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UPDATED: November 22, 2013 NO. 47 NOVEMBER 21, 2013
Debating Translating
Young 'genius' Li Jihong talks shop
By Yu Yan

Today, conditions have changed greatly. Many problems can be solved with the help of online encyclopedias. When faced with rare questions, it only takes one or two days to receive an answer via email.

In the case of Walden, in which the writer mentioned more than 1,600 animal and plant names, Li holds that in previously translated versions, only familiar names such as horse, cattle and sheep were right, while others were almost all wrong.

Dozens of years ago, the sciences of zoology and botany were relatively immature in China, which meant it was next to impossible to understand related English terminology or find local equivalents.

In addition to mistakes, another problem faced when translating foreign classics pertains to fluency.

"Previous translators received education during a time when the Chinese language was still antiquated. According to modern standards, their language was weird. Accordingly, old Chinese versions of Pride and Prejudice, The Old Man and The Sea as well as The Great Gatsby all suffered the same problems," Li said.

Staying humble

"I just wanted to help Chinese readers truly understand some foreign classics," he said. "There are only eternal originals, not translations."

The young man said that the title of "genius translator" was a publicity stunt initiated by the publisher. "I guess they used this slogan because I am only 33 years old, but have already translated a number of works."

So far, Li has translated up to 30 types of books covering religion, philosophy, sociology, novels, prose and poetry.

The young translator started publishing newspaper articles during middle school. Then at college, he got an article into Sociological Studies, a core bi-monthly magazine run by the Institute of Sociology under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Before choosing to become a translator, he once worked as a journalist and then an editor at a publishing house. Since starting translation in 2004, he has quickly risen to fame.

"Despite my title, I regard myself as a craftsman. My goal is to continuously provide readers with more and more excellent translations," Li said.

A debate of standards

Li holds a different view on the generally agreed translation standards in China—"faithfulness, expressiveness, and elegance."

The above is attributed to Yan Fu (1854-1921) and has become a cherished guideline in Chinese academic circles. Yan was a Chinese scholar and translator, famous for introducing Western ideas, including Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection to China in the late 19th century.

"The standards of 'faithfulness, expressiveness, and elegance' were brought forward at a time when translation was not yet a mature academic pursuit. They are already out of date, especially in translating foreign literature," Li said.

As far as he sees it, translation of literature should keep pace with the time, and it should follow modern language use and reading habits.

"I think a good translator should be able to provide good work. It should be readable and conform to modern Chinese," he explained.

Secondly, a good work should be accurate in terms of meanings and style.

"Every writer has his or her own writing style. For instance, the American writers William Faulkner (1897-1962) and Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) used different techniques. However, when you read their works translated by Li Wenjun, they seem almost the same," Li Jihong said.

Besides criticism for previous standards, Li Jihong regards himself as picky when it comes to choosing projects.

Currently, it seems that most translators like to challenge themselves with difficult foreign classics. However, Li said the reason why he chose Walden was not because it was a difficult task.

"I choose books that embody the values I support," he said.

Li Jihong follows three additional standards. First of all, a work must be a classic, of course. Secondly, the content should interest Chinese readers. And thirdly, it should be a work he appreciates for aspects such as innocence (The Little Prince), courage (The Old Man and The Sea), and soberness (Walden).

Email us at: yuyan@bjreview.com

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