I looked at the English "1, 2, 3', then at the Chinese squiggles, and saw that one stroke was 1, two strokes 2 and … three strokes 3! I can read Chinese! It was a simple step from there to my translation of the kung fu novel The Book & The Sword, published in December by Oxford University Press.
The novel was written by Louis Cha, who occupies a position in modern Chinese literature equivalent to that of Dickens, Tolkien and Clancy combined. He is a giant, and unfortunately a lonely giant. There are simply no other authors of his stature in modern Chinese popular literature.
Book & Sword is a story that virtually every Chinese person knows, involving a kung fu secret society struggling against the Manchu court, the beautiful but tragic Fragrant Princess whose tomb stands outside Kashgar, and the war between the Manchu armies and the Muslim peoples of what is now western China.
It was Cha's first book, serialized in 1955 under his pen name Jin Yong in the Hong Kong newspaper that he founded, Ming Pao. His novels have had a huge impact on the whole of Chinese society and culture, and have been adapted many times for TV, film, cartoon strip and even computer games. He is probably the most pirated author of all time.
Cha's novels find favor with all levels of Chinese society, from academics who savor his command of the Chinese language, to kids who just love the fight scenes. From a Western perspective, they provide a window into the Chinese world, revealing its essence through the dreams and fantasies that make up whatever it is to be Chinese. The equivalent, in other words, of Tolkien's success in Lord of the Rings in tapping into the wellsprings of northern European consciousness.
Book & Sword?s story has a panoramic sweep which takes as its base a few unbeatable themes – secret societies, king fu masters, the sensational rumor so dear to Chinese hearts that the great Manchu emperor Qian Long was in fact a Chinese and not Manchu. It also mixes in the exotic flavors of central Asia, a lost city in the desert guarded by wolf packs and the unforgettable Fragrant Princess, who ate flowers and exuded a scent that every Chinese man would love to inhale. Me too.
Translating the book took around four years, and the fight scenes were by far the hardest part to get right. It inevitably involved some simplification. But I was as faithful to the spirit of the original as I could be. I took the view that I could omit or simplify but not add, and Mr. Cha approved of this approach.
When I translated the book, Chinese culture on the world scene basically came down to Bruce Lee. Now, the world has turned, Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are major international box office draws, and kung fu culture has infiltrated Western culture to a significant degree – the Matrix series is the proof. The time had finally come.
The Book & The Sword; by Louis Cha, translated by Graham Earnshaw, published by Oxford University Press, available on amazon.com
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