This article originally appeared in the Yiddish Forverts.
Although you may never have heard the name Lin Shu, it should be featured in every book on literature history.
Shu, a self-taught scholar, originated from the region of Fujian in southwest China. An heir to the Qing Dynasty — the last to have reigned over the Chinese Empire — he was a painter, calligrapher, novelist, poet, essayist and translator.
In the late 19th century, he penned the first literary translations to adorn the shelves of Chinese libraries. Indeed, Chinese tradition had theretofore relied on commentaries of ancient Chinese texts — not imports. Hence, Lin Shu greatly contributed to making exotic authors and their works accessible to a large number of Chinese readers.
He first promoted writers from England, then France, the United States, Sweden and Germany, although he did not speak nor read any language other than his own. An assistant translator who knew the source language — at least in theory — would first read the texts to him, orally interpreting the written foreign words into Mandarin. According to his finest — and rather few — exegetes, Lin Shu would then rewrite the tale in classic Mandarin, as true to the original piece as possible. That is to say, he favored the story narrative over its melody, pace, and style. Lin Shu was blessed with an unusual skill in that he could read any language through the eyes of another person.
With the help of 19 successive assistants, he translated, or more accurately, rewrote close to 200 classics of western literature by Honoré de Balzac, William Shakespeare, Alexander Dumas and Alexander Dumas fils, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henrik Ibsen, Montesquieu, Victor Hugo, Anton Chekhov, and Pierre Loti, among others. Some of his adaptations even became bestsellers in early 20-century China, such as “The Lady of the Camellias,” renamed “The Legacy of the Parisian Lady of the Camellias.” More fascinating and mysterious still, 50 or so of his unpublished translations are said to stem from texts whose authors and source languages remain a mystery to this day. Masterpieces of which we know nothing are among these lost manuscripts.
Books often travel along forking paths to cross frontiers and appear in unpredictable places. The history of literature, and even of writing, abounds in such examples. Young Isaac Bashevis Singer, who translated Knut Hamsun, Romain Rolland, and Gabriele d’Annunzio into Yiddish, seemingly had no knowledge whatsoever of Norwegian, French, or Italian. He based his works on German translations found in pre-war Poland.
Similarly, Witold Gombrowicz — a Polish writer-in-exile in Argentina — rewrote his own novel, “Ferdydurke,” into Spanish with the help of Virgilio Piñera and Humberto Rodríguez Tomeu, two Cuban writers who had never heard a single word of Polish in their lives. He went on to translate this version into French with help from a professor at the Alliance Française in Buenos Aires.
In 1921, Lin Shu tried his hand at “Don Quixote” from an English translation dating back to 1885. His assistant, Chen Jialin, had attended university in England as part of his higher education and appeared competent enough to read the story to Lin Shu. But as it turned out, he interspersed his version of the tale with invented dialogue and shortened it by many chapters, including the book’s famed prologue; in total, 285 pages that formed the first part of Miguel de Cervantes’s masterpiece were missing — a fact somewhat reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “Pierre Menard” about the secret initiative of a writer who aspired to rewrite the first opus of Don Quixote.
“This Biography of the Crazed Knight” (or “The Life of the Bewitched Knight,” depending on the translation) was published in 1922 in Shanghai, stronghold of the Chinese book industry, then nicknamed the “Paris of the Orient” owing to its publishers, printers, and literary cafés. Lin Shu died of illness two years later; this partial Quixote was to be his last work of words.
It’s worth noting that “Don Quixote de La Mancha” recounts the tribulations of an old ailing man with a passion for novels about chivalry, and was purportedly translated from a text in Arabic that Cervantes astutely attributed to a Muslim historian. The fake-translator trick had been a much-used sleight of hand since the 14th century among authors of chivalrous literature, who often pretended to have translated their writings from Tuscan, Tartar, Florentine, Greek, Hungarian, and even unidentified languages. Literary modernity thus emerged in 1605 with a work that was supposedly a translation and whose main character was a reader of novels. The circle was skillfully complete.
However faithful its rendition may be, a translation as a rewriting never equals the original piece. As Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset said, it is at best a path toward it. Far from refuting this point, the amazing chivalric journey of the artful Lin Shu, assisted by his loyal Chen Jialin, bafflingly exemplifies it.
Translated by Susan Brown