Lin Shu and The Legacy of the Parisian Lady.

Mikael Gomez Guthart writes for the Forward about a remarkable translator:

Although you may never have heard the name Lin Shu, it should be featured in every book on literature history.

[Lin] Shu, a self-taught scholar, originated from the region of Fujian in southwest [sic; should be southeast] China. An heir to the Qing Dynasty — the last to have reigned over the Chinese Empire — he was a painter, calligrapher, novelist, poet, essayist and translator.

In the late 19th century, he penned the first literary translations to adorn the shelves of Chinese libraries. […] He first promoted writers from England, then France, the United States, Sweden and Germany, although he did not speak nor read any language other than his own. […]

With the help of 19 successive assistants, he translated, or more accurately, rewrote close to 200 classics of western literature by Honoré de Balzac, William Shakespeare, Alexander Dumas and Alexander Dumas fils, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henrik Ibsen, Montesquieu, Victor Hugo, Anton Chekhov, and Pierre Loti, among others. Some of his adaptations even became bestsellers in early 20-century China, such as “The Lady of the Camellias,” renamed “The Legacy of the Parisian Lady of the Camellias.” More fascinating and mysterious still, 50 or so of his unpublished translations are said to stem from texts whose authors and source languages remain a mystery to this day. Masterpieces of which we know nothing are among these lost manuscripts. […]

In 1921, Lin Shu tried his hand at “Don Quixote” from an English translation dating back to 1885. His assistant, Chen Jialin, had attended university in England as part of his higher education and appeared competent enough to read the story to Lin Shu. But as it turned out, he interspersed his version of the tale with invented dialogue and shortened it by many chapters, including the book’s famed prologue; in total, 285 pages that formed the first part of Miguel de Cervantes’s masterpiece were missing — a fact somewhat reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “Pierre Menard” about the secret initiative of a writer who aspired to rewrite the first opus of Don Quixote.

“This Biography of the Crazed Knight” (or “The Life of the Bewitched Knight,” depending on the translation) was published in 1922 in Shanghai, stronghold of the Chinese book industry, then nicknamed the “Paris of the Orient” owing to its publishers, printers, and literary cafés. Lin Shu died of illness two years later; this partial Quixote was to be his last work of words.

It’s worth noting that “Don Quixote de La Mancha” recounts the tribulations of an old ailing man with a passion for novels about chivalry, and was purportedly translated from a text in Arabic that Cervantes astutely attributed to a Muslim historian. The fake-translator trick had been a much-used sleight of hand since the 14th century among authors of chivalrous literature, who often pretended to have translated their writings from Tuscan, Tartar, Florentine, Greek, Hungarian, and even unidentified languages. Literary modernity thus emerged in 1605 with a work that was supposedly a translation and whose main character was a reader of novels. The circle was skillfully complete. […]

I’m particularly struck by the “texts whose authors and source languages remain a mystery to this day.” I should note that the article was translated from Yiddish by Susan Brown. Or so they say… Thanks, Trevor!

Comments

  1. The article doesn’t mention the obvious – he must have translated Don Quixote and The Lady of the Camellias into Classical Chinese.

  2. marie-lucie says:

    “Don Quixote de La Mancha” … was purportedly translated from a text in Arabic that Cervantes astutely attributed to a Muslim historian.

    In Paris a few years ago I was in the bookstore of the Musée du mode arabe and briefly browsed through a small book that took Cervantes’ assertion seriously as to the authorship of Don Quixote, that masterpiece of Arabic literature. The book’s author had a French name, not an Arabic one.

  3. he must have translated Don Quixote and The Lady of the Camellias into Classical Chinese

    This is what I thought, especially as he was from Fujian. Curiously, the article says he was translating into “classic Mandarin”. However, his Wikipedia article (“Lin Shu”) confirms that he was translating into Literary Chinese by reproducing his translation of the opening of David Copperfield:

    大偉考伯菲而曰:余在此一部書中,是否為主人翁者,諸君但逐節下觀,當自得之。余欲自述余之生事,不能不溯源而筆諸吾書。余誕時在禮拜五夜半十二句鐘,聞人言,鐘聲丁丁時,正吾開口作呱呱之聲。(Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.)

    However faithful its rendition may be, a translation as a rewriting never equals the original piece. As Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset said, it is at best a path toward it. Far from refuting this point, the amazing chivalric journey of the artful Lin Shu, assisted by his loyal Chen Jialin, bafflingly exemplifies it.

    Is this curious statement an artifact of the Spanish original? I feel doubtful that a serious writer in English would be so bold as to state this so bluntly.

    The premise is contradicted by the article on Lin in Wikipedia, which notes that Arthur Waley held a high opinion of his translations and suggested they were not inferior to Dickens’ originals.

    More generally, there are definitely cases where a rewriting exceeds the original. One that springs to mind is the Vietnamese Tale of Kiều, which is a rewriting of a seventeenth-century Chinese novel called 金雲翹 Jīn Yúnqiào. The Chinese original (and a Japanese translation of it) have sunk into obscurity whereas the Vietnamese version is regarded as one of the peaks of Vietnamese literature.

  4. I also note that Lin used 禮拜五 lǐbàiwǔ for ‘Friday’. In modern Mainland China, this would be a no-no. The officially preferred form is now 星期五 xīngqīwǔ since 禮拜 lǐbài has largely been banished from respectable Chinese writing. In 1897, prior to the end of the Qing dynasty, it was obviously still acceptable – and possibly more common – to use 禮拜 lǐbài.

  5. Which apparently means Sunday.

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    there are definitely cases where a rewriting exceeds the original

    Whether it exceeds the original in artistic merit I am in no way competent to say, but Fitzgerald’s Rubáiyát seems to be the main reason that the (apparently pseudepigraphic) poetry of Omar Khayyam is well-known, at least outside Iran.

  7. marie-lucie says:

    oops, correction: le Musée du monde arabe

  8. Which apparently means Sunday.

    Only in archaic or Southern coast usage. In current spoken Mandarin or Wu it means “week”.

  9. per incuriam says:

    “Don Quixote de La Mancha” recounts the tribulations of an old ailing man with a passion for novels about chivalry

    Perhaps in translation. In the original he is by no means “old and ailing”.

  10. the Spanish original

    Miseria y esplendor de la traducción (1937 — and some translations, because, of course).

  11. marie-lucie says:

    In the original he is by no means “old and ailing”.

    He is by no means young, probably in his fifties, and not in the best physical or mental shape.

  12. Lin previously on LH.

  13. per incuriam says:

    He is by no means young, probably in his fifties, and not in the best physical or mental shape

    Not quite fifty IIRC and given to vigorous activity.

  14. Just sayin: “southwest” in the second paragraph should of course be “southeast.”

  15. Just sayin: “southwest” in the second paragraph should of course be “southeast.”

    Ha, I didn’t even notice that; I’ll add a [sic] in the post. I’ve often remarked what a hard time people have keeping east and west apart.

  16. David Eddyshaw says:

    still moving very briskly about

    Spry.

    Another [sic] perhaps belongs in the same paragraph after “Shu”, which should be “Lin Shu.” It seems unlikely that the author is unaware either that Chinese surnames come first, or that you don’t refer to Chinese people by their personal names alone like that, and elsewhere he gets it right. I suspect it’s just an editing error.

  17. Good catch; I just added a [Lin].

  18. .Which apparently means Sunday.
    In the early 1960s, when I was studying Chinese, my Mandarin teacher said that the week was introduced along with the western-style calendar by the early Jesuits. He said that there was a Nationalist push to eliminate the word libai (worship period) as being subliminal Christian advertising and replacing it with xīngqī (star period).

    I expect star-period had not yet been invented when Lin Shu wrote.

  19. marie-lucie says:

    per: Don Quixote is given to vigorous activity

    Yes but he does not really succeed – he falls, he gets badly hurt, Sancho has to rescue him, etc.

  20. Your Mandarin lecturer was right, although I’m not sure that it was the Jesuits who were responsible. The term 禮拜 lǐbài / 礼拜 in the sense of ‘week’ first appeared in writing in 1828 and may be of South Chinese origin.

    星期 xīngqī ‘star period’ had already been invented at the time Lin was translating, but only just. 星期 xīngqī ‘star period’ in the sense of ‘week’ was first attested in print in 1889.

    星期 xīngqī was originally an old term for the ‘Star Festival’, China’s equivalent of Valentine’s Day, which falls on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. The repurposing of 星期 xīngqī ‘star period’ to mean ‘week’ was clearly influenced by the planetary names of the days of the week, in particular the old system of planetary names (still preserved by the Japanese) that had been introduced into China over a millennium earlier by the Buddhists.

    When the adoption of the Western week was announced in the government gazette of 10 February 1912, the term used was 星期 xīngqī. This was allegedly due to the support of the outstanding scholar 袁嘉谷 Yuán Jiāgǔ, who is remembered for setting up a government department to supervise terminology in textbooks in 1909. 星期 xīngqī went on to gradually gain in popularity, especially after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

  21. I’ve often remarked what a hard time people have keeping east and west apart.

    You are very postmodernist. The traditional formulation is “East is east and west is west, and ne’er the twain shall meet”.

  22. per incuriam says:

    Yes but he does not really succeed
    Not sure about that – he comes out on top in quite a few of those fights he picks. If that’s “old and ailing” I can’t wait.

  23. Bathrobe: Yessss, but the second couplet is “But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth / When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth.” In short, Kipling’s poem as a whole actually denies what the first two lines affirm, but this is mostly forgotten.

    Anyway, as an east/west confuser, it’s not that I don’t know where the boundary is, but that I forget which linguistic label goes with each direction. This is a subtype of my right/left confusion.

  24. You are not alone. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to edit such confusion out of texts.

  25. marie-lucie says:

    per: If that’s “old and ailing” I can’t wait.

    “Old and ailing” was one person’s description. It is somewhat exaggerated. Let’s say he is middle-aged and trying to have a last try at fame and fortune.

  26. East and West are not places, but directions. So what is West and what is East depends on the point of view (ignoring for the moment that newfangled theory that the Earth is round and you can get wherever no matter where you go, Alice in Wonderland style) . For example, Americans who think that Japan is a part of the East are still Eurocentric and didn’t internalize that the true center of the world is some place in Kansas.

  27. Kipling’s takes on culture, colonialism, and ethnicity are generally a great deal more subtle and thoughtful than he commonly gets credit for these days.

  28. David Eddyshaw says:

    Anyway, as an east/west confuser, it’s not that I don’t know where the boundary is, but that I forget which linguistic label goes with each direction. This is a subtype of my right/left confusion.

    It could be worse: the Australian language Bilinarra is one of a number that has no words for “left” and “right” at all, but uses absolute terms instead: either points of the compass or “upstream”/”downstream”. Warlpiri apparently just uses compass points.

  29. I heard about pure cardinal-direction Australian languages, and I’ve wondered: how would they describe a left-handed individual?

  30. Well, Mongolian is more confusing because it uses the same words for left and right and east and west.

  31. David Eddyshaw says:

    Kusaal uses “front” for “West” and “back” for “East.” Perfectly simple.

    I heard about pure cardinal-direction Australian languages, and I’ve wondered: how would they describe a left-handed individual?

    No idea, really, but I imagine it wouldn’t be too hard to paraphrase: “the hand that for most people is the more skilful, for him/her it’s the more clumsy.” Or perhaps even some etymologically opaque monomorphemic word (if the French can make borgne mean “one-eyed”, anything is possible for human language.)

  32. David Eddyshaw says:

    Mongolian … uses the same words for left and right and east and west.

    Makes sense. Facing south, in the direction you’d set out on your way to conquer Eurasia.

  33. South is usually the side the door to your yurt faces.

  34. I believe that absolute-direction languages do have egocentric names for bilaterally paired body parts, but they don’t often use them. “There’s an ant crawling on your north foot” is a perfectly reasonable remark.

    When I first heard of these languages, I made sure that Lojban got monomorphemic prepositions (which can also function as adverbs and, when properly decorated, as conjunctions) for “north/south/east/west of”.

  35. Outer Mongolia is a translation of Mongolian term (borrowed from Manchu, I believe) Ar Mongol which literally means Rear side Mongolia (or Northern Mongolia).

    It’s fortunate that less accurate (but more catchy) translation was chosen in English and Mongolia was spared becoming butt of jokes.

  36. David Marjanović says:

    I heard about pure cardinal-direction Australian languages, and I’ve wondered: how would they describe a left-handed individual?

    At least some of them do have nouns for “left hand” and “right hand”.

    butt of jokes

    Actual usage is long gone, but in many a German atlas you can find India called Vorderindien “front India” and Indochina called Hinterindien “rear India”. This is one phoneme away from Hintern “butt”, but still made people expect that a place hinter Indien “behind India” must be a very backwoods place indeed. Chemistry teachers sometimes call a rare, abstruse compound a hinterindische Verbindung.

  37. When discussing words for week in Mandarin Chinese, don’t forget the word 周 zhou1. It’s very popular on shop signs, something that confused me endlessly when I begun studying Chinese and only knew the term 星期 xing1qi1. All three words combine with number 1-6 or the sun character 日 rì to form the weekdays. 礼拜 li3bai4 is still popular in Taiwan, and most mainlanders I meet also recognize it.

  38. I heard about pure cardinal-direction Australian languages, and I’ve wondered: how would they describe a left-handed individual?

    Or indeed a left-hand drive car, or a left-hand spiral…

  39. marie-lucie says:

    how would they describe a left-handed individual?

    Surely they can do so by using words which do not originally refer to directions, such as good, correct, skillful, etc for the right hand (as in English and many other European languages), and antonyms or other descriptions for the left(over), wrong, awkward, clumsy, etc hand. In French the left hand is la main gauche, originally ‘the clumsy, awkward hand’, and the left-hander is le gaucher/la gauchère, a nominal derivative. By itself the adjective gauche still means ‘awkward’ in the context of physical gestures or social behaviour, but le gaucher (etc) is always a left-handed person, with no other connotations.

  40. 礼拜 / 禮拜 lǐbài is still very popular in Mainland China. It’s just that it’s been relegated to the “colloquial” register, unlike Taiwan where it’s still acceptable in writing.

    礼拜 / 禮拜 lǐbài is the original. 星期 xīngqī (xīngqí in Taiwan) was coined later as a more ‘acceptable’ replacement. 周 / 週 zhōu was borrowed back from Japanese but is still just a substitute for the other two. All three work on the same numbering system. What’s nice about 周 / 週 is that it’s shorter and makes snappy two-character words. It seems to be quite trendy, at least among city types.

  41. Ironically, you need to be quite dexterous to wield a main gauche properly.

  42. As a healthy senior I always object that the word spry is ageist.

  43. David Eddyshaw says:

    Indeed so; nobody ever called a young person “spry.” It could be paraphrased “surprisingly fit and active, considering.”

  44. SImilar is feisty, which (except in basketball teams) is applied only to short people.

  45. Huh, really? I never thought of it that way.

  46. I see feisty used for women who are not afraid to criticize men, a patronizing compliment like spry.

  47. Yes, that fits better with my sense of it.

  48. Yes, I should have said “short men”. Google’s dictionary says: “(of a person, typically one who is relatively small or weak) lively, determined, and courageous”.

  49. The data side with Y and our esteemed host, though the difference is not as large as I expected. These days, feisty is mostly used of women. It used to be worse, though, and I’m glad to see it’s been on the downslope for… blimey, 25 years?

Trackbacks

  1. […] Hat tells the story of Lin Shu, an early 20th century translator of European fiction into Chinese whose works […]

Speak Your Mind

*