Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Master of Two Literary Worlds

Yang Xianyi (��益), a well-known translator of Chinese and English literary works died this morning. He was 94.

Born in Tianjin of a wealthy family where his father was head of the Bank of China there, Yang was educated at home by a tutor in the Chinese classics before he attended a missionary school in one of the city's foreign concessions. It was then that Yang fell in love with English literature, reading everything from Joseph Addison to Oscar Wilde, and even attempted to translate John Milton into Chinese verse.

His interest in Greek led him to study abroad in London, where he went to Merton College in Oxford. There he studied two years of classics followed by English literature. There he met his future wife, Gladys Tayler, the daughter of missionaries in China, at the Oxford China Society.

The couple returned to China in 1940 and got married in Chongqing and worked as teachers and translators. After the Japanese were defeated, they moved to Nanjing. And even though they were offered seats on a plane to Taiwan when Chiang Kai-shek was defeated in 1949, they didn't even think about leaving the mainland.

In 1952 the couple joined the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing, in charge of translating all the most important works of Chinese literature into English. While they were faithful to the original work, they managed to translate them into readable English. In the end they translated more than 60 titles, including Homer's The Odyssey, George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, The Dream of the Red Chamber, and selected works of Lu Xun.

However, they were persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, labeled as anti-Communist "foreign spies" for their connections with diplomats in the 1940s and were jailed for four years. But that was not all -- their son became mentally disturbed after being sent to a factory during the Cultural Revolution and later committed suicide.

But after Mao's death and the Gang of Four were jailed, the Chinese authorities apologized to the Yangs for their "unwarranted arrest" 10 years earlier. Yang became chief editor of Chinese Literature magazine and published more translations.

In the 1980s their apartment became an informal salon for Chinese writers and western journalists. However, after June 4, Yang became critical of the government, describing to the BBC that the government had become worse than past Chinese warlords or Japanese invaders.

His wife died in 1999. During his retirement, Yang penned the following couplet to sum up his life:

少时了了,大未必佳;中年昏昏,老而无耻

"The bright youngster may not become a genius: muddle-headed in middle age, he is shameless -- or toothless -- when old"

Over the years countless numbers of students have read the Yangs' translations, and thanks to them they have helped broaden China's view of the world through literature.


3 comments:

ks said...

may be a typographic error -the cultural revolution should be 1960's NOT 1940's.

ks said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Beijing Calling said...

If you read the sentence, they were accused of being foreign spies for their links with diplomats in the 1940s...