Li Wenjun reflects on career introducing major modernist works to China

By BAI LE / 08-02-2018 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Li Wenjun, a renowned Chinese translator and Honorary CASS Member, was born in 1930 in Shanghai. His ancestral home is Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province. After graduating from the Department of Journalism at Fudan University, he worked for the journals The Translations and World Literature and served as the editor-in-chief of World Literature from 1988 to 1993. Li has translated many works of American and British literature, including William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying and Absalom, Absalom. Co-author of A Brief Introduction of American Literary History, he also compiled such works as Commentaries on William Faulkner. Li won the Translation Association of China’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Translation in 2011. (BAI LE/CSST)

Many of his translations have generated far-reaching influence on Chinese literature since the reform and opening up. Contemporary writers like Mo Yan, Yu Hua and Su Tong are all fans of his translation. His name is often accompanied by William Faulkner. Being the first translator to bring Franz Kafka to China, he has also translated works of Ernest Hemingway, J.D. Salinger, Carson McCullers, Alice Munro and T.S. Eliot. He is the renowned translator Li Wenjun. Recently, Li sat down with a CSST reporter to talk about his career and his perspective on translation.


CSST: The publishing of your translation The Sound and the Fury exerted a huge influence in China, after which many studies of foreign literature focused on your Chinese version. How did you come to start translating Faulkner?


Li Wenjun: Few Chinese people knew of Faulkner in the 1980s. Nobody had translated his works even though they deserved to be. Therefore, I volunteered to take the mission. I had heard of Faulkner from a senior editor named Zhao Jiabi who introduced Faulkner’s works in a 1936 book about modern American novels.

Before that, I read Mark Twain during my childhood. In the 1950s, I translated Erskine Caldwell’s work and after that Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café. I also read books written by southern African-American authors at the turn of the 1980s. I compiled Commentaries on William Faulkner and contributed to A Brief Introduction of American Literary History before commencing the translation. I felt obligated to introduce Faulkner’s works as I became increasingly familiar with him. Yuan Kejia was editing Modernism: A Selection. He asked me to translate the Quentin part of The Sound and the Fury. Later, I did the Benjy part at the invitation of Shi Xianrong from People’s Literature Publishing House. After that, I completed translation of the whole book bit by bit. Beyond my expectation, I’ve developed an indissoluble bond with Faulkner ever since.


CSST: You said that this translation clung to you for almost two years—sometimes it was a dream while sometimes a nightmare. Faulkner’s works are difficult to translate due to his renowned inexplicit and abstract style. How do you understand his writing style in The Sound and the Fury?


Li Wenjun: Multiple narratives are a feature of the work. The four chapters are narrated from the perspectives of four characters who vary in terms of identity, stance, emotion and intelligence. Each narrator shapes himself or herself and the other narrators and relevant characters. Similarly, when a Peking opera actor is asked to play all the types of roles in one performance, he needs to immerse himself in the roles while detaching from them at the same time.

Another feature of The Sound and the Fury is the stream of consciousness style. For one thing, the succession of time and logic is nonlinear. The details and events inside the characters’ minds are presented randomly, which contrasts with chronological and sequential order. The juxtaposition of events jumps from one to another without any indication of a transition. The jumbled time also means confusing information. Even more, the grammar and rhetoric shifts. There are many long rambling sentences frequently interrupted by more clauses. And the clauses have various structural layers. American writer Conrad Aiken said about these clauses that “They remind one of those brightly colored Chinese eggs of one’s childhood, which when opened disclosed egg after egg, each smaller and subtler than the last.”


CSST: Of all Faulkner’s works, Absalom, Absalom is believed to be the most complex which bears an intense flavor of epic. You started translating it at 65 years old. That must be a demanding process.


Li Wenjun: Yes, this is the most difficult translation. Faulkner writes many run-on sentences or uses only one punctuation mark throughout a paragraph. I could only translate one small paragraph or even one long sentence each day. And I revised them many times the next day. I think it would have been really difficult for me to finish translating it without sufficient patience and perseverance.

After completing it, I had a heart attack due to overwork. The hospital filed five critical condition notices as my heart didn’t beat again until the doctor gave me the fifth electrical shock. Life has several major obstacles and this is one of mine.


CSST: You said that you were like a veteran actor seeking to try new roles. Indeed, you translated works of different styles.


Li Wenjun: That’s true. When mentioning my name, I hope, people would not only think of Faulkner, even though he is the writer that means the most to me. I spent several months doing T.S. Eliot’s verse drama Murder in the Cathedral, and I am relatively proud of it compared with my other translations completed in my twilight years. After that, I had an affection for classic British literature, so I translated Jane Austin’s major work Emma with my early partner. I also did Alice Munro’s Runaway and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.


CSST: You once said that if the original text is “ugly,” then just translate it in an “ugly” way. How to deal with flawed texts? Can translators inject personal understanding and style in translation?


Li Wenjun: I think it is better to follow the original texts as much as we can. It is suggested to do so because writers may deliberately compose the flawed texts with an “intent” unknown to the translators. For example, a language teacher would have to fail Faulkner’s punctuation choices, but the seemingly irregular usage has its own ground and charm that livens up the atmosphere and implies a tension between past and present, known and unknown. Before Faulkner gained a foothold in literature, some American editors chose to alter his punctuation and grammar, even deleting long paragraphs. Such acts were later proven to be reckless and inappropriate.

Besides, some original texts have evident problems. For instance, I sometimes found spelling mistakes when translating Faulkner’s works, but I didn’t correct them in the translated text, and I chose instead to list them in the book’s compilation notes. I’d rather repeat the mistakes. I liked Charles Dickens very much, but now I have found that some of his writing is not ideal. Dickens lived in the 19th century, so the knowledge he accumulated and the historical events he experienced had limitations. As a prolific writer, some of his serials in his later career failed to maintain the same quality as always. However, it is better for translators not to improve the texts. The most they can do is to express in a subtle way in the translation’s preface, postscript or annotations.


CSST: In terms of literary translation criticism, you wrote that people shouldn’t fixate on grammar, phrasing, facts or allusions, because some more profound and macro-level issues have greater significance. Could you explain this argument?


Li Wenjun: People engaged in literary translation criticism usually examine a translated work focusing only on such details as grammar, phrasing, facts and allusions. Once locating any deviation, they jump to the conclusion that the translator has failed to digest the original texts. Instead, one should determine their quality by looking at the text as a whole and considering the era in which the translator lives, considering the way he talks and writes. The key to literary translation will be overlooked if scholars apply the approach for assessing exam papers to translation criticism. More importantly, they should avoid asserting that the translation text is riddled with errors merely based on several mistranslations from some chapters. Appropriate grammar and accurate expression definitely matter, but they are not the sole criteria. Scholars should go deeper by analyzing whether the translation has reflected the original text’s core ideas and style and the author’s emotion and attitude. Clearly the form of a translation can’t rigidly follow the original structure. A translation with an overemphasis on such rigidity will never be a good one, which is word-for-word literal translation. Chinese writer Lu Xun advocated for such methodology whose effects have turned out unsatisfactory.


CSST: Many people believe that an excellent translator must cultivate broad general knowledge or master a field. Do you agree with this? What’s your expectation for Chinese translation?


Li Wenjun: If you long for an achievement that could be retained in history, you must know not only everything of something, but also something of everything. For example, you need to explore the author’s biography and hobbies as well as artistic orientation and writing style before setting about the task. Only in this way can you do excellent work. Literary translation requires translators to explore how different writers navigate language while learning the speaking habits of people with diverse backgrounds. 

Translators don’t only deliver the ideas of authors. What’s more, they make contributions to the national culture, expand people’s knowledge and improve their thinking. Chinese translators have worked for this vision since the late Qing Dynasty. Fu Lei, Ru Long and their peers translated representatives of literary realism, such as Honoré de Balzac and Leo Tolstoy. When it comes to our generation, we’ve advanced the undertaking by bringing modernist works to China that were written during the opening half of the 20th century. Nowadays, younger translators are retranslating Faulkner. I’m sure that I will be delighted to see their accomplishments.