Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I wrote about Jin Yong or Louis Cha earlier this year when the first installment of an English translation of one of his novels was published. Two weeks ago, Louis Cha died in Hong Kong at the age of 94.
As one commentator put it, the cultural cachet of Cha’s works in Asia is comparable to the combined impact of Star Wars and Harry Potter. His books sold perhaps 300 million copies worldwide during his lifetime, and that’s not counting the millions of bootleg copies that must have circulated during the same years — after all, his books were banned in Mainland China until 1984. Anywhere in the world where there are readers of the Chinese language, there are fans of Jin Yong, including just about everyone in my family.
And yet, his New York Times obituary is perfunctory. And the South China Morning Post, the paper of record of Hong Kong, carried an op-ed by one of his English translators on why he’s never been popular in the West.
The author himself often said that he would like to be more widely read in the West (readers in countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia have no trouble appreciating him). But it has simply never happened. And the thought of this saddened me last week.
Jin Yong’s books are steeped in Chinese history and culture. The language is semi-classical and uses allusions to medieval poetry even, or especially, in its extended action sequences. The plots are often intertwined with actual Chinese history, with fictional protagonists interacting with real historical figures and reacting to real historical events. This means that someone who is not substantially educated in all things in Chinese may simply not understand what is going on. Because history is the true religion of the Chinese, Chinese readers have no difficulty with this. But foreign readers are likely to be left confused.
And so am I — steeped in that history and culture, or at least a certain view of it.
When I was nine or ten years old (can’t be sure now), I cracked open my first Jin Yong novel, borrowed from my grandparents’ place when we visited them one weekend. Like hundreds of millions of readers before me, I devoured all 1,600 pages of it. Then the next time we visited grandma and grandpa, I picked up another book, and another, and another, until there was no more Jin Yong to read.
Like an addict going through withdrawal, I scoured my parents’ bookshelves for something to read next. I discovered a copy of the 14th-century novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the greatest works of Chinese literature ever and an antecedent to Jin Yong. I devoured that, too. Then it only made sense to continue reading the others of the “Four Astonishing Books”: Journey to the West, Heroes of the Marsh, and the crowning achievement of Chinese fiction, the 18th-century novel The Dream of the Red Chamber. I was eleven when I finished reading that.
The following year, my family moved to New Zealand. The most urgent task before me was now learning how to speak English. And it dawned on me soon enough that my new peers had no way of relating to much that I had learned or read before our move. Then I went on to have a Western education.
Or maybe they had some way to relate? Maybe if I could only translate these books for them, if I could only explain to them what they were all about? In due course, I became a reasonably competent translator and explainer of concepts from one culture into another. It was one reason my former law firm paid me — translation, both literal and cultural, was key when dealing with Chinese businesses and officials.
This blog, for that matter, is often an exercise in translation.
In time, it occurred to me that I had become a translation of myself. Did I still remember the formative texts of my childhood in their original form, or was I just as often remembering how I would translate them? Did I still live with the original texts, or was I mostly justifying them to the Western world in which I now lived?
Why couldn’t I be both? I would ask rhetorically. Why couldn’t I be fully Western and fully Eastern at the same time? Christianity asks you to believe that Christ was fully man and fully God. And as an article of faith I suppose I have to believe that I can be both occidental and oriental.
Which is why the thought that Jin Yong may be impossible to properly translate is dispiriting. If some of my formative texts are impossible to translate, doesn’t that make a part of me impossible to translate? And if I cannot translate myself to those I wish to understand me, doesn’t that make me impossible for them to understand?
And then I remember that, despite the deeply Chinese characters and plots and language, Jin Yong’s works are already substantially influenced by European fiction, especially Alexandre Dumas. The revenge storylines are inspired by The Count of Monte Cristo. The plot in The Book and the Sword about swapping out a future emperor with another child bears obvious resemblance to The Man in the Iron Mask, which, along with Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, may also be the source of the “evil twin” device.
Jin Yong is already a translation of sorts. So is all writing — every book is a translation of the platonic ideal of a book in the author’s mind that he or she wished to write.
And so perhaps I have always been. Even before I realized it. Even before I knew a second language and could translate anything.
And so perhaps we all are, all translations and copies and exegeses of what came before. And my transnational background merely highlights what is in the end a universal aspect of the human condition. A fact of life that needs no translation.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."