Brief bio sketch

Lloyd Haft (1946- ) was born in Sheboygan, Wisconsin USA and lived as a boy in Wisconsin, Louisiana and Kansas. In 1968 he graduated from Harvard College and went to Leiden, The Netherlands for graduate study in Chinese (M. A. 1973, Ph. D. 1981). From 1973 to 2004 he taught Chinese language and literature, mostly poetry, at Leiden. His sinological publications include Pien Chih-lin: A Study in Modern Chinese Poetry (1983/2011; published in Chinese translation as 发现卞之琳: 一位西方学者的探索之旅 in 2010) and Zhou Mengdie’s Poetry of Consciousness (2006).

He has translated extensively into English from the Dutch of Herman Gorter and Willem Hussem, and from the Chinese of various poets including Lo Fu, Yang Lingye, Bian Zhilin and Zhou Mengdie.

Since the 1980s he has also been active as a poet writing in Dutch and English. He was awarded the Jan Campert Prize for his 1993 bilingual volume Atlantis and the Ida Gerhardt Prize for his 2003 Dutch free-verse readings of the Psalms (republished by Uitgeverij Vesuvius in 2011). His most recent book of poems (in Dutch) is Deze poelen, deze geest (2008). His newer poems are published (some republished) on this blog.

After early retirement in 2004, for a number of years Lloyd Haft spent much of his time in Taiwan with his wife Katie Su. In addition to writing and translating, his interests include Song-dynasty philosophy and taiji quan. He sings in the choir of a Roman Catholic church of the Eastern Rite in The Hague.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

If You’re Lucky, For a While You’ll Be Almost As Immortal As The Illustrious Deceased (or, Who Do We Translate For?) – Part One[1]

(Scraps from a Sinological Scrapbook 漢齋閒情異誌, fragment 5)

When the world-famous writer and translator Lin Yutang 林語堂 published his Chinese-English dictionary in 1972, he was 77 years old. He said he regarded this 1720-page work as the most important thing he had ever published. At the time – I was a young graduate student in Chinese – I was surprised that Lin, a bilingual novelist, essayist and translator whose works had been published in many languages, should say a dictionary was his most important work. True, in those days we were all anxiously awaiting the coming of a new dictionary of modern Chinese that might prove at least reasonably useful. But wasn’t a dictionary a mere reference book, a useful homely implement rather than the crowning glory of more than half a century of creative effort?
        In a certain sense, making a Chinese dictionary is always a ‘creative effort’: it is in itself a high kind of translation, since (in the words of the preface to the English Amoy Dictionary published by the Maryknoll Fathers in Taichung, Taiwan in 1995) ‘the whole style and character of Chinese thought and expression often is so different from its nearest English equivalent.’ It is not just the language, but the mentality behind the language, that needs to be ‘brought across.’ It is exactly in this respect that I have always found Lin Yutang’s dictionary uniquely useful. My own translations from Chinese would have been unthinkable without his dictionary. Lin’s detailed and – I’ll just say – loving treatment of the vocabulary yields simultaneous insights into language, culture and history. For example, on page 982 we read that janshiar (Lin’s spelling for 沾洽, on spelling see below) means literally ‘soaked,’ figuratively ‘soaked with learning,’ and in older literary language ‘immersed extensively with royal favors.’
        Aside from all the unusual words, or unusual meanings of ordinary words, Lin’s dictionary is often very helpful as to the ordinary meanings of ordinary words. His dictionary indicates in an uncomplicated and straightforward fashion that one of the meanings of the verb hui is ‘will.’ It is remarkable how many other Chinese dictionaries do not mention this meaning; lexicographers seem to have been hypnotized by the other meaning ‘may, might’, so that they seem perversely inclined to hear something tentative or subjunctive in this verb. But the sentence wo xiawu jiu hui qu 我下午就會去simply means ‘I’m going this afternoon,’ and certainly not ‘I might actually go this afternoon, at least if I’m not struck by a meteorite first.’
        But if I had to say what Lin Yutang’s ‘real’ masterpiece as a translator was...what would it be? A number of texts could be considered, each of which would have been the life work of a lesser translator. Lin’s translation of the Dao De Jing has perhaps been neglected because there are already so many other translations, rewritings, or imitations of this text, or because Lin did not publish it as a separate volume but as one section of a book in which he also translated extensive selections from Zhuangzi.
        My own favorite would be the text Lin calls Six Chapters of a Floating Life: in other words, Fusheng liuji 浮生六記 by the 18th- and 19th-century prose writer Shen Fu 沈復. The intrinsic charm of this autobiographical story (which, by Chinese standards, goes into much personal detail on the personal relationship between husband and wife), in combination with Lin’s memorably intimate-sounding choice of words, makes this a text that I love to re-read. Was Lin Yutang too much the traditional Chinese scholar to want to regard a private and personal document, a text which amused but did not deliberately edify, as his paramount translation? (As far as that goes, be advised: his preface to the Six Chapters definitely does give it a philosophical cast.) Maybe it was a question of proportions: the Six Chapters comprise no more than 80 pages.
       I think Lin Yutang valued his dictionary more than a ‘creative’ translation because of his age when he finished it. At 77, he was in a position to have a mercilessly realistic insight into the relativity of all our vaunted literary publications. Whether the physical collapse that he soon thereafter suffered was due, as his biographers claim, to hard work on the dictionary, or was just a sign of his approaching demise (he had less than four more years to live) – is unclear. But he must have reached an age or a perspective from which the important thing was not the exact fate of this or that thing that he had published in the past, but just that it should all keep going on - that he should be a contributor to the Great Ongoing. With his dictionary, he had helped enable a younger generation to carry on, to take further, a line of work into which he had poured his spirit and his love.
        He could not have known that his dictionary would soon be overshadowed by others which were felt to be more user-friendly, nor that within a few years the coming of computers and word-processors would make it impossible for even the most brilliant scholar to do again what he had done – to compile a whole dictionary using nothing but his own erudition and a room full of index cards. In that sense, Lin Yutang’s dictionary remains a unique creative achievement, whether or not its value for users is ‘permanent’ (I think it is).
        The ironical thing is that it was exactly what Lin perceived as the most individually creative aspects of his dictionary – that prevented it from being universally welcomed. Both for the sequential arrangement of the characters and for the alphabetic transcription in which he spelled their pronunciation, he used complicated systems which he himself had invented and which, to my knowledge, were never before or afterward used in any other book! We will never know how many potential buyers, browsing in the bookstore, were hopelessly discouraged by the sight of the table in the front of Lin’s dictionary, indicating what they would have to master in order to look up characters in it: a ‘Chinese alphabet’ comprising ten overall geometric forms with variants, thirty-three ‘letters’ in all – in addition to an all-new array of ‘fifty radicals’ in place of the 214 radicals used in traditional dictionaries.
        It was not the first time that a translator had proudly presented his Spiritual Progeny to the world only to find that the times were hopelessly against it. During the Second World War, John C. H. Wu 吳經熊, one of the most famous Chinese converts to Catholicism and translator, among other things, of what I think is a superb version of the Dao De Jing, made a full translation of the Book of Psalms into Classical Chinese (also known as ‘literary Chinese’ or wenyan 文言). He later stated that this thin volume was the most beautiful thing he had ever produced in Chinese. Within a couple of years, he had also gone on to do the whole New Testament in the same Classical Chinese idiom. For a while the Psalms version was a best-seller, but nowadays you will be hard put to find a second-hand (or tenth-hand) copy of either the Psalms or the New Testament in Wu’s version. The classical language into which he translated had still been a ‘prestige language,’ a sign of good education, when Wu was young, but during his lifetime it was studied less and less by the upcoming generation. By the end of the twentieth century, the accepted view was that ‘young readers nowadays’ could not be expected to understand the style and idiom of Wu’s versions dating from the 1940s. (Is this just another case of the patronizing underestimation of young people’s intelligence which is, I am afraid, almost epidemic among editors and publishers?) I wonder to what extent Wu was secretly disappointed by the eventual limbo into which his translations fell. I have heard native speakers say, very recently, that his New Testament is written in the most ‘Chinese-sounding Chinese’ of any Bible version they have seen – not surprisingly, if we compare it with the so-called Union Version, undoubtedly the most widely read, which is a perfect example of a text obviously written in ‘translationese,’ which managed to become well-established because of the overall prestige and cultural influence of the original. In any case, in the autobiography Wu published in 1951 (while his Psalms were still popular), he modestly stated that his only aim had been to get Chinese readers interested in the Holy Scriptures.[2]

(to be continued)

[1] A Dutch version of this article appeared as 'Als het lukt, ben je voorlopig bijna zo onsterfelijk als een dode, of: voor wie vertalen wij?' Het trage vuur nr. 24 (dec. 2003), pp. 68-73.
[2] For more on Wu’s Bible translations, see Lloyd Haft, 'Perspectives on John C. H. Wu's Translation of the New Testament,' in Chloe Starr (ed.), Reading Christian Scriptures in China, London/New York: T. and T. Clark, 2008, pp. 189-206; or
'De Dao als Logos in een Chinese vertaling van het Nieuwe Testament,' in Gerd van Riel en Bart Raymaekers (eds.), Taoisme, Een weg van oost naar west? Leuven: Universitaire Pers Leuven, 2008, pp. 73-91.