Michael Hill’s Lin Shu, Inc.

by Liz on December 5, 2014

in Books & Entertainment,Opinion

Lin Shu Michael Hill


Lin Shu, Inc.: Translation and the Making of Modern Chinese Culture
by Michael Gibbs Hill
Oxford 2012, 320 pages

Imagine, if you would, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin written with a late 19th-century Chinese reader in mind. How would it play out?

That is one of the more intriguing finds of Michael Hill’s intellectual history Lin Shu, Inc.: Translation and the Making of Modern Chinese Culture, a must-read for those of us dabbling in modern China studies or comparative literature.

Hill’s monograph doesn’t quite align Walter Benjamin’s theory of translation to Lin Shu’s intellectual labor. (A little context here – Lin was a Chinese man of letters, best known for translating literature from the West in the late Qing period, an exceptional feat given that he did not know foreign languages and employed assistants as needed.) If Benjamin believed “Translation issued from the original—not so much from its life as from its afterlife,” Hill takes that afterlife of Lin Shu’s work to task — prodding it with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Hill, who teaches Chinese and comparative literature at the University of South Carolina, addresses Lin’s ‘suspicious labors’ and his ‘questionable methods of translating text,’ and indeed, he should. As he points out, Chinese translations of original works of foreign fiction would add new plots, which the author more or less views as tampering with the integrity of literature. Lin took great liberties, for example, with the character of George Harris (from Uncle Tom’s Cabin), who takes on a new afterlife in the Chinese translation, as he emerges as the “hero and as the vessel of the (Chinese) translators’ hopes for national salvation.” According to Hill, Harris’ search for a national identity and his “choice to identify with African-Americans and the state of Liberia” (in Lin’s translated rendition of the story) resonates and serves the interests of the Chinese translators who saw in Harris China’s own modernizing future, and perhaps an answer to its crisis in the wake of encroaching Western imperialism. So an afterlife existed in Lin Shu’s enterprise, but also produced a translation that misconstrued the original work for Chinese, or more specifically, to Lin’s ends.

Hill’s monograph excels when taking a penetrating look into the relationship between translation and Chinese national subjectivity, the latter convincingly depicted as vacillating in a perpetual state of negotiation. The Chinese translator’s choice of identities and identifications across textual life cycles, then, draws attention to the experience of a destabilizing modernity wherein concepts in opposition can roughly coexist, a key condition for China’s then burgeoning ‘linguistic market’ that was part of the process of the building of a nation, or the forming of a “consciousness of the Chinese nation and the world.”

Aside from the fascinating insight into a tumultuous period in Chinese history, the book serves as a reminder nations are constantly being rewritten and reinvented, as our intellectual needs and moral imagination guides, and at times, misguides us.

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