Yang Xianyi, translator of classics, dies at 94


A recent photo of Yang Xianyi (People’s Daily)

Sina, citing a microblogger and a publishing industry editor, reports that well-known translator Yang Xianyi (杨宪益) has passed away at the age of 94.

November 23: Sina Book Channel learned that noted translator, scholar of foreign literature, and poet Yang Xianyi passed away today at the age of 95 [Chinese reckoning].

At roughly 4pm on November 23, Xiao Sanlang, a senior Beijing-based journalist, posted an update to his Sina microblog reading, “Yang Xianyi has passed away.” Jiang Xiaohu, a reporter and managing editor for the China Book Business Report website, confirmed the news. Jiang said, “Mr. Yang Xianyi passed away this morning. Sorrow.”

Yang was born in Tianjin in 1915. He went abroad to study at Oxford, where he met his wife Gladys, with whom he later translated classic works of Chinese literature for the Foreign Languages Press.

Their translations included Selected Works of Lu Xun and a complete English version of A Dream of Red Mansions, which the two began in the early sixties and finished in the following decade after a spell in prison during the Cultural Revolution.

Yang published his autobiography in English as White Tiger.

Southern People Weekly spoke to Yang this year and published a lengthy profile and short interview in the August 3 issue. An excerpt concerning his philosophy of translation:

SPW: Talk a little about Red Mansions: was it like the question of whether Lisao could be translated? Was there any special difficulty in rendering Red Mansions into another language? Foreshadowing through homophones, allusions, metaphors…

Yang: There were those that could be solved, and counterparts could be found in English. Those that could be translated, we translated, and for the others, we added a footnote. Of course, the ones that were solvable were in the minority. Chairman Mao was of the opinion that the Li Sao couldn’t be translated. I think that everything can be translated.

The profile explained his encounter with Mao over Qu Yuan’s famous poem:

In 1953, as a special CPPCC member, Yang Xianyi met Chairman Mao with a group of scientists and artists. “He had already begun to put on weight, but he looked very healthy. He walked over and shook hands with each of us. Zhou Enlai was beside him and introduced each of us to him.” Zhou said to Mao: This is a translator who has rendered the Li Sao into English.

“Chairman Mao loved classical Chinese poetry, and the Li Sao was one of his favorite works. As he extended a sweaty palm to shake my hand, he said, ‘So you think that the Li Sao can be translated, hmm?’ ‘Chairman, surely all works of literature can be translated?'”

Yang believed the poem was a fake and approached it in that spirit. David Hawkes, a friend of Yang’s who did his own translation of the Li Sao (as well as another complete edition of Red Mansions, as The Story of The Stone, with John Minford), made the comment that the resulting translation “bears as much resemblance to the original as a chocolate Easter egg to an omelette,” an observation that amused Yang.

Update (2009.11.25): Read John Gitting’s obituary at The Guardian.

Additionally, a number of bloggers have noted a passage that was deleted from Yang’s autobiography for the mainland Chinese edition:

I was full of helpless rage and grief. At midday the BBC office rang me up from London and asked me what I thought of the massacre. I was still in a towering rage and through the phone I denounced the people responsible for the crime, calling them fascists. I said that there were a few die-hards in the top échelon of the Party who could not represent the whole Party. I repeated what I had just heard in the morning and I said that these people were worse than the northern warlords in the early days of the Republic, and worse than the Japanese invaders. Even those earlier fascists had not committed such a heinous crime like this, though this group called themselves Communists. Some days later I heard from friends that they had heard my denunciations through the BBC loud and clear. Many people even made copies of my outbursts. It had made quite a strong impact abroad and I was glad.

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