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Building Linguistic Bridges(2)

2014-08-11 16:28 Beijing Review Web Editor: Qian Ruisha

At her first glance soldiers would lose their town;

At her second a monarch would lose his crown.

How could the soldiers and monarch neglect their duty?

For town and crown are overshadowed by her beauty.

While the Chinese were willing to abandon a town and even an entire kingdom for a beauty, the ancient Greeks waged a bloody, protracted war with the Trojans after the latter stole away with Helen, considered the most beautiful of all women, from her husband, the Greek hero Menelaus, Xu said, referring to the Trojan War in Greek mythology.

"This inherent aggressiveness, which urged Westerners to fight for their interests and helped build strong empires, is starkly absent in Chinese culture," Xu said.

Championing innovation

Unlike most office workers, Xu's typical workday starts at around 9 p.m. and lasts until the wee hours of the morning, sometimes even through dawn. He enjoys physical activities such as biking and strolling.

Xu said that translation gives him a great sense of fulfillment and he is determined to persist in it despite his advancing age. As a rule, those who take a deep interest in their career are most likely to succeed.

Indeed, Xu has reason to take pride in how far he has gone in his beloved career. After reading his English translation of Selected Poems of Li Bai (1987), the late Chinese scholar Qian Zhongshu commented, "If Xu had lived in the same age as Li Bai, they would have become good friends." Li was one of the highest-achieving poets in the Tang Dynasty (618-907).

In 1994, British publishing company Penguin Books launched Xu's Songs of the Immortals—An Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry in Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia and several other countries, making him the first Chinese translator to have his works printed by the renowned publisher. In 2010, the Translators Association of China conferred on Xu the Lifetime Achievement Award in Translation.

But his approach to literary translation, expounded upon in a series of monographs on the subject, has been a matter of heated debate in academic communities. While Xu regards literary translation as an art that calls for re-creation and innovation, some academics prefer treating it as a science, producing a strict equivalent of the original. They believe that translators should write as if they are "wearing a straightjacket," restraining them from deviating from the original text. Critics have questioned Xu's use of Chinese idioms in translations, accusing him of resorting to clichés, or have fully rejected his liberal approach.

Still, Xu's works remain popular with publishers and readers alike. Yu Xiaoqun, President of Beijing-based Dolphin Books, a publisher of his works, said, "Xu is a translator with a distinctive style. He has broken many shackles that have long restricted translators. Though debates about his translation style continue, his works are well received overseas."

One of Xu's greatest achievements is spearheading the Chinese theory of literary translation, said Zhang Xiping, a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. In Xu's opinion, the "dynamic equivalence" advocated by Western translation theorists applies to adaptations between European languages, in which 90 percent of words are similar. That theory, Xu believes, may not work as well when it comes to Chinese, as more than 50 percent of Chinese words do not have equivalents in Western languages.

"The prime reason Xu has challenged Western theories is that he is, before all else, a translator—a master experienced in rendering Chinese into foreign languages and the other way around," Zhang said.

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