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Blog: The Art of Translation: An Interview with Jinyu Liu

In  her ‘art of translation’ column, Adrienne K.H. Rose interviews Jinyu Liu, Professor of Classical Studies at Depauw University, about translating texts across cultures, Ovid, and the translation space as a “contact zone.” 


AKHR: For readers who are learning about cross-cultural translation for the first time, could you say a little bit in general about what it encompasses, as well as how it is a feature in your current projects? Isn't all translation cross-cultural?

JL: All translations are cross-cultural translations in the sense that differences between cultures, the unfamiliar, necessitated translation as an act. And diachronically, if the past is a foreign "country", all the translations of antiquity are cross-cultural translations. Culture here is a broad concept encompassing social hierarchy, power structure, codes of conduct, and so on. Translation is by nature a holistic endeavor to create a linguistic and lexical texture that enables the conveyance of cultural concepts, ways of thinking, social relations, behavioral patterns, and so on that are embedded in the source texts. 

Figure 1: Prof. Liu with Richard Talbert at DePauw in 2014 (Photo by Sarah E. Bond). 

Translation, therefore, is a complex endeavor, for which Francois Jullien's advice should be heeded: “in order to translate, it is necessary to help another possibility get through, and not to hurry this transition; not to step over the difficulty, not to mask it, but, on the contrary, to unfold it." (Francois Jullien, The Book of Beginnings, trans. Jody Gladding. Yale University Press, 2015)

It is therefore more productive and in fact necessary to see translation not as end product, but as a "contact zone", where tension, comparison, and negotiation of meaning take place. Not all negotiation is the same or of the same level or difficulty. We will see that some of the players in the contact zone have more commonalities than the others. These commonalities could be similar linguistic structure, shared history, shared reading lists, relative ranking in the hierarchy of cultures, and so on. 

Figure 2: Partial foliate border with an historiated initial 'H'(anc) of Ovid holding a book, 14th century, manuscript now in the British Library, Harley 2758. 

In the process of translating Ovid's Tristia, I have read many translations of Greek and Latin texts in English, Italian, French, German, Spanish, and Chinese, and have witnessed different degrees of negotiation between the source language and the target languages. It is certainly true that no modern language translations can reproduce the semantic range of words or formal features such as chiasmus, golden line, interlocked word order, pun, and so on in the Latin texts with ease. Yet, the translation of Latin into some of the modern languages involves less rearrangement of the Latin text than translation of Latin into other languages does.

I include a quick example here to illustrate some of the points mentioned above. Below is Tristia 4.6.47 along with six different translations:

vulgus adest Scythicum bracataque turba Getarum.’

E' presente invece il popolo Scita e la turba bracata dei Geti. (F. Della Corte)

Um sich ist das Volk der Skythen und die behoste Schar der Geten. (Georg Luck)

Before me is a crowd of Scythians, a trousered throng of Getae. (Wheeler-Goold for Loeb)

what's here is a Scythian rabble, a mob of trousered Getae (Peter Green)

身边只有斯基泰和盖塔的蛮夷部落 (Yongyi Li; this can be back-translated as "nearby were only the barbarian tribes of the Scythians and the Getae" )

眼前是斯基泰群氓和裤装的盖塔蛮众(Jinyu Liu; this can be back-translated as "in front of me are the Scythian rabble and the barbarian throng of the Getae")

On the one hand, I was amazed at how closely F. Della Corte's Italian translation for ‘bracataque turba Getarum’ resembled the Latin: The assonance is preserved/reproduced. Two words, that is, turba and bracata, are shared by both the source text and the translation. On the other hand, bracata, literally "trousers wearing" or "trousered", denotes barbarity in Latin, but in the modern languages where the word has survived, it has lost that connotation. Formal resemblance can, therefore, be deceptive; it does not necessarily guarantee faithful transmission of meaning. But whether the word bracata is preserved or translated into "behoste" or "trousered", the racial prejudice that Ovid intended would not be immediately clear to a modern reader who is not familiar with the pejorative attitude that the Romans attached to trousers wearing. 

A person standing in front of a statueDescription automatically generated

Figure 3: Jinyu Liu in Athens (Image used by permission of Jinyu Liu). 

The question arises to the translators as to whether to keep the literal meaning of the word in the translation or replace it with what it connotes ("barbarian", "uncultured", etc.). Either choice has its downside. I would be in favor of keeping "trousersed" in the translation since that was a Roman way of expressing prejudice but elaborating on it in the commentary or with a footnote. For me, translation without commentary would be rather incomplete. In that, I am following Kwame Anthony Appiah (1993)'s promotion of "thick translation", that is, "academic" translation "that seeks with its annotations and its accompanying glosses to locate the text in a rich cultural and linguistic context.".

AKHR: I love what you said about translation and “contact zones.” How did you become interested in negotiating the commonalities of Latin and Chinese languages, ancient Roman and modern Chinese literatures and cultures, and in particular Ovid? What is the Global Ovid project and the context for translating the Tristia into Chinese?

JL: Thanks so much again for your questions. They have prompted me to look back on the trajectory of my engagement with the negotiation between Latin and Chinese, and ancient Rome and modern China. In retrospect, I can think that there were three stages, one feeding into the next.

Figure 4: Poster from the 2017 conference on ‘Globalizing Ovid (May 31-June 2, 2017). 

I. Training in Translation:

I was trained in China until 1998, when I started my doctoral program in Roman history at Columbia University. But between 1998 and 2004, my main academic language became English, and was engaged with all of the "standard" research languages for Classical Studies. For me, in many ways, that was a phase of replacement, with Chinese being replaced or crowded out by the more common languages for (Western) Classical Studies. The process continued after I finished my Ph.D. and started to teach in the Department of Classical Studies at DePauw.

The motive to revisit Chinese as an academic language presented itself when I was invited to write a book entitled An Introduction to the Study of Roman History in Chinese for Peking University by Professor Heng Chen. In the process of writing the book, I realized that I was by no means fluent in converting expressions/vocabulary in Greek and Latin and terminologies in Western Scholarship into modern Chinese.

How to translate Augustatles, alimenta, colonia, Jupiter Stator, humanitas, humiliores, honestiores, imperium, paideia, euergetism, and so on and so forth exactly?

Abstract terms are particularly difficult to translate. But the titles of magistrates (such as praetor, the various prefecti, duovir iure dicundo, just to name a few), religious priesthoods (septemviri epulonum!!!), staff of various grades (procurator, dispensator, etc.), and so on, are also constant sources of headache. 

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Figure 5: A Special Issue of Wenhui Literary Supplementary (2017.5.26) in commemoration of the 2000th anniversary of Ovid's passing (Image used by permission of Jinyu Liu).

For some of these terms, there had been existing translations, but not all of them had been coded or standardized, or at all satisfactory. For others, especially newer scholarly terminologies or analytical terms, there were no ready translations to fall back on.  These struggles made me realize that I should step back a bit and see all of the relevant languages from some distance in order to see things more clearly. 

An extraordinary opportunity presented itself when I was a visiting professor at Peking University, China, during my sabbatical (2011-2012) to facilitate my negotiation between the different languages. When my gracious host and supervisor, Professor Yang Huang, asked me whether I preferred to teach in English or Chinese there, I chose Chinese without any hesitation.

I taught "Roman History", "Ancient Urbanism", and "Beginning Latin II.". I forced myself to use Chinese throughout my lectures and discussions and avoid resorting to English or other languages, even though the readings were mostly in English due to a lack of primary sources in Chinese for the purpose of my teaching. My experiences working through my lectures and with brilliant students proved to be invaluable in term of helping me clarify my thinking about a huge array of concepts and terminologies in (Western) Classical Studies.

For Latin, we used Wheelock's Latin. The students in fact felt more comfortable translating Latin to English, but I would usually push them to translate in Chinese, which they found more challenging. For example, while it was possible to translate participles in Latin into corresponding participles in English, that was not a choice for a Chinse translation.

II. Studying reception:

While I was completing An Introduction to the Study of Roman History (in Chinese), I also became seriously engaged with studying the reception of Graeco-Roman antiquities in China (thanks to the support of a Mellon New Directions Fellowship). Several of my articles on the Chinese of Virgil, Plato and Aristotle, Greek tragedy, the writing of Roman either have appeared or are forthcoming.

This experience has allowed me to see how some of the Chinese translators used translation as a form of argument, and how much leeway the translators had for long period of time until recently. The choices to use or not to use Confucian ethics terms to render the key terms in Plato and Aristotle, for example, were both statement-making moves. And the different ways of translating pietas would lead to different images of Aeneas.  

Figure 6: 罗马史研究入门》An Introduction to Roman Studies (in Chinese) 北京大学出

版社, Beijing (Peking) University Press, 2014. 

III. Translating ancient texts:

While constantly comparing translations of Latin and Greek with modern translations in a variety of languages, I became intrigued with translation as an act and an experience. Many Greek and Latin authors have not been translated into Chinese yet. I do not agree with the opinion that, since there have been good translations in modern Western languages, a Chinese Loeb or Budé would not be necessary. Relying on translations in modern Western languages, in my opinion, is for Chinese scholars, and Classicists in general, to miss a powerful tool to engage with the Graeco-Roman antiquity at the fundamental level, to both deconstruct and construct. The Ovid project, therefore, is envisioned as belonging to a larger effort to engage, to experiment, to deconstruct and construct.

The excitement of translation has outweighed its difficulty. Part of the productivity and excitement derives from the fact that I have been working with a community of scholars/translators, whose training and relationship with Classics are by no means homogeneous. Nor are their approaches to translation homogeneous. This diversity, for me, is not a problem at all. Quite on the contrary, it has been a source of inspiration, and has stimulated and nurtured many vibrant discussions.

How much liberty do we have?

What kind of commentaries should we develop?

How do we translate words such as vates, heroides, and so on?

Conversations about these and many other questions have involved not only the translators in the project but many of our friends, colleagues, fellow lovers of Latin, from many institutions and countries around the world. I'm tremendously grateful for their contribution and support. But more importantly, the translation of Ovid or any ancient authors into Chinese will not be a regional act or practice. It is truly a "contact zone";, a site.  

AKHR: Interest in cross-cultural translation is growing as scholars and translators consider expanding the boundaries of the Classical World to include the ancient world more globally. Students and younger scholars have looked to you and your scholarship as exemplars of the kind of work they aspire to pursue. What advice would you like to offer to them (generally) and to Asian-presenting Classicists (in particular)?

JL: What I have felt strongly in general in recent years is the issue of "we" and "they" in Classics. These are powerful words: they unite and separate. These categorization words would often compel one to react to it: "Who's 'we'/'they'?" "Am I included in the 'we' or 'they'?" "Do I want to be represented by the 'we'?" "Who are excluded in the 'we'?" For the study of the Ancient World to be more inclusive, it is important for everyone to be cautious with pronouns.

In recent years, I have had the good fortune to have interactions with a number of extraordinary Ancient Historians/Classicists from Asia. Many of them are already been bolder in their thinking about the future of the field than I have ever been. Any advice I may have would be just a side note. What I do want to say, from my own experience, is that having command of a language or languages, be it Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc., outside of the canonical languages for the study of Ancient History and Classical Studies in the European and American systems is and by no means should be seen as unimportant or even an impediment. There is a tremendous amount of synergy and potential to be excavated from these languages. 

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Figure 7. Dickinson Classics Online: An example of collective effort that brings scholars in and outside of China together.

This cross-cultural synergy and potential is vital for the continued growth and development of Classical Studies in expanding to include areas of the world beyond the ancient Mediterranean. Initiatives like the Asian and Asian American Classical Caucus aim to “foster the interests of students and scholars of classical antiquity who identify as Asian and Asian American by (1) promoting scholarship that explores issues of classical reception in Asian and Asian American culture and (2) striving to bring together the vibrant community of Asian and Asian American classicists.”

Stay tuned for the inaugural issue of Ancient Exchanges, an online literary journal devoted to translations of ancient texts. The first issue (Fall 2020) will be devoted to the ancient Mediterranean, with subsequent issues expanding to include the ancient world globally. You can also check out Jinyu Liu’s virtual keynote lecture “Cross-cultural Translation of Antiquity: Universalities and Peculiarities in a Problematic Contact Zone” at this year’s Association of Ancient Historian’s conference, April 23, 2020 via Zoom (Details and Link TBA).

Header Image: Mosaic of the muses, Antakya hotel (Photo by Dick Osseman under a CC-BY-SA 4.0).

Adrienne K.H. Rose's picture

Adrienne K.H. Rose is a Lecturer at the University of Iowa jointly appointed in Classics, Literary Translation, and World Literature. Her book manuscript The Perfect Translation: once more, with feeling is focused on reception and retranslation of ancient Mediterranean and East Asian lyric by Anglo-American poets and artists such as Anne Carson, Brandon Brown, and the 85 Project. In Spring 2019, she is co-organizing an international colloquium on "Reading and Retranslation."

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