Chaucer in China (2): Reading Lin Shu

by Candace BarringtonLin_Shu

In this second installment of Chaucer in China, I am interested in the first appearances of any Canterbury tale in Chinese and in the paradoxical circumstances of their composition: The Canterbury Tales was not their immediate source text, and the translator, Lin Shu (林紓), did not know English.  His Sinicized  Chaucers provide an instructive contrast to Fang Chong’s mid-century translations that Jonathan Hsy wrote about in Part 1. Unlike Fang, who had studied English and relied upon Chaucer’s text to complete the first translation of The Canterbury Tales into Mandarin, Lin Shu knew no foreign language and relied upon Charles Cowden Clarke’s bowdlerized Chaucer for his source text.  As a preface to our study of these translations, this post describe their circumstances, for which I rely on my correspondence with Michael Gibbs Hill as well as his fascinating monograph, Lin Shu, Inc: Translation and the Making of Chinese Culture (Oxford UP, 2013). In what follows, I summarize appropriate sections of Hill’s cultural history of Lin Shu’s creative translations, and then I suggest what questions they raise and what they have to tell us about Global Chaucers and larger translation issues.

Lin Shu (1852-1924) was a leading translator and dominant presence in China’s literary culture during the late Qing dynasty (ca. 1895-1911) and the early Republic (1912-1927). Though one of China’s most prolific translators and writers at the turn of the twentieth century—he was responsible for over 180 translations of western literary works into classical Chinese—the early translations credited to him were the result of a collaborative process known as tandem translation (duiyi): with the assistance of an oral interpreter who knew the language of the source text well enough to orally translate, line-by-line,  western works of literature into vernacular Chinese, Lin Shu then further translated the text into the ancient prose style (guwen). Through this factory-like process, he became one of China’s most recognizable and highly compensated literary figures. Because he inherited a set of translation practices that considered fidelity to the source text less valuable than conveying an artistry and morality consistent with traditional Chinese values, Lin Shu’s tandem translations and ancient prose style met his earliest audience’s expectations.  These translations juxtaposed traditional orthodoxy (through their linguistic style) and Western Learning (through their source texts), simultaneously introducing Western concepts in the guise of orthodox form and lending his translations credibility. He used the cultural pulpit created by these translations to advocate the ancient prose style—guwen—for widespread literary use, a controversial position for numerous reasons, including guwen’s association with intellectual, academic work rather than narrative fiction. Lin Shu’s translations also faced suspicions that any translation into Chinese faced.  Because the earliest Chinese translations of European and American texts were the consequence of China’s colonial and imperial relations with the West, any translations tagged as Western were colored by the Chinese ambivalence toward Western Learning, seeing in it both a source of new knowledge and an effort to enforce religious conversion and political subjugation.  In the end, his profitable combination of tandem translations and ancient-prose style undermined his advocacy of guwen for wide-spread literary use. When he eventually lost control of the quality of his translations, he and his classical style became associated with retrograde conservatism and shoddy commercialism.

This trajectory of his reputation, from renowned literary translator to discredited hack, provides an important context of Lin Shu’s Chaucerian translations because they appear at the end of his career, when his translation practices aimed for quantity, not quality, and his reputation had become irreparably tarnished.  His later reputation might explain why the series of individual tale translations (appearing between 1916 and 1925) were ignored by accounts of European medieval literature in China, even though they seem to be the first Chinese translations of Chaucer’s works.  As noted by a short article appearing in 2011 in the Shanghai Review of Books (Shanghai shuping), they predate by a decade the once presumed arrival of European medieval literature in China in the 1920s and 1930s.

Relying on Charles Cowden Clarke’s early-nineteenth-century edition designed for children—Tales from Chaucer in Prose—Lin Shu translated nine (of Clark’s ten) Chaucerian tales:

  • “Gaining a Wife from a Duel,” from The Knight’s Tale
  • “The Princess Encounters Hardship,” from The Man of Law’s Tale
  • “The Prodigy of the Forest,” from The Wife of Bath’s Tale
  • “Griselda,” from The Clerk’s Tale
  • Body and Soul,” from The Squire’s Tale
  • “Three Young Men Encounter the God of Death,” from The Pardoner’s Tale
  • “The Mouth of the Dead that Could Sing,” from The Prioress’s Tale
  • “Talk about Chickens/Cocks,” from The Nun’s Priest’s Tale
  • “Gamelin,” from the apocryphal The 2nd Cook’s Tale

The first eight appeared in 1916 and 1917 in Short Story Magazine (Xiaoshua yuabao); the last appeared in 1925 in Story World (Xiaoshuo shijie). Both magazines were profit-seeking ventures of Commercial Press, and they targeted a non-academic, non-intellectual audience by combining a sense of conservative Chinese propriety with progressive Western learning, thereby appealing to middlebrow readers wanting to acquire both via leisure reading.

These Chaucerian tales appear when Lin Shu and his collaborators were flooding the market with translations.  Between 1913 and 1918, they published forty-one new novels, and in the first eight months of 1916, they submitted 572,496 characters of material. This pace resulted in translations riddled with errors.  Facilitating that pace and perhaps further explaining the shoddy translations was Lin Shu’s amended translation practice. By 1911, he seems to have abandoned his previous method of tandem translation for something more closely resembling subcontracting: rather than transpose the oral text into a classically-styled, written form, Lin Shu would have his collaborators prepare a written translation that he would then edit. This new practice is particularly significant for the Chaucerian texts because the collaborator, Chen Jialin, published his own translations of other texts into classical Chinese, making it unclear how much a hand Lin Shu had in the published versions of the Chaucerian tales.  Nevertheless, it was Lin Shu’s name (and not Chen Jialin’s) associated with the published stories. And it was via Lin Shu’s reputation that Commercial Press developed an aggressive campaign using the short works in Short Story Magazine to market his longer works as both entertaining and enlightening in order to sell the deluge of translations they had purchased from him.

So far, Lin Shu’s Chaucerian tales have not been back-translated into English, yet we can surmise some of the translated tales’ important characteristics. For instance, because they are based on Clarke’s translations for children, we can be assured they were sanitized, keeping at a distance the vulgarity conservative Chinese found repulsive in Western literature while also proffering a Victorian purchase on the tales’ morality. His dual strategy of tandem translation and ancient-style prose means Lin Shu avoided many of the problems noted by Mimi Chan (the only translator of Chaucer into Chinese to write about translating from Middle English verse into Chinese verse: “On Translating Chaucer into Chinese,” Renditions 8 [1977]: 39-51). By focusing on plot and character development, Lin Shu did have to be concerned  with re-creating semantic ambiguity, rhetorical devices, meter, form, or the sly Chaucerian persona; any artistry came through the ancient-prose style. And because he translated into prose, he could readily incorporate into the story any explanations of medieval European culture foreign to Chinese readers, such as Christianity and its attendant professions.

Once we begin to study Lin Shu’s translations more full, we will want to address several questions:

  • How much do these translations demonstrate that Lin Shun and Chen Jialin knew about Chaucer, his works, and his cultural context?
  • Who were their imagined audience? Did the translations present themselves as entertainment or works of learning?
  • Do the tales and any accompanying paratexts use Chaucer’s texts to comment on contemporary cultural debates through revisions to the source text, a practice Hill’s study reveals in Lin Shu’s translations of Dicken’s novels and Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin?
  • Do these translations maintain or adjust or dismiss Clarke’s (embedded) moralities?
  • Do these translations continue Clarke’s efforts to create a sense of chronological distance via archaic vocabulary and syntax?
  • Did the translations introduce neologisms from English or press Chinese terms into new meanings?
  • How well do these translations maintain the guwen style that marked Lin Shu’s earlier translations?

Lin Shu’s Chaucerian translations also have much to reveal about the unnatural division between original works and translation, and  they contribute to our thinking about translation in at least three ways. First, as Michael Hill persuasively argues, these translations deserve to be studied as translations (and not as debased adaptations) because they were presented and received as translations.  At the same time, they also merit study as original works of literature specific to a volatile time and place.  Finally, they need to be studied as possible fictitious translations, which, as Gideon Toury argues, “try and put the cultural gatekeepers to sleep by presenting a text as if it were translated” (“Enhancing Cultural Changes by Means of Fictitious Translations,” in Translation and Cultural Change: Studies in History, Norms, and Image Projection, ed. Eva Hung [John Benjamin Publishing, 2005]: 3-17). (This third aspect is particularly interesting vis-à-vis Lin Shu because, according to Hill, in the 1910s and 1920s, Lin’s rivals raised more objections to his prose style than to possible inaccuracies in his work.)  It doesn’t require placing much pressure on any of these approaches to reveal their constant overlap and interplay with one another, and Chinese Chaucers look like a good place to start.

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