Happy ending to long struggle for words

China's translator of James Joyce counts casualties of a literary life
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN 1930, a Chinese student attending a lecture in Peking on modern literature heard of a writer named James Joyce and a book called Ulysses. At that time, Joyce's masterpiece was not available in China. Nine years later, when he arrived in London, the young man bought a copy. ``I found it very, very difficult. My conclusion then was that it was a dead-end alley for China, so I had no intention of translating it.''

Xiao Qian, 84, still has that 1939 copy with his faded ink jottings on the title page. But on the table in his book-cluttered Peking apartment now is also the first full Chinese translation of Ulysses, the product of four years' meticulous work by Xiao Qian and his 67-year-old wife, Wen Jieruo. The first two volumes were published earlier this year, and the final one will appear in China's bookshops later this month. Completion of the task coincided with their 40th wedding anniversary.

Xiao Qian had come to Britain in 1939 to lecture in Chinese and work as the only Chinese correspondent to cover the whole of the Second World War in Europe. He was soon immersed in the intellectual ferment of London and Cambridge, counting George Orwell among close friends. As he wrestled with Joyce and other modernist writers, his most valued intellectual mentor was E M Forster.

``What will grieve me to the end of my life is the tragic ending I finally made to our once intimate literary friendship,'' Xiao said in his memoirs. It was one of many tragedies that Chinese history was to inflict upon him. Before leaving Europe, Xiao had visited Joyce's grave in Zurich. ``Here lies the corpse of someone who wasted his great talents writing something very unreadable,'' he noted in his diary. So in 1990, when a young Chinese publisher approached him and his wife about translating Ulysses, he was unenthusiastic. ``I only promised to help them to revise the translation. But somehow I got pledged more and more deeply to the project,'' he said last week.

As he had feared, it proved a linguistic obstacle course. Leopold Bloom's disordered stream-of-consciousness throws up arcane vocabulary from 30-odd languages. ``This is something that I still don't approve of. The author was deliberately making it difficult for the reader,'' said Xiao Qian. It also made it extremely difficult for the two translators, whose dictionaries did not extend to Irish slang.

Joyce's literary method does not always have a natural parallel in Chinese. ``For instance, the very last chapter [Molly Bloom's soliloquy], that naughty chapter, we've done it in colloquial Pekinese.''

The Catholic symbolism and Homeric structure of Ulysses are still further removed from Chinese culture. For the first two years, the couple had to decipher Joyce's allusions by themselves. Help came in 1992 when they were sent a copy of Don Gifford's Ulysses Annotated Notes. The Irish embassy in Peking also stepped in with David Norris's illustrated Joyce's Dublin and a map of the city. The translation has more footnotes - nearly 6,000 - than any other book in China.

Published in 1922, Ulysses was banned in the US as obscene until a celebrated court case in 1933. Xiao said the Chinese edition was uncensored but he had had to prepare the way politically for publication. His preface stresses Joyce's anti-colonial and anti-Catholic sentiments. As for the question of obscenity, ``That's why I wrote a series of articles in the Chinese press describing the trials in New York, to show that more than half a century ago, the problem had been solved. Will China be so backward as to ban it now?''

In his Peking flat, Xiao admits his health is not good; he suffers from a weak heart and has lost a kidney. Many of his physical ailments date back to the persecution he suffered after returning to China in 1949 on the eve of the Communist victory. He had hoped to resume his career as a creative writer. Instead, for two decades he was branded a rightist, and twice sent to the countryside to do heavy manual labour. His 1939 copy of Ulysses only survived because it had been donated to the Institute of Literature. Xiao had no such refuge from the vindictive turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. In 1966, in despair, he attempted suicide.

In 1979, Xiao was at last ``rehabilitated'' and he and his wife resumed literary work. He has published more than 30 novels and short stories. Among his translations are Fielding's Tom Jones and Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare.

He still has vivid memories of Britain. A scholarship took him to King's College, Cambridge, in 1942, where E M Forster was his literary patron. Xiao and Forster were both cat-lovers, and in the dozens of letters they exchanged, matters of literary criticism often gave way to anecdotes about their respective felines. On two occasions, Forster invited Xiao to his aged mother's Surrey home. ``Before breakfast, he played her a Bach concerto on the antique family harpsichord, often turning his head to look affectionately at his old (Photographs omitted)

mother and me, his Oriental guest, as he played,'' Xiao wrote. The ``tragic ending'' would come later.

In 1949, when he was working in Hong Kong, Xiao stood at a ``great crossroads'' in his life. King's College offered him a fellowship and many friends urged him not to return immediately to China. After much agonising, he went home.

Before leaving Hong Kong, he had instructed his Western friends not to contact him until he had tested the political climate. In 1954, Forster sent him a book and letter via a mutual friend visiting Peking. By that time, Xiao did not even dare meet privately with the go-between, let alone accept a letter from a foreigner. It appears Forster was so hurt that he threw away all of Xiao's letters. In China, the Red Guards had destroyed Xiao's diaries and all Forster's letters - ``My greatest losses,'' he said sadly.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments