Sherlock Holmes and the adventure of the stolen annotations

A new annotated edition of the complete Sherlock Holmes stories translated annotations from English-language materials and republished them without attribution.

The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Illustrated and Annotated (via Douban)

New Star Press has released a new edition of the complete Sherlock Holmes stories. Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective made his first appearance in Chinese in 1896 (the year after John Fryer’s fiction contest), and the first complete translation was published in 1916.

This new edition, published in nine hardcover volumes with a list price of 580 RMB, boasts more than 2,000 annotations and an array of essays introducing Holmes and his world. But according to a devastating review of the collection in the Shanghai Review of Books, the vast majority of those annotations were copied without attribution from other sources, largely from Leslie S. Klinger’s The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, but also from The Annotated Sherlock HolmesEncyclopaedia Sherlockiana, and Canonical Compendium.

The author of the piece, Chen Yibai (陈一白)[1], accuses Liu Zhen (刘臻) of plagiarism and proceeds to mock him throughout the article, beginning with his identification in the publisher’s promotional copy as “the country’s foremost Holmes scholar.” Chen quotes this title several times in the piece, and notes dismissively that Holmes studies has never been a particularly hot field in China.

As for the text itself, Chen’s approach is simple: he pairs Liu’s annotations to “A Scandal in Bohemia” (which he says are representative of the quality of the work as a whole) with nearly identical notes from English-language editions. In a few especially damning examples, Liu has apparently reproduced mistakes made by the original annotators. Nor is Chen pleased with Liu’s original annotations; he calls him out for exaggerating the extent of his research. In one note, Liu asserts, “This sentence was not in the author’s earliest manuscript, but was added later to the proof copy.” Chen retorts,


Conan Doyle’s manuscript for “A Scandal in Bohemia” is held by the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, but a facsimile edition has been published. Mr. Liu Zhen may have read the “earliest manuscript” in that facsimile edition, but how would he have read the “proof copy”? Does the reader believe that a proof copy of an English magazine from over a hundred years ago was read by a modern-day Chinese? Whether you believe it or not, at any rate I don’t believe it.[2]

Chen’s article rocked the mystery community, sparking a spirited debate on Douban that resulted in a rash of thread deletions by a New Star Press editor who moderated a mystery discussion group.

According to a follow-up report that ran in this week’s SRB, one Douban commenter asked whether New Star Press had obtained translation rights from Leslie S. Klinger, and Chu Meng (褚盟), deputy editor in charge of the Midnight Library series that includes the Holmes collection, replied, “Definitely not….I was never aware that this edition would have this kind of connection to something else!”

Then Chu struck out at the annotator:


An article in the contract…roughly states, “The annotator must possess all rights to the annotations; in any dispute, the annotator assumes responsibility.” –Just like millions of author contracts out there! I and the editor in charge have not seen the foreign edition, and have not attempted to establish any “relationship” with that edition.

Liu Zhen (known online as ellry or 老埃) shot back:


First, the manuscript contained a preface and a reference list. The preface clearly explained that the annotations were based upon four annotated editions: (1) Baring-Gould’s annotated edition; (2) The Oxford annotated edition; (3) Klinger’s annotated edition; (4) Klinger’s Sherlock Holmes Reference Library. The reference list contained many more reference works. However, neither piece was included at publication time. Second, in regards to “The annotator must possess all rights to the annotations; in any dispute, the annotator assumes responsibility,” the contract does not contain that article.

Chu Meng then deleted the discussion threads and eventually shut down his account.

From the limited information available, it is hard to say who is at fault. Surely the publisher should have been aware of the existing English-language annotated editions, particularly if the annotator provided a reference list, and ought to have checked for any infringement. Still, it strikes me as foolhardy for an annotator to rely so heavily upon translated material, trusting that the publisher will be able to work out the rights issues prior to publication.

  1. [1]This is apparently a pseudonym for translator Li Jihong (李继宏), of The Kite Runner fame. The Chen Yibai byline has appeared on other articles that pick at nits in translations, including a take-down of Yu Guangzhong’s revised translation of Old Man and the Sea and a critical review of Zhang Hua and Zou Ya’s translation of Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story (that article drew a strong response here).
  2. [2]This meme is quickly approaching geilivable levels of annoyance. In this same issue, Xiao Bao’s column runs under the title “At any rate, I believe it,” although the offense is mitigated somewhat by the fact that the column’s content actually involves belief, in the context of a discussion of Micheal Shermer and the Skeptics Society.

Translating outside the box

Recap of translating for Pan Haitian in the Black Box at the 2010 Get it Louder festival in Beijing.

This and other photos at the Get it Louder website (also in English)

Last Friday afternoon I took part in a “Black Box: Literature on Spot” event at the Get it Louder festival, which wrapped up its Beijing leg over the weekend. You can click through for a detailed description of the program and its participants, but in brief, “Black Box” was literary creation as performance art. A writer, sequestered in a curtained cubicle, composed in isolation. Beyond the wall, a translator attempted to keep pace as the text scrolled up the monitor. Spectators viewed the entire process on screens outside.

I was translating for Pan Haitian (潘海天), a writer of science fiction and fantasy and the editor of Odyssey of China Fantasy magazine (九州幻想). (You can find a brief introduction to some of Pan’s work in this post.) I’ve translated a bit of Pan’s work in the past, including a version of “The Eternal City” (永恒之城) in English for submission to ALIA6, an Italian-language anthology of SF in translation.

Pan warned me beforehand that his typical approach to composition involved leaving lots of sentence fragments and place-holders, which he’d expand once he had a rough framework of the story sketched out. Thankfully, this did not become apparent until about half an hour into the event, at which point my nerves had settled.

Ordinarily, I’d probably have gotten sidetracked early on by the quotation from Diary of a Madman and would have spent the full two hours reading up on the historical figures mentioned in the text. Or, if I were particularly disciplined that day, I’d have substituted dummy text for the quotation and moved on to the next paragraph, leaving the decision of how to translate Lu Xun for a later revision. Neither option was available to me, the first because I brought no reference materials and could not access the Internet, and the second because I needed to put up some sort of translation, however imprecise, for the audience. I had to make decisions, even if they weren’t ideal. Don’t recognize a locust tree? Then “tree” it is. Forget the alternate term for tuberculosis? Let’s call it a “fatal illness.” Although I often take this approach in a first draft when I want to capture an uninterrupted voice, I usually tag provisional translations so I can refine them later. Leaving them unmarked disguises my translation as a finished product instead of a work in progress, or more accurately, a partial transcript of a one-time performance.

It’s not a complete transcript because it doesn’t show where edits were made during composition and translation, and it retains just a few traces of Pan’s fragments and place-holders. His writing process seemed to mirror the pace of the story. The opening, which sets the scene and gives a bit of back-story, appears in the final product pretty much identical to how it was initially typed in. The sole edit I can remember was a change from “the man in the gown” to “the mustached man” (which I unfortunately rendered as “the bearded man.”) During the action scenes, things got more hurried and fragmented. For example, at a point in the story when Lu Xun has plummeted from a rooftop to grapple with an intruder (later revealed to be Liang Shiqiu), Pan inserted a bracketed note that I translated as “[insert blow-by-blow].” And the title only became Lu Xun: Demon Hunter after Lu Xun was mentioned by name in the text (to gasps and laughter from audience members who hadn’t caught on yet).

Pan’s original (恶魔猎手鲁迅), an application of wuxia tropes to Lu Xun’s account of why he chose to apply himself to writing, is entertaining, although it terminates abruptly — Pan said afterward that he needed additional resources before he could move forward. As a translator, I enjoyed the game of keeping up with the small changes and additions that the author was continually making to the text; as a reader, my mind had already filled in the details, and I just wanted him to continue with the story.

Translation vs. copyright

Translations have changed as copyright awareness has grown in China, on the mainland and in Taiwan.

There’s been an interesting series of conversations on Sina’s microblog service this week about works of classic literature translated in the 1980s — before China signed on to international copyright conventions.

Some examples:

Janson Yao writes:


Today I read an article by Huang Luo about the translation of short detective fiction in Taiwan, and it looks like the situation in Taiwan and the mainland is pretty much the same. Early on, copyright wasn’t observed, and works were translated at will. By the nineties, under copyright restrictions, translations declined. Huang noticed that there have been some mystery anthologies published in recent years, but it seems like most of them are anthologies from an individual author. In collections of works by multiple authors, rights must be obtained separately for each piece. The cost is high, and it takes time.

Wu Yan comments:


I read that the translator of Walden Two said that when he took the very first edition to get Skinner’s autograph, he had to cover it up because he didn’t have the rights, lest the author see what book it was.

Age of Prosperity as a noir thriller

Why the point-of-view switch in 盛世 by 陈冠中?

In a post at Twelve Hours Later, I discuss the political fantasy Age of Prosperity (盛世, aka The Fat Years, aka The Gilded Age) by John Chan Koon-Chung (陈冠中) in the context of other recent socially critical Chinese science fiction.

One curious aspect of this novel is the shift in point-of-view. Part I is largely told by Chen in the first person, aside from one chapter in which the characters who remember the missing month narrate their personal histories. Part II switches to limited third-person narration. Because Chen identifies himself as a genre writer (an author of third-rate detective fiction) in the first half, one likely explanation for the point-of-view switch is that he’s composing a mystery based on the old friends he’s encountered. With that in mind, both the character histories and the third-person narrative are the creation of first-person Chen from Part I. There are indications that this may be the case: Chen’s musings in Part I that he really ought to take up writing again, the interrogation of the government official in Part II, when Chen remarks that he feels like a character in a novel.

This hypothesis suggests that an English translator ought to style the dialogue with a little bit of hard-boiled coloring, along the lines of the weary narration at the opening of Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. Chen the dilettante detective stalks through Beijing’s well-to-do neighborhoods in search of a missing month, gleaning bits of information from old friends who have conveniently managed to track him down and from well-placed members of the establishment who may be using him for their own purposes.

The risk with this approach is that you’d be imposing a voice on the original text that might not be there — the Chinese is colloquial and conversational, but not particularly stylized — but occasional quips in the dialogue and self-deprecation in the interior monologue hint that it might be justified, if just barely.

An identity swap for the Chinese Murakami

Lin Shaohua is no longer Murakami’s translator in mainland China.

Murakami Haruki’s popularity in mainland China is due in no small part to Lin Shaohua (林少华), who has produced 33 volumes of translations into Chinese over the course of two decades, beginning with Norwegian Wood in 1989. With What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (当我谈跑步时,我谈些什么), Lin was passed over in favor of Shi Xiaowei (施小炜), a relative unknown who just last week was revealed to be the translator of Murakami’s latest work, 1Q84 (the mainland edition, that is: a Taiwan edition translated by Lai Mingzhu has been out since November).

The Southern Metropolis Daily‘s Sunday book review section (April 25) included a short article based around a conversation held on Sina’s microblog host when an earlier SMD report announcing the translation’s upcoming release was linked by Tan Shanshan.

Some quotes:

Atage: “I read for a decade before I realized I was reading Lin Haruki, not Murakami Haruki, and that’s the shame of it.”

Tan Shanshan: “Actually, it’s Lin Haruki that lots of people like.”

Lao Yao: “The new translator can’t compare to Lin Shaohua. Changing a decade-long reading habit is killing me.”

Huang Yuning of Shanghai Translation Publishing House: “The scariest thing is that lots of people, including those who don’t read Japanese and those who don’t really read Murakami, join in the talk of who is more ‘faithful’ and who has a better feel for the language. The question of ‘faithfulness,’ of familiarization versus alienation, is something that translation theory has a hard time working out, so why are you so easily convinced? Commercialism is understandable, controversy is understandable. Out of commercial aims, like for Running, to attack the original translator all over the press, that’s just….”

Perhaps Lin identified too much with the author. He has been quoted as saying, “When I’m not translating Murakami, after a few days I feel uncomfortable” and “When Murakami says half a sentence, I know what he’ll say in the second half.”

See also: Tim Parks in The Guardian: Why translators deserve some credit. And a review of Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters at Quarterly Conversation which quotes this paragraph:

One of the brightest students in a seminar I taught recently asked whether, in The Autumn of the Patriarch, we were reading Rabassa or Garcia Marquez. My first, unthinking response was “Rabassa, of course,” and then a beat later, I added, “and Garcia Marquez.” The ensuing discussion of how difficult it is to separate the two, and what it meant to us as readers, writers, and critics to make the attempt, was one of the liveliest and most engrossing we had that semester.

Image from Golden Book.