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The Journey to the West, Revised Edition, Volume 1 Paperback – December 21, 2012
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Any translation of a literary work, let alone between languages as different as Chinese and English are, is an exercise in compromise and cleverness. A particular sentence in Chinese—even a single phrase—can be rendered in numerous ways in English, each one of them carrying a different set of nuances. To maintain narrative flow, though, the translator must choose just one of those ways, which represents an indelible choice as to what aspect of the original will be conveyed to the reader. That is the compromise. The cleverness comes in the insight and deftness with which the translator crafts and arranges those choices into a coherent whole.
It is said that one should always translate into one's "A language"—that is, the language in which one is most fluent. But Dr Anthony Yu was a native Chinese speaker, and although years of teaching in the United States made him fluent in English, it was still not his primary language. It is a testament to his genius and his decades of work on this, a story that he describes as near and dear to his heart, that this English version is as faithful to the Chinese original as can be hoped, and yet reads as sprightly and as uproariously as though it were, in fact, the original.
Something must be done with those nuances, though. Some translators choose to insert them directly into the body of the work, as Howard Goldblatt does in his translation of Mo Yan's Life and Death are Wearing Me Out. But perhaps The Journey to the West is too full of Buddhist, Daoist, and other cultural allusions for them to be adequately captured in a passing sentence. So Yu's translation is copiously endnoted, and these notes are full of fascinating material on the religious and philosophical environment in which both the story is written and its action takes place. Included also are scholarly citations that justify, with a degree of rigor that will probably be overlooked by the average reader, all the various word and phrasing choices he made. In some cases, Yu's study has even found errors in the original text.
The first volume of this translation adds an introduction that describes the textual history of this story, Wu Cheng'en's presumed authorship, biographical sketches of the real people depicted in the novel, and Wu's motivations for writing it, and them, the way that he did. These additions admirably fill out the narrative and setting delivered to us so seamlessly by Yu. Other translations may have quainter charm or somewhat more fluid English, but this one provides such a complete perspective on the novel that it presents itself immediately as the de facto standard. A must have for the dedicated reader.
This translation includes an extensive explanation of certain Chinese terms.