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Review of  Twentieth-Century Chinese Translation Theory

Reviewer: Ka-wai Yeung
Book Title: Twentieth-Century Chinese Translation Theory
Book Author: Leo Tak-hung Chan
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Translation
Issue Number: 15.3290

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Date: Mon, 22 Nov 2004 14:26:38 +0800
From: Ka-Wai Yeung
Subject: Twentieth-Century Chinese Translation Theory

AUTHOR: Chan, Leo Tak-hung
TITLE: Twentieth-Century Chinese Translation Theory
SUBTITLE: Modes, issues and debates
SERIES: Benjamins Translation Library 51
YEAR: 2004
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins

Ka-Wai Yeung, Department of Chinese, The University of Hong Kong


This book belongs to the Benjamins Translation Library Series and is the
first one published in the series on Chinese translation theories. Unlike
previous books written on Chinese translation theories, Chan attempts
to "devote exclusive attention to the ideas themselves" (Chan 2004).
Instead of listing the important theories merely in chronological order,
the book includes 38 articles translated into English and thematically-
grouped, complemented by a part reviewing the history of Chinese
translation theories.


The book is divided into two main parts. Part I includes four chapters
written by Chan. It serves as the introductory part reviewing the history
of Chinese translation theories in a nutshell. Part II comprises 38
articles originally written in Chinese through the course of the twentieth
century (1901 to 1998). The articles are translated into English and
grouped into eight sections, centered around eight key issues that engaged
the attention of translation theorists. Each section is prefaced by an
introductory essay establishing a context for concise expositions of the
articles. The foci of these sections are listed as follows: A) Responses
to Yan Fu; B) Spiritual resonance; C) Art vs. science; D) The language of
translation; E) Literal translation vs. sense-translation; F) The
untranslatability of poetry; G) Translation theory for China; and H)
Creativity and translation.

Part I includes four chapters written as a brief review to the history of
Chinese translation theories.

Chapter 1 begins with the traditional "impressionistic" approach
propounded in the early 20th century (before 1920s/30s). It reviews three
key ideas suggested by noted translation theorists including, Yan Fu's
(1854-1921) "three principles of translation: fidelity (xin), fluency (da)
and elegance (ya)"; Fu Lei's (1908-1966) "spiritual resonance (shensi)";
and Qian Zhongshu's (1910-1998) "realm of transformation (huajing)".

Chapter 2 narrates the "modern" theories in the 1920s and 30s, which
includes the confrontation between literalist and liberalist approaches
exemplified by Lu Xun (1881-1936) and Lin Shu (1852-1924) and some issues
to the introduction of modernity into China via translation.

Chapter 3 focuses on the "postcolonial" approach and discusses the issues
of "language purity" and "identity", such as "what language" a translation
should use or if there should be a translation theory for China.

Chapter 4 describes the impact of "new theories" in the end of the
century, and in particular, it urges the need of introducing
a "poststructuralist" Chinese translation theory like Yip (1994).

Part II groups 38 short translated articles into eight sections centered
around eight key issues.

Section A contains 4 articles, two wirtten in the early 20th century and
two at the end of the century. It focuses in Yan Fu's idea that triggered
heated debates in Chinese translation theories in the 20th century, and
demonstrates theorists' reactions towards Yan's "three principles",
especially the arguments about the feasibility of achieving fidelity in

Section B consists of 4 articles from the early- to mid- 20th century and
centers on the discussions that strives for "spiritual resonance",
suggested by Fu Lei.

Section C includes 5 articles, most of which were written in the mid-/late-
20th century. It examines the nature of the process of translation,
especially in the question whether translation belongs to the school of
art (i.e. the literary approach) or the school of science (i.e. the
linguistic approach).

Section D contains 5 articles, 3 of which are taken from the
correspondence between Lu Xun and Qu Qiubai (1899- 1935). It demonstrates
translators' concern of the "proper" language for translations, i.e.
whether translators should use the literary language (wenyan), or "invent"
a new Chinese language (e.g. an "absolute vernacular" or Europeanized
Chinese) in their translations.

Section E presents the arguments between literal translation and sense-
translation by 5 articles written in the 1930s, 4 of which are the
arguments and counter- arguments towards literal translation upheld by Lu
Xun, complemented by one article by Ai Siqi as the "reconciliation".

Section F examines the "untranslatability" of poetry by 4 articles, two of
which were written in the 1920s and two around the 1990s. Various methods
of poetry translations proposed by established poetry translators are

Section G consists of 5 articles in the recent decades concerning the
development of a translation theory for China. Whether a translation
theory for China or for the Chinese language should be the direction is

Section H explores the nature of translation from another aspect, i.e.
whether as a creative work or as the reiteration of the original, and 6
articles are included. While the three articles written in the 1920s/30s
centered their discussions around the role of authors and translators in
the famous analogy of "virgins vs. matchmakers", the other three articles
written in the 1990s focuses on the question, "how creative can a
translation be?"


The book is successful in outlining and demonstrating the central animated
debates in translation theories among Chinese translators and theorists
without being influenced by the historical/political backdrop as most past
attempts, which often merely list the important theories in chronological
order. The approach allows readers to grasp the ideas and their relevant
discussions more easily and makes the book an excellent reader to Chinese
translation theories. The organization reminds readers of "the translation
studies reader", edited by Venuti, which includes readings translated into
English (see Venuti 2004), only that Venuti (2004) arranges the readings
in a chronological order while Chan (2004) in a thematic way.

Chinese readers may find the chosen articles familiar as most of which can
be found in other collected essays in translation, such as Luo (1984) and
Liu (1998), written in Chinese. Under the thematic approach, the selection
and categorization of the articles is difficult as expected. Chan
(2004:xiv) also admits that certain articles could be allotted in
different sections. In general, the book has satisfactorily achieved its
primary aim to "show how each debate has evolved". Although readers may
expect more discussions of the linguistic approach to translation (only 3
articles in Section C marginally touches on the scientific nature of
translation process), the book has demonstrated a sensible selection of
articles at this stage.

For a reader of collected translated essays, one of the most frequently
found problem concerns consistency throughout the whole book. Generally,
Chan strives hard to maintain consistency in the translations of the
essays and the prefaced discussions. Yet, unavoidably, some terminology
used is found to be inconsistent in some articles, especially when the
essays were translated by many different translators (e.g. Lin
Yiliang's "empathy" (pp.122) vs. "sympathy" (pp.136)). While this kind of
terminological inconsistency may be acceptable, some faulty inconsistency
regarding the ideas themselves should be avoided. For example, regarding
Cheng Fangwu's methods of translating poetry, in the section preface, Chan
writes "(t)he EXPRESSIVE method is said to be 'SYNTHETIC and CENTRIFUGAL,'
[...] The COMPOSITIVE method, on the other hand, is 'ANALYTICAL and
CENTRIPETAL' in nature [...]" (pp.201; with my emphasis); while in the
essay itself, the translation states "EXPRESSIVE translation seeks to
release a core of mixed but unified feelings. Its function is thus
ANALYTICAL and CENTRIPETAL. On the contrary, 'COMPOSITIVE' translation
seeks to create a core of mixed but unified feelings from a body of
disparate materials. Its function is thus SYNTHETIC and CENTRIFUGAL."
(pp.210; with my emphasis). Other lapses like typos in hanyu pinyin,
e.g. "yi shu xhu hua" (pp.234), may also be occasionally found.
Fortunately, these mistakes are minor and not commonly found.

Qian Zhongshu suggested that translations should entice the readers to
yearn for the originals. I believe that a successful reader in translation
theories also serves the same function. Therefore, bibliographical
information of the original essays is important. Lamentably, full
bibliographical references are not provided in the book (only the years of
publication of the original articles are provided, probably for a
historical comparison purpose). It caused inconvenience for readers/
researchers who are interested in those articles to find the Chinese
originals. Some endnotes are found to be superfluous if no bibliographical
information is included, e.g. endnote 10 (pp.147) only recites the name of
the author, which has already been given in the text itself. If
referencing bibliography were included, this book would no doubt become a
laudatory reader to Chinese translation theories, which entices its
readers to read more about the topic.


Chan, Leo Tak-hung (2004) Twentieth-Century Chinese Translation Theory:
Modes, issues and debates. Amsterdam, Philadelphia: John Benjamins
Publishing Co.

Liu, Jingzhi, ed. (1998) Fanyi Lunji (Essays on translation). Taibei: Shu
lin chuban youxian gongsi.

Luo Xinzhang, ed. (1984) Fanyi Lunji (Essays on Translation). Beijing: The
Commercial Press.

Venuti, Lawrence, ed. (2004) The translation studies reader. New York,
London: Routledge.

Yip, Wai-lim. (1994) "Po Xindaya: Fanyi houqi de shengming" (Debunking
Xin, Da and Ya: The Afterlife of Translations). Chung-wai Literary Monthly
22.4: 74-84.


Ka-Wai Yeung is a doctoral candidate in the University of Hong Kong. Her
doctoral research attempts to apply linguistic theories into translation
practices with specific reference to Chinese-English and English-Chinese
translation. Her master thesis is a comparative linguistic study between
Chinese and English to the problems of syntactic categories. Her major
research interests include syntactic categories, pragmatics, comparative
linguistics and translation theories.