to occasionally perusing Chinese translations of best-selling English novels to assess just how much of the “feeling” of the original writing is conveyed in the Chinese. Check out what happened when The Kite Runner crossed over into Chinese territory, for instance.
Some time ago I bought Shi Xianrong’s translation of Catcher in the Rye and compared it to Salinger’s original. Frankly speaking, I was underwhelmed. Shi’s prose simply doesn’t capture the “run-on” oral style of the original, and it falls flat when it comes to recreating Caulfield’s penchant for swearing. Without those hallmarks, Shi’s Chinese Catcher in the Rye — best-seller that it is — just doesn’t feel “rebellious” at all to me.
A recent article in the Beijing Review states that “Chinese writer and painter A Cheng, who had been in the United States for eight years, once said that the Chinese translation of The Catcher in the Rye could have been closer to the original text if the translator imitated Wang Shuo’s style of writing.”
I tend to agree. Wang Shuo’s early writing featured street toughs whose lingo was a lot more genuine than anything the intellectual Shi Xianrong fabricated for us.
And so I was pleased to come across a new, bilingual edition of Catcher in the Rye (麦田里的守望者) not too long ago. Translator Sun Zhongxu (孙仲旭) first read the book when he was just 19, and succeeded in getting it published, by Yilin Press too, at 26. I no longer have my copy handy so I can’t cite anything specific, but several months ago I did compare the two texts and found Sun’s markedly more faithful to the “genuine” Holden Caulfield.
Sun told me that his bilingual edition has sold more than 120,000 copies, a very respectable showing. But that means the lion’s share of Catcher in the Rye sales are still generated in China by what is—to my mind—a translation that features a watered-down, grammatically correct Caulfield. Kinda phoney, actually.
But all of this has to be interpreted in the context of the publication of Shi Xianrong’s translation, which occurred back in 1983. Publishers, writers and translators were still very much working in the shadow of the Cultural Revolution, when famous writers and critics were subject to violent “struggle sessions,” and some, like Lao She, even committed suicide.
As a Shakespeare scholar who also held a series of key positions in the the American Culture Research Department at the American Research Institute under the Academy of Sciences (中国社会科学院美国研究所美国文化研究室), he certainly had the academic credentials to undertake the translation of this work documenting the ills of capitalist society.
Sun Zhongxu assures me that the Foreword I have excerpted above, signed Shi Chengrong (施城荣) in the 1983 edition, was in fact penned by the translator himself. Which leaves me wondering: Did he actually believe the politically correct nonsense he was spouting, or was this just a fig leaf to ensure that his translation could get past the censors?