Translation has been an integral part of Western sinology since its very beginnings, and it continues so to this day. For it has been, and is, rarely possible for scholars in Europe or the United States to assume that their readers are familiar with the text(s) to which they refer. The early history of sinological translation in the West is well discussed in numerous articles and books.' So I will not go into details about this here, though some matters of sinological history will naturally arise. I wish primarily to offer some remarks about different kinds and purposes of translation, and how they advance or impede sinology both as a scholarly discipline and also as a passageway for a more general audience.
In what follows I shall focus my remarks mainly on the translation of premodern poetry (but especially medieval poetry), which received its first introduction to the West in the renderings of the Jesuit missionary, Joseph Henri Marie de Premare (1666-1736). Premare is best known for his Notitia linguae sinicae, the first Western-language book to distinguish clearly between classical and vernacular Chinese, providing over ten thousand illustrative examples and giving particular attention to the use of grammatical particles. The manuscript of this truly remarkable work was sent by Premare in 1728 to Etienne Fourmont (1683-1745), with the hope that Fourmont, a member of the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres who had taken an interest in Chinese but whom Premare had never met, would have it published in Paris. Fourmont, who had only a rudimentary knowledge of Chinese, made use of the book himself but did not publish it. In 1812 Jean-Pierre Abel Remusat (1788-1832), then preparing his doctoral thesis on Chinese medicine, found the manuscript in the Bibliotheque du Roi and made a copy which was of significant use to him and gratefully acknowledged in his later Elements de la grammaire chinoise. (2) But Premare was also--more interesting for our purposes here--the first Westerner to produce translations of Chinese poetry, with his versions of eight Shijing odes, as well as of the Yuan drama "Zhaoshi gu er da baochou" [phrase omitted] which were published in Jean-Baptiste Du Halde's 1736 Description de la Chine. (3)
More than a century later the first serious and extensive foray into the translation of medieval Chinese poetry was made by Marie-Jean-Leon Lecoq, better known as the Marquis d'Hervey-Saint-Denys, with the 1862 publication of his Poesies de I'epoque des Thang, a book still useful today although little known even among specialists in Tang poetry. This is a selection of ninety-four shi-poems, most of them from the eighth century, including twenty-four by Li Bo and twenty-two by Du Fu. Perhaps surprisingly, d'Hervey's selection of poems often goes beyond those found in the eighteenth-century anthology Tangshi sanbaishou [phrase omitted] which so heavily constrained French, German, and English translators from the late nineteenth through the late twentieth centuries. The marquis' translations are preceded by a lengthy ninety-nine-page essay on "L'art poetique et la prosodie chez les Chinois," by far the most thorough and knowledgeable discussion of traditional Chinese verse for its day and for many decades afterward. Eight years later, in 1870, d'Hervey published a translation of the "Li sao" [phrase omitted], the long central poem of the Chu ci [phrase omitted] anthology, a rendering that was in many ways a tour deforce. But thereafter he turned his attention largely to vernacular literature, as exemplified in his three volumes of translations (1885-92) from Feng Menglong's [phrase omitted] 1620 collection of short stories, Jingu qiguan [phrase omitted]. The marquis sought to explain and defend his translation practice pertaining to these stories in several statements contemporary with and following the publication of those three volumes. (4) Although these explanations do not specifically refer to the translation of classical poetry, one assumes that they are developments of the habits he adopted many years earlier in his poetry translations. Near the end of that long essay on Chinese poetry, he had said the following:
La traduction litterale est le plus souvent impossible en chinois. Certain caracteres expriment parfois, comme on l'a vu, tout un tableau qui ne peut etre rendu que par une periphrase. Certains caracteres exigent absolument une phrase tout entiere pour etre interpretes valablement. II faut lire un vers chinois, se penetrer de l'image ou de la pensee qu'il renferme, s'efforcer d'en saisir le trait principal et de lui conserver sa force ou sa couleur. La tache est pe'rilleuse; penible aussi, quand on apercoit des beautes reelles qu'aucun langage europeen ne saurait retenir. (5)
This profession of honest helplessness, when faced with the "true beauties" of Chinese verse, seems to have remained active in his later comments about translating vernacular fiction, where, despite his abilities and concerns as a sinologist, he identified his stated aim as to satisfy his European audience, even if this meant altering or paraphrasing the text in places. I have the highest admiration for d'Hervey's poetry translations of a century and a half ago, and it is a truism to note that literal translation is often not possible from classical Chinese, or from any other language. But I take issue with the idea that no European language is up to the task of retaining and conveying the full richness of Chinese verse--unless this is just a rhetorical commonplace. For, of course, no language can be a...