After Esther Allen’s captivating keynote lecture, the first panel at the Sydney Symposium focused on the topic of translating classics. Meredith McKinney and John Minford are both so skilled and accomplished that this panel was certainly one of the highlights of the whole symposium. It was very humbling to listen to these two translators, who worked on classic texts for Penguin Classics and were still approaching their job with amazing enthusiasm.
Meredith McKinney, who translated The Pillow Book from 10th century Japanese into English, talked about the issues concerning the re-translation of classics and her paper raised several very interesting questions. Her main question was “how to make classics new” (14:35)? And then, what is expected from a translator who is asked to re-translate a classic? Should a translator try to make the text more intelligible through the use of a modern variety of the target language or are older varieties of the target language “nobler” and more appropriate to the classics? How do translators make those choices, and what is the rationale behind them?
Then there was John Minford‘s presentation. After translating The Art of War and The Story of the Stone into English for Penguin Classics, Minford joked in an interview (46:30-49:00) that maybe he would take on the I Ching. Penguin took him seriously, and Minford is currently working on it. Note when he says that he is now four years over the deadline – lucky him, I am sure I would be getting frantic emails if I went four days over the deadline. Witty, knowledgeable and candid, Minford admitted that the I Ching is maybe a unique case in world literature, as no one knows what it really means (45:20). Without even looking at notes, John Minford delivered a thoroughly enjoyable and informative presentation. From the reflection on the translator’s love (or lack thereof) for the work he is translating (41:20), to the linguistic analysis of the I-Ching, from Jungian psychoanalysis to shamanism, with even some hilarious anecdotes of the hippy era (42:45 – 43:40) and the ransack of poetry – including the I Ching – by late 60’s rock and roll (49:10-50:05), John Minford gripped the room with his paper. If you are interested in Chinese culture and literature, you can’t miss John’s presentation on what he called “the black hole at the centre of Chinese literature.
Here are two translators who are good enough to be able to choose what books they translate, and instead of choosing the latest novel they read, they take on texts like The Pillow Book, The Art of War and the I Ching. It’s a bit like deciding to re-translate the Bible or the Divina Commedia. As a young translator, I was immensely inspired by their example and dedication. Don’t miss out on the opportunity, listen to Panel One here.