A Century of Chinese Literature in Translation (1919-2019):
English Publication and Reception

Edited by Leah Gerber and Lintao Qi

Reviewed by Haiyan Xie

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright March, 2021)

Leah Gerber and Lintao Qi, eds., A Century of Chinese Literature in Translation (1919-2019): English Publication and Reception London & New York: Routledge, 2020. xii + 187 pp. ISBN 9780367321291.

For the past several decades, translation studies have undergone several “turns,” such as that from linguistics to culture or that from culture to globalization.[1] None of these “turns,” however, seems to have escaped Eurocentric discourse, despite the many alternative voices from outside European countries. Against such a backdrop, Leah Gerber and Lintao Qi’s collection A Century of Chinese Literature in Translation (1919-2019): English Publication and Reception is an important contribution to the current “globalization turn” of translation studies, intervening in debates and issues concerning the field of translation studies, including the study of literature in translation from a non-Eurocentric perspective. This collection of essays, focusing on Chinese literature in translation, presents an impressive tapestry of topics, perspectives, and methodologies for a rethinking of the nature of translation and translation practice in today’s globalized context. It also demonstrates the editors’ effort to deconstruct some major stereotypes and dichotomies that, to various degrees, continue to haunt the nature of literature in translation. In doing so, this book also contributes to enriching our understanding of how Chinese literature becomes part of world literature through a “minor” culture of translation.

Framed around an overall theme of de-Eurocentralization, this collection is characterized by a number of striking features that describe a dialogic space for the interplay of multiple voices and discourses. First, it marks a shift away from what has been the dominant mode of translation criticism for decades—the focus on hegemony and power manipulation in the process of translation—to a more descriptive representation of intertwined power dynamics. In this regard, it enriches our understanding of translation as a process of both conflict and cooperation, negotiating languages and meanings. Second, by investigating a diversity of cultural, political, and/or intellectual periods, the collection expands the parameters of the very notion of translation, reconfiguring it as an open system in which binary oppositions, such as past vs. present, east vs. west, original vs. target, or author vs. translator, are destabilized. Third, the formation of Chinese literature in translation is revisited as a historical process that interweaves interlingual and literary phenomena into complicated sociohistorical and ideological tapestries. In this light, this collection makes a valuable contribution to the reimagining and reconstruction of Chinese literature in the arena of world literature.

Since the editors have provided a brief but relatively thorough summary of each chapter and established the contextual grounding for the book in their introduction, I will not attempt to summarize each chapter. Instead, I combine general commentary on the overall structure of the book, focusing on selected chapters, primarily grounded on my own interests and expertise.

The twelve chapters gathered in this volume are organized into three categories, respectively dealing with historical issues in the process of translation, case studies of well known translators and literary works, and reflections by translators. Part I, “Theoretical and Historical Reflections,” is comprised of four chapters. Adopting an historical perspective, each of these chapters examines the complexity of the translation process through nuanced analyses of concepts such as “agent,” “actor,” or “multiple voices.” Lintao Qi and Leah Gerber’s “Archival Research as Method” and Jonathan Stalling and Ronald Schleifer’s “Unpacking the Mo Yan Archive” draw on a variety of archival resources to retrieve and reconstruct the microhistory of translation around a certain translation event or behavior. Although both chapters conceive of an expanded notion of “agent” or “actor,” the former mainly explores power dynamics among various translation agents, whereas the latter focuses more on the networking of translation agents/actors, emphasizing the influence of a “network economy” (37) on literary translation norms. Both Bonnie S. McDougall’s “Intuition and Spontaneity in Multiple Voice Literary Translation: Collaboration by Accident or Design,” and Qiang Geng’s “Gift-Giving: Panda Books Series and Chinese Literature ‘Walking Toward the World,’” explore aspects of institutional translation; their insights into the multiplicity of voices in translation interestingly lead to separate conclusions. In exploring the effect of various forms of collaborative translation, McDougall underscores the importance of the translation partner’s mastery of “a high level of sinological knowledge” (54) to produce “literary translation embodying intuition, spontaneity, creativity and imagination” (55). Meanwhile, through an historical investigation of the “gift-giving mentality” (61), Geng attributes the poor reception of Chinese literature among Anglophone readers to “the agenda of nationalism” (67).

Comprised of six chapters, Part II, “Translations for the Page and Stage,” provides a variety of case studies, including: examinations of a theatrical translation of Lady Precious Stream; Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang’s translations of Lu Xun’s stories; Ida Pruitt and Lao She’s co-translation of The Yellow Storm; the self-collaborative translation of Dung Kai Cheung’s Atlas; the English translation of Mo Yan’s Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, and the translation of Chinese metafiction. Instead of confining themselves to textual analysis of translated works or focusing on the author/translator per se, the authors of these chapters historicize their research subjects by combining diachronic and synchronic approaches in nuanced ways, and by integrating sociological and historical perspectives into their analyses of the literary and linguistic components of each work and its translation.

Among these chapters, which are all equally deserving of mention, Uganda Sze Pui Kwan’s “Strategizing Hong Kong Literature in the World: Self-Collaborative Translation of Dung Kai Cheung’s Atlas” is particularly illuminating when contextualized within the ongoing debate over the center and the periphery in world literature. Interestingly, Kwan does not approach the issue of Hong Kong’s geopolitical and cultural identity or the status of Hong Kong literature in light of the popular postcolonialist perspective on the hegemony and manipulation of translation; rather, she frames her investigation into a concrete case study of Dung Kai Cheung’s dynamic process of “self-collaborative translation” and rewriting of the original via collaborative self-translation. Kwan’s study moves beyond the binary framework of source vs. target text/language and subverts stereotypical epistemological perceptions of the original and the authorial, as well as hierarchical appraisals of various translated copies. Most impressively, in proposing that self-collaborative translation can be “a plausible way to deal with the marginalization of Hong Kong literature” (126), Kwan rebuts the view that “a colony could never produce literature” (117) and instead provides fresh evidence of the possibility of minor literature gaining global visibility.

In terms of textual analysis, Will Gatherer’s “Transferring the Self-Reflexive Function: Translation of Chinese Metafictions” sheds new light on translation praxis by elucidating the difficulties of sustaining the translator’s “readable invisibility” when dealing with a Chinese metafictional narrator (156). Gatherer adroitly reveals how the self-reflexive function transfers from the literary register to the translation register in this dynamic. His textual analysis thus transcends purely interlingual comparisons between the source text and the target text. By investigating the diminishing, transferring, or reconstructing of the self-reflexive function of avant-garde fiction in translation, Gatherer offers an alternative perspective on the issue of “fidelity” in literary translation. In suggesting the positive potential of exposing translators’ own “translatedness” (157) in the translation of metafiction, which itself is elusive, ambiguous, and culturally loaded, Gatherer does not treat the translator’s visibility negatively; instead, he tries to destabilize the dichotomous view of the visibility and invisibility of a translator.

The last section of the book, Part III, “Voice of Translators,” features two well-known scholars in the field of Chinese studies, Carlos Rojas and Allan H. Barr, whose reflections on the issues they encounter in their own translation practice add an extra strength to this book. Rojas, invoking Thomas Mann’s paradox of foreignness or unfamiliarity, presents an insightful observation of translation practice focusing on the perlocutionary perspective of interlingual transferring. He describes the formidable yet interesting challenge to a translator in dealing with the “abrupt shift of linguistic register” (165) within the source text. Deftly weaving into his argument a number of examples, such as Lu Xun’s switch from wenyan to baihua wen in his short story “Diary of a Madman” and his own translating of Yan Lianke’s dialectal terms into coined English equivalents, Rojas effectively interrogates the limits of language as a communicative practice. In a different manner, Barr offers a general landscape of his experience of translating a number of Yu Hua’s works. His effort in tackling the distinctive stylistic and linguistic characteristics of Yu’s works inspires the reader to think further about the task of a translator.

Despite its de-Eurocentralizing perspective, this volume takes on a poststructuralist flavor in terms of its attempt to destabilize and renegotiate the conventional perception of a variety of issues, including major binary concepts situated at the center of translation studies. Implicitly paralleled with the poststructuralist celebration of “la mort de l’auteur,” these chapters invite the reader to reconsider what comes next after the [presumed] “death of the translator” as we know it, as well as how we should perceive the irreducibly complex, ambiguous, and unstable nature of translation, for which traditional conceptions no longer seem adequate. This book makes a compelling case for a dynamic perception of translation—Chinese or otherwise—as a heterogeneous discourse and reconceptualizing what is conventionally called “translation” in a generative new formulation. That said, the book nevertheless contains a similar epistemological lacuna (or avoidance) in its quasi-deconstructive theoretical grounding: can a translative system only be ambiguous and open to unlimited possibilities, or is there a possibility of establishing boundaries for the field of translation studies? Might there be a compromise position that aspires to include both possibilities? How we answer these questions determines the grounds on which we can (or can’t) decide such matters as what constitutes an accurate or inaccurate translation, interpretation of a translation, or the legitimacy of any translation practice. Thus, even as the collection offers case studies of the English reception of Chinese literature in translation, it leaves the larger question of the possibility of any broadly agreed upon disciplinary foundation unanswered.

Nevertheless, despite these larger taxing epistemological and disciplinary concerns, this collection is a valuable source for scholars in translation studies and specialists of Chinese studies in literature and other relevant subjects in the social sciences. It touches on a broad range of stimulating topics and provides voluminous resources for fellow scholars and future studies. Most importantly, A Century of Chinese Literature in Translation (1919-2019): English Publication and Reception can be thought of as an opening and an invitation to take into consideration alternative positions and diverse worldviews. As the editors indicate in their introduction, it is a book that embraces and invites contrasts, confluence, and communication; and on this front, there is much work to be done.

Haiyan Xie
Central China Normal University


[1] Mary Snell-Hornby chronologically lists a number of turns that have occurred in Translation Studies since the watershed “cultural turn” of the mid-1980s. Surveying the subsequent two decades, she identifies some major trends related to globalization and developments in technology and communication, which have fundamentally transformed the discipline. This radical change she broadly terms the “globalization turn,” under which more specific “turns” emerge, such as the “iconic turn” and the “sociological turn,” the latter further complementing the “empirical turn” of the 1990s. Snell-Hornby notes that a “translation turn” has been envisaged, although this still seems a distant goal. See Mary Snell-Hornby, “Turns,” in Lieven D’hulst and Yves Gambier, eds., A History of Modern Translation Knowledge: Sources, Concepts, Effects (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2018), 143-148.