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Comparative Literature Studies 40.1 (2003) 72-80

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French Literature and Asia in the Twentieth Century

A. Owen Aldridge

France-Asie: un siècle d'échanges littéraires. Ed. by Muriel Détrie. Paris: Librairie You Feng, 200l. 406 pp.

The investigation of relations between the occident and the orient has been a growing avenue of concentration in France during the last few decades, in large measure because of the efforts of Etiemble, to whom the present volume is dedicated, and to the more recent activities of Muriel Détrie, its editor. The twenty-seven articles of the collection represent a significant attempt to discover what has been published concerning literary contacts between France and Asia in translation and other genres, the public for whom these works have been intended, the reception they have encountered, the impact they have had upon literary creation as such, and the role of kindred forms of mediation. In collections of this nature in which encyclopedic range is combined with individual authorship, uniformity and completeness are impossible to obtain. A major difficulty apart from language differences is the circumstance that Asia possesses even less of a united political and cultural homogeneity or history than Europe. Consequently each linguistic, political and geographical segment must be treated separately. Although suffering from these handicaps, the present volume on the whole provides both a panoramic view and close analysis of the presence of French culture in the various literatures of Asia as well as the reverse process of the reception of Asian works in France.

The collection recognizes a hiatus between high and low or traditional and popular literatures, but considers both as appropriate subjects for investigation. An article by Cécile Sakai devoted to the rendering of Japanese popular literature, particularly historical and detective fiction, establishes [End Page 72] as objectives in translation, clarity, coherence and conformity to French idiom in contrast to fidelity and retention of nuance and sophistication as required for traditional works. When the two genres are mixed, the translation should seek maximum readability. A related article by Jean Sigée on translating traditional Japanese drama argues that many other features besides textual ones control actual stage production—aspects such as politics, scenery, costumes and technology. The examples given, however, illustrate merely textual differences, and these not particularly impressive.

English and French translations are joined in an analysis by the editor, Muriel Détrie, of the work of Pu Songling, originally rendered in English as Strange Stories from the Chinese Studio in 1880. Although this title would suggest popular origins, Détrie points out that the original was not written in the vernacular language of the time, but in the classic Chinese of the literati in the second half of the seventeenth century. Two main tendencies may be discerned in the early translations, an effort to make the text conform to the Western notion of a tale of magic and the supernatural together with an emphasis on superficial exotic traits associated with the Chinese background. These tendencies of Westernizing Chinese fiction are less apparent in more modern translations of monumental classics such as Le Rêve dans le pavillon rouge.

Annie Curien introduces the section on the reception of Asiatic literatures in France with a definition of "Chinese contemporary literature" as comprising essentially continental Chinese post-Maoism together with the literatures of Taiwan, Hong Kong and the works of Chinese authors living in Europe or America (56). After an intensive survey of the publishers and bookdealers in France specializing in Chinese materials, Curien suggests that conditions for the reception of Japanese works are far more salubrious than for Chinese. This may be because French periodicals are more geared toward the modern epoch than the contemporary. Elsewhere in the volume Pascale Montupet defines "contemporary" as "our times" as well as "the same times"; whereas "modern" is "new" and "benefiting from technical progress" (131). In keeping with this distinction, Curien observes that film has had a favorable influence on the reception of literature, further evidence of the good fortune of the Japanese (67). In conclusion, she applauds...


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