Translating Virginia Woolf
British Literature in China today
Chinese books we should read
How did you first become interested in the Bloomsbury group?
Several years ago, when I began to collect materials for a research project on ‘Virginia Woolf’s Translation and Reception in China’, I read work by other important members of the Bloomsbury group such as E.M. Forster, Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell, Vita Sackville-West and Julian Bell. I was impressed and intrigued by their open attitude to Chinese culture and their friendship with Chinese people. It seems to me that this very active, avant-garde circle benefited from oriental aesthetics, and has in turn influenced modern Chinese literature.
Are Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell well known in China?
As an important pioneer of the ‘stream of consciousness’ literary technique and the western feminist movement, Virginia Woolf is well known in China – particularly to the common reader she herself valued so much. Since Xu Zhimo, a distinguished poet of the ‘Crescent Moon’ School, introduced Woolf in 1928 to a Chinese literary circle, Chinese translations and studies of Woolf’s works have abounded. Many talented contemporary Chinese writers and scholars, especially women writers and scholars, admire Virginia Woolf and have been deeply influenced by her feminist thought (for example her idea of ‘androgyny’ in writing) and by her poetic ‘stream of consciousness’ writing style. Understanding for and further study of her talented sister Vanessa Bell, on the other hand, has so far been limited to a small academic circle.
What has your own interest in the pair been?
For me, Virginia Woolf is one of the spiritual leaders of the Bloomsbury Group, a pioneer of western feminist culture, an important essayist, a talented critic and a biographer. My doctoral dissertation and postdoctoral research programme focuses respectively on western feminist literary criticism and contemporary Chinese feminist literary criticism. Virginia Woolf is consequently a crucial of object of study. While I was working on my book ‘Virginia Woolf’s Translation and Reception in China”, I found out more about the literary relationships between Woolf and several important Chinese writers. When I read the letters from Woolf to the Chinese woman writer Ling Shuhua (who was called the ‘Chinese Mansfield’) and Ling’s novel Ancient Melodies – which was written with the encouragement and under the guidance of Woolf, and then published by the Hogarth Press with a preface by Vita Sackville-West – I was amazed. As I read further, I learned that Vanessa Bell not only had an important role to play in her sister’s spiritual life, but also greatly influenced Virginia’s modernist aesthetic. They were intimate sisters, talented artists, close conspirators against patriarchal pressures on women – and rivals. Their unusual lives and loves, their close and competitive sisterhood, also enchant me.
What books have you translated from English into Chinese?
I have already translated John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius (2002), Jane Gallop’s Thinking Through the Body (2005), Albert Manguel’s A Reading Diary (2006), and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic: Women Writers and the19TH Century Literary Imagination (2007)into English.
How are you finding translating Vanessa and Virginia compared to other translations you have done?
Each writer has a different language style. For me, the Chinese translations of Thinking Through the Body and The Madwoman in the Attic: Women Writers and the 19TH Century Literary Imagination were more difficult, because the sentences in both books are long and grammatically extremely complicated. So it really was a challenge for me to transmit what the authors said accurately into acceptable and logically clear Chinese. Stylistically, Updike’s novel is elegant and meditative. A Reading Diary shares Manguel’s witty and casual reading impressions and thoughts with readers, offering them a new contemporary perspective from which to understand the classics. It has a cordial, honest and simple style – and the sentences are not too long! This has been a welcomed translation in the Chinese reading circle. I’m now absorbed in the translation of Vanessa and Virginia. For me, the novel’s language style is one of calmness, gracefulness, simplicity and lyricism. It is a warm and marvelously readable book. Vanessa’s reminiscing of the past gives the novel a ‘mournful but not distressing; deeply felt but not sentimental’ aesthetic experience. I am trying to keep the original style of the novel with simple but vivid and beautiful Chinese. Some Chinese idioms have also been used here. I believe this novel will be popular with Chinese readers. There are a number of Chinese references and this will also help the enjoyment and appreciation of Chinese readers.
Can you give examples of some of the things that have been difficult for you in Vanessa and Virginia to translate into Chinese?
For me, the most difficult thing in translating the book is to accurately and vividly transmit the vision of Vanessa’s paintings. In the novel these have a symbolic function, and play an important role in creating atmosphere, conveying feelings and implying the fates of the characters. I think Susan did an excellent job of representing so many of Vanessa’s paintings in a verbal art form. Although the visual and verbal arts are sisters too, they use different media. Personally, I have to envision the scenes in my mind first, and then try my best to revision them to Chinese readers in accurate and elegant phrases. Since Chinese readers are not very familiar with Vanessa’s rather abstract painting style. As translator, I also have to read books such as Jane Dunn’s A Very Close Conspiracy: Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf, Diane Gillespie’s The Sisters’ Arts: The Writing and Painting of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, and Maggie Humm’s Modernist Women and Visual Cultures: Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Photography and Cinema. They are inspiring for my work.
What interest is there in China in British literature old and new?
Through the 20th century, Shakespeare has been the most important writer of British literature for Chinese readers. There are different and excellent Chinese versions of Shakespeare’s works. Students from both Chinese and English departments in China take British literature courses and read classical writers such as Chaucer, Milton, the Romantic poets, 18th century novelists like Walter Scott and Jane Austen, Victorian novelists, modernist and post-modernist writers. Many students in English or comparative literature write dissertations on Jane Austen, the Bronte Sisters, George Eliot, Dickens, Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, Conrad, Woolf, Forster, Doris Lessing. The works of Nobel Prize winners and Booker Prize winners are also very welcome in China. Detective and popular stories are widely read.
What ten books should British readers read in order to begin to become
acquainted with the richness of Chinese literature?
1. The Book of Odes: a collection of ancient Chinese folk songs
2. The Analects of Confucius: the recording of the disciples of Confucius on their tutor’s life and words
3. Historical Record: the most distinguished historical book written by Si Maqian in the Han Dynasty
4. Poems of the Tang Dynasty, which was prosperous both economically and culturally, and called the Dynasty of Poems. Sinologist Arthur David Waley translated many of the poems of this period into English. He made some of them gifts to members of the Bloomsbury group
5. Poems of the Song Dynasty, dramas in the Yuan Dynasty
6. The Dream of the Red Chamber: a romantic love story of a young couple and the tragic fates of four noble families. The number one ancient Chinese novel!
7. The Romance of Three Kingdoms: a novel, a wonderful war epic of Ancient China
8. Pilgrimage to the West: a novel, with echoes of Pilgrim’s Progress
9. Lu Xun’s novels and essays: Lu Xun is the most important writer in 20th century China
10. Qian Zhongshu’s novel Fortress Besieged: this wonderful satirical novel focuses on the weakness of Chinese intellectuals