Class Readers








Interpreting Lu Xun

By Jon Eugene von Kowallis


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


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If we look at the more somber classical-style poems, however, I am not sure Gu and Kubin succeed in preserving the tenor of the original. One example which comes to mind is the untitled poem Lu Xun wrote out on December 30, 1933 for Huang Zhenqiu (Kubin has "Zhengqiu"), which is often read as a self-portrait:

Kubin gives a title to the (originally) untitled poem:

Ein alltaglich Ding

Ein alltaglich Ding sind Rauch und Wasser,
Auf unbehaustem Land beliessen sie nur einen Fischer.
Nachtens trunken auf den Beinen
Findet er weder Reis noch Stroh.

literally (from the German):

A Daily Thing

A daily thing are smoke and water,
On uninhabited land there remains only a fisher[man].
At night drunken [on his legs],
He finds neither rice nor straw.

my version (from the Chinese):
Mist-shrouded waters are the normal lot
For a lone fisher by deserted hamlet-
Deep in night, arising drunken yet,
Reed and rush are nowhere to be sought.

Granted, this is a tough call. The Gu-Kubin version is at times "closer" to the original and they have Wasser and Fischer in a near (but not actual) rhyme in German, but that is where no rhyme occurs in the original. I use a loose rhyme throughout, adding " shrouded," but preserving "hamlet" cun " deep in night" shen xiao and " reed and rush" gu pu from the original, which Gu and Kubin do not do. I would differ with their choice of "Rauch" (smoke) for yan, which I think here must refer to the mist overhanging the waters (probably a river). Since the village is deserted there would be no smoke around. Smoke is something the Chinese poet usually associates with the presence of people. Moreover, I would suggest that the mists hint at the unknown, further alienating the subject of the poem from his immediate surroundings. If this is a self-portrait, it is not a happy one; and it represents a singular occurrence or revelation ("Deep in night, arising drunken yet. .."), not necessarily a daily affair. Finally, "...trunken auf den Beinen," which indicates a certain state of drunkenness (in which the speaker feels unsteady or wobbly), is perhaps too idiomatic here and fails to fully communicate the meaning of qi (to rise up).

In Yecao [Wild grass], as I have said aleady, there are some really excellent renderings, these are Kubin's tour de force. still, some passages are succinct, yet lack the literary prowess that the Yangs' earlier versions sometimes display. Compare the last lines of Xue [Snow /Schnee]:

in the Yangs' version:

On the boundless wilderness, under heaven's chilly vault, this glittering, spiralling wraith is the ghost of rain...
Yes, it is lonely snow, dead rain, the ghost of rain.


In grenzenloser Weite unter kaltem Firmament wirbelt blitzend der Geist des Regens auf...
Ja, das ist der einsame Schnee, der verstorbene Regen, der Geist des Regens. (Kubin, VI, p. 101)


In the borderless expanse/waste under the cold firmament whirls flashing the spirit of rain...
Yes, that is the lonely snow, the dead rain; the spirit of the rain.

True, it is difficult to render directly into English the power and the beauty of Kubin's spartan German prose. The whole image reminds the reader very much of a vision out of Joyce's "The Dead," but I would submit that it is the Yangs' imagination and deft juxtaposition of words like "glittering, spiralling wraith" that carry the beauty of the original passage over into English. In Kubin's version it is "wibelt blitzend ..."

Being a meticulous scholar, Kubin avoids many of the pitfalls of the Yangs' versions. For instance, again in Yecao, he does not add quotation marks to the text of Ying de gaobie ("Der Abschied des Schattens" / The Shadow's farewell; VI, pp. 87-88). The Yangs add these in English where they do not appear in the original, causing confusion among English readers as to who exactly is doing the speaking at different points (it is the Shadow throughout). In the preface ("Vorrede") to Nahan Kubin's colleague Raoul Findeisen translates:

...Da er jedoch eine Massnahme zur Anfeuerung ist und daher dem Muster militarischer Befehle gehorchen muss, habe ich mir gelegentlich erlaubt, bewusst und mit literarischen Mitteln von den Tatsachen abzuweichen: Das Grab des Jungen in der Erzahlung "Das Heilmittel" ist wie aus dem Nichts plotzlich mit einem Kranz von Blumen bedeckt; in der Kurzgeschichte "Der morgige Tag" erwahne ich mit keinem Wort, ob Schwagerin Shan nun von ihrem Sohn nur traumt oder nicht, denn damals war der Oberfehlshaber gegen negative Schilderungen. Und ich mochte keinesfalls die Jugend, die jetzt ihren schonen Traumen nachhangt, die auch ich einst in meiner Jugendzeit getriumt habe, mit der so bitter empfundenen Einsamkeit anstecken. (I, Applaus, p. 14).

Cf. the Yangs':

However, since this is a call to arms I must naturally obey my general's orders. This is why I often resort to innuendoes, as when I made a wreath appear from nowhere at the son's grave in "Medicine," while in "Tomorrow" I did not say that Fourth Shan's Wife never dreamed of her little boy. For our chiefs in those days were against pessimism. And I, for my part, did not want to infect with the loneliness which I found so bitter those young people who were still dreaming pleasant dreams, just as I had done when young. (Lu Xun: Selected Works, I, p. 38).

Dr. Findeisen uses the words "mit literarischen Mitteln von den Tatsachen abzuweichen" to paraphrase Lu Xun's [omitted], which the Yangs attempt to translate "resort to innuendoes." Their version is simply not accurate now; at least not in the American idiom of the 1990s, where innuendo means insinuation or a form of implied slander. Findeisen's phrase means "to use literary devices to modify reality" (lit. "to deviate from the facts"), which brings across Lu Xun's original meaning more clearly.

Putting the question of accuracy and "loyalty to the original" to rest for the time being, there is the issue of "register," raised by William Lyell's controversial translation of the narrator's wenyan (classical language) introduction to the baihua (vernacular) story Kuangren riji (Das Tagebuch eines Verriickten/ The Diary of a madman):

Kubin renders this:

Die Herren X, zwei Bruder, deren Namen ich jetzt unerwahnt lasse, sind mir in friiheren Tagen auf der Mittelschule gute Freunde gewesen. Doch mit den Jahren der Trennung waren die Nachrichten immer sparlicher geworden. Vor einigen Tagen horte ich zufallig von der schweren Erkrankung des einen. Es traf sich nun, dass ich mich auf dem Weg in die Heimat befand, und so machte ich einen Umweg, um sie aufzusuchen. Ich fand jedoch nur einen von beiden vor, der mir erklarte, dass der jiingere Bruder der Kranke sei. "Sie sind," sagte er, "von weit her gekommen, um uns mit Ihrem Besuch zu beehren. Doch mein Bruder ist nun schon seit langem wieder genesen und hat sich nach X zur Obemahme eines Amtes begeben." Daraufhin holte er unter grossem Gelachter zwei Bande eines Tagebuches hervor, die er mir in die Hand driickte. Man konne darin Aufschluss iiber den damaligen Krankheitszustand gewinnen. Mir als einem alten Freunde vertraue er sie ohne weiteres an. So nahm ich sie mit auf den Weg, und nach der Lektiire war mir klar, dass der betreffende Bruder an einer Art Verfolgungswahn gelitten haben musste.

Sprachlich waren die Tagebiicher verworren und zusammenhanglos, vieles wirkte ganz einfach absurd. Auch hatte es ihr Verfasser versaumt, Daten anzugeben, so dass man nur aufgrund der Uneinheitlichkeit von Tusche und Zeichen auf unterschiedliche Zeiten der Abfassung schliessen konnte. Es gab jedoch auch zusammenhangende Teile, die ich nun in einer Auswahl der medizinischen Fachwelt zum Studium vorlege. FeWer in den Aufzeichnungen habe ich grundsatzlich nicht verbessert. Lediglich die Personennamen habe ich geandert, obwohl es sich bei den Betreffenden um Leute vom Lande handelt, welche in der Offentlichkeit unbekannt und ohne jeden Belang sind. Den Titel hat der Verfasser nach seiner Genesung gewahlt, ich habe nichts daran geandert. Aufgezeichnet am 2. April 1918. (I, Applaus, p.16).

The Yangs have:

Two brothers, whose names I need not mention here, were both good friends of mine in high school; but after a separation of many years we gradually lost touch. Some time ago I happened to hear that one of them was seriously ill, and since I was going back to my old home I broke my journey to call on them. I saw only one, however, who told me that the invalid was his younger brother.

"I appreciate your coming such a long way to see us," he said, "but my brother recovered some time ago and has gone elsewhere to take up an official post." Then, laughing, he produced two volumes of his brother's diary, saying that from these the nature of his past illness could be seen and there was no harm in showing them to an old friend. I took the diary away, read it through, and found that he had suffered from a form of persecution complex. The writing was most confused and incoherent, and he had made many wild statements; moreover, he had omitted to give any dates, so that only by the colour of the ink and the differences in the writing could one tell that it was not all written at one time. Certain sections, however, were not altogether disconnected, and I have copied out a part to serve as a subject for medical research. I have not altered a single illogicality in the diary and have changed only the names, even though the people referred to are all country folk, unknown to the world and of no consequence. As for the title, it was chosen by the diarist himself after his recovery , and I did not change it. (Selected Works, I, p. 39).

And Lyell gives us:

There was once a pair of male siblings whose actual names I beg your indulgence to withhold. Suffice it to say that we three were boon companions during our school years. Subsequently, circumstances contrived to rend us asunder so that we were gradually bereft of knowledge regarding each other's activities.

Not too long ago, however, I chanced to hear that one of them had been hard afflicted with a dread disease. I obtained this intelligence at a time when I happened to be returning to my native haunts and, hence, made so bold as to detour somewhat from my normal course in order to visit them. I encountered but one of the siblings. He apprised me that it had been his younger brother who had suffered the dire illness. By now, however, he had long since become sound and fit again; in fact he had already repaired to other parts to await a substantive official appointment.

The elder brother apologized for having needlessly put me to the inconvenience of this visitation, and concluding his disquisition with a hearty smile, showed me two volumes of diaries which, he assured me, would reveal the nature of his brother's disorder during those fearful days. [Here Lyell's translation is missing a sentence-J.K.]

As to the lapsus calami that occur in the course of the diaries, I have altered not a word. Nonetheless, I have changed all the names, despite the fact that their publication would be of no great consequence since they are all humble villagers unknown to the world at large. Recorded this 2nd day in the 7th year of the Republic...[12]

Of the above three translations, only Lyell's makes an attempt to address the question of register by translating into the language, style and diction of turn-of-the-century "high narrative." The other two versions make no, or very little, attempt to tip off the reader to the differences in style and language between this and the rest of the text. Although Lyell's critics fault him for being excessively "wordy" in translating Lu Xun, and this passage in particular, I fail to see this as a valid charge, judging strictly on the basis of word counts (Kubin 295 words; the Yangs 286; Lyell 262). Even if the sentence he inadvertently leaves out were put back in, I doubt that Lyell's word count would exceed that of the Yang's version by much (note that the Yangs omit "Recorded this 2nd day in the 7th year of the Republic," while Kubin converts, perhaps unadvisedly within the text, to 1918 for the reader). I say "unadvisedly" because there may be irony in Lu Xun's use of the Republican calendar here-this is a Republic, yet we are still "eating" people.[13]



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