Tag Archives: translation

Jesus of Zhumadian

I’m a big fan of cross-cultural mashups of folktales, myths, and legends, and of creative misreadings that twist familiar tales into strange shapes. The ancient story in Liezi of the craftsman Master Yan who built an automaton for King Mu of Zhou has the compelling ingredients—a skilled engineer, a sophisticated mechanical man who seduces palace maidens, a jealous monarch—that make it ripe for reinterpretation by present-day science fiction and fantasy writers interested in exploring robots, love, and AI.

The following piece takes a more folkloric approach, concocting a wonderfully off-the-wall story (masquerading as a folktale from Zhumadian, Henan) out of a blend of Liezi’s account and several other well-known elements. The story diverges from Liezi right from the start by reanalyzing “Master Yan” 偃师 as the ancient settlement of Yanshi, now a district of Luoyang. This story hit a sweet spot for me when I first read it on Christmas, 2017, and I’ve pulled the translation out every Easter and Christmas since then to tackle the bilingual puns. It’s coming up on Easter again and I’ve finally accepted the fact that I won’t ever crack them.

This translation is posted with permission from the author, a folklore scholar who posts on Douban under the name Misandao 蜜三刀.

A Story of the Birth of Christ

by Misandao

Liezi tells the story of the wooden puppet of Yanshi. It describes how King Mu of Zhou passed through Yanshi in Henan on an inspection tour and was introduced to a carpenter, Yuese [“Joseph”] by name, from the Western Regions. This carpenter made for the king a mechanical man that could talk, sing, dance, and make all manner of expressions. Delighted, the king brought his beloved concubine Sheng Ji to see the curio, but to everyone’s surprise, when the wooden puppet saw how beautiful she was, it made a pass at her. The king was incensed and ordered the carpenter killed. Yuese was forced to flee that night with his wife Ma Liya [“Maria”]. The torrential Yellow River lay to the north of Yanshi, so they had to flee south, traveling in such haste that they had made no arrangements for lodging along the way but could only find refuge for the night in the stable of a large inn.

Upon waking up the next morning, Yuese the carpenter saw the inn’s name on the sign hanging outside: Zhumadian, “Horse Garrison Inn.” He knew this was a sign from heaven, for his wife’s surname was Ma [“horse”]. And so he settled there under the assumed name “Lu Ban” and made a living building houses and tool handles. Lu Ban’s superb carpentry skills and attractive, sturdy handles made his work popular with the locals. The couple bought a house and property and lived a decent life with just one imperfection to speak of: hunted as they were by the king’s army, the carpenter’s wife had lost a child well into a pregnancy and was never able to conceive again.

Lu Ban’s wife wanted children, and Lu Ban hoped for issue to carry on his craft. Every night after work, the two of them would lie in bed and sigh in despair. One day, Lu Ban’s wife said to him, “With all your skill at woodworking, why not make us a child?” Inspired, Lu Ban went into a frenzy of work shut up inside his shop where no one could see what he was making.

On the sixth day, which happened to coincide with the winter solstice, Lu Ban proclaimed, “Woman, come quickly and take a look. We have a child!” His wife hurried over but saw nothing but her husband lying exhausted on the floor of a workshop covered in sawdust and paint (this is why all carpenters thereafter have rested one day of every seven). She was just about to help him to his feet when all of a sudden a plump, naked baby tumbled into her arms with a cry of “Mama!” She looked closer: Oh! What an adorable child. She was beside herself with joy.

When the people of Zhumadian heard that Lu Ban had a child at long last, they came to offer their congratulations, and the village head even brought gifts of eggs, millet, and solstice dumplings fresh from the pot so the carpenter’s wife could take her month’s rest. However, a few gossipy married ladies kept talking behind her back about how they’d never seen her pregnant, so how had she given birth to such a big baby all of a sudden?

Rumors and gossip spread, and it was even suggested that the carpenter’s wife had gotten involved with a monk at the temple. Naturally, Lu Ban couldn’t reveal that their son was the work of his hands in wood rather than his wife’s biological child, so he simply told people that on one occasion when he had been asked to craft a statue of Guanyin for the local temple, the very night the statue was finished the two of them had dreamed an identical dream of Lady Guanyin saying that she would send a child from heaven as their reward.

When the carpenter’s son grew up, he followed in his dad’s footsteps as a skilled woodworker, building homes and making furniture for people of all parts. The lack of clocks in ancient times was a major inconvenience, but the young carpenter rose early for work and returned home late, giving him time to observe the heavens and granting him the knowledge of the changing of days. And so at the gate of every town and village he erected a crossbar to mark the time by reckoning the sun’s shadow. He made them tall and sturdy enough to withstand the wind and rain, and over time these crosses became the emblem of Zhumadian’s carpenters.

Since the crosses were used as a standard basis (“jīzhǔn”) for inspecting and monitoring (“dūchá”) the passage of time, they were known by the abbreviated term “jī-dū crosses,” but as the years passed and the story was handed down, people ended up calling the carpenter who invented the crosses “Jīdū” [“Christ”] and his original name was all but forgotten.

From A Collection of Folk Stories, Songs, and Proverbs from Zhumadian, mimeographed edition

Source: 蜜三刀《基督诞生的故事》,豆瓣,2017.12.25.


The spurious citation provided in the story is to a nonexistent edition of an actual collection, part of a series devoted to local folk tales and songs throughout China.

The story of Master Yan and King Mu of Zhou is found in the “Questions of Tang” 汤问 chapter of Liezi 列子, a 4th century Daoist text. The 1912 translation by Lionel Giles is a popular one, but Graham’s 1960 translation doesn’t appear to be online. Lu Ban 鲁班 was a craftsman in the Zhou dynasty who lived around five centuries after King Mu, and was the legendary inventor of several carpentry tools and a cloud ladder for siege warfare, among other devices. Notably, Liezi’s account of Master Yan concludes with a mention of Lu Ban, declaring that his cloud ladder and Mozi’s wooden kite both pale in comparison to the automaton.

The author informs me that after he wrote this story, he discovered that according to the scholar Feng Shi 冯时, there is indeed a connection between the oracle bone character for 督 “monitor” and the sun’s shadow.

Sherlock Holmes and the adventure of the stolen annotations

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

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

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

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.