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June 9, 2013

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Fortunately not lost in translation

Behind every international literary success or important work lies a gifted translator, though most of them toil in obscurity and are unknown to readers.

The name Zhou Kexi might well have been lost had he not translated three volumes of Proust's monumental, seven-volume novel "A la Recherche du Temps Perdu" ("In Search of Lost Time").

The 71-year-old former mathematician's labor of love is translating French novels into Chinese. His works have been praised by noted authors Wang Anyi and Sun Ganlu.

Over 30 years, the Shanghai native has translated 25 books and 5 million characters from French to Chinese, most of them classics. They include Flaubert's "Madame Bovary," and Dumas' "The Three Musketeers" and "The Count of Mount Cristo."

A series of Zhou's translations of classics was published last month. He modified and even retranslated some of his own works. They include "Madame Bovary" (1856), the "Arsene Lupin" detective novels by Maurice Leblanc (first serialized in 1905), Daudet's "L'Immortel" (1890), and Roger Martin du Gard's "Vieille France" or "The Postman" (1933). More are expected later this year.

On May 27, Zhou donated 1,809 manuscripts to the Shanghai Library and spoke to Shanghai Daily after the ceremony.

Tedious but beautiful

Until he was in his 40s, Zhou was a mathematics professor, though he always loved classic literature and studied French on his own during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

"Mathematics and French are both beautiful and interesting," he said. "Math is more difficult. Although both processes are rather tedious, the results give you the feeling of achievement."

Zhou's love of literature, especially French classics, clashed with his mother's desire for him to become a mathematician like his father. Respecting his mother's wishes and sublimating his own passions, he dutifully studied math at Fudan University.

After graduation he was assigned to teach math at East China Normal University.

He still loved French literature.

China's top translators of French into Chinese, such as Fu Lei and Wang Keyi, were "quite impressive, not only able to read the originals but also to translate them perfectly into Chinese."

Because of his family's intellectual background, Zhou's parents were attacked during the "cultural revolution" because they were not workers, peasants or soldiers. Young Zhou was stigmatized and labeled as "someone who can be educated," who could still be redeemed. Universities were closed during the tumultuous years.

"I was quite depressed. I almost had nothing to do, so I studied French under a private tutor."

Opportunity knocked in 1980.

Zhou was sent by his university to Ecole Normale Superieure de Paris to study math.

"I still clearly remember my first encounter with Paris, which I had imagined many times from the books I had read," Zhou said. "It appeared older than I expected, but I was soon amazed to bump into many familiar spots that were familiar from my reading."

Though it was his dream city, Zhou felt solitude and sadness in a foreign country. He stayed for two years.

"I cooked and ate all alone," he said. "At times I was so homesick that sometimes I wept at night, but today when I look back, those were always good days. My time in Paris was a beautiful memory."

In Paris he met a group of writers and discovered his labor of love - translation.

Obscure and intricate

A successful translation, according to Zhou, is transparent, conveying the author's voice, style and story seamlessly from one language and culture to another. "A professional translation makes readers feel they are reading the original author's work," he said.

Encouraged by Liu Minjiu, the patriarch of French-Chinese translation in China, he began his maiden work, "La Femme Rompue: L'age de Discretion Monologue," or "The Age of Discretion" (1967), a short story by Simone de Beauvoir. It was well received in translation circles and more work followed.

Then he encountered Proust and his daunting epic "A la Recherche de Temps Perdu," sometimes called "Remembrance of Things Past," published form 1913 to 1927.

Proust's style is famously difficult and obscure, and his intricate, delicate meditations and analysis of emotions do not appeal to most readers in any language, including French. There is not much of a plot or dramatic scenario and the first volume alone, "Swann's Way," is 350,000 characters long.

Zhou calls the tome "the French equivalent of the Chinese classic 'A Dream of Red Mansions'."

The entire book was published in Chinese in 1991 by Yilin Press after 15 translators were assigned sections. Zhou, who was then 46 years old, helped translate the fifth volume, "The Captive."

"I was not a professional translator at that time, but I had the guts to have a try," he said.

Following Proust's prose is arduous.

"Even I was unable to read through it for the first time in Chinese because of the long sentences," he said. "Proust's words could spill over two pages with only one full stop, and it's difficult to deconstruct. He can describe a small thing to the point of perfection, even of insanity. For example, it took two pages to describe linden flower tea."

Despite their length the sentences are beautiful and perfect in French."I could hardly delete any sentence, they are in the book for their own reason," he said.

After retiring from the Shanghai Translation Publishing House, Zhou was determined to translate more Proust in 2003. He has translated the first, second and fifth volumes.

"Proust's epic memory was well worth my time and energy in translating the masterpiece," he said. "Because of my age, I cannot complete the work, but I have no regrets."

Sometimes Proust's melancholy affected him. "I must be devoted and thus I cannot help being influenced. That's the price of getting closer to Proust. My escape is to put the translation down for a while and keep a distance so that I am not trapped."

"Whether as a math professor or translator, I feel lucky. From the very start, I knew translation was a lonely job but I enjoyed being the hero behind the scenes."


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