Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Monkeying Around

As I mentioned previously, my first Chinese novel reading project was 西遊記 Journey to the West (1592).  Attributed to 吳承恩 Wú Chéng'ēn, it is considered one of the four great classic novels of Chinese vernacular literature.  Serious Chinese literature was not to be written in Vernacular Chinese, or 白話 báihuà, which literally means clear speech, but in Classical Chinese, or 文言文 wényánwén.  Classical Chinese is to Vernacular Chinese what Classical Latin (e.g., what Virgil wrote in) was to Vulgar Latin, the ancestor of all the modern Romance languages like Spanish, French, and Italian.  That is to say, if you wanted to be taken seriously, you wrote in the Classical form, which was terse and dignified; if you wanted to reach the masses, you wrote in the Vernacular form, which was what the people spoke and could read—the literate people, at any rate.

Journey to the West is so famous, as a result, that there's almost no point in critically assessing it.  No critique takes place in a vacuum; it all relies on some aesthetic basis as a foundation.  In this case, though, Journey to the West is part of that foundation, so firmly that judging it is tantamount to judging Chinese literature as a whole.  I won't even bother.

It will suffice, instead, to give a general sense of the novel.  I don't have a firm handle on its character count, but it's probably in the neighborhood of half a million characters, which puts it firmly in the "lengthy epic" category.  It spans a hundred characters, and is a highly fictionalized account of the exploits of 唐玄奘 Táng Xuánzàng, known in Buddhist lore as Tripitaka, after the Buddhist scriptures that he went from China to India to gather.  In the novel, he is accompanied by three mythical creatures, the homely and sincere 沙悟淨 Shā Wùjìng, a river-dwelling sand demon; the avaricious 豬八戒 Zhū Bājiè, a pig-human; and the star of the show, the trickster hero 孫悟空 Sūn Wùkōng, the monkey king.  Though Tripitaka is the nominal main character, he appears in the novel as so ineffectual and so cowering that he needs his three attendants just to get through each day.  (The real Tripitaka was in contrast well educated, not flighty, and was of course not accompanied by three mythical creatures.)  Sun Wukong is so much the real main character that when Arthur Waley published in 1942 what for a long time was the only substantial English language translation of Journey, he called it simply Monkey.

In fact, Waley's translation covers only about a quarter to a third of the novel.  The first section of the novel, a sort of prologue that covers the background of Sun Wukong, is translated almost in full, but the rest of the novel, which is a long sequence of adventures of mostly supernatural character, is translated only selectively.

In some sense, this is justified, because the episodes (lasting a few chapters each) are self-contained and somewhat repetitive.  Nonetheless, the novel could stand to have a complete, unabridged translation, if only because of its historic place in Chinese literature.  Thus it was that Anthony Yu, born in Hong Kong and eventually to become a professor of Chinese literature (among other things) at the University of Chicago, made it his life project to produce the definitive translation of Journey.

Make no mistake about it; this is a monumental task.  The novel is mostly prose, but contains hundreds of poems in various forms, all of which were elided by Waley (because he was not really that well grounded in Chinese literature); Yu made sure to translate all of them faithfully, which mired him in all of the usual challenges involved in translation, plus the unique obstacles imposed by the brevity of classic Chinese poetry.  The novel is so long that Yu's translation is published in four volumes, each of which is rigorously researched and copiously annotated.  He also includes a lengthy introduction in which he discusses the publication history of the novel, and the specific textual issues he contended with while translating it.

Because this was my first really substantial reading project, I read both the original Chinese novel and Yu's translation on my tablet, with the original in the Pleco app, and the translation in the Kindle app.  I would go back and forth between the two, at first alternating almost sentence by sentence, and then, as I steadily became more proficient, a few sentences at a time, and finally paragraph by paragraph (they're long paragraphs) or even passage by passage.

It took me quite a while to get going, and at first, it took me perhaps a week or two (or three) to get through a single chapter.  By the end, with growing facility at reading Chinese and an increased familiarity with the characters and the flow of the story, I was able to get through a chapter every day or two.  In all, it took me about a year and a half to read through the entire book.

Wu's prose—assuming he really is the author—is puckish, but dated, a feel that I'm sure I have only a partial sense for.  He uses turns of phrase that are evidently out of step with current usage.  Some of that was apparent even to me, but other parts I could only detect because Pleco called them out as dated, or because I asked native speakers.  Still, enough of the playful nature comes through that I could feel it, if a little hesitantly.  I would liken it to Don Quijote (which I haven't read in the original Spanish, so I'm going by a translation).  Yu captures the cavalier style of writing quite well.  From time to time, there are a few stilted turns of English phrase, which I attribute to him not being quite a fully native English speaker, but these are truly few and don't really detract from the overall feel of the translation.  Of the four novels I read, this one probably has the best translation.

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