Corps de l’article

Most of the current research on the cultural exchange between France and China focuses on the reception of French literature in China rather than on the inverse scenario, the reception of Chinese literature in France. This is primarily due to the fact that the establishment of Chinese modernity is deeply indebted to the translation of Western texts during the late Qing period (1644-1912), on topics ranging from literature, religion, philosophy, politics, and science to medicine and technology. In fact, French literature was considered one of the most prominent vehicle of Western thought and power, and it proved useful for accelerating the process of Chinese modernisation. It was thus massively translated in Chinese. In the domain of Franco-Chinese literary studies, most research is therefore directed to either classical Chinese literature, embodying the classical Chinese thought that often attracts the attention of Western academia, or to the reception of French literature in modern China.

Contrary to these popular orientations, Fang Gao adopts a different perspective to the study of the cultural exchanges between these two countries. Her book studies the translation and reception of modern Chinese literature in France from the 1920s until the end of the first decade of the 21st century. Prior to Gao’s book, derived from her PhD thesis, two French sinologists, Angel Pino and Isabelle Rabut, had already addressed a similar topic in a 1998 article. However, it was limited in scope, covering only French translations of modern Chinese literature published in France between 1994 and 1997. In 2014, Pino published a book-length bibliography that indexed all Chinese literary works published between the late Qing period and 2013, and translated into French. Gao follows the same track, taking a 90-year span into consideration and including French translations published in China by the Beijing Foreign Languages Press and in the Panda collection of the Chinese Literature Press.

Gao’s book is divided into three main parts, namely “Translate for Drafting an Inter-literary Relationship,” “Panorama of the Translation and the Reception of Chinese Modern Literature in France,” and “Three Specific and Representative Cases.” The first part traces the development of Western and Chinese modernity retrospectively. Gao then questions the definition of modernity and dwells on different concepts of “modern literature” in the European and Chinese context.

The second part of the book addresses several questions, such as the selection of writers and texts for translation during the period under investigation and the reasons behind this choice. To answer these questions, Gao divides this part into two sections, presenting, on the one hand, the translated writers, and on the other hand, their works, classified by genre and grouped into three categories, namely novels and short stories, theatre and poetry, and sanwen (texts in prose). The second section presents significant translators of modern Chinese literature in six categories, each representing a specific period. Thus, according to its division, in the 1920s and 1930s, translators of modern Chinese literature were mainly young Chinese who studied in France, such as Jing Yingyu, who was probably the first to introduce the new spirit of Chinese literature after the New Culture Movement (1915-1926) to French readers. In the 1940s, translators were mainly French Jesuits and missionaries of the Congrégation du Coeur Immaculé de Marie (CICM). From 1950 to 1965, most translations done in China were for ideologically motivated. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), translations and publications in China were always censored politically and ideologically, whereas in France, during the same period, translations were essentially done by left-wing intellectuals, such as Michelle Loi (1926-2002), who belonged to what the author called “French Maoism.” Between 1978 and 1999, while the PRC opened its door to the rest of the world, sinologists had a growing interest in modern Chinese literature, and multifarious translations were produced. Some writers, such as Lao She (1899-1966), Ba Jin (1904-2005), and Ding Ling (1904-1986), whose works were prohibited during the Cultural Revolution and later rehabilitated, attracted the attention of French translators. Finally, in the 2000s, the establishment of diplomatic relations and cultural exchanges at the governmental level between France and the PRC favoured the translation of modern Chinese literature.

The third part of the book presents case studies of the translated works of three famous Chinese authors. In each case, Gao addresses a specific issue. For example, in the first case, Gao tries to examine the historical conditions of Lu Xun’s encounter with French intellectuals, as well as the factors determining the selection of works to be translated and the translators’ intentions. By doing this, Gao intends to show that an ideological translation accentuates an ideological reception that, in turn, reinforces the ideological dimension of Lu Xun’s image.

Building on the analysis of these three parts, Gao concludes that modern Chinese literature has developed in accordance with cultural, political, and social changes in early 20th-century China. Gao claims that the selection of works made by the translators and publishers are, at the same time, influenced by both the historical context of the country where the original work was produced (China) and that of the target country of the translated works (France). Her conclusion is in no sense new, as it is also valid for those Asian countries in which the development of modernity was influenced by the West. The key thus lies in the subtlety of the reception processes.

Overall, the book provides the readers with a great deal of information concerning the translation of modern Chinese literature in France during different periods. As a result, the reader can understand the elements affecting the reception of a foreign literature that is not dominant in the current world literature system. As mentioned in the very beginning of this review, we can easily explain the translation and reception of French literature or of other dominant literary systems in China, since they are closely related to the diffusion of Western modernity. For example, according to Guo Yanli, during the second phase of the history of Chinese translation of foreign literature (1895-1906), less than 10% of translated novels belonged to classical works (Guo 1997: 33). This means that, instead of transmitting European literary taste, the goal of translation at that time was rather to transmit European knowledge and civilisation. Therefore, Gao’s book offers a particular research orientation, that of studying the reception of a less dominant literary system within a more dominant one.

However, concerning the research on the reception of literary works from one country to another, Gao’s book takes a rare starting point. In general, similar studies usually start with the first translation of the source literature in the target country: for instance, regarding the reception of French literature in China, it is ineluctable to mention Lin Shu and Wang Shouchang’s Bali Chahuanu Yishi[1]—the first Chinese translation of Dumas fils’ La Dame aux camélias[2], because it is the first Chinese translation of French literature. In The Modern Translated Literature in China: Introduction, Guo Yanli first presented two major translators in the section on the translation of French literature, beginning with the bibliography of these two translators and their first Chinese translations of French literature (Guo 1997: 79-103). Gao, however, starts her book by distinguishing the concept of Chinese modernity from Western modernity, as well as outlining different concepts of modern literature in different contexts. The name of the translator who first translated modern Chinese literature into French appears only after page 122. We can understand that Gao’s purpose is to explain the meaning of being “modern” and the complexity of this term in the Chinese context. However, seen from this perspective, the beginning of the book briefly introduces the development of modern Chinese literature rather than its reception in France. Thus, it gives readers the impression that the substantial first chapter serves those readers with no background in modern Chinese literature.

Moreover, even though both translation and reception are highlighted in the title, the two are not given equal treatment in the book, as most of the analyses centre around translation. For example, chapter 2 is almost entirely devoted to examining French translations of modern Chinese literature of different genres and periods. In the three case studies in chapter 3, the translation of the three authors’ works occupies a great part as well. Meanwhile, concerning reception, a dimension rarely explored in Gao’s book is the influence of Chinese authors on the literary production of authors in the target culture, which is one of the many emphases in the framework of reception theory. It looks as if Chinese writers have had no influence on the literary creation of French writers at all.

Furthermore, despite the fact that Gao concentrates highly on the French translation of modern Chinese literature, discussion of translation strategies is somehow neglected. She often cites critiques, prefaces, and letters of the translators to prove her arguments. For instance, in Lu Xun’s case study, comprising a total of 42 pages, only a single section discusses the various renditions of the title of Lu Xun’s Yecao[3] [Weeds]. During the discussion, Gao cites articles by Michelle Loi and the preface by Pierre Ryckmans to show the political intention of Ryckmans’ translation and the aesthetic intention of Loi’s translation (p. 256-262), without providing any textual analysis to explore the translation strategies of different translators. Therefore, readers may be left to wonder whether the ideological purpose of the some translations can be proven by their translation strategies, and why Gao opts to rely so much on second-hand sources to prove the translators’ intention instead of the more direct and evident method of textual analysis.

In the end, the book sheds some light on the evolution of translation strategies of modern Chinese literary texts translated in France across different periods of time. It also demonstrates the subtle power relationship that is established when a less dominant literary system is introduced into a more dominant one. However, the methodology of her research might be placed under question.