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.”