- Translations of Emily Dickinson into Chinese, 1949–1983 (Part II)*
Following the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, work on the translation of Emily Dickinson was stalled. For the next thirty years in mainland China, Dickinson’s name almost disappeared. This absence was not accidental. Between 1949 and 1978, China was strictly controlled by variations of a dominant ideological line defined by the Communist Party. The entire circuit of literary production, from the selection of subject matter to the distribution of works, was manipulated by central or local government authorities. During the chaotic decade of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), translation and publication of foreign literature were almost completely prohibited. Thousands of great writers and translators who lived in mainland China were suppressed or persecuted and many world-famous writers such as Dickinson were neglected. Due to the tense relationship between the United States and the Communist government, any American literature unrelated to class struggle was strictly censored.
There was, however, a brief period with a relatively open environment for the introduction of American literature, after the breakdown of bilateral relations between the Soviet Union and China in 1957 but before the launch of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. This period saw the publication of nearly two hundred translated works of American literature, including books by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Walt Whitman. Considering that Thomas H. Johnson’s edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson was published in 1955 and Dickinson’s fame began to [End Page 92] solidify in her own country, the lack of attention to Dickinson during this decade is noteworthy.
A brief contrast of Dickinson’s reception with Whitman’s is illustrative. As early as 1919, Whitman earned the admiration of the most prominent poets in modern China, who were experiencing the revolutionary collapse of the Qing dynasty and civil war in the nascent Chinese republic. Since then, Whitman’s fame in China has been secure and his contribution to the development of modern Chinese poetry notable. Considered a democratic, revolutionary, and progressive poet voicing an advanced ideology, Whitman was also admired in the 1950s by academic authorities. In 1955, Chinese scholars celebrated the one hundredth anniversary of the first publication of Leaves of Grass, resulting in the publication of revised Chinese-language editions of Whitman’s poems, a biography, and many articles.
Although private reminiscences and interviews reveal admirers of Dickinson in this period, particularly among those scholars who were trained in the United States from the 1920s to the 1940s, such interest was bound to remain private. This pattern is vividly illustrated in the life of an outstanding translator, Zhao Luorui (1912-1998), who was well known for her translation of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land into Chinese in 1937, when she was a graduate student at Tsinghua University. Later Zhao married Chen Mengjia (1911-1966), a highly regarded poet and palaeographist. In 1944, the couple arrived in the United States, where Zhao studied American literature for her doctorate at the University of Chicago while Chen held appointments at Chicago and Harvard.1 Wanting to make good use of their learning to serve their country, Chen and Zhao returned to Beijing in 1947 and 1948 respectively. In 1957, under the Communist government’s harsh oppression of intellectuals, Chen was labelled a rightist but struggled to continue his scholarly work privately until he committed suicide to escape the inhumane humiliation of the Cultural Revolution. Zhao survived the deprivation of her academic freedom and the long-term political cataclysms but developed schizophrenia. After the Cultural Revolution, she returned to work on literary translation. In her late seventies, Zhao gained worldwide fame as a significant translator of Whitman. From interviews, we have only recently come to know that translating Whitman was an assignment given to her early in 1962 by what she termed the “committee” (the academic authorities)—an assignment that she could not refuse.2
In private, however, Zhao loved Dickinson’s works, probably for many years.3 While working on Whitman in her later years, she complained that she had no time to read Dickinson’s poetry. Hesitating to document her suffering, Zhao left...