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  Literature and Artistic Development

The History of the Translation of Literature (Tzu-Yun Lai)

The translation of literature was inaugurated in the late Ching Dynasty. Prior to that time, translation had never been given much attention because China had long been the predominant power in the region. Although there were governmental institutes in charge of translation, they were mostly for the purpose of diplomacy and military affairs, hardly for the translation of literature. In addition, translators did not have a high social status and it was not common practice to give their names on texts. In general, translators were foreigners who studied the Chinese language in China and translated Chinese into their own language. The translation of foreign language texts into Chinese was rarely seen, with the exception of Buddhist texts or Buddhist literature. Although the translations of Buddhist texts had a profound influence on the development of Chinese plays, novels, and the language itself, it did not change the fundamental attitude towards the translation of literature in China.

Literary texts became a major material for translation for the first time in the late Ching Dynasty. The literature translated during this time had a massive impact on Chinese language and literature. Many Chinese modern literary forms, such as modern poetry, children’s literature, and plays, were initiated following the reading of translated works; in addition, some literary forms were transformed, for example, the omniscient viewpoint was replaced by that of the first person narrative in the novel.

It is difficult to review the history of translated literature in the past hundred years because of the following three problems:

1.    Hard-to-define stages of development: The translation of the La dame aux camélias in 1899 is usually taken as the starting point for translated literature, followed by periods that are divided in time by the May Fourth Movement, the relocation of the Republic of China in 1949, and the lifting of martial law in 1987. Nevertheless, it is not appropriate to discuss the works of all translators under such divisions as many translators have worked across different periods. For example, one translator may insist on using one single strategy throughout his/her life and he/she may never change to meet the demands of the mainstream trends of the particular period in which a certain piece of work was done.

2.    Second-hand translation: Many translations were not directly translated from the language in which the work was originally written. Translations done before the Second World War were mostly based on Japanese, English, German and Russian versions of works already translated from another language and those done after the War were mostly based on Japanese and English versions. The problem lies in the fact that many translators do not provide information on the language from which their works are translated.

3.    Incomplete publication information: Despite the limited contact between Mainland China and Taiwan, translations by Mainland China translators are published in Taiwan. However, due to the political situation, publication information such as the translator’s name and the year of publication of the first edition are not disclosed to the public.

Under such restrictions, this article draws the picture of the development of the translation of works of literature in the past hundred years in Mainland China and Taiwan from the perspectives of both time and topic as follows: (1) The late Ching dynasty (1899-1918), (2) New Literature Movement to the war against Japan (1919-1937), (3) Relentless dispute:  from “traditional Chinese vs. vernacular Chinese” to “faithful and transparent vs. beautiful and readable,” (4) translation in Taiwan during the Japanese occupation, (5) the period of martial law: re-publishing of previously translated works and the dominance of American literature, (6) the Chinese translations of Shakespeare, (7) the translation of Japanese literature, (8) the translation of children’s literature, (9) the import of translations from Mainland China, and (10) translations in dialect.

In Taiwan, academics did not have a high regard for translations in the past. In colleges, the departments of Chinese literature studies were not usually involved in translation, and, although translation courses were offered in the departments of foreign literature studies, it was rather an option as part of a language course than research-based. Not until the most recent twenty years has the situation improved, with some universities offering graduate programs in translation studies. In addition, more and more theories of translation and studies of the history of translation have appeared.

Looking back into the history, translated works were once the inspiration for writing and creation in many literary forms and genres and many writers devoted efforts to translation. However, although translation and creation have gradually parted from each other as time has gone by and the impact of translations on literature itself might have waned, translation has become an inseparable part of daily life today as picture books, children’s reading, animation, knowledge, news, entertainment, and literature rely deeply on translation. Taiwan once ranked number one in Chinese language assessment and led the publishing market in the global Chinese-speaking community, and translation will be the key if these advantages are to be continued. Therefore, the importance of translation should not be neglected.


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