- From None but Self Expect Applause
I am quite sure that translation does not make even the long list of chosen professions for the vainglorious. Mistakes mark out incompetence in any field, and with translation it is no different. The translator’s failure is frequently what makes his name (from St. Jerome’s horns on Moses, to the funny infelicities on signs: “For restrooms, go back toward your behind”). Successes are marked, conversely, by the fact that there should be no marks at all: the highest compliment is frequently [End Page 7] phrased in terms of how well one has obliterated any traces of oneself from the final product. The effectiveness of a translation is remarked on for its naturalness, so invisibly crafted that the reader feels that she is reading the original, as if by magic. If we can agree that, in general, the translator’s most urgent task is to be the servant to the original text, performing necessary functions, but invisibly, how do we make sense of the image of the rather grim and grizzled, definitely not hale and hearty-looking, visage of a translator selling “Dr. William’s Pink Pills for Pale People” from the pages of a literary magazine?
In 1897, Lin Shu 林紓 (1852–1924) was in his mid-forties and a recent widower after twenty-eight years of marriage when his friend Wang Shouchang suggested that they collaborate on a translation of a famous French novel that was incredibly popular in Paris. Introductions of Lin Shu are generally accompanied by a description that nears epithet: “failed Confucian scholar” and “who knew no foreign languages.” He, like many others, never did surpass the juren degree after half a dozen attempts. This would turn out not to matter much anyway: by 1897 the imperial exam system was on its way out, and would be completely eliminated in less than ten years. This ended a thousand-year tradition of an adherence to literati standards and values more or less codified during the Song dynasty. Whether he agreed to the initial project as a distraction from the sadness of losing his wife (art emerging from the death of the beloved), or whether he sought to redefine his vocation (from failed professional scholar to professional writer), or whether he was simply enchanted by his friend’s retelling and enjoyed the prospect of transcribing the Chinese version, he agreed to take on the translation project. This novel was by Alexandre Dumas fils: La Dame aux camélias, or The Lady of the Camellias (1848). The eponymous Parisian Lady of the Camellias (the novel’s full title in translation was The Legacy of the Parisian Lady of the Camellias, Bali chahuanü yishi 巴黎茶花女遺事) became what Ying Hu writes is “without question the most popular figure in the late Qing imaginary of the West [who, after the translation reached the public, quickly] became an icon, a revered symbol of tragic love and suffering.”1 The name Chahua nü (The lady of the Camellias or Camille), would be applied to its multiple incarnations. This included a stage version by the Spring Willow Troupe theatrical group, Chinese film versions (including one in 1938 in Shanghai and 1950 in Hong Kong) and spin-offs (“New Lady of Camellias” Xin chahua nü), the translation of the title of the film adaptation starring Greta Garbo, Camille, and the translated title of Giuseppi Verdi’s opera La Traviata. It also sparked a series of chahua nü–inspired novels that launched the Mandarin Ducks and Butterflies fiction genre. Lin personally funded the first printing of Chahua nü in 1899, beginning what would eventually become an oeuvre of nearly two hundred Western-work translations that turned the name “Lin Shu” into a brand (Linyi xiaoshuo, i.e., the Lin-translated novels).
The rise and fall of the Lin Shu brand is the premise that animates...