Interview: Julia Lovell

By Eric Abrahamsen, published

Julia Lovell very kindly consented to give us the following interview, on the occasion of the Penguin Classics' publication of her translation of the complete fiction of Lu Xun.

Edit: Great minds think alike, or at least ask their questions of the same folk – Danwei has also posted an interview with Julia.

Lu Xun occupies a transitionary literary period between the classical writing of imperial China and what we consider modern Chinese today. How did you go about choosing an appropriate voice and register in English? What were some of the resources you turned to?

I suppose that when I started I was trying to recreate Lu Xun's own frame of reference. As is well known, he was a voracious reader of foreign literature. He once advised young writers to "read no Chinese books. Or as few as you can. But read more foreign books"; he even advocated something called "hard translation" that imported foreign syntax into the Chinese language through translation. So I thought that an obvious place to start might be some of the (particularly Eastern European) writers that he was keen on, and whose impact on his writing some scholars have studied: Gogol's "Diary of a Madman", for example. My own academic background is also very much in May-Fourth period writing - so I found it helpful to draw on knowledge of that era and of its ideas about the literature it was trying to create. A big part of the May Fourth vision of a new, modern literature was that it should intervene in life, that it should have an edge of political urgency to it - and that's strongly there in a lot of Lu Xun's fiction and essays.

But finally, and at the risk of sounding lazy, I think that Lu Xun does a lot of a translator's work for him/her. There's a tightly controlled fury bound up in his best, most powerful stories (I'm thinking particularly of pieces such as "Medicine", "Tomorrow", "Kong Yiji") that simply asks to be recreated in the target language. (Though I'm not saying I've succeeded at that.)

There is some debate about the value of Lu Xun's fiction as social commentary, versus its value as works of literature. What is your opinion on this? Stories like "The Real Story of Ah-Q" or "Diary of a Madman" are well known for their allegorical significance; would you recommend one or two other stories from the collection, perhaps lesser-known, that you feel are particularly powerful as literary creations?

I think there’s enough of the universal about Lu Xun to permit him to be read without a historical, political eye (or at least with this eye only half-open): his fascination with the boorishness of the human crowd, his irony and black humour, his command of register and character. But I also think that historical and political influences on literature are not to be seen as a drawback – by contrast, they’re very normal in the works that we think of as making up much of, say, the European canon (Dickens, Tolstoy, George Elliot etc.). Canonical authors tend to be rooted in the particular before their themes and settings start to be acclaimed as universal.

I know they're very famous pieces, but I have a lot of respect for "Kong Yiji", "Medicine" and "Tomorrow". The first, because of its extraordinarily callous child narrator; the second because of its controlled, surreal start and manipulation of dialogue. The third - with the tragic bleakness of the mother and her dying son - managed to upset me every time I came back to work on it. It was always a great relief to move on from it, to something less brutal. But I'd also urge readers to look out for Lu Xun's gentler, more lyrical side: particularly in, say, "Village Opera", which is more a piece of essayistic nostalgia than a short story.

How much relevance do you believe Lu Xun has to modern China today?

I think that he's relevant in a couple of ways. First, I think you still see his strange brand of nationalism (a passionate attachment to, yet disgust with China) in the PRC. China today is supposedly to be fully resurgent - yet even its elites remain eager for foreign approval and acknowledgement. The whole run-up to the Olympics was a case in point, with Beijing bubbling over with shiny, confident new building projects, while waging mass education campaigns to eradicate bad habits like spitting that might disgust foreigners.

Secondly, Lu Xun left a complicated, contradictory legacy to Chinese literature: of cosmopolitanism and independence, but also of factional fractiousness and anxious patriotism. There are scholars in the West who, while acknowledging the power of Lu Xun's writing, draw a pretty direct link between his angry, quarrelsome behaviour in the Chinese literary scene of the 1920s and 1930s, and the vicious cultural politics of the Mao period.

A writer like Lu Xun was a fully paid-up member of the awkward squad - he couldn't have existed without the decent degree of critical freedom that he had and this legacy of intellectual independence is very important to modern Chinese letters. Although, as has been endlessly publicised in China, he turned leftward in the late 1920s, he was a pretty ambivalent fellow traveller to communism. When he died, he was rowing furiously with the Communist Party’s Shanghai apparatchiks. But even while he made his reputation as a professional polemicist and critic, he was clearly anxious - like many of his May Fourth contemporaries - about how to create a political role for literature. And this broader question of the links between Chinese politics and literature has remained very undecided since. You see it rearing its head through the Mao period, with the state's regular crackdowns on establishment writers (such as Ding Ling or Feng Xuefeng) asking for greater expressive freedom. And contemporary Chinese writers are definitely still trying to negotiate their position towards politics, and (in many cases, such as Yan Lianke's) to carve out an independent, critical space for literature. It was a problem for Lu Xun, and it's a problem now - it shows what a difficult, enduring question it has been for modern Chinese writing.

How did your relationship to the text change during the course of translation?

For one thing, as my husband will testify, I got grumpier and more bitter as I realised what a hard, time-consuming job it was going to be. But I was, of course, delighted to have the excuse to get to know Lu Xun's work so well. Because Lu Xun is so canonical to anyone who studies Chinese literature (his short stories, for example, were the first pieces of Chinese literature that I read in the original as an undergraduate), it's maybe easy to get a touch blase about him. Having to reread his stories - and especially his first two collections - reminded me of what a ferociously powerful writer he can be.

The collection makes use of a small number of explanatory footnotes – can you discuss this and any other issues that arose with regard to making the text accessible to a foreign readership?

I like to avoid using explanatory footnotes wherever possible in a translation, as I fear that they tend to make fiction seem more like a morally fibrous source of sociopolitical information, than a literary work. What I try to do instead (if it can be done in an unobtrusive way) is weave truly essential information into the main text as a quick gloss. (I did this, for example, in explaining the pun on Kong Yiji's name.) I think that if a piece of information is truly essential to a reader's understanding, then the reader wants it straightaway - they don't want to have to traipse to the back of the book, or even necessarily to the bottom of the page. Although such additions might seem occasionally jarring to someone who knows the original, I hope that for the majority of non-Sinophone readers, incorporating truly crucial information into the main text gets closer to recreating the native speaker's experience reading the original.

But in other places, I was very happy to use footnotes, or even the occasional introductory note to add information that might be useful or interesting - about, for example, the brief restoration of the emperor in 1917 that formed the backdrop to "A Passing Storm"; about warlord politics or late imperial hair-dos. The Penguin Classics format definitely encourages that kind of extra.

The text, of course, was littered with references and constructions that I found challenging to make accessible to a non-Chinese reader. The nightmarish locus classicus was the opening preface to "The Real Story of Ah-Q", with the narrator doing this long, mock-pompous dance down the many traditional genres of Chinese biography. After I'd torn out a certain amount of my hair, and returned from buying a wig to maintain a facade of normality in front of family, friends and colleagues, I decided to simplify the passage slightly, to avoid a killjoy welter of footnotes and explanations. (That passage is meant, at least, to be funny.) With about seven different biographical models, I thought the translated version probably kept enough of the original's elaborate facetiousness. My fundamental principle overall was, of course, fidelity to the original; but there was the odd place where I thought that absolute faithfulness would cost too much in fluency in English.


# 1.   

I hear that Ms. Lovell will be present at an event in Beijing today (Wednesday) to launch the book. Correct?

Could Paper-Republic:

  1. Give us the details (time/venue/event)
  2. Do so earlier for such neat happenings the next time?
    1. Bruce, November 11, 2009, 7:03a.m.

# 2.   

Great interview. I find that Lu Xun often gets passed over by both foreigners and Chinese alike, so it's great to see this interview.

John Pasden, November 11, 2009, 9:07a.m.

# 3.   

Really lovely interview. Such a treat to get the inside story from an experienced translator. Hope the book sells lots!

Nicky Harman, November 11, 2009, 3:18p.m.

# 4.   

Bruce: Almost correct. Tonight was the launch party for the translation, but Julia was not present (I think her teaching obligations kept her in the UK). It wasn't an open party, unfortunately…

Eric Abrahamsen, November 11, 2009, 4:01p.m.

# 5.   

Just want to say that Julia's translation reminds me everything that I read in Chinese, especially the village opera.

Joy, November 16, 2009, 4:22a.m.

# 6.   

I hope people in China will find my latest novel of interest –

In which Holmes displays his genius at criminalistics..

It’s 1907. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson encounter the terrifying Empress Dowager Cixi at the height of her power… Sherlock Holmes And The Nine-Dragon Sigil Sigil. Pronounced sijil. An inscribed or painted symbol or occult sign considered to have magical power Rumours abound that a deadly plot is hatching - not in the fog-ridden back-alleys of London's Limehouse district or the sinister Devon moors of the Hound of the Baskervilles but in faraway Peking. Holmes's task - discover whether such a plot exists and if so, foil it. Are the assassins targeting the young and progressive Ch'ing Emperor or his imperious aunt, the fearsome Empress Dowager Cixi? The murder of either could spark a civil war.
China's fate and the interests of Britain's Empire in the Orient could be at stake. Holmes and Watson take up the mission with their customary confidence – until they find they are no longer in the familiar landscapes of Edwardian England. Instead, they tumble into the Alice In Wonderland world of The Forbidden City. Website

Tim Symonds, February 2, 2017, 12:40p.m.


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