Response to MCLC Review

On September 2, 2011, the Modern Chinese Literature Center published a review by Brian Bernards of Ragged Banner's English edition of Hu Fayun's novel. This is the translator's response.

My warmest thanks to Professor Brian Bernards for honoring Such Is This World@sars.come with a thoughtful review, and to Professors Denton and Berry for publishing it on MCLC.

Notwithstanding his gracious tone and his praise for Hu Fayun’s “incredibly empathetic and endearing portrait” of Ru Yan, Professor Bernards delivers adverse judgments about the politics of the novel and about the readability of my translation.

First, the politics. After noting that Mr. Hu was a sent-down youth in the Cultural Revolution and characterizing one strand of the plot as “often superfluous and occasionally directionless treatment of aspects of Cultural Revolution history,” Professor Bernards says: “with this his first major novel [he] appears to still be struggling to force a connection between residual resentments over the sufferings of the Maoist era and his outrage at the official muzzling and cooptation of Chinese intellectuals in the post-Tiananmen era.”

I disagree. Permit me to expound on this point, for it is the key to the novel. Far from “struggling to force a connection,” Ru Yan artfully sets forth an interpretation of history which traces a thread of continuity from the very start of the Revolution to the time of SARS. Most often, it is Teacher Wei who gives voice to this interpretation. Ruminating on Zhuangzi’s paradox of the stick (in Chapter 59), he reviews the history of the mass campaigns: an impulse to demonize and destroy has played itself out in factional conflict over and over again. In Chapter 42, he says the SARS cover-up has followed a policy he remembers was set (secretly) at the time of Liberation, and rests on the same corrupt doctrine of repressing “disorderly speech.” At his eightieth birthday party in Chapter 25, Teacher Wei tries to identify the root of the problem:

“From our youth, all we got in our education was romanticism, revolution, violence, anarchy, Communism. There wasn’t much rationality, there wasn’t much talk of rules, and there was no emphasis on the design of the system. Our spiritual resources were drawn from the French Revolution and the October Revolution. This was the spirit we were all steeped in, like those songs you and I were just singing: boundless enthusiasm without law or morality.”

In the insiders’ dialogue of Chapter 63, Liang Jinsheng tries to defend Ru Yan’s dissident streak as principled but Jiang Xiaoli, the epitome of the staunch Party member, will have none of it: “This is not about right and wrong; it’s about winning and losing.”

The continuity is organizational as well as philosophical: sceptical of Maozi’s optimism in the run-up to June 4, Damo had argued, “Much of the change […] has been merely superficial. All over China it’s still the same people in charge, both high and low.”

That the problem is not merely Leninism, however, emerges from Teacher Wei’s reflections on the Soviet Union. Pained that China never produced an artist with the moral stature of Shostakovich or Akhmatova, he laments, “But look at us . . . for life itself [we have] no reverence, but we’re obsequious to power.” To this question—why was China different?—I see only hints of an answer, such as when Teacher Wei says his generation failed to grasp “the profound influence which the authoritarian culture of feudalism would exert on our great revolution.”

Power unchecked, power that need not answer to reason, will do violence to the truth and it will do violence to human beings. The power ruling China is fundamentally unaccountable, and both forms of violence will continue — using new technologies — as long as it remains so. At the close of the penultimate chapter, Ru Yan learns online about the death of Li Su and “Once again, a violent pain racked Ru Yan. There was no detox by which this pain could be forced out of her system.” This moment of anguished clarity is the culmination of what began in Chapter 26 with her online explorations of history:

“Ru Yan was starting to feel uneasy about something. It was the same disquiet many had felt in 1966, in 1976, and in 1989, but in each case the feelings had quickly subsided. It was the same indignation her father had felt in 1937 and her mother in 1948, and in their case, too, the turmoil had been tamed.”

One can dispute Hu Fayun’s interpretation of history, but it merits argument instead of dismissal. And when Professor Bernards suggests the author’s views stem from “residual resentments,” I say the book shows otherwise, for the man’s as good as his writing (人如其文). The fictional antagonists — the people who, if I grasp his political ideas correctly, represent values which Hu Fayun deplores — are three-dimensional characters endowed with human dignity. For most of the tale, Liang Jinsheng is a genuinely likable man. Without question, Jiang Xiaoli earns her success. The reader is led to feel for Maozi and sympathize with his insecurities, not to despise him. There is a magnanimity in such writing; it is not characteristic of a resentful person who is trying to settle old scores with his pen. If the perspective is informed by Mr. Hu’s experience of the impact of irrational power, all the better. As Teacher Wei tells Maozi, “[W]hen personal feelings and personal experience have general significance, they can help you get past stumbling blocks and see into the depths of a situation.”

Second, the translation. Professor Bernards has three complaints: the translation of the text itself at times “paraphrases the literalness (rather than translating the literariness) of the Chinese,” the extensive endnotes can be “tedious and distracting,” and the book should have been retitled in English.

To substantiate the first two charges he gives a single example, from the scene in Chapter 11 where Damo visits Teacher Wei’s desolate one-room apartment.

One look brought to mind the saying, “home but four walls.”

Of this, Professor Bernards writes:

“For example, when Damo enters Teacher Wei’s humble abode, he thinks of the common saying, ‘home but four walls’ (47). This passage is followed by a reference to note #73, which not only explains that the expression means something akin to living in ‘miserable poverty,’ but also offers the reader a general introduction to the world of chengyu, or idiomatic four-character phrases (462). Just as one may easily get lost in the endless network of information available on the Internet, one might get lost in this translation, which for better or worse seems to desire to relay an entire world of ‘cultural insider’ information beyond the scope of Hu Fayun’s text, thus clouding its most insightful observations.”

Let us examine this carefully. Professor Bernards does not mention that:

  1. in this scene, Damo is a schoolboy
  2. the original explicitly calls the phrase a chengyu
  3. the endnote highlights the fact that learning chengyu is part of the school curriculum.

I preserved the density of the phrase in translation because this chengyu is not merely expressing the narrative but is a part of it. We are looking into the mind of a boy at the moment when a formula which he might have learned recently in school gets incarnated before his eyes. The same dynamic recurs often between these two characters. When the teenaged Damo catches sight of the August 1966 parade in which Teacher Wei is being humiliated, “Damo had beheld such scenes only in the movies, movies about the great revolutionary era of the 1920s; he had never dreamed you could see such things now, in the flesh.” A couple of years later, “From those visits [to Teacher Wei], Damo came to understand an aspect of the history of revolution about which movies, novels, and schoolbooks had never told him.” The author shows Wei Liwen teaching Damo not merely by what he says but by who and what he is; such formulaic learning as the boy has picked up elsewhere is transformed and given life in his encounters with the old man.

What most dismays me is that MCLC readers could infer that I translate Hu Fayun’s frequent chengyu with four words of one syllable and make his masterpiece sound like a full-length fortune cookie. My translation has faults, but this is not one of them.

As for the notes, well, readers can judge for themselves. They were made endnotes rather than footnotes to minimize distraction. I did not seek “to relay an entire world of ‘cultural insider’ information beyond the scope of Hu Fayun’s text.” I am myself a cultural outsider, and I publish books for other cultural outsiders. Drawn by the original’s literary merit, many of us outsiders are willing to make an effort to understand the unfamiliar world in which the story is embedded. Writing for The Complete Review, M.A. Orthofer (an erudite critic who knows a great deal about many things but is not a professional China expert) described the notes as “useful and extensive” and “particularly helpful.” Specialists sometimes underestimate the curiosity of non-specialists.

Finally, the title. No one likes my title, though it is at least better than the This is How it Goes @ which graced most press reports in 2007. A title can provide

  1. a euphonious and poetic tag
  2. a synthesis, a condensed handle to the themes of a large work.

The best titles do both. Hu Fayun’s title does the second; I’m not sure whether it does the first. Chinese often refer to this book simply as Ru Yan, which suggests the full title may sound a little rough to them, too. I don’t know whether the pun with “come” (which Mr. Hu explained in a personal communication) works in Chinese; I agree with my critics that it doesn’t work in English. And of course the pun on Ru Yan’s name is crucial and, as far as I can tell, untranslatable. I thought about writing a new title but felt that would put my synthesis on the cover of Hu Fayun’s book when he had already, after much thought, provided his own. This I was unwilling to do. The ideal would have been to recreate the same tissue of allusions in elegant English; I think Professor Bernards is right that I should have tried harder to find a way. Ars longa, vita brevis.

As for his suggestion that the book might have more appeal in an abridged form, a commercial house would probably have insisted on that. But, mindful of this work’s history of “abridgement” on the mainland, I chose to meet it on its own terms and seek readers who will do the same.