How to translate China's epic martial arts saga into English?

Li Shiyu China Plus Published: 2018-06-25 17:09:58
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Jin Yong might sound like an unassuming name to foreign audiences; yet according to The New Yorker, “in the Chinese speaking world,” the man has created "a cultural currency roughly equal to that of 'Harry Potter' and 'Star Wars' combined." 

Born in 1924 into a scholarly family from east China's Zhejiang Province, Jin Yong, whose birth name is Cha Liangyong, has always been an avid reader and a rebellious free spirited individual since an early age. In 1946, he joined Ta Kung Pao, a Shanghai news agency as a journalist, and moved to its Hong Kong based division two years later. In 1955, he published his first martial arts novel: The Book and the Sword. 

Some estimate Jin Yong's books have been sold over three million copies worldwide.[Photo:IC]

Some estimate Jin Yong's books have been sold over three million copies worldwide, making the martial arts novelist the best-selling Chinese author alive.[Photo:IC]

From the mid-1950s to early 70s, this legendary wuxia novelist has produced a total of 15 pieces, whose timelines stretch from the 6th century BC to the 18th century. Blurring the boundaries between fiction and real history, the writer has created an imaginary Jianghu, a marginalized part of society that follows its own code of conduct and reveres the power of martial arts. 

Considered one of China's most beloved and best-selling authors still alive, Jing Yong is now 94 years old and lives in seclusion. Meanwhile, his books continue to inspire numerous TV shows, movies, comic books, anime and video games. 

However, due to the complexity and ingeniousness of his writings, Jin Yong's novels have long been deemed as impossible to translate. 

A snapshot of the TV version of Jin Yong's debut novel, "The Book and the Sword."[Photo:IC]

A snapshot of the TV version of Jin Yong's debut novel, "The Book and the Sword."[Photo: IC]

This year, "A Hero Born," the first installment of his legendary series "Legends of the Condor Heroes," was released in English for the first time. This landmark publication also marks the first trade edition of any of Jin Yong's works in English. 

In this program, Shiyu talks with Anna Holmwood, a Chinese and Swedish into English literary translator to discuss Chinese martial arts fiction, as well as the universal appeal of Jin Yong's works in this genre. And as the translator of the Condor Heroes series, what drew her to this Chinese masterpiece? 

Translated by Anna Holmwood, "A Hero Born" is the first installment of Jin Yong's mega-hit, "Legends of the Condor Heroes."

Some highlights of the interview:

On what wuxia is as a literary genre

Wuxia fiction or martial arts fiction is often set in a historical setting. The genre has a lot in common with western historical romances, such like works of Walter Scott or the Arthurian legends. A big part of what martial arts fiction is about is the idea of fighting. Sometimes we have this very idealized picture of martial arts being some kind of peaceful acts about defense and the purity of philosophy. But when you read martial arts fiction, there are a lot of people fighting for good or bad reasons. In the bigger picture of what martial arts fiction is, there is a moral universe of these stories. It's often about these heroes in the stories are fighting for good and justice. They always fight against bad fighters who maybe have less pure intentions and reasons for fighting and the heroes are always fighting, either for the honour of their schools of martial arts, or to save China from the foreign invasion. I would say that part of the interests in these stories is not just the fighting itself, but why the characters are fighting. I think although the setting and some of the details about these stories are obviously very Chinese, which are rooted in thousands of years of Chinese culture, but the emotional world in these stories is very universal and easy to understand for western reader, because it has a lot in common with our own romances and even a little bit of fantasy fictions. They share the same idea that as long as the character is doing good, then the fighting isn't a bad thing. 

On her first encounter with Jin Yong's fictions 

When I was learning Chinese, I met a lot of young Chinese students in the UK; and when I was in China, I also met some young people who told me about Jin Yong that he's their favourite writer. So I heard about him before I actually thought about reading him myself. Obviously Jin Yong is such an integral part of a lot of people's childhood. So it's just a matter of time for me to get to the point where I can read it myself. When I started, I was actually surprised. I thought that reading Jin Yong, for me as a foreigner who doesn't speak Chinese as a native speaker, it would be like reading a textbook, you know, I have to sit down with a dictionary and check out all the characters. But what I found was actually that I got very carried off in the story very quickly and I realized that I didn't need to understand every character. So I think it was the enjoyment and the fun to read that surprised me the most. Suddenly I realized that's why he's so popular. For me, it doesn't have to be like reading something like Shakespeare and be very serious. 

On May 18, 2017, two martial arts lovers dress up as disciples of the Quanzhen Sect from the novel "Legends of the Condor Heroes" in Wuyuan County of China's Jiangxi Province. [Photo:IC]

On May 18, 2017, two martial arts lovers dress up as disciples of the Quanzhen Sect from the novel "Legends of the Condor Heroes" in Wuyuan County of China's Jiangxi Province. [Photo: IC]

On what makes Jin Yong one of the most beloved martial arts novelists? 

I think there is a combination of factors. It has something to do with the history when he was writing and the fact that Jin Yong started to writing in the 1950s up to the 70s. During the period, people were hungry for stories and that was the time when televisions and films were first starting to develop. So Jin Yong was writing these action-filled stories in these newspapers, which I think can grab the imagination and attention of readers and compete with the alternatives of TV and films. In a way, he obviously was writing with a little bit of that idea in mind to make sure his stories are exciting. Jin Yong obviously also connects thing into the order and tradition of oral story teller who serialize very long stories. The classical Chinese novels are often huge stories with many episodes where you can keep going back if you have oral story teller come into the village. So maybe you miss one or two episodes, it’s OK, because you can come back and quickly catch up with the story and still feel excited. I think Jin Yong is very good at capturing that tradition of Chinese storytelling and putting a little modern spin on it for the modern age. So when he first started writing, I think he really created a new craze for martial arts fiction. Although martial arts fiction has a very long history, he kind of gave the genre a new life after the Second World War. His writing also resonates with readers, because he designed something generally Chinese and set in the Chinese past. 

On the popularity comparison between Jin Yong and Jane Austen

Jane Austen hasn't been popular continuously since she was writing. In fact, her books have gone ups and downs very much in terms of popularity in the west. There is something about Jane Austen’s writing that has been re-discovered until the elements of her stories fit the modern taste. I think with Jin Yong, he has been continuously popular. So I would say his status is higher than Jane Austen’s in the UK, because in the way, he has never dipped for sixty, seventy years till now. His writing has already entered into the collective imagination and his stories do not just belong to him. They belong to the whole of Chinese people and the diversity of Chinese culture. 

On the storyline of "Legend of the Condor Heroes"

The series starts in the year of 1200 or 1205. At that period, the Song Empire was already pushed further south and was attacked by the Jin Empire in the north, but there's also suggestion that people who run the Song Empire were corrupted and they were taking money to handle parts of the empire to the Jin. So the fundamental idea was that there were two very patriotic martial arts fighters. They were simple farmers but they had been training martial arts in secret and they were very outraged by the situation that the Song Empire was crumbling. They wanted to save China from the invasion from the north. These two young men have young wives who were pregnant. But in the very beginning of the story, disaster struck and the women ended up being taken out of the Chinese empire. So the two babies that were born to those two women grew up into very different circumstances. "Legend of the Condor Heroes" is about when these two babies grew up, their interactions and who was on the right side and who was on the wrong side.  

The photo shows a scene from the 2017 TV version of "Legends of the Condor Heroes." [Photo:IC]

The photo shows a scene from the 2017 TV version of "Legends of the Condor Heroes." [Photo: IC]

On why she chose to translate the Condor Heroes series among Jin Yong's 15 novels

Although westerners don't know much about the Song dynasty history (960-1279), they do know quite a bit about the Mongols. In western culture, I remember when I was studying history, we wrote and talked a lot about that in the same period of history in Europe, people were very scared of the Mongols and they saw them coming closer and closer. Although Jin Yong was writing from the Chinese perspective, he has a lot of sympathy for the Mongols, like Genghis Khan and his followers. He writes them as proper characters. They are not just like some shadow or caricature or something to be scared of. He goes into these characters and he shows the dynamics, instead of just some black and white story. But fundamentally, Jin Yong still writes from the Chinese perspective and you can feel that kind of fear and the context of the growing Mongol Empire. I think that's something emotionally that western people can connect with from our own history. That's one of the important factors. Another factor was that I asked a lot of my Chinese friends to choose their personal favourite and a lot of people said "Legend of the Condor Heroes."

On how she translated various martial arts movements 

It's difficult. Because you realize that a lot of what is happening is partly to do with your own imagination. The words are designed to give you a picture, not necessarily to give you really detailed specifics. So the challenge for me was trying to re-create the feeling, the picture in your mind, without worry too much about whether you translate specifically about some movements like where hands are and how they look. I was a little bit troubled by that at first. But then I realized that the best thing would be stick closely to how Jin Yong described and just try to make sure readers could pay attention to the pace. I don't want to over explain what is happening. I don't want to add my own extra interpretations or extra information to make it clear about what is happening in the fight which wasn't there in the original. I want to still leave the space for readers' imagination to picture the scene and also catch up with the pace. Because I think in Chinese when you read a fight scene, you get caught up in the action; you often go very fast through it and create the image in your head. So I thought, well, I don't want English readers to stop all the time and start feeling it's very heavy and difficult. I thought the best thing to do was to paying attention to make sure it can be read just fast in English and it feels light and exciting. That's where I took my energy. 

On whether this Chinese martial arts saga is going to strike a chord among non-Chinese readers

I kind of see this question like when we talk about adult and child. For example, I like reading stories to my son, who is two and half years old. There are a lot of books I can read with him where as an adult, when I am reading it, I can feel a lot of subtle things happening in the story; whereas for my son, maybe he gets much more simple pleasure from the story. But we can both have equal amount of pleasure from the same story even though we come from two different ways of understanding. In the way, I think readers of Jin Yong's writing in English maybe are a little bit like the child. They don't necessarily pick up all the references or see the layers of what is going on the same as Chinese readers would. But it doesn't mean they don't enjoy it or they don't get anything out of it. Maybe it actually gives them access so they can read more, build on that, increase their curiosity, and keep on building that knowledge to become a reader who has more sophisticated understanding of the elements of classical Chinese thinking.

If you want to hear their complete conversation, you can download the podcast from iTunes, by searching the key words: Ink&Quill. 

In this extended version, you will hear Anna Holmwood voice her opinions on why martial arts fiction has become successful on all kinds of medium, the difficulties she faced during the translation, her future projects, and much, much more. 

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