The Translator’s Mirror for the Romantic: Cao Xueqin's Dream and David Hawkes' Stone: In conversation with Dr Shengyu Fan

2nd August 2022

“If your native language is Chinese, your English will be immeasurably improved by reading Stone; if English, then the ability to read Dream in the original, aided by Fan and Hawkes, is the best possible reason for learning Chinese.” – Richard Rigby, Emeritus Professor, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific

It’s the first monograph about a systematic study of David Hawkes' monumental translation of The Story of the Stone. It’s also the first time rare primary source materials—such as manuscripts, typescripts, letters and notebooks—have been used to analyse Hawkes' translation of this Chinese classic.

On 17 August 2022, ANU will play host to the official book launch of The Translator’s Mirror for the Romantic: Cao Xueqin's Dream and David Hawkes' Stone. This book by CHL's Senior Lecturer and Deputy Director of Languages, Dr Shengyu Fan, uses precious primary sources to decipher a master translator’s art in Stone, a brilliant English translation of the most famous Chinese classic novel, Dream.

We spoke with Dr Fan recently about this milestone and achievement and learned more about his labour of love.

Tell us about the book you’ve just finished and why it is significant.

The Translator’s Mirror for the Romantic: Cao Xueqin’s Dream and David Hawkes’ Stone is the culmination of 20 years work for me. It is a book that uses precious primary sources to decipher the master translator’s art in The Story of the Stone (Stone for short), a brilliant English translation of the most famous Chinese classic novel Hongloumeng, or Red Chamber Dream (Dream for short).

This book demonstrates a bilingual close reading, which sheds light on both the original and its translation. By dividing the process of translation into reading, writing, and revising, and involving the various aspects of Sinological research, textual criticism, recreation, and literary allusions, this book ventures to emphasise the idea of translation as a dialogue between the original and the translated text, between the translator and his former self, and a learning process both for the translator and the reader of his translation.

Readers will be interested to see how a non-theoretical analysis could be used to evaluate this translation. I particularly chose not to involve any translation theories, for I want to explore what can be done out of the theory “box”.

Tell us about yourself and your journey at ANU CHL and as an academic in general.

My interest in Hongloumeng can be traced back to around 1987, when the TV series just came out, and I was still a middle school student. Of course, when I first read the novel it was not easy to understand, and sometimes I was not quite sure whether I was dreaming or the author was dreaming. But Hongloumeng is such a classic that it is almost inevitable for anyone who speaks, writes and uses Chinese to encounter it, being the best representative of our literature, embodiment of our culture, it is part of our DNA, and you don’t know when it will come back alive in your life, no matter what age you are, and no matter where you are. Sooner or later, you will pick it up and if you enjoy it, it will spark. I guess I am one of those lucky readers who happened to catch some of these sparks in both the original and its English translation.

I came to ANU in 2009. At that time, there was still a Faculty of Asian Studies. I came with an intention of finishing the project of editing the bilingual edition of Hongloumeng, and I thought I was going to return to China after my two-year contract. I was a very young Associate Professor at Fujian Normal University who just got his PhD from Beijing Normal University, and I was supposed to be playing a crucial role in strengthening our English Majors and Comparative Literature Program in the School of Foreign Languages. I thought a two-year experience of teaching and working in Australia would only add to my academic profile in China. As a matter of fact, I never taught Chinese before I came to ANU. But it turned out that my ANU students immediately enjoyed my style of teaching, and at the end of the very first year, about a dozen of my students invited me out for lunch, to celebrate my birthday!

I was trained as a language teacher, and I think that helped a lot when I was trying to explain things in my native language, although surely I went through a lot of difficulties. Students’ expectations, parents’ attitudes, and colleagues’ styles of cooperating are all very different from what I was familiar with.

I finally decided to stay in Australia, and my job was converted into ongoing. After more than a decade, I can say confidently that CHL is an ideal working environment, or I’ve fully grown into it! I received a lot of help from colleagues, friends, and our school directors, managers and the admin team. No matter what new ideas I came up with for my teaching or research, our School, College, and University have always been supportive. Over the years, I was lucky to receive two VC’s Teaching Enhancement Grants, one APIP grant, and one CIW Chinese Studies Grant to explore what I was planning to do in my translation and literature courses. I also won the VC Citation for Outstanding Contribution to Student Learning. Actually, teaching and research are two sides of the same coin; you can’t really separate them, can you?

What are the highlights for you with respect to this book and your work on it?

This is the very first book in the Anglophone world about David Hawkes’ brilliant English translation of the best Chinese classical novel, Hongloumeng. Hawkes’ translation, Stone, came out in 1973, and since then most of the academic books and articles in English quote Hawkes as if it were the original. It was really a bizarre phenomenon that no one bothered to write a book about how and why Hawkes’ translation was so successful. With Professor John Minford’s generous support and unwavering endorsement, I used a lot of the hitherto unpublished materials such as the correspondence between the two translators (Hawkes being Minford’s teacher and father-in-law), the typescripts of the second and third volumes, in order to narrate the story of how Stone came to be.

One of the most important concepts I brought forward in this book is “bilingual reading”. What I mean is that in order to truly understand what a translator is doing, reading BOTH the original AND the translation BACK AND FORTH is a crucial step. Sometimes you will be amazed at what you can discover. I guess I am following the steps of philologists when they emphasize the idea of “slow reading,” which Nietzsche described as “the art of goldsmith”.

Can you share any funny or interesting anecdotes/incidents that you find memorable as part of your time spent working on this translation?

Professor John Minford spent a lot of time reading meticulously over my final draft twice, both on screen and in print. Actually, the whole book is the fruit of conversation and correspondence, discussion and reflections of about 17 years, ever since we first met at the West Lake in Hangzhou in 2005. I quoted him almost on every page, and the whole book could almost be described as a collaboration between him and me.

He wrote a lovely preface for my book, for which I am extremely grateful. My literary editor Dr. Mary Kilcline Cody helped immensely as well, particularly with the literary allusions. All the examples analysed, citations quoted and the structure of the book of course were mine, but with regards to the presentation of the details, the nuance of different expressions, and the final touch, I received a lot of help from both John and Mary. Our shared laughter over some of David’s jokes enlightened the otherwise arduous process of preparing, revising and rewriting of this book.

My colleagues at CHL, Ruth and Shameem, also kindly read parts of my drafts and made very useful comments. Other colleagues such as Richard Rigby, Mark Gibeau, Carol Hayes, Louise Edwards, Ari Heinrich have all been very encouraging when I asked for their advice on this topic. Without CHL, CAP and ANU, this book is unimaginable.

Both my former colleague Duncan Campbell and Professor Haun Saussy from the University of Chicago wrote an amazingly lovely blurb for my book, which is both heartening and embarrassing at the same time.

What’s your favourite line or excerpt from the book and why?

滿紙荒唐言

一把辛酸淚

都雲作者癡

誰解其中味

David Hawkes’ translation reads:

Pages full of idle words, Penned with hot and bitter tears: All men call the author fool; None his secret message hears.

Isn’t that brilliant? Cao Xueqin has a secret message in Dream, and so does David Hawkes in Stone. I also have a secret message in Mirror. I quoted this poem at least three times in my book. It says what I want to say, and I believe what Hawkes wanted to say in Stone as well.

What are your future plans for this book and any other work/project?

Oh, I have a number of ideas that I am mulling over, which will form my research and teaching agendas. For example, I want to use this book as the textbook for my course “CHST3212: Reading Chinese Literature: Theory and Criticism”. Professor John Minford also said he would put it as compulsory reading if he were to teach Hongloumeng again.

I am working on an APIP-supported ePub project to showcase how bilingual reading could be used for an advanced level literature/translation course, which will use some of the materials and analysis in Mirror. I will also revisit my old plan of writing a book about the history of Hongloumeng being translated into English, but that will probably take at least another couple of years to think, draft and finish.

Anything else you’d like to share with your audience?

I want to tell the students in both my translation and literature courses: Go and read BOTH Cao Xueqin’s original AND David Hawkes and John Minford’s translation! Without any doubt at all, it is a gold mine, and you will find your efforts totally worth it. It will repay all your appreciation and concentration, tenacity and humility.

“’The past is never really past, it is always present.’ I am not sure whether I heard this sentence somewhere or not, but what I want to say is that the point of learning a foreign language is not to become a foreigner, you can’t do that even if you want to. The point of learning a foreign language is to better understand other people, and better understand ourselves. Language is our past, for it was spoken and used by numerous people before we were even born, but it is also always present, for we all bring something new to it. So is literature.” – Dr Shengyu Fan

Pierre Ryckmans once said, “You need to love your translation.” For Dr Fan, the same principle applies to teaching and research as well. You need to love your teaching, and you need to love your research.

To attend the book launch on 17 August 2022, which will be in hybrid mode, please register here.

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