‘The Aban­doned Cap­i­tal’

Great Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture re­quired to push past st lan­guage bar­ri­ers

Global Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Xiong Yuqing

In 1993, the heavy­weight con­tem­po­rary author Jia Pingwa pub­lished his first ur­ban life novel Fei Du ( The Aban­doned Cap­i­tal) telling a story of an in­tel­lec­tual’s life in the 1980s. The novel was soon banned for ex­plicit sex­ual con­tent and its “vul­gar style” but was re-re­leased 17 years later in 2009.

Now, Hu Zongfeng, a pro­fes­sor from North­west Univer­sity based in Xi’an, has re­cently fin­ished his first draft of a trans­la­tion with his English part­ner Robin Gil­bank and is con­tact­ing over­seas pub­lish­ers to pro­mote the book.

This is the sec­ond book of Jia Pingwa to be trans­lated into English and ex­pec­ta­tions for it in in­ter­na­tional lit­er­ary cir­cles are high. One rea­son is be­cause its French ver­sion has al­ready won a lit­er­a­ture prize.

The con­tro­ver­sial book

The story hap­pens in Xi’an, the cap­i­tal of Shaanxi Prov­ince, where Jia stayed for over 20 years since at­tend­ing col­lege there. The city is also re­ferred to by some as the Aban­doned Cap­i­tal, the same name as Jia’s novel. Xi’an was Mid­dle King­dom’s cap­i­tal be­fore 756, and was grad­u­ally ig­nored by the an­cient em­per­ors.

With its fa­mous ter­ra­cotta war­riors for­ever stand­ing at the ready, Xi’an is a rich cul­tural cen­ter with a deep his­tor­i­cal back­ground.

The book tells of a writer, Zhuang Zhi­die (trans­lated as But­ter­fly by Hu), who grad­u­ally loses him­self in his idle daily life and be­comes deca­dent in his cul­tural city dur­ing the 1980s when China was in the early process of ur­ban­iza­tion and mod­ern­iza­tion.

He keeps dif­fer­ent re­la­tion­ships with four women in­clud­ing his wife. The vivid de­scrip­tion of life among in­tel­lec­tu­als and the ex­plicit sex­ual con­tent at­tracts both praise and crit­i­cism. Some have la­beled it as the mod­ern ver­sion of Plum in the Golden Vase (or Jin Ping Mei), a porno­graphic novel from the Ming Dy­nasty (1368-1644).

Ac­cord­ing to the post­script, Jia wrote the book in his 40s, af­ter a se­ries of mis­er­able life ex­pe­ri­ences: He calls it “a work of mis­ery.”

“The Aban­doned Cap­i­tal is a pow­er­ful novel to tell the psy­chol­ogy of con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese peo­ple as the so­ci­ety ex­pe­ri­enced rapid de­vel­op­ment and the re­form,” said Hu, “even read­ing it to­day, we can still feel the novel is so pro­found and straight to the point. Though it was banned in the Chi­nese main­land, it grabs over­seas at­ten­tion.”

Jia was con­ferred with a medal grant­ing him the ti­tle of Knight of Arts and Lit­er­a­ture by the French Min­istry of Cul­ture and Com­mu­ni­ca­tion in 2003.

Trans­la­tion gap

The Aban­doned Cap­i­tal was trans­lated into many lan­guages, in­clud­ing Rus­sian, French, Ja­panese and Viet­namese, and its French ver­sion by Genevieve Im­bot-Bichet won the Prix Fem­ina Étranger, a French lit­er­a­ture prize, in 1997.

Be­fore the English trans­la­tion of The Aban­doned Cap­i­tal, only one ne novel by Jia had d been trans­lated into English. Fuzao, ti­tled Tur­bu­lence by Amer­i­can si­nol­o­gist Howard Goldblatt, won the Pe­ga­sus Prize for Lit­er­a­ture in Amer­ica in 1991.

Goldblatt said he once tried to trans­late an­other novel by Jia Pingwa called Qin Opera, but fi­nally gave up be­cause Jia used a lot of ob­scure di­alect and id­ioms of Shaanxi Prov­ince in the book, ac­cord­ing to a re­port on the Xi’an Evening News in 2008.

Hu also men­tioned about the dif­fi­cul­ties of trans­lat­ing Jia’s work into English, so he chose to co­op­er­ate with an English si­nol­o­gist Robin Gil­bank.

“If Robin can­not un­der­stand what I am try­ing to say, I will ex­plain to him and he fi­nally comes up with an idea of how to ex­press it in English. Some of the id­ioms are hard to un­der­stand for English read­ers, and we will take a note to ex­plain,” Hu told the Global Times by e-mail, “Jia Pingwa was also in­vited to dis­cuss the dif­fi­cul­ties in trans­la­tion with us, thanks to Mu Tao, ex­ec­u­tive deputy edi­tor of Mei Wen mag­a­zine.”

Jia asked Hu to re­tain ev­ery sin­gle sen­tence of the novel. Some ne­ti­zens ques­tioned the move say­ing that trans­la­tion is a recre­ation by the trans­la­tor, and too many re­quire­ments will make the trans­la­tion even harder.

When asked about this, Hu said, “I don’t think the re­quest by Jia lim­its me, and I be­lieve trans­la­tion should keep the orig­i­nal fla­vor of the Chi­nese novel.”

A lit­er­ary pr predica­ment

The d dif­fi­culty of trans­la­tion is al­ways a great bar­rier on the p path of pro­mot­ing dom do­mes­tic lit­er­a­ture to the world.

Chi­nese read­ers will ne never agree that coun­try lacks great writ­ers , but one has to ad­mit that on a world­wide scale the i im­pact of Chi­nese con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture is quite limited. Even though Mo Yan won the No­bel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture last year year, the wave of Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture go­ing over­seas did not re­ally reach the ex­pec­ta­tions of Chi­nese pub­lish­ers.

Hu said, when he vis­ited Amer­ica in 2003, he read The Reader’s Com­pan­ion to World Lit­er­a­ture pub­lished by New Amer­i­can in 2002. In this 800-page book, only five Chi­nese writ­ers (in­clud­ing for­eign Chi­nese) were men­tioned: Four of the five are an­cient philoso­phers, such as Con­fu­cius and Zhuang Zhou, while the only con­tem­po­rary writer, Gao Xingjian who won No­bel Prize in lit­er­a­ture in 2000, be­came a French cit­i­zen in 1997.

“I have read some ar­ti­cles by so-called ‘pop­u­lar Chi­nese writ­ers’ over­seas, who thought the only way to keep their mar­ket is by ex­pos­ing the dark side of China in or­der to cater to the for­eign read­ers’ taste for nov­elty. How­ever, I be­lieve things will change with the con­stant deep­en­ing of China’s open­ing up,” said Hu, “we have to know our own coun­try well if we want the Western peo­ple to know more about our mod­ern life.”

Pho­tos: CFP

Chi­nese author Jia Pingwa signs copies of his book Fei Du and oth­ers for read­ers at a univer­sity in Xi’an in 2009. Inset: Copies of Fei Du

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