This upcoming May marks the two-year anniversary of the death of Anthony C Yu, renowned scholar on comparative studies of literature and religion. Former Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, Yu is best remembered for his decade-long landmark translation of the Chinese novel Journey to the West (xiyouji). The novel tells the story of Xuan Zang, a Chinese monk who journeyed to India in search of the true Dharma. A seminal work of Chinese literature, the novel was considered untranslatable because of its great length (more than a hundred chapters) and loaded religious symbolism. Yu’s groundbreaking translation pushed the limits of inter-cultural dialogue by faithfully rendering a foundational text in the East for a Western readership.
Yu started his career as a scholar of Christianity and Western religion. On the ship across the Atlantic, Yu came across a news report of American Sinologist John Fairbank. Yu remembered asking himself, “If Americans can be so good at studying China, why can’t I be as good at studying the West?” It was not until late in his career, when he had already established himself as a leading expert on the traditional Western canon when China reemerged in his scholarly vision. He was well aware of the precariousness of his task. The Chinese literary tradition, famous for its symbolic obscurity, can be grossly simplified and even distorted through translation. And yet such dangers are accompanied by the exciting potential of dialogue. As Yu pointed out,
The point that should at all times be emphasized is not the equivalency of expression or that only a poet should translate poetry, just like a “plant must spring again from its seed,” as Shelley says eloquently, “or it will bear no flower.” My contention, rather, is that a literary translation is always a different flower, a progeny of cross-breeding. Because a translated text is always a tissue of similarity and difference, of cultural continuities and contrasts, of opaqueness and transparency.
“China in translation” need not be one hundred percent faithful to the original text. The process of translation is itself a transformative agent in comparative literary analysis—described as building bridges while celebrating differences. David Lattimore of Brown University praised Yu’s work as “one of the great ventures of our time in humanistic translation and publication.” In other words, Yu’s translation transcends cultural boundaries and speaks directly to the common human spirit. Yu was no stranger to human suffering. Born in Hong Kong in 1938, he fled to the mainland in 1941 with his family during the Sino-Japanese War. To distract him from the fear and danger of the conflict, Yu’s grandfather told him fantastical stories of a wise monk and his companions Monkey and Pig — retelling the classic Journey to the West. In his scholarly writing, Yu compared Xuan Zang’s pilgrimage to that of Dante and derived from both a universal thesis of seeking beauty and truth.
Yu described his academic career as one of “altered accents.” His experience is not uncommon among scholars of his generation who were in constant exile, first from Japanese invaders, then from political persecution. Ms. Kang-I Sun Chang, Yale professor of Chinese literature, has written a heart-wrenching autobiography entitled Journey Through the White Terror. Victim of Chiang Kai-shek’s communist witch hunt, Sun intentionally tried to forget Chinese after her arrival in the States. She eventually established her name as a pioneering scholar on female poets in late-imperial China. Her feminist critique, previously unheard of in the Sinophone world, has made her works widely known on both sides of the Pacific. Her rising fame in China is a prominent example of “the Sinology Frenzy” in recent years. People are eager to know what the developed world thinks of them, often through Chinese translations of English works on China. One of the greatest beneficiaries of this new trend is Yale Sinologist Jonathan Spence, who has become an icon of Western scholarship and widely revered by Chinese readers. Chinese identity in a global age is the combined effort of China and the West. The altered accents of Yu and Sun have miraculously developed into avenues of dialogue which once again speak to the human spirit of mutual understanding and coexistence.
In 2007, the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University, Institute of History and Philology of Academia Sinica in Taiwan and Center for Research on Ancient Chinese History at Peking University jointly launched The China Biographical Database (CBDM). The long-term goal of CBDB is to include all significant biographical material from China’s historical record and to make the contents available free of charge, without restriction, for academic use. As of April 2015, the database provides biographical information (name, date of birth and death, ancestral place, degrees, and offices held, kinship and social associations, etc.) for approximately 360,000 individuals. Consistent cooperation between Chinese and American scholars, unimaginable a decade ago, hints at a cosmopolitan outlook that will hopefully dissolve mutual misunderstandings. Pioneers like Anthony C Yu will always be remembered for their long-lasting efforts in fostering inter-cultural research as we now know it.
Wenbin Gao is a student at Yale University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.