A manuscript for Jane Eyre, Volume III by Charlotte Brontë (Photo: Courtesy of the British Library)
Alexandra Ault checks a manuscript at the Where Great Writers Gather exhibition in Shanghai. (Photo: Courtesy of the British Library)
Since the beginning of the 20th century, a large number of British literature were introduced to China through the tireless efforts of Chinese scholars and translators. A major doorway to China at the time, Shanghai played a critical role in introducing Western culture to the country.
A just concluded exhibition held in Shanghai, Where Great Writers Gather: Treasures of the British Library, provided a chance for literature lovers in Shanghai to get a better understanding of renowned British writers Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855), D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930)), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) and Charles Dickens (1812-1870).
Through translations, critiques and studies by Chinese scholars, the exhibition also presented the audience how British literature was brought into Shanghai and other cities, and how it impacted Chinese literature in a historical period full of great changes.
One of the highlights of the exhibition was how it showed the difficulties an author would face to get his or her works to readers. For instance, Lawrence's The Rainbow was banned shortly after it was published in 1915 because of its bold descriptions of sex and homosexuality.
In the exhibition, a letter written by Lawrence to James Brand Pinker, his agent in London, sheds some light on the lengths an author would go to get his work to those who wanted it.
"Dear Pinker, I am here with Phillip Morrel and Lad Ottoline until Friday. We are talking about printing The Rainbow privately, by subscription. I really think it ought to be done," Lawrence wrote on November 29, 1915.
Despite his efforts, the book remained prohibited in the UK until 1926.
This was not the last time that Lawrence would have to deal with censorship, as many of his works criticized British society and dealt with the primitive human desire for sex.
Indeed, it seems that nothing came easy at the time. Brontë's Jane Eyre, written in 1847, wouldn't have seen the light of day if a young publisher by the name of George Smith hadn't taken a liking to it.
According to Alexandra Ault, the British curator of the exhibition, in order to better market her novel, Brontë originally used a male penname: Currer Bell. This is the name that is written on the first volume of the novel's original manuscript, though the name has been crossed out.
Ault explained that this manuscript, on display at the exhibition, is a neat copy of an earlier draft and also the version used by the printers. She noted that the names of the typesetters as well as their fingerprints can be found across some of the pages.
Development of translation
"In our history, translation has been an important medium that has connected China to the world," said Huang Xiangong, the Chinese curator of the exhibition.
During the first half of the 20th century, Shanghai gathered numerous translators and scholars who published countless translations and studies of British literature via newspapers and books, which caused it to become a main focus of Western literature studies in China.
In 1872, Shen Bao, a Shanghai newspaper that ran from 1872 to 1949, published serial translations of portions of Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift (1667-1745). One of the earliest Chinese translations of English fiction in China, it kicked off a wave of translated English works by other periodicals.
To some extent, the translation of British literature not only fostered the cultural development of modern China, but also reflected how people's thinking changed over the years.
During 1920s through 1930s, Jane Eyre was simply regarded as a romance novel in China since many of the original parts of the novel had been deleted or changed in early translations. After 1949, however, translators focused more on staying true to the original work, which allowed Chinese readers to taste the novel's true value. It was also around this time that scholars began researching the book and the Brontë sisters.
Translations of the works of Charles Dickens started at an earlier stage. For instance, the first translation of The Pickwick Papers was published 1918, and only 19 chapters were translated. During 1921 to 1922, another nine chapters were serialized in a magazine.
During this time, many Chinese translations on Dickens' works focused on entertaining readers, as such parts of the original were cut or adapted to better fit local tastes.
However, during the 1930s and 1940s, a time when Chinese society was undergoing a social revolution, translations became more faithful and the academic research and critiques began to gain ground.
The exhibition drew a lot of visitors, many of whom are lovers of British literature.
"I think the organizers made a great choice for the exhibits as these writers are some of the most influential and well-known British writers in China. It was very exciting to see the original manuscripts at such a close distance," Ma Wei, a cofounder of a language training center in Shanghai, told the Global Times.
Another visitor, Xu Zheng, was keen to view documents related to Chinese scholars and translators.
"Translation is possibly the most important skill ever as it broadens your horizons and allows you to communicate with brilliant minds," he explained.