A Hero Born: Legends of the Condor I

By Jin Yong

Translated by Anna Holmwood

Reviewed by David Hull
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright August, 2018)

Jin Yong. A Hero Born: Legends of the Condor Heroes I Tr. Anna Holmwood. London: MacLehose Press, 2018. 416pp £14.99 ISBN 9780857053008.

Anna Holmwood’s new translation of Jin Yong’s novel A Hero Born: Legends of the Condor Heroes I (射雕英雄傳) is a significant and well-crafted addition to the Chinese canon in English. This is a long overdue translation of a key work of martial arts fiction, a novel that has broad cultural importance in China at least partly because it has been adapted multiple times for film and television.

Jin Yong, the pen name of Louis Cha, is universally known in the Chinese language world, and the influence of his books is difficult to overestimate. This book’s publisher seems to favor referring to him as the Chinese Tolkien, and perhaps that comes close to the mark. When people think of a fantasy setting, they usually imagine something not too far removed from Lord of the Rings or its derivations. And yet Jin Yong is even more ubiquitous in the Chinese-speaking world than Tolkien in the English world. There is probably more than a bit of truth to the old joke that most Chinese students learn history not from textbooks, but from Jin Yong novels. I would add that, for many readers, his novels contribute to constructing broad conceptions of Chinese identity.

The importance of his novels, and Condor Heroes in particular, goes well beyond sales and film adaptations. As Christopher Hamm nicely puts it in his Paper Swordsmen: Jin Yong and the Modern Chinese Martial Arts Novel, Jin Yong’s books can be read as a negotiation between China’s cultural and geographical/political manifestations.[1] For The Condor Heroes, the physical geography of “China” is split among the retreating Song dynasty, the Jin dynasty, and the Mongol tribes. The Song stands as the rightful heir to Han Chinese culture. The Jin are Jurchen occupiers of Chinese territory who have cruelly sacked the imperial capital and kidnapped the emperor. And the Mongol tribes of the steppes are even more removed from the Han center, wild yet perhaps honorable in their barbarian way, and poised to eventually conquer all. As Hamm explains, the two protagonists are children of Han Chinese heroes, brought up in alien hands: Guo Jing with the Mongols, and Yang Kang with the Jurchen. Their parents were Han Chinese heroes with illustrious ties to former heroes, but only Guo Jing is truly able to maintain his patriotic spirit, even among the wilds of the steppes. The novel can thus be read as a struggle to define and defend Han “Chineseness” from the point of view of exile or diaspora. That the novels were written in colonial Hong Kong by a man from Zhejiang makes this reading all the more pointed.

Added to this tension of place and identity in the novel is a dustup, which Hamm also covers well, between Jin Yong and Wang Shuo that began in 1999. Wang Shuo attacked Jin Yong’s works as poorly written and clichéd; he also tied them to a traditional Chinese literature that is out of touch with progressive society and culture (Hamm 253). This seems to be an attempt to tie Jin Yong’s works to the pre-revolutionary fiction that critics decried as decadent and malignant and possibly responsible for the decline of the Chinese people. Wang Shuo goes further to suggest that Jin Yong, born in Zhejiang and based in Hong Kong, is not authentic in his Chineseness, and this is the reason for relying on cliché and traditional tropes. The commentary echoes the text itself in displaying the contestation among those who claim to or are claimed to represent Chineseness. Can an author of the periphery represent or create the identity of the center?

That this translation has been published is no small feat in itself. It may seem odd that a prolific author who is so universally known and referenced is so little known in the English reading world. There have been previous attempts to translate his works, and by fine translators, but none have had the success of the originals.[2] The challenges in undertaking this translation are myriad. The sheer length is the first issue that might give pause. The original is part of a loose trilogy, and the first novel alone is forty chapters over four volumes in most editions (over 1300 pages of close-set Chinese type in the edition on my bookshelf). This first volume of the novel in English, which includes most of the first Chinese volume, runs to 379 pages. The plan is to publish four volumes in English translation as well. The second volume, A Bond Undone, is slated for a 2019 release.

Beyond the technicalities of length, the language and fundamental nature of the martial arts novel is ornate and very particular, and Jin Yong’s style is the exemplar of the genre. This presents a fundamental difficulty in translation. The challenge is common to most translations, but the solution must be unique to each translated text: how to render the specific language and style of the original? Here the scope of the problem is daunting. English does not have a clear parallel tradition or genre to pull from linguistically or culturally. Holmwood refers to this obliquely in her introduction:

Many have considered Jin Yong’s world too foreign for an English-speaking readership. Impossible to translate. And yet this story of love, honour, and the power of the individual against successive corrupt governments and invading forces is as universal as any story could hope to be. (ix)

Holmwood is talking about themes and broader issues rather than word- and sentence-level translation choices. In the end, the cultural side of this “too foreign” problem takes care of itself for the most part in the choice to undertake the translation. The process of replicating the narrative is mainly one of bravery, bull-headedness, and a willing publisher. None of these are simple to achieve, but at least they are clear goals. The linguistic side is not so straightforward.

Holmwood is quite sensitive to the linguistic difficulties in translating the work as well as to the importance of the huge readership that already exists for Jin Yong’s novels.  She describes her approach to one of the most visible translation choices in an appendix titled “The ‘Condor Controversy.’”  A character in the title of the novel, diao (雕), is most often translated as “eagle.”  However, the diao of the novel are clearly not simply eagles, they are massive mystical birds capable of teaching the martial arts. More important to her is that since at least 1983, when a television adaptation of the novel aired, the title in English has been “The Legend of the Condor Heroes.” In explaining her rationale for keeping “Condor,” Holmwood writes, “Jin Yong’s work already belongs to a collective imagination, even in English. I want my translation to interact with these existing fans and the considerable time and passion that they have already invested in the series under this title, as well as to attract new fans” (384). This attention to context in translation is important to understanding her choices. Holmwood’s embracing of “condor” over “eagle” reinforces the stance behind her translation.  The narrative and the world of the jianghu is of primary importance, but making the translation welcoming and acceptable to fans is in the front of her mind as well, and the sacrifice of the technically more accurate “eagle” is a small cost to pay.

The specific choices on how to translate, and when not to translate, show her commitment to the core foreignness of the text, while maintaining its readability. For weights and measures, she leaves jin (斤), tael (兩), and li (里) in their Pinyin form, italicized. This has obvious advantages, mainly because specifying exact measurements for historical periods is a challenge at best, and precision in these cases is very rarely critical to the narrative.  More important are the martial arts related words that she leaves in Pinyin: wulin (武林), jianghu (江湖), wuxia (武俠), neigong (內功), qinggong (輕功), and shifu (師傅). This avoids a host of problems that come from domesticizations like “martial forests,” and “rivers and lakes”; it also adds a Chinese flavor with words like shifu, which could certainly be acceptably rendered as “master,” but have a cultural touchstone in Hong Kong films and even more recent comics and cartoons. There are other nods to words that have already made space in English: “kung fu,” (unitalicized) rather than “martial arts,” or “gongfu.” There is also “taoist” and “Li Po,” rather than “Daoist” and “Li Bo” or “Li Bai” as modern Pinyin would have it. These later translations are perhaps a little unfortunate. If one expects the reader to take “qinggong” on board, “Daoist” doesn’t seem too much to ask, but the logic is there: maintain foreignness, but focus on readability.

Readers who are familiar with the original will probably find the translation of proper names a polarizing choice. In some ways, Holmwood seems to have adopted a scheme similar to David Hawkes’ famous arrangement in his translation of The Story of the Stone. His solution to a massive cast of characters was to categorize them: main characters would have their names rendered in Pinyin; actors and prostitutes would have their names translated into French; monks would have Latin names, etc. For A Hero Born, there is a similar mix of Pinyin and translation, but without the systematic rigor of Hawkes. The two central characters—Guo Jing and Yang Kang—are rendered in Pinyin alone. In the original Chinese, when these names are chosen, a mystical Daoist explains that their names are linked by the shame of the year Jingkang, when the capital city of Kaifeng was sacked. In the translation, an explanation of their given names, Jing as “serenity” and Kang as “vitality,” is added. In this way, the English reader gets not only the meaning of the characters in their names, which the Chinese reader would not need explained, but also the significance of their names in the original text. This choice of adding interlineal explanation into the text is sure to be controversial, but is certainly consistent with the rest of the text.

This difficulty of names with meaning is handled differently in the case of Lotus Huang (Huang Rong). She is a central character, and one might expect her name to be rendered in Pinyin to match Guo Jing and Yang Kang. But there is a narrative problem: when she explains to the rather slow-witted Guo Jing that her given name is “Lotus,” he doesn’t understand that Lotus is a female name and so he continues to think that she is a young boy. Holmwood addresses this in an unmarked endnote, explaining that, “If I had kept Lotus’ name in the Pinyin, we English readers would be left feeling just as dim as poor Guo Jing” (392). The reader needs to be in on the implication of the femininity of the name, something that would be difficult to do without an explicit addition to the text.

Many of the remainder of the characters have their names at least partially translated. Thus we have Ironheart Yang, Charity Bao, Skyfury Guo, Lily Li. These names might give pause or seem awkward, but in practice they provide little friction to reading. Others present larger challenges in English: The Eastern Heretic, Apothecary Huang; and Gallant Ouyang, Master of White Camel Mount. We also have the Seven Freaks of the South, including Flying Bat Master Ke Zhen’e, Suppressor of Evil; Gilden Quan the Prosperous, Cloaked Master of the Market; and Jade Han, Maiden of the Yue Sword. These titles and names are obviously much more compact in Chinese, and there must have been some temptation to either keep them in Pinyin, or to shorten them in some way. However, there is real value in translating them, even at the expense of some tension to readers and some anxiety to fans. Maintaining the ornate peculiarity of the genre is fundamental to this translation, and these names, and the titles of the martial arts routines, which Holmwood also translates, are very effective in bringing the reader into the fictional world.

Holmwood is aware of these issues, and there are many other instances where she works to maintain the world of the fiction for the reader without making herself visible as a narrative guide. As mentioned above, she has endnotes, mainly informational, explaining, for example, who Yue Fei is or what the Quanzhen Sect is in the context of the story. This leaves the text itself very clean, although perhaps some readers might be slightly puzzled at some references that are only explained at the end of the book. And although a scholar might find them light, her appendices are useful to a general reader.

This is a translation explicitly designed to bring one of the most beloved and influential stories in the Chinese reading world to the widest possible English reading audience. While those who are looking for a rigorous, technical, and academic translation of The Condor Heroes will perhaps be disappointed, Holmwood has successfully presented a delicate balance of the “too-foreign” Chineseness of the jianghu world with a welcoming prose that leads to the same thrilling engagement the reader has with the original. Jin Yong and his fiction are critically important to so many areas of culture, and I hope this translation will serve as an accessible entry point for those who are not specialists. In addition, we can hope that, just as Chinese science fiction is now finding a new and enthusiastic audience in English, perhaps publishers like MacLehose Press will continue its support and the martial arts novel will finally earn its rightful place with an international audience. In any case, I look forward to the next volume with anticipation.

David Hull
Washington College


[1] Christopher Hamm, Paper Swordsmen: Jin Yong and the Modern Chinese Martial Arts Novel (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2006).

[2] See: The Book and the Sword. Tr. Graham Earnshaw. Hong Kong: Oxford UP, 2004. The Deer and the Cauldron: a Martial Arts Novel. Tr. John Minford. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Foxy Volant of the Snowy Mountain. Tr. Olivia Mok. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1996. A Hero Born: Legends of the Condor Heroes: Volume 1. Tr. Anna Holmwood. London: MacLehose Press, 2018. Return of the Condor Heroes. Tr. Eileen Zhong. Singapore: Asiapac, 1997.