Lu Xun's Voice in Translation, I

Introductory Note by Jennifer Quist:

Like all legendary figures, Lu Xun has an epithet. He is known as “The Father of Modern Chinese Literature” for his part in sweeping transformations of culture and literature during the early twentieth century. He didn’t write in elegant aphorisms or gentle, symmetrical poetry full of snow and silence. Chinese literature spans thousands of miles, thousands of years between the Book of Songs and Kung Fu movie dialogue, whether the West reads a word of it or not. Lu Xun has no analogue in Western literary history, but he is sometimes digested as a Chinese Charles Dickens, writing in an old-fashioned style contemporary readers recognize but don’t use themselves, offering poignant, urgent social commentary in long complicated sentences, blending formal voices and the common speech of common people--children, fools, and madmen. I bring you two excerpts of Lu Xun’s writings, rendered in fairly close translations, which could certainly have been rewritten more elegantly. Take this not as an attempt to foreignize and exoticize the father of modern Chinese literature, but as my sense of what is distant, and what is not, between him and me. Take it as an attempt to share the sound of Lu Xun's voice—or at least what his voice sounds like to me—and as a step closer together.

The first excerpt comes from an autobiographical essay describing the false starts and disappointments of Lu Xun’s early career. The title of the piece is “Na Han” and it is usually translated as “A Call to Arms” though a more literal translation is simply “Shout,” which better suits this excerpt. Here, Lu Xun describes receiving a visit from an old friend after giving up writing to live as a recluse in a lonely house notorious for being the site of a suicide. It’s told in the first person.

I. Shout

by Lu Xun

[My friend] said, “I think, you could write something.”

I understood his meaning, he and some others had just launched a magazine New Youth, but at the time it seemed like not only did no one support it, no one opposed it either, and I thought, they are probably feeling lonesome, but I said:

“Imagine an iron house, completely without windows, without any means of breaking it down, with multitudes of people fast asleep inside, who, in not much time, will suffocate and die, however since they will perish in this stupor, they do not feel any of the sorrow of those about to die. All at once you shout, jolt awake the clearer-headed ones, force these unfortunate few to the agonizing brink of a death from which they cannot be pulled back—will you mistake this for having done them some good?” 

My friend answered. “But since a few are roused, you cannot decidedly say there is no hope of them destroying this iron house.”

So it is. In spite of my own firm convictions, we spoke of hope, and could not write it off, for it lies in the future, and I could not take my evidence that hope did not exist to disprove my friend’s declaration that it did, and from there I agreed to write [….]

After that, it could not be stopped.

Translation © 2018, Jennifer Quist

Edmonton writer Jennifer Quist is the author of three novels, all published by LLP. The most recent, The Apocalypse of Morgan Turner, appeared in March 2018. 

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