Xu Zhimo has been well regarded as a poet, critic and prose writer in China but not a translator. Although some studies have been done in this regard, the conclusions they led to are highly disputed. Among the criticisms, Bian Zhilin’s opinion is the harshest and one of the most representative, he argues that “his(Xu Zhimo’s) translation sounds extremely awkward and clumsy and is full of translationese.
He even highlighted expressions at random for the sake of vividness.” For all that, there are also some scholars singing highly of Xu’s translation, such as Hu Shi, Liang Shiqiu and Lu Yaodong, only to name a few.
For example, Lu holds the opinion that it is because of Xu’s profound understanding of English culture that makes his translation successful, especially his poetry translation, with the spirits and the shades of meaning in the source poems faithfully rendered into the target text.
Therefore, I could not refrain from wondering that how can his translation gains criticisms and appreciations all at the same time and what are the reasons behind these two clear but totally opposite stands.
In order to get a satisfactory picture, I will select some translations of Thomas Hardy’s poems done by Xu Zhimo and analyze them side by side, hoping some traces could be found and a relatively fair judgment could be made.
But before that, I think it would be necessary if we have some understanding of the social and culture background where Xu Zhimo lived in. In 1917, Literary Revolution in China was initiated by Hu Shi as he published his Tentative Proposals for literary Reform that immediately received zealous responses.
A country would not be prosperous without her people being enlightened. Apparently, literary Chinese could hardly shoulder the task since it was able to be understood only to those intellectuals, to modernize vernacular Chinese, the people’s language became a feasible alternative.
The easiest and fastest way to have vernacular Chinese modernized was to introduce the advantages from the Western languages.
It seemed that the opinion was popular as most of the intellectuals agreed upon it and made some attempts, more or less. However, personally I believes, to “fully” absorb the Western languages’ fine structures doesn’t mean to completely abandon the literary Chinese and create a new language from scratch.
To borrow vocabularies and syntactic structures was the priority for all, but still, it should be total arbitrary and subjective but to be carefully considered and frequent scrutinized as to prevent it going too far. Xu Zhimo, as one of those who were most actively involved, put the thought into his translation practice.
But knowing his temperament, I doubt if his translation was cautious and prudent with the purpose to improve vernacular Chinese. In the following, I will compare some poems of T. Hardy and Xu’s translations to address this question.
O life with the sad seared face,
I weary of seeing thee,
And thy draggled cloak, and thy hobbing pace,
And thy too-forced pleasantry!
I know what thou would’st tell
Of Death, Time, Destiny –
I have known it long, and know, too, well
What it all means for me.
But canst thou not array
Thyself in rare disguise,
And feign like truth, for one mad day,
That Earth is Paradise?
I’ll tune me to the mood,
And mumm with thee till eve;
And maybe what as interlude
I feign, I shall believe!
The most noticeable in the translated poem is that the title is strangely left untranslated. Some might argue that “he did not translate the title deliberately in order to arouse the audience’s sensation and imagination of the target text through the defamiliarization of the medium of the literary works, the language”.
To some extent, it achieves the goal but leaves the readers at a loss as well. If the translational norm at his time was to enrich vernacular Chinese, I couldn’t help wondering if it went too far beyond. Literary Chinese is restricted in circulation, to put English words directly into Chinese doesn’t seem to be helpful to widen it, since not all readers understood English better than literary Chinese.
Xu also did some changes of the source text by additions and alterations according to his own understanding of the poem. For example, “法门”, “无非是”, “迟早”, “只当” and “乔装与殷勤” are added in his translation and have no equivalences in the ST. In the first stanza, “hobbing” was changed into “踉跄” and “pleasantry” to “滑稽”.
Hardy described Life as merciless and unstoppable, while the Life in Xu’s translation seemed like an funny old man. In Line 8, Xu altered the source poem to express his own impassioned sadness in his translation, but the source is more neutral and shows the fairness of Life. “艳丽的衣裳”, “游戏到黄昏” and the last two lines are all subjectively rendered into Chinese.
In the source poem, Hardy complaint the bitterness of Life in a helpless tone. However, the tone in Xu’s translated poem seems to be playful and full of innocence and personal sentiments.
The translated poem, if observed alone, might be able to be moderately counted as good. But when comparing the ST and TT, one could easily tell the differences between the two, his alterations of the meanings in the source which results in losing fidelity and his excessive use of “的” which makes the translation odd and weird, however, Xu seems to enjoy the freedom of choosing dictions to better suit his own style of expression and understanding of the ST. The attitude towards translation is, at least, not serious enough.
(to be continued…)