TH: With great pleasure we are presenting Matt Turner’s preface to his translation of Lu Xun’s Weeds 野草, published by Seaweed Salad Editions in 2019. The book also includes an introduction by Nick Admussen and woodblock print artwork by Monika Lin. Turner selected three pieces from Weeds for this feature, and they are “Beggars”, “Trembling Decay”, and “After Death”, which he says is “maybe my favorite piece in the collection”. Admussen, in his introduction, writes: “The days of our age are changing: the book is pulled again into life after death. Who knows which strange, humble flower into which it will burst?”
Spiky Texture: Translator’s Preface
by Matt Turner
When I moved to Beijing for a job teaching philosophy at an international school, I had images of living in an old part of town and enjoying city culture. My place of employment turned out to be in a northern suburb of Beijing, however, and was connected to a decidedly un-cosmopolitan village. I arrived with about three words of Chinese under my belt, and my knowledge of Chinese literature was largely limited to classics in translation.
A faculty member I had befriended recommended that I read some modern authors, and based on my personality (and my disappointment about not living in the city proper) he thought I’d particularly like a book called Wild Grass. One day soon after, I took the hour-long bus ride into Beijing and bought a copy at a bookstore, reading it in an afternoon, and then reading it again the next day. Wild Grass—Gladys and Xianyi Yang’s translation of 野草 (Yecao)—was first published in 1974 by Beijing’s Foreign Languages Press and, until now, has been the only English translation available. As I sat in Russian Pizza Shop, a small coffee (and pizza!) shop run by Russians, across the street from the Soviet-style Petroleum University of China reading Wild Grass, I had the impression that I was reading something really powerful, really weird—but that the expression of those qualities was oddly crabbed, subdued, polite.
Remember that at the time my Chinese level was subzero, so I only had a vague intuition of that feeling. But I had to learn the language anyway—I mean, I lived in China, and obviously needed to communicate—and so used Yecao as a spur. Over the next nearly ten years in Beijing I impatiently taught myself the language, reminding myself over and over that the real reward for learning the language was understanding its literature. Once I was finally able to refer to the Chinese version, asa well as to Lu Xun’s own thoughts on translation, the more I was convinced that Yecao needed a more exciting translation, one that amplified its oddness.
Spend some time with it in Chinese and it becomes clear that, as Simon Leys once wrote, Lu Xun’s “language is richly expressive and original, but also awkward and convoluted”—which requires a translation that takes more risks than the Yangs were able to take, pressured as they were not only to turn out translations at an extremely brisk pace, but also ones that conformed to the dominant political narratives of the time. They needed to pare down Lu Xun’s style for clarification, and in the end, simplified it. Yecao‘s incongruous images, and its collisions of sensibility—oscillations between mythical and political worlds, jagged prose and backhanded commentary, everyday objects imbued with universal significance—had yet to find proper rendering into English. The “dead fire” was, so far, only smoldering.
So Weeds was the first book I translated into English; it is not Wild Grass. Revisiting it now, of course, preparing it for publication years later and after having read and translated considerably more, I see where I made some embarrassing rookie mistakes in my initial version. I took intransigent stances that I no longer take, believing that the reader should be presented raw images in stripped-down English. And colloquial expressions were often rendered intentionally as clunky phrases that replicated what I thought the Chinese was actually doing, Lu Xun’s wilder images becoming perfunctory, never stretched to their breaking point. Fortunately, with the help of my editor David Perry, in addition to my wife and often co-translator Weng Haiying, those issues have been addressed, smoothed over or exploited, and developed into the present translation. Tan Zijian helped enormously as well.
So, really, what is the advantage of another translation? What do I have to offer? This is a question any translator faces, no matter how out-of-date (or out-of-print) previous translations may be. Skeptics might wonder at the translator’s reasons: is it a heavily politicized version, emphasizing a single aspect or interpretation of a work, or does it conform to the belief that art transcends political opinion? Is someone simply padding their CV, translating authors whose reputations have already been established in order to buttress their own reputation without risk? What if the translator misreads the original, and misrepresents it? I believe I did that in my earliest, clunkiest versions, sometimes missing the subtlety of the text. And what if the translator misrepresents the entire language, as can be argued is the case of Ezra Pound’s Chinese translations, based as they were on translations from Japanese—but also theoretical texts like François Cheng’s Chinese Poetic Writing, which reads Daoism into the language? But a new translation isn’t few don’ts.
I have tried to express Lu Xun’s idiosyncratic vision with force, and accomplish much of what he tried to do with writing more broadly—as art as well as a tool for political change (though for Lu Xun those often-opposed tendencies were hardly divisible). Yet I have also tried to avoid narrow political readings in favor of amplifying its imaginative range—not as a universal, everyman’s literature, but as a text which undermines overdetermined readings. I hope that my English version of Weeds—rendered over multiple translations and through numerous revisions with the assistance of friends—comes close to replicating the uneven, spiky texture of its language and thought, demonstrating the flexibility of not only Lu Xun’s writing, but even Chinese as a language. While any translation inevitably must choose, to a degree, its direction, the direction I have chosen—and which I believe matches Weeds best—is, for lack of a better word, intensity. The intensity of the text, even when only imagined through the Yangs’ translation, is what attracts people to it.
The reputation of Lu Xun, and in particular Weeds, has grown outside of China—excellent news, especially for the present translation, but also because Yecao stands in sharp relief to Lu Xun’s work as polemicist, essayist, and fiction writer: Beyond this, its appeal is self-evident to me: something like petits poèmes en prose, engaging formally with international literature as well as the great political struggles, immersed in the local specific, and with a language fully aware of its representational status at the same time that it demonstrates its plasticity. In addition, theres’s an appeal to the purported difficulty of the text: Lu Xun combined Classical Chinese with the newly emergent colloquial language, presenting challenges not only to the translator, but to Chinese readers past and present. So at the very least, Weeds is emblematic of the question: Why write that way?
But when one reads Lu Xun’s essays—there are hundreds—his polemical voice is loud and clear, just as with much of his fiction; his later Classical-style poetry, and also Weeds, lends depth and seriousness to his causes. In another sense, all Lu Xun’s literary output has led the way—he wrote literature which has remained int he Chinese spotlight, in one way or another, for close to a century, and Yecao in particular has occupied a unique place, presenting a subtlety of thought that is rarely found in my discursive writing. Still, in his discursive writing we get an idea of what he was going for.
For example, Lu Xun translated from both Japanese (which he read) and Russian (which he was learning), and I have always found his forthrightness about his translations to be clarifying. When he was criticized for translations that were clunky, literal, and “stiff,” he responded in his 1930 essay, “Hard translation and the Class Character of Literature,” by attacking those who believed they were writing smooth, accessible translations. His translations were for himself, “several others who consider themselves as proletariat literary critics, and those readers who do not look for an ‘easy read’…”
For myself as opposed to a general reader, for self-identified working literary critics as opposed to specialists or weekend readers, and for those looking for something tangible: that was my initial guide to translating Weeds. But considering that Lu Xun was so unsystematic in his actual practice, as well as noncommittal over the course of his essays, those guidelines eventually turned into: for allies, for people who don’t come to the text as careerists, and for those who expect a jolt—not sentimentality, not confirmation of values, but the askew sensation of solidarity. Not “wild grass,” adrift and spare, but “weeds”—apart, suspect, impactful.
Reading through my translation of Weeds may leave you with questions—and, in this case, I think that accomplishes much of what Lu Xun set out to do with his text. But I also think the translation is incomplete. It can be done again and again, the original existing as a dark polestar from which the reader draws, as Lu Xun put it in an early manifesto-like essay, the destructive power of Mara. Mara, the tempting demon of early Buddhism and, for Lu Xun, an analog of Satan in the Nietzschean or even Miltonic sense of one who seizes at the world, not receiving it passively. The young Lu Xun ascribed this power to Byron—literature that forces its way onto the scene, not accepting its world passively, and in an important sense narrating as opposed to describing—hoping to see that sensibility translated into Chinese, forcing itself on the Chinese language and the future of China’s literature. This thread ran thorugh all of Lu Xun’s work, and, I hope, runs through this translation as well—so Weeds should still discomfit in its vision of the future. To pretend it’s an object for inspection, like a jewel, is to pretend it has no life aside from ornamentation.
Matt Turner is the author of the full poetry collections Slab Pases (BlazeVox, 2022), Wave 9: Collages (Flying Islands, 2020) and Not Moving (Broken Sleep, 2019), in addition to the prose chapbooks City/Anti-City (Vitamin, 2022) and Be Your Dog (Economy, 2022). He is co-translator, with Weng Haiying, of work by Yan Jun, Ou Ning, Hu Jiujiu and others. He lives in New York City, where he works as a translator and copy editor.