Old Version

Words to Live By

In the 1980s, a single magazine run by translators gave millions of Chinese readers their first glimpses of world literature and led a generation of writers to embrace modernism

By Ni Wei Updated Nov.1

Li Wenjun rarely travels or goes online. He doesn’t own a mobile phone. It has been years since he stepped foot in a bookstore or library.  

“I’m behind the times. You might think I’m a bit of a letdown,” the 91-year-old translator told our reporter with a grin. Li and his wife Zhang Peifen live in an old apartment near Panjiayuan Flea Market in Beijing, where his daily highlight is a trip to the grocery market.  

Despite his simple life, Li is a giant in China’s literary world. Generations of Chinese readers grew up reading his translations of modern English-language classics including works by William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, JD Salinger, Carson McCullers and Alice Monroe. He is credited with introducing Franz Kafka to China.  

In the mid-20th century, Chinese had little access to foreign literature beyond Soviet authors. Following reform and openingup in 1978, a generation of translators, including Li Wenjun, Liu Mingjiu and Zhou Kexi introduced Western classics at lightning speed for hungry readers. In the 1980s, World Literature magazine played a significant role in ushering in a golden age of literature and arts in China.  

At its peak, the bi-monthly journal boasted a circulation of roughly 400,000, with each copy circulated among dozens of readers. Translators were doing noble work. Lu Xun, known as the father of Chinese modern literature, once likened them to Prometheus – lighting the fire for Chinese readers to see the world.  

Guise of Criticism 
“Finally done,” Li Wenjun said, slamming his pen on the desk with a long sigh.  

That was the night of February 9, 1998. After three years, Li had translated William Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom!, his fourth of the author’s novels. The process left him exhausted, and he swore there would not be a fifth.  

Li was drawn to the humanism in Faulkner’s works and his stylistic innovations. He usually picked the most challenging ones to translate.  

Absalom, Absalom! is Faulkner’s most recondite and stylistically complicated novel. Rich in labyrinthine structures and long, winding sentences that stretch over pages, Li could only translate one sentence a day. He would rework it the next.  

Shortly after he finished Absalom, Absalom!, Li had a heart attack. His near-death experience became an anecdote among translators. The complex novel nearly killed an excellent translator, literally. “It’s unfair to blame Faulkner for that,” Li said jokingly.  

Today there are other versions of The Sound and the Fury in Chinese, but no other translator has yet taken on Absalom, Absalom!.  

Since the 1980s, Li’s translations spurred a Faulkner frenzy. Many accomplished Chinese writers have since expressed deep admiration for this modernist master and how he influenced their own work. 

Inspired by Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha cycle, which is set in a fictitious county of the same name, Nobel-winning author Mo Yan weaved his literary hometown of Gaomi County into a series of works. Celebrated modernist writer Yu Hua credits Faulkner as “his only master.”  

Joining World Literature in 1953, Li was among the journal’s earliest editors and translators. He remained there 40 years, eventually serving as editor-in-chief.  

The magazine shut down for 13 years in the fallout of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and resumed publication in 1979. Its return issue featured Li’s translation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, introducing the work to millions on the Chinese mainland.  

The loneliness, alienation, absurdity and depression in Kafka’s 1915 novella went against the grain of China’s mainstream view that literature is a tool for propaganda and ideological instruction. The magazine ran Li’s translation along with a critical review that called it “a work of capitalism” to guarantee publication. 

But the tides were shifting. More literary works, such as Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, reached the shelves. Over time, authorities loosened their grip. “In fact, some cadres wanted to read these books as well. The times did change,” Li told NewsChina.  

New Era
Translator Yu Zhongxian read Li’s version of Metamorphosis while in college. Admitted to Peking University’s French literature department in 1977, Yu was among the first wave of students after universities reopened following the Cultural Revolution.  

Yu told NewsChina that curriculums focused on pre-20th century classics. Western modernist literature was deemed decadent and capitalist and should be condemned. Apart from Soviet literature, the only 20th century work that made reading lists was Li’s translation of Metamorphosis, for critical purposes.  

But Yu felt the ice was thawing. During his college years, more modernist writers reached China, including James Joyce, William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, mostly through World Literature. Existentialist writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus were the first French modernist writers to make it to China in the late 1970s.  

Sartre particularly resonated with young Chinese, thanks in part to Liu Mingjiu, a scholar and translator of French literature at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Since the late 1970s, Liu had planned to edit a series of French modern philosophy and literature to help young Chinese “re-evaluate” Western thought and culture.  

He first set his sights on Sartre. He found support from authors Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Yourcenar at an academic conference he attended in Paris in 1981. That year, Liu published his groundbreaking book Studies on Sartre, in which he introduced Sartre’s existentialist philosophy and translated his writings, including The Flies and Nausea.  

After publication, the book was extremely popular among younger readers. Perhaps too popular. It drewire from conservative intellectuals and critics, and was banned in 1982.  

But Sartre’s work had already opened young minds. “College students at the time held various reading salons. We discussed Being and Nothingness line by line so earnestly, it was like were studying the Bible,” Gao Xing, current chief editor of World Literature, told NewsChina.  

Translators worked quickly to fill the void of Western literature in China. In the 1980s and the 1990s, Liu Mingjiu also edited The Collection of the 20th Century French Literature, a 70-volume series.  

“I believed in the 1990s no other country would import and absorb the culture of others to such a degree,” Liu told NewsChina.  

“People always said we were a generation that was delayed, wronged and sacrificed. But we were also a generation of talent, industry and idealism. Though our deeds were compromised by bad timing and our souls were tormented and scorched, when the spring wind came again, we came alive and prospered,” Liu said. 

Cover of the Chinese translation of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot by Yu Zhongxian

Cover of the Chinese translation of William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! by Li Wenjun

Issues of World Literature magazine from 1959

Light Still Shines 
Yu Zhongxian joined World Literature in 1993 after finishing his PhD in France. He focused his work on French writers who had not yet been translated into Chinese, such as Gerard de Nerval, Philippe Claudel and Bernard Giraudeau. He later worked on authors of the Nouveu Roman, or “New Novel,” an avant-garde literature movement that flourished in the mid-1950s and early 60s, including the works of Samuel Beckett, Claude Simon, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Milan Kundera.  

“Each generation of translators has their own mission,” Yu told NewsChina. “Liu Mingjiu’s generation sought to fill the gap. They translated almost all the Western literary classics, from the Renaissance to the 19th century.  

“As for younger translators like myself, our main goal was to translate more 20th century works, closely follow the contemporary classics of the 21th century, and dig up works previously overlooked, as well as those deemed so difficult no one dared to take them on,” Yu said.  

Gao Xing joined World Literature in the early 1980s at the height of China’s cultural renaissance. “The air was rich with idealism and optimism,” Gao said. “Every editor was an ardent lover of literature. There was a light shining in their hearts. If you also feel I have the heart of a poet, that comes from their impression on me.”  

In 2000, Gao was transferred to a post at the Chinese Embassy in Romania. He spent two years by the Black Sea, earning six times more than his wage at World Literature. Gao returned to the editorial desk, despite the Ministry of Foreign Affairs trying to persuade him to stay at his post. 

“Perhaps there are very few people in the world who have the courage to do what they really love to do. I’m willing to join the few,” Gao said.  

While World Literature now has a fraction of the influence it once had on youth, it remains a beacon for the country’s literary publications and fans of literature.  

It spotlights the newest trends and young writers. Many of the works it features are picked up by domestic publishers.  

Before young Irish writer Sally Rooney’s Normal People (2018) was adapted into a hit television series, World Literature had already translated her works.  

Last year, the magazine started a new column – “The Epidemic Site” – which features stories, essays and poems concerning the Covid-19 pandemic by writers around the globe.  

While prestigious, literary translation is not a moneymaker. “I always think their incomes do not reflect the true value of their efforts,” Gao said, naming translators such as Li, Gao Mang and Yan Tingfang. “I’d say the impact they’ve made is greater than hundreds of academic papers,” Gao said.  

Li played down the praise. “My translations pale compared to Faulkner’s originals,” he said.  

China recently witnessed the passing of noted translators such as Fu Weici, Wu Ningkun and Zheng Kelu. “Lots of my old fellows are gone. Perhaps I’m the oldest left,” Li said.  

The translator’s eyes lit up when he heard that a new version of The Sound and the Fury by an up-and-coming translator came out. “Is it good?” Li asked. “Every generation has their own language. I hope he did it better than me.”