The Aurora Borealis Prize

People’s Daily reports:

On the afternoon of August 2nd, during the member’s assembly of the 20th World Conference of the Federation of International Translators (FIT), FIT conferred The “Aurora Borealis” Prize on Xu Yuanchong, a Chinese translator. This international award is hosted every three years. Xu is the first Chinese winner of the award.

As this blog often hosts links to goings-on in Chinese poetry (from any era) as translated into or reported in English, I try to keep things civil–there is a lot of Chinese poetry, and a lot of different tastes, and not much translation, so I want to accommodate and encourage as much breadth as possible. Translation is an expression not of oneself but of another, and I don’t feel the need to parade my opinions on this format. If I don’t want to repeat something, I’ll pass over it in silence, as they say–and maybe you can’t tell whether I’m relegating it to oblivion out of spite or if I just missed it.

But sometimes I can’t resist letting my opinions be known. The People’s Daily article quoted above, about the Aurora Borealis award going to Xu Yuanchong 许渊冲 (sometimes written as Xu Yuanzhong, I think because he likes his initials being X. Y. Z.), is unclear about whether the prize is from FIT or the Norwegian Association of Literary Translators, so my opinions will have to remain untargeted. At any event, they praise him for “facilitating communication between Chinese, English and French,” and though I can’t say anything about his translations into Chinese, I will say that I draw a different conclusion from the article’s note about “how painstakingly Xu applies himself to Shakespeare’s texts” when I read of his “plan to finish the complete works of Shakespeare in five years.”

More importantly, though, I will say this as clearly as I can: Xu Yuanchong is the absolute worst translator of Chinese poetry into English I have ever read.

Nor am I the only one to think so. I defy any reader of English poetry to get through a translation of Xu’s without an eye roll. As Brian Holton has written in “When the Blind Lead the Blind” :

The egregious Xu Yuanzhong, … though he has the impudence to style himself ‘the greatest living Chinese-English translator’ (personal communication 2000), he is the worst possible role model and a pernicious influence on younger scholars and students in China, who are not aware that seniority and self-advertisement do not confer literary skill in English.

I recommend reading Holton’s short piece. I do not recommend reading any of Xu’s translations into English. And I have no idea what the FIT or the Norwegian Association of Literary Translators could have possibly been thinking in giving this guy such an award.