According to some, it is only truly possible to understand literature when it is translated into a familiar language by contemporary authors familiar with one’s local culture. While others argue that regardless of whether works were written in a time, place, or language that differ greatly from our own, all literature is about the human experience, and the human experience is universal. Therefore, they believe people can understand literature works quite well irrespective of the time period or location they are from, or the language in which they are written.
Frankly speaking, I can’t fully deny any one of these claims. Although I’m more in favor of the latter opinion, I do think both of the arguments are justified. Whether they are reasonable, however, depends on how we define literature and what we expect from literature.
The word literature is derived from the Latin word “littera,” which means handwriting. Therefore, generally speaking, literature once referred to any form of written work. But the definition has evolved over time. Nowadays, literature not only refers to any form of written work but also texts, whether in written or non-written forms, that have historical value, aesthetic value, intellectual value, or live up to expectations in these regards.
If we consider literature simply to be written words, then it is natural to focus mainly on the literal meaning and appreciate the beauty of the words and their unique styles. Under this context, we definitely can’t gain a deep understanding of a text in a foreign language or context far removed because when stories are in a different language, the words appear as no more than unintelligible symbols. They don’t convey any effective information unless they are translated. However, after translation, some important messages or nuanced value may be lost. For example, The Story of the Stone, one of China’s four most famous classical novels, was once translated into English by David Hawkes. Hawkes’ version is readable for most English native speakers, but some of the artistic charms from the original Chinese version were lost. For instance, below is a poem from the novel:
Hawkes translated it into:
“Her purity I can best show
In plum-trees flowering in the snow;
Her chastity I shall recall
In orchids white at first frost-fall;
Her tranquil nature will prevail
Constant as lone pine in an empty vale;
Her loveliness as dazzled make
As sunset gilding a pellucid lake;
Her loveliness as dazzled make
As sunset gilding a pellucid lake;
Her glittering elegance I can compare
With dragons in an ornamental mere;
Her dreamy soulfulness most seems
Like wintry waters in the moon’s cold beams.”
Iambic tetrameter, iambic pentameter, and couplet writing techniques are used in his translation to maintain the poetic form of the original. But we can observe that the original lines are divided into four-character sets and that each line has the same number of words, which is a form adopted in many classical Chinese poems. However, in the English version, the beauty of the structural form of traditional Chinese poems is lost. The same can be said for foreign readers of Chinese novels, or even more so, readers who are not contemporaries of authors.
In addition to the beauty of the words and forms themselves, humor is another concept that can’t be fully transferred across languages. Generally speaking, humor refers to something that is or is designed to be comical or amusing. It functions well only under certain cultural contexts. Humor rarely makes sense in other languages because of cultural diversity, language application, and varied backgrounds. Chinese people have a hard time understanding some English jokes because there is a vast difference between Chinese and Western cultures – not all norms are universal, and the same can be said for comedy.
Language and society, change gradually over time, so time also stands in the way of understanding literary works thoroughly when it comes to appreciating the beauty of words. For example, Shakespeare’s works were written in Old English, which differs quite substantially from modern English. Therefore, even many native English speakers have a difficult time understanding his works. Besides, some concepts, objects, or phrases that frequently appeared in the past may not be common today, so people nowadays may not fully understand what it means when certain things or phenomena appear in classical literary texts. From this perspective, it can be argued that people are not able to fully understand literary works in a different language or from a different time or space.
However, literature conveys more than literal meanings. When we define it as texts that have historical, aesthetic, or intellectual values, we can focus on the connotations present in literary works rather than denotation. In this case, we want literature to feed our souls, help us discover ourselves, broaden our horizons, foster critical thinking, and entertain. Therefore, the stories told, feelings expressed, and knowledge transferred in literary works will be given priority over the beauty of the actual words and forms themselves. Stories, knowledge, and varied information that are objective in existence barely change over time and hold together in multiple translations.
As for feelings and emotions expressed through literature, they are all related to the human experience, virtues, and defects of mankind, which are universal. And, among these universal elements, humanity, a virtue related to acts of love, basic ethics of altruism, and social intelligence, is the most frequently depicted in literary works. As Peterson & Seligman mentioned in Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (2004), humanity is one of six virtues that are consistent across all cultures. Therefore, literary works that focus on these universal elements can make meaningful connections with readers across time, space, and language.
Due to the concept of universality, even after translation, literary works’ connotations can be effectively presented to target readers, who can appreciate their historical, aesthetic, and intellectual values just as source language readers do. For example, in The Consolations of Philosophy, British writer Alain de Botton introduces six philosophers and their philosophical thoughts. In the author’s view, no matter what their thoughts may be, philosophers all have something in common. They all have faith in their judgments, keep a distance from vulgarity, maintain their individuality, and never back down to power. Alan wants them to act as examples to console ordinary people and help them through various difficulties. The book has been translated into many languages including Chinese.
On Amazon China, many Chinese readers have posted a range of book reviews. From their book reviews, we can conclude that they fully perceived what Alain de Botton wanted to express in his book. For instance, one book review reads, “The value of The Consolations of Philosophy is that the author dealt with the philosophies with profundity and an easy-to-understand approach. The thoughts of Socrates, Epicurus, Schopenhauer, Seneca, Montaigne, and Nietzsche are stressed in most relevant areas. In general, Alain tried to realize the consolation of different philosophical schools on different aspects of life.” In short, when the nuanced connotations of literary works are emphasized, all valid information can be well expressed in translated works and resonate with readers of different languages.
In addition, time and space won’t bother readers when they’re trying to understand literary works. Great works of literature usually deal with timeless themes that resonate with readers across countries. And the human experience remains fundamentally the same today as it was when literature was first produced. For example, in 1949, the English writer George Orwell published his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The novel presents a world full of “official deception, secret surveillance, brazenly misleading terminology, and manipulation of recorded history by a totalitarian or authoritarian state.” It was a satirical prediction of Socialism gone mad. Although regarded as subversive, the representative political allegorical work was popular among readers, especially those who were struggling with totalitarian states.
As of now, the novel has been translated into more than 60 languages and is widely sought after among readers worldwide. Space didn’t prevent the book from influencing the world. On the contrary, it helped attract more and more readers globally. Wherever the title of the novel, its themes, the Newspeak language, the author’s surname, or the word Orwellian, derived from the novel, are mentioned, they strike a chord among readers across the world.
All of these elements remind readers of a totalitarian dystopia that highlights government control and subjugation of the people. In addition, despite the fact that the novel was published in 1949, it is still highly relevant today. People nowadays are also fighting against totalitarianism. Most people are expecting a more democratic and open environment, so readers in modern times also resonate with the overall theme and are still appreciating its charm and paying their tributes to the novel. In 2007, an American punk rock band named Anti-Flag released a song titled Welcome To 1984, which was written based on Orwell’s magnum opus. In 2009, an English progressive rock band called Muse released their album The Resistance, which included songs inspired by Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Moreover, in 2017, an Argentine music quintet edited a conceptual album based on the novel. Therefore, we don’t have to look very far to find Orwell’s influences. If we lay stress on literature’s connotations and the human experience, time and space cannot be considered barriers for people to truly understand the profound meaning of these works. Also, it will be comforting for readers to read of the toils and the joys of characters who struggle with the same issues that they may encounter and draw lessons from them.
It thus appears that when we focus on the connotations rather than the denotations of literature, time, space, and language never prevent people from understanding literature works thoroughly. And literature works translated from English to Chinese are perhaps some of the prime examples of this view, including 84, Charing Cross Road, a book written by an American writer Helene Hanff. First published in 1970, the book tells the story of an author located in New York City and Frank Doel, an antiquarian bookseller who owned a shop at 84, Charing Cross Road in London. The eponymous book presents a warm long-distance and lifelong friendship across twenty years of correspondence between Helene and Frank and between Helene and the bookshop’s staff members.
The story began with Hanff searching for classics, and British literature works that she couldn’t find in New York City. Though she was down and out, as a bibliophile, Hanff still tried her best to get as many good books as possible. She was then too poor to afford new versions of books and had become fed up with the comparatively vulgar literature found in contemporary New York City. So, she began to seek out-of-print books. As luck would have it, she happened to notice an advertisement in a newspaper and started contacting the bookshop in 1949. Frank fulfilled her request by providing her with satisfying books. This marked the start of their friendship with an exchange of not only books but also Christmas packages, birthday gifts, and food parcels. Hanff’s parcels helped Frank, his family members, and staff a lot with the food shortages in Britain after World War II.
As time went by, they became more and more intimate. Apart from the information about buying and selling books that they exchanged, more discussions were included in their letters, such as their thoughts on books, family chores, doctor visits, and other familiar routines. Due to her economic hardships, Hanff ultimately did not visit her English friends until it was too late. She finally made her way to the Marks & Co bookshop at Charing Cross Road in 1971 only after Frank had passed away, leaving her to overcome a deep sense of regret.
The story of 84, Charing Cross Road embodies the two warmest parts of human nature; the trust and care people can have for each other, even though they may have never met and are from far away ends of the earth. In this case, the only proof of their existence and contact were the letters. When Helene’s requirements were fulfilled in the bookshop, she sent Frank more money and asked him to buy more books for her. She totally trusted him to select appropriate books, and usually paid more just in case she couldn’t pay for the upcoming books in time. And Frank helped her with the bill. He carefully calculated the money Helene paid and never considered taking a penny more than was needed. In addition, he often searched for antique books according to her tastes and mailed them to her before she had even ordered them. Their confidence in each other impresses readers.
Beyond that, the love and care between Helene and her English friends keep readers deeply moved. Helene was not rich. She held several posts simultaneously, including writing scripts for a TV station and history primers for a children’s publishing house. But even so, she sent her English friends meat and eggs that were in short supply in Britain’s post-World War II period. And she usually mailed enough food for Frank and his staff members to share with their families. As for people in England, they repaid Helene’s kindness in their own unique ways. Some of them taught Helene how to make puddings that couldn’t be found in the United States for her British neighbors. One sent her a piece of fine cloth as a Christmas gift. And it was more than once mentioned in the letters that if Helene went to the UK, everyone was willing to accommodate her. The hospitality and kindness that human beings can afford to others were put on full display.
Although their story ended in 1971, the twenty-year correspondence between the author and the bookseller and his staff, along with the greatest kindness every character showed to strangers, has reached people all over the world. The book has been embraced by many enthusiasts in the 21st century. Every year, some of them come from all over the world to make a pilgrimage to Charing Cross Road in London. Gradually, 84 Charing Cross Road has become a secret signal among book lovers worldwide, and the book is referred to as “the bible of book enthusiasts.” Although these people never experienced World War II and may not be familiar with the British food shortage at the time, through Helene’s description, they still feel empathy for people living in difficult environments and resonate with the kindness and warmth of human nature, the mutual trust between people, and the preciousness of having a soul mate and true friends.
Time and space never prevent readers from understanding the literary work at all. Nowadays, readers who love Helene’s book have left book reviews online to pay their respects to the book and show their understanding of what was expressed by Helene. A book review on Amazon.com reads, “84, Charing Cross Road is a charming record of bibliophilia, cultural differences, and imaginative sympathy. For 20 years, an outspoken New York writer and a reserved London bookseller carried on an increasingly touching correspondence.” It is obvious that readers have found great meaning in the piece of literature judging by their book reviews.
The book has also been adapted into stage plays, television shows, and films, which have expanded its influence and reflect people’s understanding of the book from different regions of the world. The earliest adaptation in 1975 was a television anthology series by BBC. After that, James Roose-Evans, a British theatre director, adapted it into a stage play. In 1981, the play made its debut in the West End Theatre in London, where it won universally ecstatic reviews. In addition to the TV series and plays, some films were created based on the book.
Hugh Whitemore wrote the screenplay for the 1987 film adaptation, and the adaptation was broadcast in West Germany, the Netherlands, the Soviet Union, etc. On IMDb, a comment from a reviewer who watched the movie in 2002 reads, “84, Charing Cross Road is a wonderfully enchanting film. The lifelong friendship warms my heart in the winter. And through the movie, I have learned some differences and similarities between the Brits and the New Yorkers over the years.” These stage plays, television plays and films remarkably demonstrate how books are engaged differently across time and place, and how the book warms readers’ hearts. The trust and love originally expressed in Helene’s book are well perceived. Readers and audiences have been overwhelmed by the book’s charm.
What’s more, the book is not just well understood across time. With good translation, people in non-English-speaking countries also appreciate the charm of 84, Charing Cross Road. In China, the book was translated by Chen Jianming, who happens to possess an indissoluble bond with antiquarian books. Chen worked at the antiquarian book section of Eslite Bookstore in Taiwan and feels that he has much in common with Hanff. Both of them were displeased with a lack of good books to read and the awful city they were living in. There is an emotional resonance between the author and the translator. So, the translator thoroughly understood what the author wanted to express in her book. In the preface, Chen explained that during his translation, he tried his best to preserve the original book’s style, but he still deliberately made very small changes, in the hope that the “distortion” would help Chinese readers understand the original text completely.
Thanks to Chen Jianming’s efforts, the book succeeded in catching the attention of Chinese readers. Many Chinese readers have been totally fascinated by the twenty-year correspondence between people who never met in their lifetime, as well as their love and care for each other, their pure friendship, or in other words, the platonic love between Helene and Frank. A Chinese reader with the online alias Xiao Min shared her book review on book.douban.com, a book-sharing website in China. The book review reads, “They are confidants who trust each other, who know the preciousness of books and the joy of reading. From the main characters’ long-awaited letters, I see their expectations for hearing from each other. In such a fast-paced society, I wish I could have a pure friendship like them. I bet that’s why the book can be a bestseller in so many countries.” Chinese people’s understanding of the book can also be found in the Chinese movie Book of Love released in 2016.
The movie also tells a story about two people who lived far apart but happened to communicate with each other through letters. They consoled each other through letters just as Helene and Frank did through their twenty years of correspondence. It seems apparent that after translation, the essence of the book has been well maintained. People in China thoroughly understand the warmth of human nature and the universal human experience presented in the original book.
In conclusion, when literature is confined to literal translation, it is hard to understand it thoroughly across time, space, and language. As language and social conditions change over time, what was once common at a certain time may not make sense in another. And in different languages, the beauty of words and forms can’t be fully appreciated. But when literature is defined as text with historical, aesthetic, or intellectual values, connotations gain the upper hand. In this case, literary works can be truly understood because they embody the author’s perception of the world. They represent either knowledge or the human experience and humanity, which are all universal. For these works, time, space, and language will never prevent people from understanding them, but rather help to attract more readers and enjoy a vigorous and prolonged life.
Alain de Botton. The Consolations of Philosophy[M]. London: Penguin Books, 2001.
Cao Xueqin. The Story of the Stone[M]. London: Penguin Books, 1973.
Helene Hanff. 84, Charing Cross Road[M]. London: Penguin Books, 1990.
George Orwell. Nineteen Eighty-Four[M]. Penguin Books, 1961.
Peterson, Christopher; Seligman, Martin E.P. Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification[M]. Washington, DC: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Sun Yifeng. Cultural Connotation of Humor Translation[J]. Chinese Translators Journal, 2002(1): 92-93.
Cao Xueqin, Gao E. Dream of Red Mansions[M]. Beijing: People’s Literature Publishing House, 2008.
Alain de Botton. The Consolations of Philosophy[M]. Shanghai: Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 2015.
Helene Hanff. 84, Charing Cross Road[M]. Nanjing: Yilin Press, 2016.
Wang Xizhan. On Translator’s Subjectivity and Limitation – A Case Study of 84, Charing Cross Road[J]. Overseas English, 2018(6): 146-152.
Zixuan Zheng, 11th Grader of Huafu International, Guangzhou, GD of China. Her pieces have been featured in magazines, newspapers and on websites since the 7th Grade. Three-time junior golf champion in California. Making friends from all around the world by playing golf and writing powerful words are her greatest passions.