- Laura Plitt
- BBC World News
English? Not a word. Spanish? Less … Classic Mandarin? Excellent. Energy and enthusiasm? To gush.
The lack of knowledge of the Spanish language —as well as any other Western language— was not an impediment for the renowned Chinese lawyer to Lin Shu would engage in the monumental task of translate “The ingenious hildago don Quijote de la Mancha ” to the Chinese language.
With the help of his friend Chen Jialin, who had read an already distorted English text and patiently related it to him in Baihua, the colloquial Mandarin, Lin Shu got down to business.
And so on 1922, the first Chinese translation of the work of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was born.
Locked up with his collaborator in his studio, the active septuagenarian wrote at one table while painting at another, simultaneously unleashing his two great passions.
Its objective was to make known the great works of Western literature, which until the beginning of the 20th century were only accessible to intellectual elites who had knowledge of other languages and the possibility of traveling abroad.
Published under the title “Story of the Enchanted Knight”, the book was initially a success: in less than 10 years the publisher went on to print two more editions.
And today, in a new twist, Lin Shu’s book was translatedTo Spanish and it was recently presented by the Cervantes Institute, the public body whose objective is the promotion and teaching of the Spanish language and the dissemination of the culture of Spain and Latin America.
From master and servant to teacher and disciple
Alicia Relinque, sinologist at the University of Granada, Spain, and author of the translation, recalls that she was surprised when she came across Lin Shu’s text.
“What surprised me the most is that it seems so much to the original Don Quixote, “he tells BBC Mundo.
“We all hoped that it would be very different, that it would have simply taken the character of Don Quixote as an excuse, that it would have put something else or other, such as the windmills, but not that it would be so faithful to what the stories are: all the little subplots throughout the novel, they’re all there. ”
It is in the details, the descriptions, the language, the character of the characters and their links where the differences begin to appear, and where the Chinese idiosyncrasy is reflected.
“(In the Chinese version) Don Quixote is sometimes a ridiculous character, as in Cervantes’s book, but he is more worthy“, says the academic.
“He is a defeated man, melancholic but not grotesque, intelligent, cultivated, generous and very attached to the past (something very revered in China) who does not know how to face the world before him and that is why he allows himself to be carried away by that kind of madness” .
Somehow, “Lin shu is a little less cruel to Don Quixote,” reflects Relinque.
A substantial difference, possibly derived from a translation error, lies in the link between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
English translations use the word master, which in that language can be a master but also a teacher.
“That immediately led him to the field of master-disciple, something very Confucian, typical of the Chinese tradition, and thus Sancho becomes a disciple who wants to learn from his teacher “(unlike the role of servant that he assumes in the original version of Cervantes), says the translator.
Neither cure nor God
Another important difference linked to a translation error is that one of the knight errant’s friends, who in the Spanish novel is a priest, in the Chinese novel becomes doctor.
“One of the English versions translates cura as curate and Lin Shu’s friend interpreted him as ‘someone who healed’, and then from the beginning they call the character ‘the doctor’ “, says the sinologist.
“The position of moral superiority of the priest in Lin Shu’s Don Quixote is no longer moral superiority, but comes from a doctor, who is supposed to be an intellectual, a more rational being.”
The rest are not so much mistakes as omissions (the preface disappears as well as the word God and all references to religion), subtle transformations (Rocinante turns into a swift horse), inclusions of neologisms (like the word revolution, taken from Japanese) and homegrown comments that bring history closer to Chinese culture (women smell like the lotus flower, there are popular verses —but they come close to the original meaning of Cervantes’s proposal— as well as typical expressions of Chinese courtesy).
“It is a way of taming the history that continues to be that of Don Quixote, and that allows us to understand the China of that time,” says Relinque.
Although nowadays it may seem an aberration for a person, no matter how cultured and literate, to translate a work written in a language they do not know, this type of work was common in China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“There were very few who could translate directly from a foreign language and then write in good Chinese”, explains to BBC Mundo Michael Gibbs Hill, director of Chinese studies at the College of William and Mary, in Virginia, United States, and author of Lin Shu, Inc.: Translation and the Making of Modern Chinese Culture(“Lin Shu, inc .: The translation and creation of modern Chinese culture”).
“For this reason, Lin Shu adopted a practice widely used by many translators of the time which consisted of collaborate with at least one person trained in the language in question, “he says.
This production model proved to be very efficient.
“He operated what his colleagues and contemporaries called ‘writing factory’, since in a period of 20 years Lin Shu published about 180 books in a foreign language with 20 different collaborators, “says Gibbs Hill.
This means that, in some years, it produced up to 20 books. Although it is possible that he did not translate all of them from scratch but that he had worked on drafts previously produced by his collaborators, correcting them.
Thanks to their work, authors such as Dickens, Tolstoi o Beecher Stowe (author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”), came to the hands of Chinese readers.
While some of these books are relatively faithful translations like Don Quixote, others contain changes that are more deliberate.
In his popular translation of “Oliver Twitst” by Charles Dickens, for example, Lin shu “emphasizes the part that offers a very negative picture of England”, says the academic.
“Not because he wanted his readers to think badly of England, but because he wanted to show that literature can change society by revealing its flaws.”
While many young intellectuals read Lin Shu’s translations, many later turned against him.
They considered it a too commercial author (he worked on advertising texts as well as literary texts), and they despised his using in the classical languagein their translations.
“He was arch-conservative for the youngsters,” says Gibbs Hill.
Critics, however, gave publicity to his translation of Don Quixote, which was widely read.
Then other translations appeared that completed Lin Shu’s work (he only translated the first part of the two volumes that Cervantes wrote) that were considered better, says Relinque, who maintains that Lin Shu’s version is still very valuable.
“Although it has no point of comparison with the original, it seems to me that Lin shu wrote very well. I really like his style, in classical Chinese. “
“His classical prose was very elegant,” acknowledges Gibbs Hill.
For those interested in comparative literature, linguistics, and the translation process, the work, the last of the great works that Lin Shu translated before he died, “is a real treasure,” concludes Relinque.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.