Class Readers








Interpreting Lu Xun

By Jon Eugene von Kowallis


Chinese Literature: Essays, Articles, Reviews 18 (1996) pp. 153-164 


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Wolfgang Kubin, et al., trans., Lu Xun, Werke in sechs Bdnden [Lu Xun: Six Volumes of His Works]. Ziirich: Unionsverlag, 1995. Six vols, 1584 pp. DM/sFr.198. 1545 pp. (HC).

Japanese Nobel Laureate Oe Kenzaburo has recently called Lu Xun "The greatest writer Asia produced in the 20th century."[1] This is yet another reason to hope he will soon break out of what Margery Sabin has termed "the closed world of Chinese studies."[2] Whether Chinese studies is a closed world, or the outside world chooses to maintain a closed attitude toward "Chinese studies," the importance of expert translation in the whole enterprise of getting the West to take Chinese literature seriously seems, finally, on the verge of being recognized. With this six-volume publication, Wolfgang Kubin has established himself as a principal player in this world-wide undertaking. The attractive set of red, cloth-bound volumes he has produced (along with his students and colleagues) contains an all-new German translation of selected works by Lu Xun (1881-1936), a number of which have never been published before in English or French, including some of Lu Xun's early essays in wenyan written in 1907-1908 during the period of the author's stay in Japan, which Xu Guozhang once referred to as Lu Xun's Lehrjahre.

The first five volumes contain complete translations of all the pieces in: I Nahan (" Applaus" / Applause), II Panghuang ("Zwischenzeiten Zwischenwelten" / Between times, between worlds), III Zhaohua xishi ("Blumen der Friih am Abend gelesen" / Flowers of the morning read in the evening), IV Gushi xinbian (" Altes, frisch verpackt" / Old things newly packaged), the essays in the collection in volume V Fen ("Das Totenmal" / The monument to the dead) and, in the sixth volume entitled "Das trunkene Land" (The drunken land), Lu Xun's poems in the classical and vernacular, selected reminiscences, plus an afterword by Wolfgang Kubin. Thanks to the determination of Professor Kubin, and a sizeable number of his students and colleagues, aside from the Japanese Rojin zenshu [Complete works of Lu Xun] (Tokyo: Gakken, 1986), this is now the most complete edition of Lu Xun's works in any foreign language. Regrettably, however, it omits all of his essays after 1925, a loss which can be partially made up by directing readers who are confined to the Western languages to consult volumes 2-4 of the Yangs' four-volume translation.[3] William A. Lyell's newer one volume translation confines itself to works of fiction (Lu Xun's short stories), which Professor Lyell has translated with the sometimes controversial exuberance of a creative writer and the informative, at times delightful, footnotes of a meticulous scholar.

The style of the German translations compiled by Kubin varies, particularly because they were done by so many different hands. At times they strive to be very close to the original and at others to be playful and creative, as is already hinted at by the titles of the above collections such as Zwischenzeiten Zwischenwelten (Between times, between worlds), instead of the German equivalent of the by-now almost standard English renderings of "Hesitation" or "Wandering". And that is an important aspect of these translations-they are not done from the English, as were some of the previous German renderings, but rather from the Chinese originals. That is not to say that Kubin & Co. have ignored English renderings; they have not, but rather have judiciously referred to them in certain instances and wisely avoided their errors in others.

Still, some problems arise from this. Does Nahan really mean "Cheering from the Sidelines" as Lyell boldly asserts in Diary of a Madman and Other Stories?[4] He certainly makes a case for it, both philologically and in terms of at least one context Lu Xun creates for it in the preface to that collection, but can that then translate into "Applaus" (Applause) in German? Or is that still further removed from the oldest English translation of "Outcry ," based on another Lu Xun-created context elsewhere in the preface? (See Lu Xun quanji 1991, I, p. 419). I tend to prefer "Outcry," the oldest rendering, and disagree with the Yangs' not-so-creative "A Call to Arms" as well as Lyell's version. I seriously doubt that Lu Xun meant "Go out and get 'em, kids!" with this title just as much as I would like to avoid turning him into China's Hemingway. He has already suffered too much from the "China's Gorky" comparison.

At other points, the question of "over-translation" frequently arises. Where and when should the line be drawn between translating and interpreting (that is, explicating the meaning)? For instance, Kubin calls A Q zhengzhuan [lit. "The proper/true biography of Ah Q, usually referred to in English with the Yangs' translated title "The True Story of Ah Q"] Die wahre Geschichte des Herrn Jedermann (The true story of Mr .Everyman). One interpretation of "The True Story" is that Ah Q does indeed represent Everyman. Another, perhaps more popular one, is that he represents China; and a third, that he represents certain bad aspects of the Chinese "national character" (guominxing).[5] Although I am personally sympathetic to Kubin's interpretation, I don't think we have the right to make such a major alteration in a title, simply to do the thinking for the reader. In Chinese, Ah [Q] as a form of address is very informal-clearly less respectful than "Herr" in German, which originally meant "Lord" and has come to be the equivalent of "Mr." in modem German. So why not call him "der ganze Kerl Q" or something like that, at least to preserve the Q, if for no other reason. Although my German may begin to sound pre-War already, I would suggest Die wahre Geschichte des ganzen Kerls Q as a tentative title. To omit "Q" is highly regrettable because, according to Lu Xun's brother, Zhou Zuoren, Lu Xun employed the Latin letter "Q" amid the Chinese characters of the title for its pictographic qualities as a picture of the head of a Qing-era "Chinaman," with the queue dangling down behind his head (the tail of the Latin letter Q becomes the "pigtail"). It may also be a clever pun on the English word "queue".

In his afterward Kubin speaks disparagingly of the earlier German renderings, especially those by East German scholar Johanna Herzfeldt (in Kubin's vol. VI, Das trunkene Land, pp. 172-173), some of which were made from the original Chinese. Yet it is difficult, and perhaps undesirable, for translation to avoid recreation, and the examples he cites in her work are not without their more recent parallels. Nevertheless, I like Kubin's renderings of Yecao ("Unkraut-Prosagedichte" [Weeds-prose poetry] also in Das trunkene Land) and a number of the classical-style poems. There are problems with the early wenyan essays, however, and I hate to admit this because I tried at one point to help the translators with some of these. For instance, the style of the German version of the lengthy 1907 piece Mofuo shi li shuo ("Uber die Macht der damonischen Poesie" / On the power of demonic poetry), which Nanjing University professor Zhao Ruihong once said marked the beginning of Chinese studies in comparative literature, is far too convoluted.[6] I suspect this is due to the translator's well-placed desire to remain "true" to the original, but wasn't da ("to convey the meaning") the second of Yan Fu's principles that came before ya ("elegance")? And if the meaning is not conveyed, how can we even begin to speak of the first principle xin ("fidelity" or "loyalty" to the original). Of course, these are ultimately philosophical conundrums, but there is a need to find some middle ground for the whole enterprise of literary translation to work. Yes, Johanna Herzfeldt made some mistakes a la Florence Ayscough by reading too much into the Chinese by focusing on certain single characters that do not convey the main meaning of the baihua (vernacular) terms in which they occur (again see Kubin's afterword in vol. VI) or by taking things to an extreme by interpreting them too literally, but at least her German reads well while she is being creative.

The second point that occurs to me on reading the translation of Lu Xun's Moluo shi li shuo is the lack of annotations at certain critical points, say, for instance at the very end of section I of the aforementioned 1907 essay, where the origin of Lu Xun's Sanskrit word Mara as a translation of Southey's epithet ("satanic") for Byron and his cohort is completely unmentioned (see Das Totenmal, p. 93). Granted that it is best to remain close to the original, but if that is the case, why substitute the term damonisch (demonic/ diabolical) for "Mara" in the German translation? That reminds me of earlier references to this title from the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing as "The Demoniac Poets," which sounds intriguing but is basically wrong. The LuXun quanji (1981 and 1991 editions) both have endnotes explaining the origin of the term at this point in the text; why couldn't the German version?

The translations of the classical-style poems (in Kubin's vol. VI, Das trunkene Land) I find more satisfactory , particularly those in a humorous or satirical vein, for instance, #3 of the 1932-1933 compositions entitled Jiaoshou zayong sishou:

which Angelika Gu and Kubin render (VI, p. 42):

Wider die Professoren
Vier beliebige Gedichte


Draussen in der Welt gibt es eine Literatur,
Hier haben die jungen Madchen einen runden Po.
wer einmal Schwein ass, trinkt nun Hiihnersuppe,
Da macht der Buchladen zu.

Rendering Gu's and Kubin's German version "literally" into English, we get:

Contra [i.e. against/ in criticism of] the Professors
Four random verses
Out in the world there is [a] literature,
Here young girls have round butts.
[Those] who once ate pork now drink chicken soup,
At that point the bookstore closes.

In contrast with my English rendering, which calls the poems, Four Desultory Verses on Professors,[7] and runs:

The world has its literature
And girlies' plump derrieres' allure.
With chicken soup galore, partake of pork no more;
'Twas thus Beixin Bookstore thought best to close its door.

Although Gu and Kubin might be closer to the original, they do not retain the rhyme or the rythm of the original. Nevertheless, their use of the Gennan word "Po" for tun (buttocks) is humorous and an excellent choice, in keeping with the farcical and satiric tone of the original. But does it have the satyric force of the rhyme connecting images of being a professor of "world literature" with girls' "derrieres' allure," which I would argue is required to carry over the full irreverence of Lu Xun's couplet? Their treatment of the poem's backdrop (VI, pp. 240-241) explains that the poem caricatures Zhang Yiping (1902-1946), a professor at Ji'nan University and editor of the "World Literature" series at Shanghai's Beixin Book Company, who once published a line about summer weather making him so lazy he had lost the energy even to rub a girl's bottom (which Lu Xun considered a flippant and irresponsible remark over half a century before the days of institutionalized sexual harassment codes).[8] Zhang was also connected, in a way Lu Xun disapproved, with the demise of Beixin and the anti-Muslim scandal surrounding it,[9] which Kubin explains adequately and succinctly in his notes. I would have appreciated more citation of sources there, however, as that would have helped future scholars in their own research, but although Kubin's citations of Chinese sources are scanty, they are an improvement over the total dearth in Jenner's work.[10] Western language sources are cited more meticulously by Kubin throughout, and in this he has done an excellent job.



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