Li Wenjun, a renowned translator, was born in Shanghai in 1930. His family originated from Zhongshan, Guangdong. After graduating from high school, he was admitted into the Department of Journalism of Fudan University and graduated in 1952. Later, he has worked as associate editor, editor, editor-in-chief, associate professor of editorship and professor of editorship in Rendition andWorld Literature, vice chairman of the Translators Association of China (TAC), a member of the international culture committee of China Writers Association (CWA),and a committee member of the Institute of Foreign Literature at Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). He became an honorable member of the CASS in 2012 and joined the CWA in 1979. Li Wenjun is famous for his translation of William Faulkner, an American writer that hailed from Dixie.
On February 10, 2017, at his residence, the 87-year-old Mr. Li talks about his career as a writer/translator and personal life.
The renowned translator Li Wenjun took on foreign languages as a career partly by chance. At Fudan University, Li thought that journalism was no fun, so he decided to “deadhead” at the department of foreign languages. “As long as you’ve gained enough credits for your bachelor degree, you’re free to do some foreign languages courses of your preference.” Li’s father was an intellectual and used to work at Jardine Matheson, Shanghai, where he gained a pretty good income. His mother was a housewife but also well educated. “I had quite some allowance. They just wished that nothing would interfere with my performance at school.” At Fudan Li worked with other interested students in translating, but it was not until around 1952-53 that they started to submit their work to publishing houses and became published translators.
After graduating from college, Li moved from Shanghai to Beijing and worked at literature journals including People’s Literature, Rendition (later known as World Literature). After thepolitical movement finally settled around 1970-80s, he dived in the translation of works by American writer William Faulkner.
“I worked pretty hard back then. I had a day job, and I translated and wrote. I wrote papers and essays, mostly on Faulkner and the Dixie literature,” explained Li. Translation did not fall into his job description or chip in on his pay check, so he had to do it in his sparetime after work.
Li was the editor-in-chief of World Literature for four, five years. He said it was not until he was 63 years old and retired that he actually got time for translation. “I retired, but I retired to work at home, and pretty serious at that, for years. I had no other assignment anymore, so I rounded up a lot on American literature. And this time, I didn’t need any approval from my superior.”
Li first started on Faulkner because it had been a CASS project. In Faulkner’s times, the southern states were rather underdeveloped. Faulkner depicted a scene of the local townships and farmers as how they were, which was quite similar to what the Chinese society looked like back then. Li feels that translating modern American literature was “right up his street,” not the classics such as Shakespeare and other English writers. As a result, he’s been working on American literature ever since. “Besides Faulkner, I’ve done some other American authors too, and some English ones,” says Li.
According to Li, a lot of Faulkner’s characters are blacks, and he wrote about the black issue. Faulkner also successfully created his own universe—the Yoknapatawpha Saga. “The same places and characters recur in more than one of his novels. Writers from China and other countries are inspired by this method, starting to write about their own hometown, mesh things together, and create their own universe,” says Li. In his opinion, that’s Faulkner’s legacy in China.
Just like other renowned translators, Li stacks his home with books. Though a senior now, he knows exactly where in his house he laid every single book. He says that after his retirement, youngsters who study Faulkner would come visit or email him with questions from time to time. “Some of them are master or doctor candidates who are working on their dissertation, some are studying my translation work,” observes Li. He can’t operate a computer, so his son does all the online replies.
李文俊说自己年纪大了后，就选择相对轻松的题材，例如儿童文学。他说自己重译了简·奥斯汀（Jane Austen）的《爱玛》（Emma）、海明威（Ernest Hemingway）的《老人与海》（The Old Man and the Sea），还有《小熊维尼》（Winnie-the-Pooh）。
Li says, now that he’s older, he’d like to work on something lighter. Children’s books, for example. He retranslated Emma by Jane Austen, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, and Winnie-the-Pooh.
Li says his take on the famous principles for translators—“faithfulness, expressiveness and taste”—is, “you should work your phrases as closely as possible to how the writer of the original text did.” He remarks, “for instance, Faulkner likes to use long sentences so that’s what I’d do too when translating. I don’t work the same way as Yang Jiang and their kind. I stay true to the structure of the original text.” He further explains the point, saying that Yang Jiang and the others do what they do because they are better at the Chinese language and bolder at it. Consequently, they are not afraid to break down the long lines into short fractions and rephrase them in Chinese. But he doesn’t “have what it takes so it’s a no-can-do.” His translating is more literal, while trying to smooth out his words as much as possible for the Chinese audience to understand.
Though Li’s professional life revolves around translating, occasionally he likes to write essays on his personal life, and is pretty productive on that front. By far, he’s published about four to five collections of essays. He says modestly that he is but a translator. “I don’t have much story to tell, unlike the thinkers who think a lot.”
On tips for young translators, Li encourages everyone to read more by their translating predecessors and to be bold in trying. You can still translate a book even if someone else has done it. When he was studying to be a translator, he read abundantly the translation works by Fu Lei, Ba Jin and Lu Xun. “Guo Moruo translated Faust, and Lu Xun Dead Souls, both of which we dared not to touch. Guo and Lu were such gurus, why would any publisher go with your version instead? But now things are not so tense anymore, and there’s no issue on the copyrights.”
自己所有译作里面，李文俊最满意的是《喧哗与骚动》》（The Sound and the Fury）。福克纳其他的长篇小说《去吧，摩西》（Go Down, Moses）、《我弥留之际》（As I Lay Dying）自己也很喜欢。不过《押沙龙，押沙龙!》（Absalom, Absalom!）太难译，译作别人也不容易欣赏。
Among all of his translation works, The Sound and Fury (translated title: 喧哗与骚动) is his favorite brainchild. His other preferred works include Go Down, Moses (去吧，摩西) and As I Lay Dying (我弥留之际), both are Faulkner novels. However, Absalom, Absalom! (押沙龙，押沙龙！) is a tricky one, and the translated version is not so widely appreciated because of that.
After retirement, Li fell in love with the antiques. “Piece by piece, I moved things from the antique market to my house. I don’t even care if they are authentic or not.” He likes the china antiques for they are better looking. “Bronze ware, not so much. You’d never get anything authentic anyway. I came across this bronze antique that costs a couplethousand yuan and I could tell it’s a fake just by looking at it.”
The bronze piece from the Northern and Southern Dynasties (420-589) in the photo on the left, according to Li, “must be authentic” because “its shape is too complex for people to fake.” Li recalls two decades ago when the antiques were at a better price, and you could easily find some authentic objects in the Panjiayuan Market in Beijing.
Li loves classical music. He has a huge collection of CDs which he had no time or heart to listen to recently. “A day flies right by. You get up in the morning, you get washed, and it’s nine o’clock. I’d go to the farmer’s market or supermarket that’s nearby in the afternoon and watch some TV at night.”
Zhang Peifen, Mr. Li’s wife, is a translator of German language. Li says that at first they would compare notes in translating. “When she’s done with her work, I’d read it a little bit and she’d edit it according to my notes. But that doesn’t happen anymore. She won’t read what I do either.” As the two got older, they both retired from the translation work.
Zhang says, “My husband is a nice guy. We’ve been married for decades and never had one fight.” Normally, he does the groceries and she cooks. Li says that since his wife comes from a privileged family and didn’t spend much time learning to cook, her food “is not very good.” The couple has a son who’s an architect. “We wanted him to do something in foreign languages or foreign literature, but he wouldn’t take a word from us. We just thought that if he did, we’d be able to help,” says Zhang.
Li is aware that people are retranslating Faulkner now, including The Sound and the Fury, but he didn’t read any of those works, nor does he care. “They even wrote in the preface that ‘it would be quite hard to surpass Li Wenjun.’ Oh well. But my works are to be weeded out sooner or later. The young translators could just step over our old footprints and move forward.”