Chardonnay Needler on translating Lu Xun

Chardonnay Needler

on translating Lu Xun

I debated a lot about whether or not to change the punctuation to something more widely accepted (no run ons, fragments, etc.), but to honor Lu Xun and his legacy of spearheading the vernacular movement in the early twentieth century, I figured I should make it as conversational as possible. This meant preserving — for the most part — fragments and unorthodox comma rules, as well as keeping vocabulary and sentence structures at a very colloquial level. His poem is very conversational, and thus I opted for the use of contractions, such as “I’ll” instead of “I shall” or even “I will” for 我将, among others.

Secondly, a note on why I veered away from a literal word choice: 吸取 literally translates to “absorb,” but I wanted to make the verb more active to personify the grass. Also, I felt that “absorb” wasn’t active enough to be used thrice in a row with the same biting tone the poem had — it dulled the energy. “Sucking” seemed good because the character is also used in the word for “straw,” 吸管, and the image Lu presents in his poem is incredibly visceral while simultaneously whimsical. “Consume” felt too formal given Lu’s insistence on vernacular writing throughout his career.

As for the title of the poem, it is typically translated as “The Foreword,” for it is both a poem as well as the foreword of Lu’s eponymous poetry book, Wild Grass. Since this is a standalone piece, I figured I should give it a standalone name. As for the tone, I tried to keep it ambivalent, as Lu Xun premises his book with this very morbid yet also playful introduction.

about the author

Lu Xun (鲁迅) (1881–1936, birth name: Zhou Shuren 周树人) is one of the most important — if not the most influential — early twentieth-century Chinese literati figures and essayists. Originally on a pre-med track, the Shaoxing, Zhejiang, native dropped out of Japanese medical school to pursue literature and heal his country with culture. One of the founding names of the modern Chinese vernacular movement, Lu sought to popularize poetry and novels that were written in the language the people spoke (baihua wen), instead of the antiquated Classical Chinese that employed gatekeeping grammatical structures and vocabulary. This made him one of the most popular of the twentieth century.

He is adored by revolutionaries of all factions and flavors — from Chairman Mao to dissidents — and was politically ambiguous even though he was a definite Leftist. To illustrate this, he was the head of Shanghai’s League of Left-Wing Writers, but when the Chinese Communist Party asked him to write a novel of the communist revolution in rural China, he declined. He, along with other early twentieth-century Chinese writers, popularized writing about problems that plagued the common man, akin to the Realist movement of Gustave Flaubert and Émile Zola.

Some of his other famous and amazing Chinese vernacular pieces are the short stories 《狂人日记》 (“A Madman’s Diary”) and 《阿Q正传》 (“A True Story of Ah Q”).

about the translator

Chardonnay Needler is just a scatterbrained person who likes languages. A sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, she’s studying international relations and either Chinese or linguistics. She speaks and reads English, French, and Mandarin, and can barely get by in Japanese, Spanish, and Zulu. She loves examining the sociopolitical aspects of words and why they are chosen, which she was able to do in greater detail this past summer on a PURM project analyzing South African musicians’ and activists’ use of translanguaging in song. The next language on her list is German, to get back in touch with her German-Jewish roots and read Hannah Arendt’s pieces in their original language.