Lu Xun, Translation, and World Literature: Four Insights

Lu Xun, who is considered one of the greatest writers of 20th Century China, became a sensation in the early 20th century because his writings so sharply criticized traditional Chinese culture. But another aspect of his writing must have also been shocking to readers accustomed to more mannered classical Chinese: his voice. Not only did Lu Xun write in vernacular Chinese, but he also populated his work with everyday characters. “The issue of voice is always central to Lu Xun’s thought,” said Eileen Cheng, discussing her new translation of the writer’s work at a recent Fairbank Center event. “I want to convey the voices captured in onomatopoeia and the lyrical quality of his writing.”

The new translation of Wild Grass 野草 and Morning Blossoms Gathered at Dusk 朝花夕拾, a collection of twenty-three prose-poems and a memoir of eight essays joins distinguished company: the brilliant husband-wife duo Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang, who survived the political persecution of the Cultural Revolution, produced the first translation of these works.

Cheng and four other noted Chinese literature scholars recently gathered to talk about the new translation, as well as Lu Xun’s voice, his place in history, the art of translation, and world literature. David Damrosch (Harvard), Theodore Huters (UCLA), and Hu Ying (UC-Irvine) joined the discussion, moderated by David Der-wei Wang of Harvard.

Eileen J. Cheng: Surrendering to Other Voices

Eileen Cheng sees in Lu Xun’s stories the deliberate distance between the narrator “I” and what she calls “Lu Xun with a capital ‘L’”. In Wild Grass and Morning Blossoms, Lu Xun effaces himself—a turn of phrase from the British essayist George Orwell, who once said, “one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a window pane.”

Lu Xun was “searching for new voices from alien lands (求新声于异邦),” said Cheng. The imaginary world he constructs in Morning Blossoms thus goes beyond the biographical constraints of the author and into the ordinary aspects of daily life. There are no dates. No name of subjects nor locales. Yet, it is in this lack of specificity that we find a universal story: the lament of a child at once celebrates the beauty of being a child at heart and the cruel way in which society and education erode it.

Likewise, we see in Wild Grass the lives of the nameless and the faceless: animals, servants, and social outcasts. Lu Xun animates their lives by giving them voice, visibility, and the room to express grief and grievance. He also surrenders to the stories of others in the last two chapters of Morning Blossoms. He writes about Mr. Fujino of Sendai Medical Academy, who was Lu Xun’s teacher. The technique of authorial effacement allows him to suspend his inhibitions for a moment—Lu Xun uncharacteristically ends that story with a note of sentimentality. David Damrosch, in his comments, points out that The “question of the effacement of self is less apparent than the highlighting of the effacement of the self,” commented David Damrosch. Lu Xun, he added, was very much present in his own effacement—in that we see the many layers of voices that animated his masterpieces.

David Damrosch: Global Influences and the Birth of Magazines

Kicking off a vibrant discussion of Lu Xun’s role in the history of world literature, Professor David Damrosch proposed three contexts in which we may conceptualize Lu Xun’s own voice: Inspiration, affinities, and technologies.

First, Lu Xun’s early influences included household names in the history of modern Western literature. The works of Jules Verne and Nikolai Gogol were notable sources of inspiration for Lu Xun. Lu Xun’s early experience and fascination with the problematic of translation prefigured his distinctive voice as an author.

Second, Lu Xun’s prose pieces share a number of affinities with those of his Western and Japanese contemporaries. The effacement of the authorial self also feature prominently in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1920) and T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (1922). Lu Xun might have found kindred spirits in modernist writers across the newly industrialized world of the early twentieth-century.

Finally, the rising popularity of the magazine, also a worldwide phenomenon in the early twentieth-century, enabled independent writers like Lu Xun to make ends meet by publishing short stories on a regular basis. The technologies of print capitalism thus shaped Lu Xun’s career as both author and translator, for he also served as a co-editor of the literary magazine New Youth (1915–1926) alongside, among others, the literary scholar and essayist Hu Shi (1891–1962). Significantly, New Youth was known for publishing translations of Japanese and Western writers.

Hu Ying: Where does the Translator Face?

Before Lu Xun was a renowned writer, he was a prolific translator. Literary scholar Hu Ying focused her comments on the relationship between a translator and the text. “Translators”, she claimed, “are not equidistant between the source and target languages.” She cited the story of the late-Qing ‘translator’ Lin Shu, known for introducing reams of Western literature to Chinese readers despite not knowing any foreign language (he relied on collaborators). Hu Ying says that Lin, intent on producing “smooth and pleasant-to-read” translations, was closer to the target (Chinese) than the source (Western languages).

How then should we understand Lu Xun’s positionality in his translation of foreign works? Hu Ying sees in Lu Xun’s translations a close fidelity to the original,  allowing readers to see themselves through the perspectives of the other. After all, it is impossible to see one’s objective self alone.  “His [Lu Xun’s] face was turned to the source, but his heart turned to face his readers,” she said. “Not to forget Eileen..Eileen was very close to the original.”

Theodore Huters: Product of Cultural Crisis

For renowned Lu Xun scholar Theodore Huters, Professor Emeritus of Chinese at the University of California, Los Angeles and editor of Cheng’s new rendition, Lu Xun’s attitude toward what he calls a “binary between China and the West” presents a historical puzzle. On the one hand, Lu Xun’s mission to revitalize the culture of his native land by seeking “new voices from alien lands” bespoke a deep antipathy toward the dominant value system and cultural heritage of the Confucian tradition. Yet, despite being a vocal detractor of the expressive potential of literary Chinese, the co-editor of New Youth continued to compose poetry according to classical conventions. Having grappled with this paradox for almost fifty years, Professor Huters reminds us that Lu Xun, who had reached “intellectual maturity” during the two decades between 1895 and 1915, the only period in which he produced substantially theoretical writings, was the product of an ongoing cultural crisis.

The relationship between China and the West has always been conceived as a binary since the mid-nineteenth-century. Which world had more appeal, or seemed stronger shifted over time. Reformists in the 1860s believed firmly in the inferiority of the “barbarian” (yi 夷, a traditionally pejorative term for foreigners) position in the China-West comparison.

Increasingly however, in the eyes of many Chinese, the “West” began to equal and even surpass China—particularly following China’s defeat at the hands of Japan in 1895. Defeat by the de facto protege of the West shattered confidence in traditional values and social norms and caused a paradigm shift in the field of cultural studies from “China versus the West” to “Old versus New.” It was in this broader trend of contestation in Chinese cultural discourse at the beginning of the twentieth-century that Lu Xun forged his own path. Although the binary would stabilize again from 1915 onwards, this time in favor of the West, Lu Xun never truly outgrew the zeitgeist of ambivalence.

Thus riddled with contradictions, Lu Xun’s legacy presents translators with the daunting task of representation: How does one convey the cultural, intellectual, and historical subtexts that undergird Wild Grass and Morning Blossoms Gathered at Dusk, both of which contain layered and intertwining voices from a universal yet diverse cast of characters? What shall we make of the Buddhist and Christian connotations, as one participant in the webinar observed, that also populate many of his works? In the end, we cannot help but think of Eileen Cheng’s own voice as a translator. If Lu Xun sought “new voices from alien lands,” what we heard today was not just a voice from an alien land but, more importantly perhaps, a voice from a different time.