The Importance of Translation Exemplified by the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature

by The bookworm on February 24, 2021 · Classics

The books that sinologists commonly refer to as the Four Great Classics of Chinese literature are: Dream of the Red Chamber, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin and Journey to the West. Their chronology spans from the Chinese Ming dynasty to the Qing Dynasty. The Water Margin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms is believed to have been compiled during the 14th-century, Journey to the West  during  the 16th-century, and  the most recent,  Dream of the Red Chamber during the 18th-century.  These novels are among the most beloved works of literature in East Asia, with literary influence in the region similar to Shakespeare, The Canterbury Tales or Don Quixote of  European literature. Some of the originally circulated hand-copied manuscripts and early Chinese editions are on display in various museums and other institutions worldwide.


Translating these works into another language presented a major challenge to even to the most resourceful of translators. Chinese prose utilizing many levels of colloquial and literary language coupled with forms of classic poetry, complicated the process of rendering it into another language. It is no surprise that many of the translations available today took years of intensive, explorative research with multiple revisions and corrections. Many of the earlier attempts to translate were completed on a smaller scale with only a section or a set of chapters translated effectively. The stream of translations and literary studies in the West grew steadily during the 20th-century, resulting in multiple translations by numerous translators with significant content variations, as well as titles. Collectors of these later editions are attracted by the completeness and accuracy of the translations as well as the inclusion of supplementary materials such as maps, character lists and commentary useful to Western readers.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms, attributed to Luo Guanzhong, is China’s oldest novel and the first of a great tradition of historical fiction. Charles Henry Brewitt-Taylor produced a complete and faithful translation of the novel in two volumes in 1925 . Earlier translations performed in 1907, by John G. Steele and Z. Q. Parker contained a single chapter and four episodes respectively. Brewitt-Taylor’s translation lacked only the maps and character lists. After decades of work, Moss Roberts published a full translation in 1991, complete with an afterword, eleven maps, and a list of characters, titles, terms, and offices. Sinologists are in agreement that Roberts’  translation published by the University of California Press, supersedes Brewitt-Taylor’s translation and remains the definitive English version.

The Story of the Stone

Dream of the Red Chamber, composed by Cao Xueqin, also called The Story of the Stone or Hongloumeng, was circulated in manuscript copies with various titles prior to its print publication, in 1791. The first complete English translation published by David Hawkes and John Minford, took 7 years to complete. The novel was published in five volumes, the first three of which, are by Hawkes who translated the first eighty chapters while the last forty translated by John Minford are in volumes 4 and 5. The hardcover books were published by Indiana University all in dust-jackets, except the final volume. Readers of these wonderful translations compare the novel to modern fantastic literature, such as Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings.

Water Margin, also translated as Outlaws of the Marsh, Tale of the Marshes, and  All Men Are Brothers, was traditionally attributed to Shi Nai’an. Many scholars believe that the first 70 chapters were indeed written by Shi Nai’an; however the authorship of the final 30 chapters is often questioned. Pearl S. Buck was one of the first English translators of the 70-chapter version. The book titled All Men are Brothers was published in 1933, by both London’s  Methuen & Co. Ltd. and  New York’s  John Day. First editions, with dust-jackets are quite scarce. Buck’s translation, however, was criticized for its errors and inaccuracies, leaving the door open for improvements in later translations.  Sinologists consider Chinese-naturalized scholar Sidney Shapiro’s Outlaws of the Marsh (1980) to be one of the best.

Journey to the West, attributed to Wu Cheng’en, has been considered to be the most popular literary work in East Asia. It brings together a humorous satire in Chinese mythology with Confucianist, Taoist and Buddhist philosophy. For many years, the most well-known translation available in English was the abridged translation of Arthur Waley, Monkey: A Folk-Tale of China (1942).  His offering extends an abridged version for children, titled Dear Monkey. Scholars argue that Waley’s abridgement, while faithful to the original spirit of the work has misleading interpretations popularized through humor. In any event, the London: George Allen & Unwin first edition, with its wrap-around dust-jacket is very attractive to book collectors and quite scarce. Recently, a complete translation that includes the poems and songs which are considered to play an essential role in understanding the original meanings was produced by Anthony C. Yu.  This edition of Journey to the West (1977–1983), was published by the University of Chicago Press in four volumes. To locate a complete set in good condition is quite difficult.

Apart from the usual rare book factors of importance, scarcity, age, condition etc., these four great classical novels of Chinese literature, have imprint as the single most important factor affecting their demand. In the case of editions translated from the original into a different language, the quality of the content is primarily dependent on the completeness and the faithfulness that the translation renders in relation to the original text. It has become quite clear after researching these most beloved works of literature in East Asia, that the task of the translator is not a small undertaking given the complexities, variations in Chinese prose and dialect which span through the centuries.  The most complete translations were written within the last fifty years and thanks to academia the first editions are already rare.


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Montamat February 24, 2021 at 8:20 am

Les romans “Au bord de l’eau” ( et non pas la marge de l’eau), “ le rêve dans le pavillon rouge” et “ La pérégrination vers l’ ouest” bénéficient de remarquables traductions avec appareil critique dans la collection La Pléiade des éditions Gallimard. “Les trois royaumes” ont été traduits à la fin des années 80, début 90 par l’éditeur Flammarion. Hélas, le changement de traducteur en cours d’édition provoque une grande gêne au lecteur en raison de la translation des noms propres ( traduits en français chez l’un et pas chez l’autre). Il existe une édition postérieure que je ne connais pas. Pour autant que je le sache, les éditions antérieures sont partielles.
B. Montamat


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