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    Capturing Chinese — Lu Xun in Translation

    Lu Xun in Translation - Three Editions

    Lu Xun in Translation - Three Editions

    Three translations, one author.  Which one should you buy and which one is best?  This blog post is to help would-be buyers decide which translation of Lu Xun’s works is for them.
    Let’s begin with the first translation by Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi, a married couple who devoted most of their life to translating works of Chinese fiction.  Their translation, Selected Stories of Lu Hsun was published in 1960 by the Foreign Language Press in Beijing.   They translated many works during their lifetime including the epic (and thick) novel Dream of the Red Mansions 红楼梦. The second translation is by William A. Lyell entitled Diary of a Madman and Other Stories published by University of Hawai'i Press in 1990.  William A. Lyell was a professor at Stanford for 30 years teaching Chinese literature and language. January of 2010 marked the publication of the third translation and is written by British author Julia Lovell.  Her work is entitled The Real Story of Ah-Q and Other Tales of China: The Complete Fiction of Lu Xun and was published by Penguin Classics. This post might get long so I’ll begin with a short summary for those looking for just the highlights.

    Highlights of Lu Xun in Translation

    The Yangs’ work is best for those reading along with the Chinese.  Their translation is the most basic and some sentences can be followed along in English and Chinese.  However, they do neglect some of the historical references from Lu Xun’s works and their style cannot compare to the next two translations. Lyell’s work is a masterpiece in academic research as well as in translation.  His text is filled with footnotes highlighting the history, references to historical classics, and providing a whole new dimension to the text.  Classical Chinese can be especially difficult to translate, but he does so in beautiful prose.  For the academic buffs, Lyell’s translation is definitely the best.  His introduction is especially thorough. Lovell’s work is  a masterpiece of fiction.  She has beautiful style and I just want to curl up in a chair and enjoy the stories when reading her translation.  She has no footnotes (only limited end notes) and wraps the historical references into the story so that the reader is not interrupted.  For those just looking to enjoy Lu Xun in translation, get Lovell’s book.  Her work is the best.

    A Look Inside the Translation of Ah Q

    Now let’s take an in depth look at how each translator tackles some passages in Ah Q (阿Q正传) in order to get a feel for their style.  Here is a quote from Chapter 5 when Ah Q is fuming with anger and starts singing local opera. The Original Chinese
    Yang’s Translation
    So this time Ah Q's indignation was greater than usual, and going on his way, fuming, he suddenly raised his arm and sang: "I'll thrash you with a steel mace. . . . "* * A line from The Battle of Dragon and Tiger, an opera popular in Shaoshing.  It told how Chao Kuang-yin, the first emperor of the Sung Dynasty, fought with another general.
    Lyell’s Translation
    Ah Q suddenly raised a fist and belted out a line of local opera: “My mace of steel I grasp full tight / And with it I shall now thee smite!”38 38: A line from a local Shaoxing opera, Battle of the Dragon and Tiger Generals, which recreates an epic battle by Zhao Guangyin, founder of the Song Dynasty (960-1269).
    Lovell’s Translation
    Ah Q stormed of, waving his fist in the air and bursting spontaneously into song, reprising a line from one of his favorite operas, The Battle of the Dragon and Tiger: ‘I-I-I-I-I will thrash you with mace, yes, I will!’
    The first two translations both have detailed footnotes about what is The Battle of Dragon and Tiger.  Lovell, however, chooses to work the reference into the story. Let’s take another example from Chapter 8.  One of the characters in the story asks “the Fake Foreign Devil” to deliver a yellow-umbrella letter (黄伞格 的信) for him. The Original Chinese
    他写了一封“黄伞格” 的信,托假洋鬼子带上城…
    Yangs’ Translation
    “He had written an extremely formal letter, and asked the Imitation Foreign Devil to take it to town…”
    Lyell’s Translation
    “Instead, he wrote a yellow-umbrella letter and prevailed upon the Fake Foreign Devil to take it into town…”56 56: (a very detailed explanation of the history, look, and meaning of a yellow-umbrella letter and too much to include here)
    Lovell’s Translation
    “Instead he penned an obsequiously ornate formal letter, and charged the Fake Foreign Devil first with delivering it…”
    If you want to read about all the details of Lu Xun’s references, Lyell’s translations is the definitely the one.  However, Lovell’s work gives you the gist of the obscure references without halting the flow of the story.


    Lu Xun was a fan of woodblock prints and was an big advocate of their adoption in China.  Feng Zikai (丰子恺) produced a famous collection of woodblock prints that accompanied Lu Xun’s work is quite famous. Lyell’s version includes many illustrations in this style for Ah Q.  The other two translations do not include illustrations.

    Unfamiliar Chinese Games

    Lyell also does a good job of describing kid’s games and gambling games which are quite unfamiliar to Western readers.  For instance he has a graphic illustrating the game Pickaside (押牌宝) with a detailed footnote explaining how the game was played and how the game was rigged by the house.  The Yang and Lovell translations leave these details aside.


    Being a history buff myself and quite interested in all the ins and outs of Chinese culture, I prefer William Lyell’s translation and frequently check how he translates certain Chinese characters and phrases.  His footnotes have led more insight into the obscure references and definitely help when I am doing my research for the Capturing Chinese series. For those looking for a good read, pick up a copy of Lovell’s work.  Her translation is in superb style. The Yang translation was much needed when their work was first published in 1960.  However, now that Western readers have two other great translations, their work is not as valuable as it used to be.  Plus their translation only includes eighteen of Lu Xun’s stories while the other translations include all his fiction. Please, leave your own comments on what you think of these translation.

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