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 »  Articles Overview  »  Art of Translation and Interpreting  »  Translation Theory  »  Lu Xun: A Case Study in Foreignising Translation

Lu Xun: A Case Study in Foreignising Translation

By Hanyi Magnusson | Published  04/3/2007 | Translation Theory | Recommendation:
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Lu Xun: A Case Study in Foreignising Translation

“...At last he grows old and dies of old age in the lines of nothingness. He is not a fighter after all, and the nothingness is the victor. In such a place no tumult of fighting is heard, but there is peace....”
--Lu Xun, Such A Fighter (Yang,G. T&E, 1973: 128)

This essay aims to conduct a brief exploration on the quiet side of Lu Xun’s literary work—the progress of his translation style from domesticating to foreignising during early twentieth century. It also proposes a hypothetical link amongst such a progression, the translator’s political belief as well as a historical and cultural description of that period. This illustrates the possible cultural and political purpose a translation strategy is chosen to serve. This echoes with Venuti’s belief that “‘domesticating’ and ‘foreignising’ can only be defined by referring to the formation of cultural discourses in which the translation is produced”(Venuti, L. 1995: 38).

Lu Xun is regarded as the father of modern Chinese literature. He revolutionized the story writing style from Chinese classical language (guan hua) to vernacular language (bai hua) in order to let literature reach ordinary people. Lu Xun grew up with an educated gentry family background and received a traditional education before he went to Japan where he studied Japanese language and medicine. In 1906 he stopped medical study to devote himself entirely to writing. His decision to take up writing instead of becoming a doctor was primarily due to his encounter of a slides show about a Chinese man who was beheaded by Japanese troops for spying during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. The lack of spirit and numbness of the Chinese audience evoked him. In his “Preface to Na Han” he stated “the best way to effect a spiritual transformation--or so I thought at the time--would be through literature and art” (Lyell, W. Trans, 1990: 24). Such decisiveness shows Lu Xun’s revolutionary ability. His sensitivity as a Chinese towards his own country’s political, literal, cultural aspects determined his controversial approaches throughout his entire life.

Over the time, translation studies in China still poses a mysterious and possible amateur status. However, it earns its rights through long history of exploration by devoted Chinese translators and theorists. From six dynasties’ Buddhist monk-translator Zhi Qian’s “xin, da, ya”, Lin Shu’s “free translation or rewriting” and later Yan Fu’s restated of Zhi Qian’s three rules into “faithfulness, fluency and elegance” (Chan, L.T.H. Vol 14, No. 2 2001) until Lu Xun’s “stiff translation” or “yingyi” during early time of last century, and the recent discussion of domesticating and foreignising translation(Luo, X.M.), Chinese scholars have never stopped experimenting different strategies in literary translation. Straightforward translation (zhiyi) or literal translation, sense-for-sense translation (yiyi) and free translation (ziyouyi) were summarized by Chan as (Chan, op.cit., p.201):

straightforward translation /direct translation
Formal correspondence
word-to-word translation (zuziyi)
stiff translation (yingyi)(Lu Xun)

Sense-for-sense translation / Sense translation
Semantic correspondence
free translation (ziyouyi)
distorted translation (waiyi)(Lin Shu)

Lu Xun’s translation works amounted to about 200. In contrast to his achievement and recognition in the history of modern Chinese literature, his translation works generated little attention. Lu Xun was viewed by some later theorists as the pioneer of foreignisation method from his stiff translation in China. (He insisted “he would rather be faithful to the original than be fluent to the translation (nin xin er bu shun)” (Fan, S.Y. 1999). It is crucial, however, to revisit the paths and thoughts he experienced as a prominent writer who brought in foreign knowledge via translation to China. It is also important to point out that Lu Xun initially did not choose the foreignising over the domesticating method, rather it was “at least a combination of both methods” (Fang, op.cit.). Further, his later stubbornness on stiff translation (foreignising) had both political and cultural implications. As suggested by Schleiermacher: “translation strategies are situated in specific cultural formation where discourses are canonized or marginalized,” (Venuti, op.cit.,: 102).

Lu Xun’s translation works ranged from science fiction to novels and criticism. His translation style varied over the time. Researchers tend to focus on his preference for extreme literalism towards Russian literary works and Marxist literary critics. Yet, I think it is fair to review both his early translation work and his later ones to observe the changes.

Let us start with one of his earlier works to allocate his clear “domesticating” strategy. Example is chosen from a French author Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to The Moon in 97 hours 12 minutes,” which Lu Xun translated from its Japanese translation in 1903 (He is fluent in Japanese). Since my knowledge of French and Japanese is very limited, and Lu Xun chose to translate from second source language, it would be acceptable to compare his translation work to my translation from an English translation version (Mercier, L.& King, E.E. Trans. 1873) of the original to see the possible difference (given that we are both native Chinese).

In his preface, Lu Xun stated that he had altered the original 28 chapters of the novel into 14. He also used a combination of classical/formal language (guan hua) and vernacular language (bai hua) to achieve both readability and simplicity towards the readership (i.e. normal Chinese) (鲁迅全集 第十一卷).He did not mention “faithfulness.” What concerned him was how his readers would perceive this "new" fiction. His decision of "leave the reader in peace, as much as possible, and move the author towards him" (Venuti quote on Schleiermacher, op.cit., p.101) illustrated Lu Xun's initial belief of producing a fluent/transparent translation.

Lu Xun strictly chose to inherit the traditional style in classical Chinese novels to create new titles for each section. For example, his first section title was written as:

第一回 悲太平会员怀旧 破寥寂社长贻书

My back translation is:

Section One: Members moaned about the peace and chatted about old times.
The chief resigned from the post to break the loneliness.

In English version’s first two chapters’ titles were:

Chapter I. The Gun Club
Chapter II. President Barbicane’s Communication.

My Chinese translation is:


It is obvious through compare to the English back translations that Lu Xun gave a great deal of extra information in the title to the reader, the title almost served as a summary of the two chapters. He deliberately omitted words like “gun” and “Barbicane” in the title to minimize the ‘foreignness’ to target-culture. In order to make the title more Chinese, he even tried to echo the words in the title: 悲 (v. ‘moan’) echoes with 破 (v. ‘break’); 太平 (n. ‘peace’) with 寥寂 (n. ‘loneliness’); 会员 (n. ‘members’) with 社长 (n. ‘chief’); 怀旧 (v. phrase ‘chat about old times’) with 贻书 (v. phrase ‘resigned from the post’). He rewrites the titles of the novel to serve the only purpose of familiarizing his reader of the story environment.

Let’s continue with the first sentence from novel’s English version:

During the war of the Rebellion, a new and influential club was established in the city of Baltimore in the State of Maryland.

My Chinese translation is:


Lu Xun’s approach, however, was very different :


Without conducting back translation of this, one can tell that Lu Xun’s translation is at least four times longer than mine. Now let me try to back translate his Chinese translation:

Of those who have studied global geography and history, they should all know about a place called America. With regards to the War of the Rebellion in America, even to children, it is well known; and it shall always be remembered and shall never be forgotten. Let’s leave this aside and talk about during the War of the Rebellion, in the United States, there was a country named Maryland, its capital was Baltimore which was a famous place. Lots of people walked on the street and so many carriages strolled around like clouds. In the capital there was a club, the size of it was really grand. One can see the national flag flying high in front of the club and one will form a respect right away.

A simple introductory sentence was manipulated into a paragraph with a combination of background information, situation describing and introduction. Lu Xun added his own opinion and knowledge towards certain facts and events. He created an environment which involved the reader. Sometimes, he even faked some facts either due to his limited knowledge or purely to achieve the easiness of reading. Considering his written style, it is obvious he still followed the traditional way of Chinese storytelling by creating lots of situational information which did not exist in the source text. And it is obvious that he almost ‘forgot’ that he was translating from someone else’s work. He could be so involved that he would ‘rewrite’ the whole thing. Lefevere said “rewriting manipulates, and it is effective.”(Lefevere, A. 1992: 9) It seems Lu Xun recognized this power early. In the translation’s preface, Lu Xun stressed that the lack of scientific novels in China during that period (presumably early twentieth century) had caused the stupidity of the Chinese people. Because a good scientific novel can help the reader learn new knowledge unconsciously, therefore s/he would be able to challenge the traditional non-sense way of approach, revolutionize the way of thinking and achieve a pure material civilization. His idea was to use this new type (whether through translation or other form) of literature to smoothly introduce a revolution to the long sleeping China. To achieve such smoothness, he chose to domesticate his translation. Contrary to Venuti’s conclusion that Anglo-American cultural dominance has forced its translators choose domesticating translation strategy (Venuti, op.cit., p.1), Lu Xun was little influenced by culture dominance. Rather, his choice reflected the ideological status of himself as a modern literature of early twentieth century China, as Lefevere pointed out: “rewritings are inspired by ideological motivations” (Lefevere, op.cit., p.7). Though probably naive, Lu Xun believed by introducing science into imperial China, normal people would start to think and to explore themselves of the real world. He obviously believed the best way to bring such alien to them was to make it look as familiar to others as possible.

Whether or not this translation served its purpose and how much, I do not know. However, Lu Xun moved on. Since his encounter with Russian literature in the early 1920s, especially with works produced by ‘the fellow travellers’ of Revolution from early 1900s , communism and Marxism started to make impact on his ideology. His written works focused on those poor people from the very bottom of the society who struggling with their life. His choice of translation also switched to the similar area. He realized to truly wake up the sleeping majority by using literature, one must start to reflect the real life of those who suffered the most. He was not alone on this, the May-Fourth-Movement (1930s) supported and fought with him. However, we shall leave this aside and focus on his translation work during this period (1920s-1930s). Has his ideological change made any influence over his translation strategy and how significant was the impact? The example below is chosen from a short story collection named “The Harp”( 鲁迅全集 第十九卷 竖琴). In it, I chose Lu Xun’s translation of a Russian writer Evgeni Zamyatin’s (1884-1937) “The Cave”. The English translation of the same story is from an American writer Clarence Brown (Brown, C. 1993: 91).

Lu Xun wrote the title as:


Its back translation:

The Cave

Brown’s translation title:

The Cave

Notice Lu Xun left the title as mysterious as it intended, no further information was given to ease the reader compare to the previous example.

Let’s continue with him:


My back translation is:

Icy river, mammoths, waste land. I don’t know where it is, perhaps it is in someone’s house with rocks of the night’s, there are caves on those rocks. And don’t know who he is, playing a flute, sniffing his way out of the rocks of the night, meanwhile blows up white powdery snow.

To my astonishment, I was lost in Lu Xun’s words at first glance. The awkwardness derived from the twisted grammar and the meaning was distorted.

Brown’s English version starts:

Glaciers, mammoths, wastes. Black, nocturnal cliffs, vaguely like houses; in the cliffs—caves. And there is no telling what creature trumpets at night on the rocky path among the cliffs and, sniffing the path, raises clouds of powdered snow.

My Chinese translation is:


The pure length comparison shows Lu Xun’s translation and mine are similar.

The English versions contain almost exactly the same lexical units. Equivalence can also be located down to word level. However, in Lu Xun’s work, he did not even make any linguistic adaptation, let alone cultural integration. Opposite to his early method, Lu Xun deliberately chose to use ‘yingyi’, or stiff translation, to maintain the foreignness of the target text.

To what extent does Lu Xun’s translation illustrate such foreignness? From a cultural point of view, both “glacier” and “mammoths” are alien concepts for the target readership at that time due to limited travelling and scientific reading. A ‘domesticated’ translator probably would replace them by something familiar to Chinese such as ‘frozen lake’ and ‘dragon’. On linguistic level, the resistance (Venuti, op.cit., p.24) became much harder. Lu Xun refused to make any grammatical change to make the text more readable. The cohesion (Baker, M. 1992:180) at both lexical and grammatical level is very loose, sometimes even wrong. For example, in Chinese, if one uses a noun to modify another noun it creates a subordinate relationship with a reasonable dependence. Here, Lu Xun used three nouns: 人家 (‘renjia’ n. someone’s house), 夜 (‘ye’ n. night) and 岩石 (‘yanshi’ n. rocks) to modify one after another. It created a chaotic grammar, a reader would not be able to understand which belongs to which. It is grammatically wrong. Little reference or other cohesive devices can be located in these three short sentences. The loose cohesion directly influenced the coherence and implicature on a pragmatic level (ibid., p.218). Not one native Chinese could understand the text by reading it once. This certainly produced a strong resistancy in the target language culture because it challenged every angle of it as Venuti suggested “Foreignizing translation signifies the difference of the foreign text…by disrupting the cultural codes that prevail in the target language.” (Venuti, op.cit., p.20) Lu Xun reached almost full extent of ‘foreignising’ in this translation.

Why did Lu Xun switch translation strategy? There is no doubt that with his knowledge and ability of comprehending the language he could produce a fluent/transparent translation. My understanding of his change is directly related to his ideological status as well as the political environment he was in at that period. Although he had never physically involved in any kind of political movement, Lu Xun always wanted to use his pen as a fighting weapon. His encounter with Russian literature redirected his target audience as well as his smooth way of approaching. By addressing those who struggled at the bottom of the society, he found his literal work had effect. The same reason probably could be applied to his choice of translation works—they were almost all about normal poor people who lived a distressful life in Russia at that time. Lu Xun intended to maintain all those unsettled, bitter, angry, sad feelings from the original text, his way of achieving so was by being extreme faithful to the source texts. He entirely abandoned the method of domesticating, but registered every “linguistic and cultural difference of the foreign text” (ibid., p.20) and sent his readers abroad.

Meanwhile, the political conflicts were at heat during that period in China. Lu Xun represented those leftist or Maxist of the intellectuals while the opposite “right-wing” had a strong hold of prominent literature. Lu Xun's stiff translation was broadly criticized by the “right-wing” intellectuals. For example, Liang Shiqiu (1902-1987) thought “Lu Xun had followed the original text too closely and ended up with syntax much too convoluted to be understood; they are nothing more than ‘dead translation’ (siyi)” (Chan, op.cit., p.202). In the preface of “The Harp”, Lu Xun stated those Russian literary works he translated were far from those the real communism works, but they had already received unwelcome amongst Chinese intellectuals. “Some of them used ‘Art for Art’ as slogan, raised up Persian glasses, waved ‘pure Art’ stick to put down all such ‘Philistinism’; others were ‘purified’ by Anglo-American novels, once they heard such screaming and moaning from the lower classes, they would wave their white-gloved hands and shout loudly: get out of this place!” His choice of foreignising method therefore served a specific political purpose: a signal of bringing in new political and ideological belief. He stressed “Extreme faithfulness to the original was a way of ensuring that ‘true’ Marxist literary thought be presented to those who wanted the facts as they were.” (Chan, op.cit., p.203)

Venuti believes translation “to be called a cultural political practice, constructing or critiquing ideology-stamped identities for foreign cultures,” (Venuti, op.cit., p.19). Lu Xun ventured such practice to a great extent. From theoretical point, Lu Xun was not the pioneer in foreignising method. “Zhiyi” and “yiyi” was a debate started long before him. But he probably was the first one who managed to raise translation strategy from pure linguistic practice to cultural and political practice. What is interesting in Lu Xun’s case is that he used both domesticating and foreignising methods to achieve his ideological and political belief, only under different historical environment. This confirms Venuti’s view of “This does not mean that translation is forever banished to the realm of freedom or error, but that canons of accuracy are culturally specific and historically variable.” (ibid., p.37) Therefore, like Lu Xun, a translator as rewriter shall always see him/herself beyond the role defined by the environment s/he is in and ready to practice more than just producing a nice piece of translation.

BAKER, Mona. In Other Words: A Coursebook on Translation. London, Routledge, 1992.
BROWN, Clarence. The Portable Twentieth Century Russian Reader. New York, London, Victoria Australia, Toronto, Auckland, Penguin Books 1993.
LEFEVERE, André. Translation, Rewriting and the Manipulation of Literary Fame. London, Routledge, 1992.
LU Xun, Diary of a Madman and Other Stories. Translated by William Lyell. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 1990.
VENUTI, Lawrence. The Translator’s Invisibility A History of Translation. London and New York, Routledge, 1995.
Silent China Selected Writings of Lu Xun. Edited and translated by Gladys YANG, London, Oxford University Press, 1973.

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