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 can’t remember why I ever tried to do this. But one evening in college I started explaining the plot of one of Jin Yong’s novels to my roommate Michael. Three hours later, I was finally finished, but I’m pretty sure Michael was just confused.
Jin Yong is the pen name of Louis Cha, O.B.E., a Hong Kong writer now in his 94th year, and the most popular Chinese-language fiction writer of all time, with over 300 million copies sold and many more millions of copies pirated. Most Chinese readers have read at least some of his works and certainly watched TV or film adaptations of them. I read all of his books growing up, some of them multiple times. And yet most non-Chinese readers have never heard of him.
This past week, almost heroically, a British publisher has brought out the first volume of the first English translation of one of his novels, Legends of the Condor Heroes. And they’re tagging Jin Yong as “the Chinese Tolkien.”
Oh please. Tolkien wrote one great fantasy epic, The Lord of the Rings, and it’s atrociously slow at times. The other books are only ancillary. (Come at me, bro.)
Jin Yong published 15 novels in as many years between 1955 and 1970, when he retired from fiction-writing. All of them are in the wuxia genre, sometimes described as “martial arts fantasy.” Two of the novels clock in at nearly one and a quarter million words each. Four others clock in at nearly one million words each. Three of those four form a trilogy — three inter-connected epics totaling nearly three million words published in twelve volumes. And Condor Heroes is the first of the trilogy. Each of the epics involves an incredibly intricate plot with a great many characters.
The manner in which he composed these books is also remarkable. Jin Yong began his career in print journalism. Hong Kong newspapers had a tradition of serializing fiction in its pages. He began working as a journalist by day and writing his novels by night for serialization in the same newspaper, as Dickens serialized his books. In 1959, he and a number of collaborators founded their own paper. Jin Yong wrote the daily editorial as well as the daily installment of fiction. His novels in their final forms were thus the accumulations of the daily serializations that sometimes continued nonstop for years. It was an astonishing creative process. Merely keeping all the characters straight over that kind of timeframe would have been too much for most of us.
And yet only now are we seeing his work being introduced to an English-language readership in any significant way. There is a good reason for this, the same reason that I called the British publisher heroic for even trying. Jin Yong’s novels are set in ancient China, most of them against specific historical backgrounds with which Chinese readers are already familiar but that escape most Western readers. Imagine reading a story set during the American Civil War when you’ve heard of neither the American Civil War nor Abraham Lincoln. The numerous characters that populate his fictional landscapes often have multiple names from titles to noms de guerre that can be meaningless in transliteration and silly or clunky in literal translation.
Finally, there are the fight scenes. These are martial arts novels, after all, and people fight. Jin Yong describes such scenes in great detail using a complex, highly metaphorical prose that can contain poetry, which in its unique way allows readers to picture the action. But this prose style defies translation. Certainly it has always seemed to me to be impossible to convey in a different language. And generations of translators have given up in despair. I couldn’t even summarize the plot of one the novels to my roommate Michael without confusing him.
Now a young British-Swedish translator steps up to the plate, and a British publisher is hoping that it will catch on like The Song of Ice and Fire. Like I said, heroic. I’m looking forward to seeing the results.
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."