Sunday, April 26, 2009

Translating the Dream

Here's a passage from the French Pléiade edition of Hong Lou Men (The Dream of the Red Chamber, mid-18th century) translated by Li Tche-houa and Jacqueline Alézaïs, and edited by André d'Hormon. Li Tche-houa and Jacqueline Alézaïs began to work on their translation in 1954. They finished it in October 1979. Good translators need good editors. With these words, Li thanked André d'Hormon in the preface to the French translation:

Au moment d'achever la traduction du Rêve dans le pavillon rouge, faite en intime collaboration avec ma femme, je pense avec émotion à André d'Hormon, réviseur de ce travail. Professeur à l'ancienne Université franco-chinoise de Pékin, dont il fut l'un des fondateurs, il vécut quarante-neuf ans en Chine. Comme de nombreuses générations d'étudiants, c'est grâce à lui que j'ai eu la révélation de la poésie française : Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Valéry... La musique de leurs vers, lus par sa voix aux sonorités envoûtantes, chante encore à mes oreilles. Après l'avènement de la République populaire de Chine, il dut, non sans déchirement, revenir en France. Henri Gouïn lui offrit généreusement l'hospitalité au Cercle culturel de Royaumont. C'est avec une joie profonde que je retrouvai mon ancien maître, surtout lorsque j'appris qu'il acceptait de réviser la traduction de ce roman. Il y consacra les dix dernières années de sa vie. Durant cette période, nous avions chaque mardi une séance de travail, dans la chambre de Saint-Louis qu'il occupait. Je lui portais de nouvelles pages de brouillon, et il me lisait le texte de la semaine précédente, remanié par lui. Pendant les vacances d'été, j'ai fait à plusieurs reprises de longs séjours dans ce lieu privilégié de silence et de recueillement, pour discuter avec lui sur les difficultés de l'ouvrage. L'immense culture d'André d'Hormon, aussi bien dans les lettres chinoises que françaises, jointe à une exigence rigoureuse dans les recherches de vocabulaire et de style, l'amenait à reprendre inlassablement certaines pages, dont il donnait des versions successives qui ne le satisfaisaient jamais. Poète lui-même, il s'attachait surtout aux nombreux poèmes qui figurent dans le roman, auxquels il s'est efforcé de conserver une forme rythmée, sacrifiant parfois l'exactitude de la traduction à la musicalité. Et jamais il n'était plus heureux que lorsqu'il pouvait dire, un éclair de malice au fond des yeux, frappant de la main un feuillet qui contenait quelques lignes particulièrement délicates : "Intraduisible... mais traduit!" Tourmenté par le souci de la perfection, il a brûlé au fur et à mesure tout ce qu'il écrivait personnellement. Souhaitons que, du moins, cette traduction révisée par ses soins, avec un enthousiasme si communicatif, puisse perpétuer sa
mémoire.

The English translator of Hong Lou Men, David Hawkes, wrote in 1973: "My one abiding principle has been to translate everything - even puns. For although this is...an 'unfinished' novel, it was written (and rewritten) by a great artist with his very lifeblood. I have therefore assumed that whatever I find in it is there for a purpose and must be dealt with somehow or other. I cannot pretend always to have done so successfully, but if I can convey to the reader even a fraction of the pleasure this Chinese novel has given me, I shall not have lived in vain."

For the last six years of his life, Cao Xueqin lived in poverty in the Western Hills outside Beijing. Here's how he explained why he wrote his book:

"Having made an utter failure of my life, I found myself one day, in the midst of my poverty and wretchedness, thinking about the female companions of my youth. As I went over them one by one, examining and comparing them in my mind's eye, it suddenly came over me that those slips of girls - which is all they were then - were in every way, both morally and intellectually, superior to the 'grave and mustachioed signior' I am now supposed to have become. The realization brought with it an overpowering sense of shame and remorse, and for a while I was plunged in the deepest despair. There and then I resolved to make a record of all the recollections of those days I could muster - those golden days when I dressed in silk and ate delicately, when we still nestled in the protecting shadow of the Ancestors and Heaven still smiled on us. I resolved to tell the world how, in defiance or all my family's attempts to bring me up properly and all the warnings and advice of my friends, I had brought myself to this present wretched state, in which, having frittered away half a lifetime, I find myself without a single skill with which I could earn a decent living. I resolved that, however unsightly my own shortcomings might be, I must not, for the sake of keeping them hid, allow those wonderful girls to pass into oblivion without a memorial.

Reminders of my poverty were all about me: the thatched roof, the wicker lattices, the string beds, the crockery stove. But these did not need to be an impediment to the workings of the imagination. Indeed, the beauties of nature outside my door-the morning breeze, the evening dew, the flowers and trees of my garden, were a positive encouragement to write. I might lack learning and literary aptitude, but what was to prevent me from turning it all into a story and writing it in the vernacular? In this way the memorial to my beloved girls could at one and the same time serve as a source of harmless entertainment and as a warning to those who were in the same
predicament as myself but who were still in need of awakening."