Obituary: Gladys Yang

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
GLADYS YANG was one of the few great translators of Chinese. The quality and quantity of her work, some done solo and some with her husband, Yang Xianyi, are both prodigious. As nearly all was published only in China it is too little read elsewhere.

It was published there because on becoming Oxford's first graduate in Chinese in 1940 she left England for a China where the invading Japanese already occupied much of the country. She sailed with Xianyi, her charming polymath of a fellow student, to marry him in defiance of expatriate prejudices. Gladys Tayler, born to British missionaries (a preacher and a teacher) in Peking and sent to England for her education at about seven, became Gladys Yang. She stayed.

First they taught in the refugee universities of the backward south-west. After that war they moved to Nanjing as professional translators with the dying nationalist government's Bureau of Translation and Compilation. Their English version of a huge Song annalistic history of China from 403 BC is still incomplete and unpublished. They did bring out in London their first jointly translated work, the quirky, picturesque novel Mr Derelict by the early 20th-century writer Liu E.

Welcoming Communists as a clear improvement on Nationalists they joined the new government's Soviet-style Foreign Languages Press (FLP) when it was set up in Peking in the early 1950s. She threw herself into her work, first in the FLP, then in its sister publication Chinese Literature. She both did her own translation and "polished" (which often meant redoing) those of others.

By the end of the 1950s things were tougher. Xianyi narrowly escaped being labelled a "rightist" in 1957-58 for his frank speaking. Soon after, the economy collapsed.

Gladys first returned to England in 1960, staying for a few months and supporting herself and her younger daughter by working in a musical instrument factory. At the showing of a Chinese film, I heard her talk. She was thin and smiled and her eyes shone. The China of which she spoke was real.

Three years later her flat became my second home as a raw, young translator in Peking. She looked after many of us newly arrived teachers and translators from abroad, and offered visitors respite from official hospitality.

Because she treated colleagues as people rather than embodiments of ideology they liked her better than they did most Maoist foreigners. As she strode around the city with her long legs and big feet instead of doing a ladylike shuffle, she got used to hearing strangers wonder if she was a man or a woman.

In 1966 the Cultural Revolution stopped all serious translation, and in 1968 both Gladys and Xianyi were gaoled without trial. She was held in solitary confinement and cut off from all contact except with gaolers. She was not even told of her mother's death.

With her release in 1972 her joie de vivre returned. She was back to her six-day week, typing out near-perfect copy on very long sheets of paper. From the late 1970s she translated and befriended many of the younger writers now able to write more truthfully. Many of her books appeared as Panda Books paperbacks, and some of her work was published in London.

Her translations will long delight those who can find them. Of her solo works I would pick the two Shen Congwen volumes for pleasure. The best was done with Xianyi: he did a rough version on which she drew as she worked from the original. Of earlier classics their Shi Ji selection brings out the historian Sima Qian's Herodotean appetite for facts and a good yarn. The Courtesan's Jewel Box: Chinese stories from the Xth to the XVIIth centuries (1957) portrays the teeming life in Ming dynasty stories. Their Dream of Red Mansions (1978) is closer to what is actually written in that huge, 18th-century flawed masterpiece than the expansive rewriting of the Hawkes/Minford Story of the Stone.

The price for these masterpieces was high. Her brilliant son, unable to cope with his Chinese and English sides, descended into madness. Gladys never got over his suicide in 1979. The Peking Massacre of 1989 ended hopes of real reform. Drink's oblivion became more necessary and more damaging. Yet even as she withdrew from the world she kept to the end both the sweetness of nature and the English bloody-mindedness that had brought her through 60 difficult years.

What in the end remained was her family and the complete devotion of Xianyi. Her quizzical smile, her penetrating blue eyes, her kindness and her gusto live on for all who knew her.

Gladys Tayler, translator: born Peking 19 January 1919; married 1941 Yang Xianyi (two daughters, and one son deceased); died Peking 18 November 1999.