The Best China
On 1 July 2017, China Heritage marked the twentieth anniversary of mainland China extending suzerainty over Hong Kong with a series of translations, commentaries and art works. Our series began with ‘Cauldron’ 鼎, a poem by the celebrated Hong Kong writer Leung Ping-kwan (梁秉鈞, 1949-2013). Written a year prior to the 1997 takeover, ‘Cauldron’ is a meditation on the return of P.K.’s home town to the embrace of China.
In his editorial introduction to ‘Cauldron’ in Lotus Leaves: Selected Poems of Leung Ping-kwan, a volume in the recently published Hong Kong Literature Series, John Minford quotes an observation made by PK Leung:
‘If China only wants Hong Kong for economic benefit and imposes upon Hong Kong cultural models as foreign as the British ones were, with no understanding and respect for the Hong Kong people and their cultural particulars, there will be no difference between one form of colonial dominance and another. Chinese superintendence doesn’t mean an end to colonialism… If we talk about the tyranny of British culture, we should not forget that Chinese culture can be tyrannical and repressive as well.’
— PK Leung, Lotus Leaves, ed. & trans. John Minford,
Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2020, p.185
In July 2017, our aim was to add a few discordant notes to the monotonously orchestrated festivities of the twentieth anniversary of the People’s Republic take-over of Hong Kong from the sidelines and we noted that:
‘For many people in Hong Kong, that alienated Chinese territory, the double commemoration of National Day and Mid Autumn Festival in 2017 was a sombre one. On the 1st of October, we acknowledged that disquiet by launching a new series in China Heritage titled “Hong Kong, The Best China” 香港, 最好的中國. The title of the series was suggested by a remark made by John Minford in an interview given to the Hong Kong Economic Journal 信報 in April 2016: when John’s mother entertained guests, she would make a point of bringing out “the best China”. An effort was necessary, John went on to observe, to preserve “the best China”, much of which can be found in Hong Kong.’
In July 2019, we added a new section to ‘The Best China’ titled ‘Hong Kong Apostasy’. A year later, on 1 July 2020, Hong Kong’s status as ‘the best China’ came under unprecedented threat. What may well reflect a kind of ‘karmic synchronicity’ 因緣, around the same time the six-volume Hong Kong Literature Series edited by John Minford began to appear through The Chinese University Press. In the following Q&A with a journalist from Ming Pao 明報, John discusses the origins and the contents of the series. (A Chinese version of these comments were published by Ming Pao. See 林凱敏, ‘閔福德：翻譯的香港，友誼的翻譯’, 《明報》, 2020年8月6日.)
Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
14 August 2020
Hong Kong Literature Series:
- Lotus Leaves: Selected Poems of Leung Ping-kwan, edited and translated by John Minford
- Liu Yichang, The Drunkard, translated by Charlotte Chun-lam Yiu, edited with an Introduction and Notes by Nick Hordern
- Xi Xi, The Teddy Bear Chronicles, translated by Christina Sanderson
- Dragons: Shorter Fiction of Leung Ping-kwan, translated by Wendy Chan, Jasmine Tong Man and David Morgan, edited by Laura Ng and John Minford
- The Best China: Essay from Hong Kong, edited by John Minford (forthcoming)
- Leo Lee Ou-fan & Esther Lee Yuk-ying, Ordinary Days, translated by Carol Ong and Annie Ren, edited by John Minford (forthcoming)
An essay in Ming Pao:
- 林凱敏, ‘閔福德：翻譯的香港，友誼的翻譯’, 《明報》, 2020年8月6日
From ‘The Best China’ series in China Heritage:
- Leung Ping-kwan 梁秉鈞 and Others, Cauldron 鼎, China Heritage, 1 July 2017
- Yau Ma Tei’s Hong Kong Rhapsody, China Heritage, 4 July 2017
- Lois Conner, Twenty Views of Fragrant Harbour, China Heritage, 8 July 2017
- Xi Xi, The Floating City 浮城, China Heritage, 12 July 2017
- Leung Ping-kwan, Embroidery, a poem, China Heritage, 1 September 2017
- Lee Yee 李怡, 1 October 2017 — The Best China, China Heritage, 1 October 2017
- Lee Yee, Playing by Peking’s Rules, Asian Wall Street Journal, 11-12 July 1986
- Lee Yee, The Ayes Have It, China Heritage, 18 October 2017
Selections from Xi Xi’s The Teddy Bear Chronicles:
- Ring, Track, Bears, China Heritage
An Alchemy of Hong Kong, and for the World
From its first controversial founding as a British colony in 1842, Hong Kong has been a unique place of refuge for immigrants, protected from the turmoil of the Mainland, a haven in which this free-thinking, free-wheeling child of China’s great literary culture has been able to survive and flourish, unimpeded by political struggle and the heavy hand of ideological dogma. In the tender core beneath this modern city’s deceptively hard and glittering surface lies a world of fine literature, visual and performance art, music, theatre, and film. It is one of the great civilised cities of the world.
This new series of six books proudly presents that civilisation, giving evidence of the defiant and distinctive character of Hong Kong’s imaginative literature, which marks it off from the other parts of the Chinese-speaking world.
Like the better-known cinematic work of Wong Kar-wai, the literature of Hong Kong combines a timelessly Chinese palette of colours and flavours with an exciting acceptance of cosmopolitan modernity. It is as authentically Chinese as the very best Cantonese cuisine, and yet at the same time, having issued from a place which is so permeable and volatile, it is also infused with an effortless sense of fusion. It is an alchemy of Hong Kong, but for the world.
— from John Minford, Editor’s Preface
Hong Kong Literature Series
Hong Kong Literature Series
Ming Pao: Could you tell us a little about how this keenly awaited Hong Kong Literature Series began?
JM: This Hong Kong Literature project originated in an exciting one-day Symposium held at the Hong Kong Central Library in June 2011, on the topic ‘Translating Hong Kong Literature’. The gathering was convened by my dear friend Professor Leung Ping-kwan 梁秉鈞 (也斯), who was then teaching at Lingnan University. The participants were inspired by Leung’s passion for the culture of Hong Kong, and by his determination to see that culture properly recognised. A group of translators and editors, including myself, then went on to dedicate their energies over several years to the realisation of his vision, determined to capture the expression of Hong Kong’s subtle and complex identity through the written word, which has a rich and independent tradition going back to the nineteenth century, when the city first grew into a place conducive to the meeting of Chinese and Western minds.
In 2011 I was working at the Chinese University as Professor of Translation, and at Leung’s request I gave a talk at his Symposium on the topic of ‘Translation and Friendship’, reminiscing about my many years in Hong Kong as a translator and teacher, and about my many friendships with Chinese writers and scholars during those years. Leung (I always called him PK, his ironic nickname based on his initials, but humorously evoking the street-Cantonese expression 撲/仆街) was my close friend over a period of almost thirty years. He more than any other person taught me about Hong Kong, he showed me how to explore and love the place. We spent many evenings together over the years talking about poetry and translation, enjoying food and wine. After I moved in 1999 to live in the Languedoc, in southern France, he wrote a very moving poem:
‘Thinking of John at Year’s End’
You live in the sun of the Midi;
I sit here in the pall of smoke and dust that covers this island.
When can we once more share a bottle of red wine,
And sit at a table, going over lines of poetry together?
The ‘discussant’ for my talk at the Central Library that day in 2011 was my friend Leo Ou-fan Lee 李歐梵. When the Symposium concluded we adjourned to the Lock Cha Teahouse 樂茶軒 above Pacific Place for a most convivial concert and poetry reading. One could say that this whole project (the Hong Kong Literature series) grew out of a number of such close friendships and convivial collaborations. Friendship is after all the life-blood of translation.
From its first controversial founding as a British colony in 1842, Hong Kong has been a unique place of refuge for immigrants, protected from the incessant turmoil of the Mainland, a haven in which this free-thinking, free-wheeling child of China’s great and ancient literary culture has somehow been able to survive and flourish, unimpeded by political struggle and the heavy hand of ideological dogma. In the tender core beneath this modern city’s deceptively hard and glittering surface lies a world of fine literature, of sophisticated visual and performance art, music, theatre and film. It has been one of the great civilised cities of the world. This new series of six books proudly presents the defiant and distinctive character of Hong Kong’s imaginative literature, which has marked it off from the other parts of the Chinese-speaking world. Like the better-known cinematic work of Wong Kar Wai, the literature of Hong Kong combines a timelessly Chinese palette of colours and flavours with an exciting acceptance of cosmopolitan modernity. It is as authentically Chinese as the very best Cantonese cuisine, and yet at the same time, having issued from a place which is so permeable and volatile, it is also infused with an effortless sense of fusion. The literature is an alchemy of Hong Kong, but through translation it can become an alchemy for the world.
Twenty-five years earlier, in 1986, I had already edited a special double edition of the translation journal Renditions 譯叢, published by The Chinese University of Hong Kong, devoted entirely to Hong Kong Literature [see Renditions, Spring & Autumn 1988]. From then onwards Leung and I worked together over many years on all sorts of projects, promoting Hong literature and culture, including a high-profile two-man show at London’s South Bank performance complex in the summer of 1997. We held a gathering in December 2005, at the Habitus Gallery in Western District, about which I wrote at the time in an article for the short-lived newspaper of Hong Kong’s new democratic Civic Party, of which I was a founding member:
‘That evening, down towards the harbour, on the top floor of the old Western Market, an elegant Edwardian red-brick building, PK and a group of friends gathered to read his poems, in Chinese (Cantonese of course), in English, even in Arabic (translations by Sayed Gouda). The atmosphere was very relaxed and good-humoured. There was a generosity of spirit. Good wine was shared. We wandered around the roof-top site, chatting animatedly and looking at the various objects on display in the communal art venue. There was poetry in the air. Poetry about food, short poems celebrating everyday life, bitter-sweet evocations of relationships gone astray, cameos of the Hong Kong fashion world, pensive reflections on the recent Tsunami, wry protests at the pompous rigmarole of politics, ironic references to the 1997 Hand-over and to Sir Cecil Clementi’s 1925 paean to the old colony of Hong Kong. It was a private communing, inspired by a shared reluctance to use any one of the many varieties of “counterfeit coinage” in circulation. It was above all a happy occasion.’
Leung more than anyone else instilled in me personally a deep pride in and love for Hong Kong literature. After the 2011 Symposium, he and I, with the Hong Kong University Press, approached the HK Arts Development Council for financial support to create a new series of high-quality translations, with a plan to publish six books initially. The Council gave us a generous grant. Subsequently the HKU Press abruptly withdrew from the project without giving me any reason whatsoever. Luckily for the project, that very same day the director of The Chinese University Press, Ms Gan Qi 甘琦 picked up the project, immediately and with great enthusiasm. The CUHK Press team have been collaborating with me on the project ever since, with extraordinary dedication and professional diligence. They are wonderful people to work with. (My own relationship with the CUHK Press goes back to the 1980s, when I was director of the CUHK Translation Centre and worked closely with the then director of the Press, Mr T.L. Tsim 詹德隆.)
My actual history with Hong Kong itself goes back even further, to 1966 when I first went to live there as a twenty-year-old student of the Chinese language from Oxford. All of my four children went to school in Hong Kong, and I have taught at several Hong Kong universities. So you could say that there is a strong bond, a deep 文學因緣 [‘literary affiliation’, or a predestined karmic connection — Ed.], between me and the marvellous city of Hong Kong. That bond has made this project all the more meaningful for me. Since 2014, progress has been interrupted more than once, by illness and misfortune, but somehow despite everything we have managed to see it through to completion.
Ming Pao: Could you say something about the translation process, and how you came to choose the six titles in the series? You were previously involved in translating Xi Xi’s collection of stories, which included ‘A Girl Like Me’; how did you come this time to choose The Teddy Bear Chronicles? Was your decision to include Leung’s late story ‘Drowned Souls’ the result of your own liking for traditional Chinese tales of the supernatural 志怪小說?
JM: The choice of the six first titles of the series was something I discussed at length with Professor Leung before his untimely death in January 2013. We immediately chose Liu Yichang’s important masterpiece, the novel The Drunkard 酒徒 as one of the key texts. I had already been alerted to the importance of this work from the early 1960s by a talented young graduate student I had taught at CUHK in 2011-12, Ms Charlotte Yiu 姚春琳.
Liu Yichang 劉以鬯, an immigrant from Shanghai in 1948, was for several decades, until his death in 2018 at the age of 99, the father figure of the modern Hong Kong literary scene. As editor of the journal Hong Kong Literature, he was widely respected for having nurtured younger talents (such as Leung Ping-kwan and Xi Xi). His 1962 stream-of-consciousness novel The Drunkard brilliantly portrays the Hong Kong of the early 1960s, chronicling the struggle for survival in the jungle of the city of a dissolute but thoughtful and literate Chinese man of letters. It captures the quintessential spirit of Hong Kong, its magnificent, often squalid, splendour, its contradictions, its chaotic and irrepressible energy. At my suggestion, Professor Leung took Charlotte to meet Liu Yichang, to receive his blessing on the translation. With some of the HKADC funding I was able to commission her to spend a year undisturbed, working intensively on this very demanding translation task. It is not surprising that it has not been translated before. It contains long passages of literary criticism, referring to Chinese classics such as The Story of the Stone 紅樓夢 [also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber] as well as the entire gamut of modernism, Chinese and Western. I myself then went over every sentence of her first draft carefully. Later on, again using a part of the HKADC funding, I was able to bring in an experienced Australian editor, Nick Hordern, to revise the whole novel, with a view to its being ‘reborn’ in English as a fluent stream-of-consciousness novel. In the final stages Charlotte (by then a PhD student in the United States) went over the whole text with me again, referring back to the Chinese original to make sure that Nick (who is a brilliant editor, but knows no Chinese) had not strayed too far from the original. So this was altogether a long, arduous and complex international translation process. But ultimately I think it has been a very successful one.
My role throughout as series editor has been to ensure that the translations are of a high enough literary standard to communicate with new English-language readers. I have always myself, ever since working with David Hawkes on the 紅樓夢/ Story of the Stone Penguin translation in the 1970s and 1980s, been very much in favour of reader-friendly, free, creative translation. A lot of existing translations of Hong Kong literature (indeed of all Chinese literature in general) have simply been too literal and therefore unreadable. This has let Hong Kong down. Above all I want the world to realise that Hong Kong not only has world-class film directors like Wong Kar-wai and Tsui Hark, but also world-class writers of literature.
A while ago I spent seven years (with the help of Hawkes) editing and translating Louis Cha’s long last novel The Deer and the Cauldron 鹿鼎記 with the same goal in mind: to bring a characteristically Hong Kong work out into the world of the general English-language reader, to make a martial arts novel 武俠小說, already so enormously popular with Chinese readers, truly enjoyable reading, genuine fun, for the English reader. That involved taking considerable freedoms. I am very pleased that Oxford University Press have recently decided to re-issue this translation in a three-volume paperback set. It is an ideal companion to this new series.
As for Xi Xi 西西, yes, I have long been a great admirer of hers. Back in the 1980s, my friend and mentor Stephen C. Soong 宋淇, a leading Hong Kong critic, introduced me to her work, and with his encouragement I edited for publication the first collection of translations of her stories, including ‘A Girl Like Me’ 像我這樣的一個女子. Over the past five decades she has created a large and uniquely personal body of work, as a writer of both fiction and poetry. She is widely admired for her stylistic elegance and for the poignant and haunting, almost melancholic, mood of much of her writing. Quite recently, I happened to come across her new book about teddy bears titled 縫熊誌 one day in a Hong Kong bookshop, and it struck me at once as a wonderfully fresh and entertaining read, combining a whimsical sense of humour, with a new and perceptive look at Chinese culture and history. The Teddy Bear Chronicles is a quirky and original work, cleverly bringing together her passion for the making of teddy bears (after her cancer recovery) with a number of poignant short essays about colourful figures from Chinese history. It is a charming album, both instructive and entertaining, leaving the reader with a feeling of pure delight. I think of it as a new manifestation of the great Chinese tradition of ‘notebook literature’ 筆記文學. There again I was very fortunate to find the perfect translator, a young Australian PhD student called Christina Sanderson, who loves teddy bears and has captured exactly the playful mood of Xi Xi’s wonderful essays.
Of course I wanted to include a generous selection of the work of PK or 也斯 himself in the series. I ended up editing two titles, one devoted to his poetry, which I have entitled Lotus Leaves 蓮葉 and one containing two of his stories, which I have simply called Dragons. The poetry anthology is the most complete selection to date of his work in translation. It covers the whole range of his work, from very serious modernistic meditations on personal identity and the human condition, to charmingly light excursions into popular everyday Hong Kong life and culture. I was most fortunate in having the poet’s widow, Betty Ng 吳煦斌, a personal friend, to guide me on this volume.
What kind of a poet was Leung? His American friend and translator Gordon Osing evoked him well in their 1992 dialogue, as
‘an urban, travelled, Cantonese, with a serious and playful Chinese mind… He writes like a clown speaking on television, like a cab driver speaking in the front seat, or someone speaking directly to the inner life, or intimately to his friends.’
For all his cosmopolitanism and his fiercely independent Hong Kong spirit, PK was at heart a deeply Chinese poet:
‘When I first started writing poetry in the 1970s, I was interested in classical Chinese poetry, and tried to transfer what I learned from classical poetics to write about modern cities. Some of the classical Chinese poems that I like very much are occasional poems. They are poems that show how one relates to people, to their environment, and to the outside world in general. I am more removed from poets who meditated on immortality, or those who believed their works to be timeless artefacts. I feel more comfortable with poets who wrote after dinner to tell their friends how tasty the yellow fish was. Song-dynasty poets such as Su Dongpo wrote poems like that. I do read a lot of classical poetry and have found things I like, but I am afraid that some of my critics must find me “un-traditional”, and at times “un-Chinese”.’
Leung maintained that he was interested above all in
‘discovering the immanent qualities of things… The sense of play is a part of me. I use it to resist dead seriousness and self-righteousness, easy answers… A poet in Hong Kong is by the very nature of things distanced from all that grandiose and heroic voice… I would like to read the world from the perspective of simple objects, rather than from the viewpoint of monuments or heroes; I want my poems about things to be a dialogue with the world, to learn and be inspired by the shapes, smells and colours of things…’
His insatiable appetite for adventure, and for freedom, in life as in art, always contrasted poignantly with the way politics on the Mainland had censored and impoverished literature ever since 1949, the year of his birth, which was also the year of China’s so-called ‘Liberation’. PK was deeply proud of Hong Kong’s unique identity and its independent literary heritage, constantly exploring new avenues of ‘knowing and showing’ Hong Kong — through writing about it in ways that defied Mao’s doctrine that literature should ‘serve the people’, in poems that were not written ‘for the people’ but were nonetheless extremely ‘popular’. He hailed Hong Kong as a free space for the imagination, for creativity and independence of thought. At the same time he had a sharp eye for the city’s ‘bizarre circus’, a ‘site where even the most absurd and ridiculous fabrications are possible’.
As for the stories, PK had given me a copy of an old student translation of one of his early stories, 養龍人師門, ‘See Mun and the Dragon’, and with the aid of my daughter, the editor Laura Ng, working from her home in Sydney, Australia, I was able to revise this for publication. The much later story, 淹死者的超度, ‘Drowned Souls’, is one of my personal favourites — perhaps, as you yourself suggest, because it has such strong echoes of the old tradition of supernatural tales 志怪小說 (one which I particularly like — I myself constantly encouraged Leung to read more of Pu Songling 蒲松齡! He eventually did, loved them and wrote a cycle of twelve poems based on them). In fact I myself feature briefly in the story ‘Drowned Souls’, as the recluse Brother Claritas! Again I was very fortunate that a very talented former PhD student of mine in Hong Kong, Dr Tong Man 唐文, now teaching at Lingnan University, devoted herself, with the help of a British friend, to translating this remarkable long and challenging story. Once again I stepped in later and was responsible for the final revision.
Ming Pao: You have previously translated a number of Chinese classics, and since the 1990s you have turned more towards Hong Kong literature. Why is this? Has your experience with this new series as editor and translator been a rewarding and enriching experience for you? How has it differed from your past experiences as a translator? If translation is inseparable from life (as you have been quoted as saying), in what way has this project become part of your life?
JM: Working on this series over the past nine years has been for me a deeply challenging and at the same time a wonderfully fulfilling task. In a way I feel as if I am repaying my own debt to a magnificent city that was my home on and off for fifteen years. Hong Kong has given me and my family so much, we had so many warm and happy times there, so many great friendships. With all the major changes taking place now, I also see this series as a sort of ‘swan song’ to the exciting times of creativity and freedom I experienced in Hong Kong. Working on a project like this has certainly been a rich and life-enhancing privilege for all the translators and editors involved. The whole series is in a sense a hymn sung by an international choir, a hymn to the Soul of Hong Kong. Good literature does not serve politics; it survives politics. It is universal and timeless.
Ming Pao: You have been quoted as saying that Hong Kong is ‘the Best China’. How has this series been able to present this claim? How does the series present the quintessence of Hong Kong?
JM: One of the six books, an anthology of essays still to be printed, is in fact entitled The Best China 最好的中國. It includes essays by a wide range of Hong Kong writers over the ages, ever since the birth of the British colony in the 1840s. Above all this book is a testimony to what I like to call the ‘free-wheeling, free spirit’ of Hong Kong. This spirit of freedom has always been the very essence of Hong Kong. It is what has made the place so different from other parts of the Chinese-speaking world. The sheer fact of allowing different voices, different points of view, to co-exist, is what Hong Kong has always been about. So in this anthology The Best China there are essays by the martial arts novelist Jin Yong, there is an essay about Jin Yong by Margaret Ng, an essay by Leo Lee on late romantic music, two lyrical essays by Leung Ping-kwan on iconic places in Hong Kong, a fine defence of freedom of information by Jimmy Lai – this is the polyphonic voice of a dynamic and free society. It records the intellectual ferment that has always characterised the city, sometimes restless and questioning, sometimes meditative and lyrical, always civilised, and buoyed by an all-pervasive spirit of freedom. It is inspiring, it is precious, it would be a tragedy to see it disappear. There are also Chinese voices from Hong Kong’s more remote past, writers such as that remarkable early refugee from Shanghai Wang Tao 王韜, and the record of the strong speech given by Sun Yat-sen 孫中山 on ‘how much he owed to Hong Kong’. There are distinguished essays from the Hong Kong diaspora, from prominent sinologists such as Liu Ts’un-yan 柳存仁 and Anthony C. Yu 余國藩. The book also contains items originally written in English by Hong Kong residents such as the great Scottish sinologist James Legge, the first governor of Hong Kong the scholar Sir John Francis Davis, the early buccaneer missionary Karl Gutzlaff, the cultivated Cantonese-speaking Governor Sir Cecil Clementi. There is a wonderfully lyrical essay on the bamboo by a colonial Hong Kong civil servant of the nineteenth century, J. Dyer Ball, and a delightfully evocative piece about the street cries of the city by the German missionary Johannes Nacken. There is a poignant memoir by my late father-in-law David Hawkes 霍克思 about his student and friend the brilliant Hong Kong scholar and translator Wong Siu-kit 黃兆傑. These all form part of the extraordinarily cosmopolitan and diverse world of Hong Kong.
Ming Pao: You were very close to Leung Ping-kwan. To what extent has your work in translating his writings been driven by that closeness, that emotion of friendship? Is there a sense in which writer and translator can become as one [渾然一體]?
JM: I’m not 100% sure I understand this question. As I have said several times, for me translation has nearly always been linked to friendship. Even with works from the remote past! The translator can become a friend of a long-dead author! And in friendship there are many degrees of closeness. I firmly believe that translators should discreetly infuse their own blood, their own living experience, their own emotion, their own creativity, into their work, while always remaining of course faithful and engaged with the original. We are bound to our authors by a bond that cannot be questioned or severed. But we owe it to our authors to give them unconditionally our own freedom of spirit. To use the recurring theme of Leo and Esther Lee’s Ordinary Days, as translators we must open our hearts, 倒空自己. When the author is a living person, it is sometimes possible for author and translator to achieve an almost uncanny fusion of identity. As you put it, 渾然一體. I think this was the case with Leung Ping-kwan and myself. We were very close. We used to enjoy spending evenings in bars going over my translations, and his originals, over a few glasses of good red wine. On one occasion he said to me, ‘You haven’t translated exactly what I wrote, but I actually like yours better, so I think I’ll go back and change my original.’
Ming Pao: Is this series one of your unfinished projects with Leung that you mention in your Preface?
JM: Yes, this series is certainly one of our major unfinished projects. It was very close to Leung’s heart. That is one reason why I am so happy to see it come to completion now, more than seven years after his death. To borrow from the title of one of Xi Xi’s works, we could perhaps give the first six books of this series an informal title, Six Chapters from a Floating City 浮城六記. They are a tribute to the indomitable spirit of the very special but precarious world that is Hong Kong.
Ming Pao: Can you say something about the process of translating Liu Yichang’s The Drunkard.
JM: As I have explained in detail above, the translation of The Drunkard was a long and complex process, involving three people over several years.
Ming Pao: Can you say something about the memoir Ordinary Days, and its relation to Shen Fu’s Six Chapters of a Floating Life [沈復著《浮生六記》]?
JM: Ordinary Days 過平常日子 is a most extra-ordinary personal memoir written jointly by two close friends of mine, Leo Lee Ou-fan and his wife Esther Lee Yuk-ying. I was very fortunate in being able to enlist two young translators now living in Australia to write the first draft of the translation. They had both come to know Leo and Esther well during a 2018 symposium held in New Zealand, and this were therefore able to enter fully into the spirit of this work. I edited their draft. Once again friendship was fuelling our work. Leo has himself written that in some ways their memoir was written in homage to Six Chapters of a Floating Life 浮生六記. I think the important aspect of this connection between the two works, one modern, the other from the late-eighteenth century, is that although the authors concerned were all three extremely cultivated and refined individuals, the books themselves are both about the simple, unaffected expression of emotion, of joy and sorrow; they tell a poignant tale of love and suffering. One of the key recurring phrases in Ordinary Days is to ‘open the heart’, mentioned above, or 倒空自己. This is the arduous process whereby the individual lets go of what is false and attains emotional and psychological truth, which is in turn the foundation of truth in love and in any relationship, indeed in any human endeavour, including translation. Both memoirs are remarkable and rare in Chinese literature, in that they are about the unadorned expression of feeling, of emotional truth. They are both what we would call memoirs of sentiment. To a certain extent this is also true of the great novel The Story of the Stone 紅樓夢.
Ming Pao: How do you think the English readers will respond to this series?
JM: I really want the English-speaking reader to be able to see beneath the surface of Hong Kong. I want the translated literature of Hong Kong to enable the English reader to see deep into the soul of Hong Kong, to delve beyond the superficial image of Hong Kong as a hard, materialistic society, and feel the tenderness, the humanity, the warmth and humour that lie beneath that surface. I hope the translations can succeed in doing this. If they do, they will have achieved their goal.
Ming Pao: What plans do you have for the future?
JM: I myself am currently resting after this long and exhausting project! I am now seventy-four years old, living a life of quiet retirement in rural New Zealand. Whatever I do next will have to be something slow and leisurely. Something I do purely for my own pleasure. I think perhaps I would like to revise a few more of my complete draft translations (done in France thirty years ago!) of the more than 500 tales in the wonderful collection Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio 聊齋誌異. But I’m not in any hurry! I am also revising my own autobiography, the ‘Strange Tales of a Translator’!