CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 25, March 2011


Yang Xianyi: In Tribute | China Heritage Quarterly

Peng Wenlan

I joined the Foreign Languages Press in 1978 and was assigned to the Books Section, which produced many of the literary works that Xianyi and Gladys Yang had translated. Of course, their fame had preceded them, so that on actually meeting this formidable couple, I was completely star-struck and almost fell into a kowtowing position. As a novice, I worked on translations of lesser-known modern novels. So it was to my utter amazement that, one day in my second year, my section leader came to me with The Selected Works of Lu Xun, one of the Yangs' better known translations, and said: 'Here, your next task is to check the translation and improve it.' I was flabbergasted—me, barely out of my nappies, checking the Yangs' translation! To my great relief, I subsequently discovered I was meant only to pick out typographical errors. But even that was an honour—being spell-checker for Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang!

Scrutinising every line of the four-volume work was far from being mundane or monotonous, as one might expect proofreading to be. Indeed, it was in the course of this assignment that I really began to appreciate the artistry that goes into translation and the Yangs' particular talent for turning a Chinese masterpiece into an English work of art. The reading is truly effortless and totally engaging. Their contribution, however, went far beyond rendering a literary piece from one language into another.

Through their work, which was a lifelong commitment, the Yangs were able to provide a conduit through which foreign readers could access an otherwise alien culture. When we see China today—befriended by scholars, wooed by businessmen, deluged by tourists—it's hard to imagine that a mere fifty years earlier, the same country was isolated from the rest of the world. This rapprochement has been brought about by increasing communication and cultural exchanges, including the reading of Chinese literature in translation. Amongst those who have helped bridge the gap between China and the West, therefore, Xianyi and Gladys Yang surely occupy a pivotal position.

On a personal level, the couple extended the warmest hospitality to one and all. From my window in the adjoining apartment block, I could see the constant flow of visitors to their modest home. If I hadn't had the time to shop for groceries, I knew where I could get a good, hot dinner and intellectual banter to boot. It was nourishment for both body and mind.

Despite all that they went through, they maintained a brave and dignified face. I remember quite vividly the year that their son died. That Christmas, a couple of friends and I thought we would try to bring some cheer to their home by singing some good old English carols. When we invited special requests, Yang Lao (as I addressed him to show my respect) asked for 'Danny Boy'. We sang it as best we could, but I could hear my own voice faltering as we uttered the words, 'The summer's gone, and all the flowers are dying. 'Tis you, 'tis you must go and I must bide', for I knew what painful memories they would stir. Strangely, it was as my voice faded that Yang Lao's heightened. Tears came to my eyes as he sang quiveringly the last line: 'Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so . . .'

Gladys responded differently. She internalised her emotions and never said a word about her son. She continued to nurture her plants in the sandy yellow soil outside their door. On her way back from the office every day, she would never forget to stop and look at them, stooping to remove a stray twig or deadhead a withered flower, making sure that some life would emanate from the barren earth, even though a part of hers had been brutally snatched away forever.

Whether it was political upheaval or personal turmoil, there was no time to wallow in self-pity. Life had to go on. And so it did—striking the well-worn keys of their vintage typewriters by day and, by night, back to the smoking, drinking and flowing conversation . . .