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Print Edition> Lifestyle
UPDATED: May 27, 2011 NO. 22 JUNE 2, 2011
Life With Esperanto

Li Shijun, a master in Esperanto, was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award in Translation by the Translators Association of China on December 2, 2010. The award is the highest honor conferred to living translators in China.

As a pioneer in Esperanto translation in China, Li is famous for his translation of many domestic and foreign masterpieces. Recently, Beijing Review reporter Zhou Xiaoyan had an exclusive interview with him and Li shared his story and suggestions for today's young translators.

Beijing Review: Why did you choose Esperanto as your lifetime career?

Li Shijun (FILE)

Li Shijun: When I was a little boy, I was quite interested in natural science. I would be thrilled whenever I got a chance to look at an electric lamp, a large ship or a running train. My original dream was to be a scientist or inventor like James Watt or Thomas Edison.

In 1937, my dream to become a famous scientist was totally damaged as Japanese military forces invaded my hometown in east China's Shandong Province. In order to resist subjugation, I ran away with my teachers and fellow students. We walked from Shandong to Henan, Hubei, Shaanxi, and Sichuan provinces to give drama performances, encouraging the anti-Japanese forces and motivating Chinese people to stand up and fight.

In 1939, we settled in a county in Sichuan. One day, I found a book called Learning Esperanto Within One Month in a little bookstore. It immediately attracted my attention and I bought it without any hesitation. It took me only one week to read the book and it's the first time that I have had a connection with the language.

One year later, I read a newspaper advertisement that an Esperanto class was recruiting students to learn the language and I signed up immediately. Half a year later, I finished the introductory courses and later graduated with good grades from the intermediate class. From then on, I started a whole new life with Esperanto.

Learning Esperanto changed my view of the world to a large extent. I now know that science and technology is important indeed but what's more important is how they are used and who they benefit. When I first learn Esperanto, all the books published in the language were full of enlightened thoughts, which changed my whole life.

Language is a complicated issue rather than a simple technical one like riding a bicycle. English, as the commonly used international language, has many variations in different countries in terms of usage, pronunciation and idioms, which can easily cause inconvenience for communication. Many contradictions between nations and many aviation disasters have happened due to this misunderstanding. Esperanto is a language that has been scientifically designed with normative grammar to solve these problems.

You translated three of China's four masterpieces including The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Outlaws of the Marsh and Journey to the West? What difficulties did you have in translating them?

I personally love the stories in these three novels. Besides, they are written based on folklore and are the fruits of the wisdom of Chinese people. They are the representatives of Chinese culture.

It took me 18 years to translate them and I have encountered many difficulties.

First, getting to know the cultural and historical background in the books is a huge project. We all know that translation is not simply a language issue, but a cultural one. Translation is a transition from culture to culture rather than a simple transition from one language to another. Without thorough understanding of both cultures, you can hardly do the job. In your translation, you always need to explain meaning of some idioms in the original text. This is the biggest problem for the translation of these three books, as they were written in ancient Chinese. I still don't have answers to some of the questions I have about the books. For instance, there is a historical story quoted in Outlaws of the Marsh, but there is not a consensus among historians and scholars on why the author of the book quoted it and what the story tells about. I could only translate according to my understanding based on consultation with experts.

Second, it took me a lot of efforts to be loyal to the original text. For instance, there is a little poem at the beginning of each chapter of Outlaws of the Marsh, which doesn't have any practical meaning, but it belongs to a writing pattern of traditional Chinese literature. Whether I should translate it or just ignore it becomes a problem. I think we should respect the original text, including the content and the writing style. We can't just make random deletion. So I translated them in the end although it took me a lot of efforts to do so.

Finally, Esperanto is a young language with only 100 years' history, while Chinese is an old one with a history of thousands of years. How to use the young and modern Esperanto to express the charm and meaning of the ancient and old Chinese language has become another big difficulty for me.

What kind of suggestions do you have for young translators?

First, I am strongly against the random introduction of foreign words in translation, which causes confusion in the use of Chinese. For example, there must be some corresponding words in Chinese for the popularly used foreign words, such as "cool" in English. But, today's translators just randomly pick up the translation according to the pronunciation without even thinking about the problem. As translators, we should notice the hidden danger in this aspect and be more serious.

Second, translators should keep on learning things all the time. Like it or not, young translators should follow latest news and get to know technologies in all aspects all the time, as the world is changing quickly. I'm 88 years old and I am still doing so. I know my translation works can't be perfect anyway but I will try my best and I'm sure future generations will make improvements based on my job.

Third, a good translator should always be modest. You can't think of yourself as an expert or experienced one. Even the most famous translator will make the most basic mistakes. A responsible translator should make full efforts to make your translation more understandable.

Finally, today's cultural industry has put too much emphasis on economic interest, which isn't right. Young translators need to translate something that can stand the test of time and proves to be valuable. Don't be afraid that someone else has already done the job, as you can have your own understanding and creativity with the same work.

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