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.