Monday, 20. February 2017




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Wanlong Gao, Recasting Lin ShuTrafford Publishing, 2009.

* This review was originally published in Monumenta Serica 63 (2015), pp. 1-21.


Recent years have witnessed a growth of interest on Lin Shu’s translations. Particular attention has been focused on issues relating to the accuracy –or rather inaccuracy– of his work and the significance it holds for those who paved the way for Modern Chinese Literature. Modern mainland scholarship has been exceptionally active in trying to redeem Lin Shu’s long lost position by acknowledging that his thought and his translations embodied such notions as women’s rights and education, freedom of marriage, democracy, and science, among others. So far as this is concerned, the pioneering work has been undertaken by Gao Wanlong 高萬隆, who dedicated his doctoral dissertation –in English– at Griffith University, Australia, to Lin Shu.[1]

Gao’s book offers a fresh insight into the complexity of a field where Lin Shu’s place has been usually neglected and, in a gesture of overcoming this shortage, presents us with a promising interpretation of Chinese translation theory in the light of Gideon Toury’s “Target-Oriented Approach.” The book is divided into seven thematic although closely interrelated chapters and a final appendix, collecting all Lin Shu’s translated works. While the first two chapters set the framework for the analysis by reviewing Toury’s theories and its application to Chinese literature, Gao’s central claims, his two strong theses, are developed in Chapters 3 and 4, and extended with multiple examples in Chapters 5 and 6: (1) that Lin Shu’s ideas, as contained in the prologue of his translations, were revolutionary and inspired the May Fourth Movement; and (2), that “Lin Shu preferred a reader’s reception oriented approach [...] He preferred free translation to literal translation” (p. 3). However innovative and interesting these statements are, especially for Western scholarship, they should be taken cautiously.

            Lin Shu surely introduced Western literature to many May Fourth devotees, as Zhou Zuoren later confessed (p. 19),[2] but this is far from accepting that he was a “pioneering figure of the New Culture Movement” (p. 96) or that his revolutionary ideas, shared by many others, “contributed to the occurrence of the May Fourth New Culture Movement” (p. 17). Lin Shu’s thought is best understood when we recognize that the difference between he and the New Youth was not in the essence or contents of their ideas, but in their methodological approach: Chen Duxiu’s followers advocated the annihilation of the classical culture and all of its manifestations, while Lin Shu, together with other scholars such as Wu Mi 吳宓 (1894-1978), Mei Guangdi 梅光迪 (1890-1945) or Liu Yizheng 柳詒徵 (1880-1956), believed that there could, and should, be a peaceful coexistence between the old and the new, for the former is the foundation of the later. This strategy can be seen in Lin Shu’s defense of classical Chinese: he did not, as Gao claims, oppose “the use of the vernacular language” (p. 4), but argued that the use of vernacular literature should not eliminate the teaching and practice of classical writing for those who would like to enjoy it.[3]

            Gao’s second thesis deserves a closer look. Truthfulness in translation has always been an issue when addressing cross-cultural intellectual communication. Lin Shu, who did not understand any of the original languages of his translated novels, had to rely on his friends’ knowledge and transcribe their oral versions of foreign works into classical Chinese. In order to explain the lack of fidelity to the original, Gao proposes the term “poetic equivalence” –based on the “dynamic equivalence” of Eugene Nida–, arguing that Lin Shu, in fact, “translated the spirit, content and style of the original works, rather than seeking a superficial and technical imitation” (p. 140), producing a “free translation” just as good as the original. In order to do so, Gao provides a wide range of comparisons between Lin Shu’s translations and the original works. What he does not offer, however, at least not when enunciating his main thesis, is what did Lin Shu himself say about his own translations, how did he see his own work, and what were his intentions in relation to his potential readers. The answer to some of these questions appears in fact here and there, disseminated throughout the book, when the author addresses other issues, and the reader cannot but feel skeptical when Gao’s main thesis is being disproved unintentionally by himself. For example, Gao quotes the following passage from Lin Shu’s prologue to Robinson Crusoe:


A translator, to the contrary, relates a given story: how can he interpolate his own opinions? When I came across religious sentiments in this book, how could I as a translator shun them and weed them out? Hence I preserved them just as they were (as quoted in p. 143).


            But some pages later, when comparing Lin Shu’s translation of Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias, he remarks that “Lin Shu omitted ‘je faisais l’Othello’ [...] for the sake of ‘cultural default’” because “Chinese readers were totally ignorant of Shakespeare” (p. 177; I wonder if Lin Shu himself was aware of Shakespeare at the time). Then he again quotes Lin Shu’s prologue to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, where a different opinion emerges:


Lin Shu wrote ‘the writer is an American, and Americans are devout Christians. Their talk is all bound  message nevertheless. They plea for understanding from those who are enlightened and educated’ (as quoted in p. 187).


Thus, Lin Shu himself acknowledged that he “relates a given story”, playing a mere passive role and just offering his readers the best possible translation he can achieve, keeping those cultural elements that may result foreign to the reader –he sometimes included notes to explain foreign words, like the old British currency “guinea,[4] instead of using a more culture-oriented translation. As noted by Ma Tailoi, Lin Shu’s collaborators were not always that scrupulous and precise with their translations –especially Mao Wenzhong 毛文種–,[5] and since Lin Shu was not a reader but a hearer, omissions and untruthfulness should be considered the fault of his team, something already stated by Zheng Zhenduo. As Lin Shu said, once more quoted by Gao himself:


In my hurried written works, I cannot say for sure that there are no errors. Recently some bosom friends of mine wrote to me to enumerate my errors as an object lesson, I feel very grateful. However, as I did not understand Western languages, I could only take down what I heard, so I was completely ignorant even if some errors occurred (as quoted in p. 4).


            Leaving aside these discrepancies, there are some methodological issues in Gao’s book that require careful consideration. One relates to the formal aspects of this study, which include a large amount of errata and misprints –sometimes accounting for its unintelligibility–;[6] parentheses and spacing that usually follow Chinese typography; cursive sometimes omitted when quoting works within the text –making the sentence almost incomprehensible–;[7] etc. These errors should have been eliminated by the editor(s) with the appropriate proofreading, as a second reading would have corrected lapsus calami such as this one: “a number of Chinese writers such as Su Manshu’s [sic!] (1884-1918) and Lin Shu began to learn the structure from La Dame aux Camélias in their respective novels” (p. 11; of course Lin Shu did not learnt from his own translations). Moreover, purist will surely feel uncomfortable with the fact that simplified Chinese is extensively used through the book –against common practice in Western sinology–, and the way information is presented can be redundant and repetitive at times.

            A more important methodological problem, however, is the way references and translations are dealt with. Most primary sources, including easily accessible journals such as Xin qingnian, seem to have been quoted from secondary literature, since the original pagination and/or Chinese title of the articles are missing a number of times –showing also a lack of coherence–. Sometimes the reference is omitted, as in “Liu Bannong’s rebukes were rebutted by other scholars such as Zheng Zhenduo, Han Guang and Qian Zhongshu,” leaving the reader with the burden of guessing where such criticism was published. Also, translation of Chinese texts is usually as free as Lin Shu’s collaborators renderings of Western literature. For example, a passage from Lin Shu’s prologue to Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop is translated first as “As for Chinese novels, nothing but The Dream of the Red Chamber could be regarded as reaching the peak of perfection” (p. 94), and later as “Among Chinese novels, the best is The Dream of the Red Chamber” (p. 113). Although this lack of coherence could barely mislead the attentive reader to believe Lin Shu spoke in favor of this novel many times, the main problem lies in the way passages from Lin Shu are collated with their Western counterparts in order to show truthfulness. Compare, for example, chapter 21 of Dickens’ David Copperfield with Lin Shu’s rendering (as quoted in pp. 148-149):


[...] who was in appearance a pattern of respectability. I believe there never existed in his station a more respectable-looking man. He was taciturn, soft-footed, very quiet in his manner, deferential, observant, always at hand when wanted, and never near when not wanted; but his great claim to consideration was his respectability.


In Lin Shu’s words:




This is then translated by Gao as follows:


This old servant was in appearance a pattern of respectability, unlike those servants in lower position. He was taciturn, soft-footed, quiet in his manner, deferential, observant, always at hand when wanted, and never near when not wanted; but did not lose his respectability.


            The reader cannot but wonder if, not given the original text from Dickens, a translation of Lin Shu’s rendering will result in such a similar piece of literature. This is not to say that Lin Shu –or his collaborators– did an inadequate translation, but it is far from the vis-a-vis correspondence presented by Gao.


            A final word should be said about the appendix, a list of Lin Shu’s translated works. First of all, although he counts 181 translations in his book (p. 8), the index offers 190 titles. Some of them, like Bali si yiren lu 巴黎四義人錄 (A Record of Four Righteous Men from Paris) are not translations but novels authored by Lin Shu himself.[8] Others, like Tuerji luanshi shimo 土耳基亂事始末 (Full report of Turkey’s Chaos) or Ouxi tongshi 歐西通史 (Brief History of Western Europe), are not literary works (which he claims to have excluded from the index, see p. 246, note 1). At least 33 works whose author is supposed to be unknown, according to Gao, were already identified, most of them as soon as 1981, by Ma Tailoi (for example Charles Cowden Clarke’s Tales from Chaucer, in Prose, James Baldwin’s Thirty more famous stories retold, and Tolstoy’s eight short stories or Luosha yinguo lu 羅剎因果錄).[9] There are also an alarming number of misprints and transliteration errors that should have been corrected during the proofreading process,[10] and even some Chinese words have found its way into the text: “Danmian and Huayier, original authors丹米安和华伊尔原着 (p. 249).

            However, despite my questions and critique, on the whole Recasting Lin Shu marks a significant contribution to the reevaluation of Late Qing translation theory in the light of Toury’s approach, for it proposes an interesting vision of how Lin Shu’s collaborators –instead of Lin Shu himself– could have operated behind the screen when rendering Western literature into vernacular Chinese.[11] Gao’s book did also sow the seeds for mainland scholars to engage in new interpretative research regarding Lin Shu’s translations. Writing in English, Li Lu, who related Lin Shu’s treatment of slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the crisis of Late Qing China, and Yang Lihua, both closely followed Gao’s “poetic equivalence” when praising his free translations as a subjective way of rendering transcultural ideas.[12] In Chinese, Liu Hongzhao 劉宏照 has also explored the different strategies employed by Lin Shu in his translations, as well as his shortcomings and deficiencies –some of which he relates to the limitations of classical Chinese (!)–, and how Toury’s “Target-Oriented Approach” can restore Lin Shu’s position in the field.[13]

[1] Now published as a book, in Gao 2009.

[2] Zhou Zuoren 1924, p. 5.

[3] It is far from the purpose of this review to show how Lin Shu advocated a literature free from the authority of any school. He recognized the value of vernacular novels such as Dream of the Red Chamber (see his prologue in Lin Shu 1908), and composed an important number of poetry in vernacular defending both Confucian and modern values. This was in fact recognized by Hu Shi after Lin Shu’s death, in Hu Shi 1924 (collected in Ouyang Zhesheng 1998, vol. 7, pp. 559-563).

[4] For example in Lin Shu 1919d, vol. 2, p. 6, a translation of a work which original author, Wuyingni 武英尼, and title are unknown.

[5] Ma Tailoi 2008, p. 40.

[6] For example, and without intending of being exhaustive: note 6 in p. 5 should be numbered “2”; the reference “Guo Moruo, 1979” (p. 19) should be “1997”; “sensure” (p. 52) should be “censure”; “Aequel” (p. 90, note 3) for “Sequel”; Lu Xun’s “‘Caixie Jiao’ Xiaoyin” (p. 95, note 3) should be “Caoxie jiao” 草鞋腳; the title of the work quoted in p. 115, note 2 is missing; etc.

[7] For example, p. 54, note 2, reads “Han Guang’s Lin Qinnan records some important reviews,” “Lin Qinnan” being the title of a book.

[8] As already seen in Ma Tailoi 1998, published online ( but currently unavailable.

[9] Ma Tailoi 1981, pp. 77, 79-80, 91-92.

[10] Some examples are: “Berha M. Clay” instead of “Bertha” (p. 247); “Huo mu yingxiong 霍目英雄” for “Huomu yingxiong 矐目英雄” (p. 249); ”Luosha xiongfeng  罗刹雄风” for “Luosha cifeng 羅刹雌風” (p. 250); “Qing tian yi cai lu 情天异彩录”, when the original title omits the last character (p. 251); the pinyin in “Rou xang shu Xian 柔乡述险” should be “Rou xiang shu xian 柔鄉述險” (p. 252); etc.

[11] A more recent contribution by Gao (2010, pp. 26-43) explores the role of Lin Shu in choosing the original.

[12] Li Lu 2007, pp. 22-58; Yang Lihua 2013, pp. 27-80.

[13] Liu Hongzhao 2011, which was originally presented as a dissertation at East China Normal University, Shanghai, 2010.