Holden Caulfield and the Chinese Shakespeare Scholar

“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,
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?

7 thoughts on “Holden Caulfield and the Chinese Shakespeare Scholar

  1. The Shi Xianrong translation was actually begun in 1962 and published in 1963 by Writers Publishing House as a limited edition for “internal reference” — a so-called “yellow cover book” (the Beijing Review article alludes to this edition with Zhang Yiwu’s note that “the first Chinese version was published two decades earlier”…see The Beijing News for a run-down of various editions of Salinger’s novels.)

    I’m curious about Big Apple’s involvement with the book – did the Chinese publishers of the 1980s edition approach the rights-holders in order to go legit, or did Big Apple pick up the rights after China signed on to Berne and then either go after the existing Chinese publishers or resell the rights to a new house?


  2. Fascinating detail about the timing of the first (internal reference) and second (“official”) editions. This makes the significance of the Foreword in 1982 even greater, i.e., after the Cultural Revolution it was apparently even more important to offer a convincing explanation as to why this problematic work of fiction was worthy of translation and publication.

    Sorry, I know nothing at all about Apple’s role.

    Many thanks for your super informative comment, Joel.


  3. I’m sorry but I have to point out some flaws in this article.
    1. Is it substantiated to cast doubt on Shi Xianrong’s translation style when he translated both Sakespeare and J.D Salinger? A professional translator is loyal to the original text as possible as he can, so Shi Xianrong is. I think his version demonstrates what kind of person Holden is and at the same time he could also translate Shakespeare.
    2. It’s sure that China is notorious for its censorship, but what the ironic thing is that Chinese always know what has been cut out, especially for an easy-reading masterpiece like the catcher in the rye. I bet there are 60%-70% Chinese young American literature lovers can understand the book, therefore they are able to compare the English with the Chinese version directly.
    3. According to a research, there are 257 “他妈的”in Shi’s work while 300 of them in Sun’s. But you can’t say that the latter version is better since it omitted less “f***k, goddam,damnable,etc” You have to consider the translation strategy. Sometimes it is better to change the original work for sense-by-sense translation than word-by-word. in other words, it is a matter of translation choice rather than censorship.
    4. Shi Xianrong graduated from Peking University (北京大学西语系)and double majored? in Chinese in Qinghua (清华大学中文系). they are two best universities in China while Sun is just an amateur. Besides, Shi has translated 800million words while Sun has only translated 10 books.



    1. @ Amanda

      Many thanks for taking the time to read my post and then critique it in detail. There’s no need to be “sorry” about anything. Your comment and mine are simply personal opinion. 百花齐放吧.

      Re: your points:

      1) The fact that Shi Xianrong translated both Shakespeare and Salinger in no way proves that his translation of the latter was particularly well executed. If anything, possibly the inverse. Anyone, a native speaker or otherwise, would need to spend a decade of more reading Shakespeare to gain deep understanding of his writing. I’d argue that the human mind has its limitations, and time spent mastering Shakespeare would not be of much use in expressing Caulfield’s distinctly 20th-century American speech in Chinese; not really “transferable,” if you ask me. Furthermore, if Shi Xianrong actually believed any of that politically correct nonsense he wrote in the Foreword — granted, it may just have been a fig leaf that allowed the book to be published — then I’d argue that he lacked the empathy to comprehend Caulfield and render him accurately and movingly in Chinese.

      2) You seem to be suggesting that even if Shi Xianrong’s version were censored, bilingual readers would “get” it. That’s a bizarre standard for assessing the quality of a translation.

      3) Agreed, numbers such as 257 vs. 300 don’t go far in helping us assess translation faithfulness or fluency.

      4) Your argument reflects the traditional view among many Chinese, that holding a diploma in this or that field from a distinguished alma mater makes one a distinguished translator; those with lesser degrees or none at all are just “amateur.” It seems to me, however, that the language and spirit of modern novels like “Catcher in the Rye” are more easily accessible to all of us than, say, the truly marvelous plays of William Shakespeare. “Getting” Holden Caulfield is not an academic exercise, and I can’t imagine any amount of scholarship would be of much use. Being able to use the Internet would be useful, and that is something that probably helped Sun interpret the novel and its language, while it wasn’t available to Shi in his era.

      Your remark about “amateur” reminds me of how I got my first gig, translating “Shanghai Baby.” I held just a B.A. in Asian Studies and had spent more than a decade proposing, researching and launching business magazines for Chinese businesspeople when I came across Wei Hui’s naughty novel. I translated an excerpt, helped her choose a literary agent, and lo and behold, Simon & Schuster bought the rights to the novel just like that — without insisting on reading more of the novel, which was almost unheard of at the time. However, they didn’t hire me to translate it. They said they already had a much respected Ph D in Chinese lit (I’ll leave you to guess who that might have been) who would handle this, thank you. To her immense credit, agent Joanne Wang argued that they should ask the professor to translate the same chapter, remove our names, and compare. To make a long story short: They did, I got the contract, and my rendition became a best-seller in Hong Kong and Singapore, and was also translated into a handful of other languages (since translating from the Chinese would have been more costly and taken longer).

      For anyone interested in a bit of background, please see this interview with me:



      1. Your response to Amanda’s fourth point reminds me of this paragraph from “A Question of Latin” by Guy de Maupassant. Even in the late 19th century when this story was written, being a Latin teacher was synonymous with being an unworldly bookworm:

        “What, my little friend?” I am not a shoemaker, or a hatter, or a joiner, or a baker, or a hairdresser. I only know Latin, and I have no diploma which would enable me to sell my knowledge at a high price. If I were a doctor I would sell for a hundred francs what I now sell for a hundred sous; and I would supply it probably of an inferior quality, for my title would be enough to sustain my reputation.”


  4. Thanks for your reply and the Email.

    In China, most young readers think Sun’s translation is more loyal and natural than Shi’s. But I still feel he didn’t do a good job when he translated the famous paragraph “…And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff…That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all” Sun’s version gives me an over-cynical image of Holden(although he surely is but not so much in that context) , overwhelmed with self-degradation, while Shi sensed what J.D Salinger wanted to tell us. Of course, these are only my feelings.

    In addition, I have to say that Shi Xianrong lived in an amazing era when the modern Chinese literature enjoyed its heyday. if you campare Chinese literature written in that time with nowadays, you will feel pathetic about the language change. Chinese is no more as “pure” as it was. The language becomes more redundant and less effective. And may I ask that is the Ph.D professor you mentioned an American, too? Because I think it’s always better to find a native speaker to translate the original texts to his/her mother language.

    BTW, I believe Shi Xianrong wrote the forewords only for the censorship, and he “was” Holden Caulfield the moment he started translating. So funny huh huh.


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