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Never the Twain . . . : Capturing Clemens an Impossible Task for Chinese Translator

August 13, 1986|LYNN SMITH

Strictly speaking, it is impossible to translate Mark Twain into Chinese, according to Xu Chengshi, who is attempting the impossible for the Chinese firm People's Literature Publishing House. "If I can render 70% of Mark Twain's favor, charm and humor, I will consider myself a successful translator," said Xu, who was asked to retranslate five volumes that lost all the spice in the earlier translation, Xu said. With the help of Stanford English professor Thomas Moser, Xu has finished his first volume, "Huckleberry Finn," a work Moser characterizes as "the funniest, most profound exploration of American culture and racial injustice." It is considered the most difficult Twain work to translate because it is written in Huck's 14-year-old voice, in a Missouri dialect of the 1800s.

At first Xu said he tried translating Huck's dialect into Chinese dialect. "The result was so disappointing," he said. "The characters became alive as if they were Chinese. It wouldn't do." Instead, he said, he used "diluted Chinese dialect" and standard Mandarin. As he worked, he wrote Moser lists of questions about vocabulary, pronunciation and culture. Xu learned, for instance, that when the slave Jim says to his daughter, "I lay I make you mine," mine means mind, and the sentence means, "I bet I'll make you listen to me," Moser said.

One particularly creative translation was when an embarrassed Huck, caught in trouble, says, "I woulda sold out for half price if there was a bidder." Xu thought of a comparable Chinese saying, "One would wish there was a big crack in the floor and one could crawl in." I thought it was terrific as an equivalent," Moser said.

"One time, he asked, 'How am I going to translate Jim saying, "Dog my cats if I. . . ." ' I said, '. . . I don't know,' " Moser said, laughing.

One reason Twain is so popular among the Chinese as well as the Soviets is that he so freely criticized American society, "racism, greed and imperialism," Xu said. In his own life, however, Twain chased after get-rich-quick schemes, bankrupting himself and his wife with poor investments, Xu said. "We should paint a true picture of Mark Twain. I want to write a long, general introduction giving a portrait of Mark Twain as he was."

Since the fall of the "Gang of Four," American literature has begun to be introduced to the Chinese public, Xu said. He has no fears that a tell-it-like-it-was portrait of Twain would be troublesome or even controversial, he said.

"Chinese people now like to be told the true facts, not one-half truth. They resent it. I have to say they are fed up with one-sided views for so long."

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