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A highly readable 'Water Margin'

THE fifth epic English translation of the Chinese classic "Shuihu" ("The Water Margin" or "Bandits of the Marsh") is hot off the presses and stands out from other translations for its readability and humor.

John Dent-Young's translation, titled "The Marshes of Mount Liang," is also the only version to retain all 120 chapters of the original by Shi Nai'an (1296-1370), which vividly dsecribes the tales of 108 outlaws during the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Dent-Young, an English writer and translator, teamed up with his son, Alex Dent-Young and his Taiwanese wife Tao Jingping to produce the work.

He said in an e-mail interview with Shanghai Daily that he started by translating excerpts and chapters for friends, and then fell in love with the novel.

"Shuihu" is one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, including "Romance of Three Kingdoms," "Journey to the West" and "A Dream of Red Mansions."

"The Marshes of Mount Liang" was published earlier this year by Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press and The Chinese University Press of Hong Kong.

Dent-Young is a lecturer in English at Hong Kong University. He has taught in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Spain and Thailand.

His son, Alex Dent-Young, graduated from London University and Chicago University and studied Chinese in Taiwan.

Q: There are already four English versions of "Shuihu." Why did you undertake yet another and how is yours different from others?

A: I was asked to translate a few chapters by some friends. It started from there. The translation was done for love of the novel, which I came to respect more and more as we worked on it, although it is very long and I wasn't always sure we would finish. We wanted to produce a version which would not sound too strange to English speakers, to emphasize how stories resemble one another round the world and how people of different times and places may be extremely varied but are basically understandable to each other. We especially wanted to show the humor and the skillful storytelling of "Shuihu." We felt that none of the previous English versions quite did this or were quite consistent in their English style.

Q: What is the biggest challenge of translation?

A: It is all difficult. The biggest difficulty is getting your version to sound right. In dialogue, for example, characters should only say things that people might really say. But the problem is that the characters are Chinese who lived a long time ago, while the translated text is English and contemporary. A translation is like a forgery. You can only hope that it should be as convincing as possible and as consistent as possible.

Q: Do you have a favorite character?

A: No. A translator ought to be impartial, surely? But so many characters! I love some of the very brief appearances by characters who just happen to get in the way of some important event by accident. I must confess to favoring Lu Zhishen, partly because it was with him that I started the project.

Q: Does your family help in translation?

A: My son was an excellent work partner. He supplemented both my faulty Chinese and my ignorance of cultural background. Now, sadly, he has had to abandon translation and literary work for IT - he has to make a living. My wife, Tao Jingping, grew up in Taiwan and has a degree in Chinese and a PhD from Madrid University. She supplied essential knowledge of language and culture and sacrificed time from her own art work to advise us.

Q: How did you become interested in Chinese culture?

A: We are interested in literature. Chinese is the oldest and most extensive literary culture in the world. How could one not be interested in it? In my case, life brought me the great good fortune of a Chinese wife and the chance of working in a region where Chinese language and literature are of major importance. My wife and I have always wanted to share everything and we feel - we are privileged in being able to draw on two (or more) cultures. Now we have the same kind of aspiration for our grandchildren. We want them to be part of the exciting way the world is growing, but without losing the love of specific places, people and customs that have given us a life so full of interest.

Q: It is said that Chinese is the most difficult language to learn. Do you agree?

A: I really don't know. There must be many languages I know nothing about that are difficult. For English speakers the tonal system of Chinese and related languages is difficult, because it is different. But Chinese has a few grammatical features that resemble English and it has nothing like the difficulties of noun cases and verb tenses in Russian.

Q: Can you recommend a Chinese book on culture to foreign readers?

A: English readers have the great Hawkes-Minford translation of "Hong Lou Meng" published as "The Story of the Stone," which for those who like long world-creating novels offers a comparable experience to reading "Proust," only a good deal easier.


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