Balance of Translations

In going through what is on the bookshelf in this apartment, I came across the Proceedings of the International Chinese-English Conference held in Hong Kong in August, 1975.  My father had a contribution titled Confessions Of A Translation Critic, and I quote from the conclusions:

In reviewing the historical development of English-Chinese and Chinese-English translation in the early half of the 20th century, we notice two very striking and contrasting features.  On one hand, all English-Chinese translations have been done by Chinese people.  So far as is known, not a single attempt was made by an American or Englishman.  On the other hand, in the field of Chinese-English translation the effort might be said to have been evenly divided by the English-speaking natives (notably Arthur Waley and a few missionaries like Legge and Giles) and those Chinese who had a good command of the English language.  

There have been a few Western translators whose enthusiasm outran their knowledge of the Chinese language.  The question was who knew less Chinese -- Amy Lowell, Florence Ayscough, or Ezra Pound?  Fortunately, this phase has passed and there is every indication that history will not repeat itself.

The big question is: Why?  First, in trying to expedite the process of modernization, China has encouraged her young people to study abroad -- America, England, France, Germany, Japan and Russia having their favorite countries.  It was only natural that for them to try their hands at translation after their return.  Furthermore, English has gradually assumed the role of a universal language, especially after the Second World War, like Latin in the Middle Ages.  Every Chinese college undergraduate now takes English as his required second language, while there used to be students who took other languages before the War.

The Big Powers used to take a deeper interest in trade with China than in the study and understanding of Chinese culture.  Translation was left to the few elites, eccentric sinologists or missionaries, whose main concern after all was to save a few pagan souls.

The turning point came in the year 1949.  On the one hand, more Chinese students outside mainland China went to America to take up their advanced studies, thus producing more scholars who are competent in the English language qualified to go into Chinese-English translation on their own.  The predominance of English-Chinese translation over other languages into Chinese was naturally a by-product.  On the other hand, the fact that China not only emerged on the international scene to stay but also is to be reckoned with as a real giant world power gradually sank into American and Western consciousness.  Chinese studies replaced "Sinology."  The study of the Chinese language and culture was taken more seriously.  It became more scientific and systematic.  A crop of first-rate Chinese scholars began to appear and some of them stepped into the field of Chinese-English translation.  Compared with their predecessors, they represented a new generation, much more sober, solid and resourceful.

Another factor hitherto unnoticed now comes into the force, tipping the balance.  Most of the Chinese of the previous generation had benefited from their training in the Chinese classics.  They studied in their family schools or, if from a large family, in their clan schools under tutors whose minimum qualifications was a pass from the country or provincial examination.  They had to go through the usual beginner's textbooks, Confusion classics, Book of Songs, classics in philosophy and history and words of prose masters.  Their training also included the practice of calligraphy and punctuation of blank texts of the classics.  Finally, there were taught the art of writing poetry.  The process included learning to write couplets in accordance with the correct antithetical meaning and tone, memorizing a few hundred poems by heart and finally composing poetry of their own.

The advantage of this kind of training is obvious, comparable in some respects to the learning of Greek and Latin by British school children in the old days.  After going through a period of rigid training, these people went on to take up formal education in Western-style schools or even went abroad for further studies.  They are now in their seventies or eighties if still alive.  While such training is desirable it is available only to a privileged few.

This system of education has gradually faded out and no longer exists.  A few fortunate people of my generation have received a few years of this kind of training.  Then off they went to receive formal education in modern-style schools or schools run by the missionaries.  What little Chinese learned there would not qualify them as truly learned Chinese scholars, even though a rudimentary knowledge of classical Chinese helped a great deal.

Most of the Chinese people of my generation, however, went through kindergarten, primary school, secondary school and university without benefit of any old-fashioned grounding.  The Chinese they learned there was a hodge-podge of highly disorganized classical Chinese and modern vernacular literature.  Aside from a few talented young men who mastered Chinese through self-application, the average standard of a university graduate is rather poor.  In comparison with an American or English college student whose major field is Chinese, they have no distinct advantage.  At best, they are on an equal footing but for the fact that Chinese happens to be their mother tongue.

What will this tendency lead to?  From recent developments in Chinese-English translation, we can safely assume that more American and English translators will enter the field and produce better end-products.  The Chinese will still be able to hold their own, which may dwindle as time goes on.  Translation of works of modern Chinese writers will perhaps remain their forte, since here one relies more on colloquial idioms and a native Chinese has a decided edge over a foreigner who does not hear, speak or write Chinese from early childhood.  But then this advantage is limited to comprehension of the source language and cannot be extended to writing in the target language.  How long can they hold on to their forte remains to be seen.

In conclusion, in the second half of the present century, the field of English-Chinese translation will still be dominated by the Chinese people with the hope that the quality will improve together with the amount of work done.  In the field of Chinese-English translation, the situation warrants optimism with more and more English and American translators entering the field and taking it more seriously than ever before.  In countries where competition and free enterprise are the driving force to achieve progress, there is no reason to doubt that the same principle cannot be applied to translation.

It is now the year 2005, so what happened to the prediction in the last paragraph?  It is essentially true, but the details are quite astounding, and the key driver was really the market economy on cultural goods.

On one hand, English-language-based cultural products became extremely popular in Greater China (=mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong/Macau).  For example, shortly after this paper was delivered, my father would become an advisor to Crown Press in Taiwan on the translation of English-language literature into Chinese.  They were not talking about commissioning a translation of Henry James' Daisy Miller or some other odd project.  They set their eyes on the New York Times top 20 bestseller list and getting as many of them translated as quickly as possible.  They had formed a full team of translators to hack at those books one after another.  For example, a Daniele Steele book might have to be completed in one week's time.  My father did not have to go over every one of those translations in detail (which would be physically impossible for any one individual), but he was only asked for an overall opinion (including veto power).  At one point, this apartment here was filled with published copies of those translated bestsellers.

Crown Press concentrated on the popular literature segment.  But there were similar demands for translations of English-language books by other publishers on science and technology, current affairs, business management and strategy, marketing, psychology self-help, children's books and so on.  This was great employment news for university students who majored in comparative literature, although this did not always mean that they were being paid a fortune.  The number of Chinese people who are working on English-Chinese translation is huge, so that a few American and English persons in there would have been tiny drops in the bucket.  

On the other hand, the demand for Chinese cultural products grew far less in the west by comparison.  At any one point in time, we cannot say that tens of thousands of Chinese-language books are being translated into English by people.  The actual number is likely to be much smaller.  Such being the case, then this becomes the domain of a small number of American and English people who are fluent in Chinese and a small number of Chinese people who are fluent in English.  In terms of quality, Chinese-English translations would be superior to the vast body of English-Chinese translations.

But if the 21st century is going to the Chinese century as some people predicted, then the demand for Chinese cultural products will surge.  Unless Americans start to take the study of Chinese seriously, the Chinese-English translation segment will also be dominated by the Chinese people.

What about the blogosphere?  In terms of money and influence, it is obviously completely dwarfed by the market-driven forces for the culture and information economies.  This is particularly acute because most bloggers are motivated not by financial reasons but for intellectual discourse, self-development, vanity, etc.  But let us pretend that it is meaningful to even talk about it.

On one hand, if there is a substantive article written in English (e.g. Susan Sontag on 9/11), one of many Chinese bloggers will quickly translate it from English into Chinese and it will be cross-posted through the thousands of Chinese-language forums and blogs.

On the other hand, we can ask who is actively translating important Chinese-language articles and posts into English.  With due respect, that number is miniscule.  In fact, I cannot even name more than a handful of people who do that regularly, whether they are American or Chinese.  I do not believe this situation will change until the day that everything and anything that the Chinese does will affect the rest of the world immensely.  It is the 'economy' driven by demand/supply, stupid!