Journeys to the East, “Journey to the West”

If sex was invented in 1963 (pace Philip Larkin), then surely translation from Chinese was invented in the noughties. Of course, the latter is as untrue as the former, as Professor W.J.F. Jenner’s fascinating essay on translating Journey to the West shows.

The Read Paper Republic short story series has focused by design on contemporary Chinese writers and contemporary translators. But equally we have tried to make our weekly stories relevant to other happenings in the cultural and literary world, and the advent of the Year of the Monkey on 8th February clearly demanded a couple of monkey stories.

For 4th February, we were keen to include an excerpt from Journey to the West, the classic novel about literature’s most famous ape, the Monkey King (a.k.a. Sun Wukong). W.J.F. Jenner’s splendid translation is a big favourite of ours, and Professor Jenner generously gave his consent. Better still, he agreed to a collaborative, joint publication between Read Paper Republic and the Los Angeles Review of Books, with the excerpt available on our site here, and his essay about its translation, “Journey to the East, Journey to the West,” available at LARB. How this translation eventually saw the light of day, political upheavals and attendant procrastinations notwithstanding, is an epic and a humbling story. It makes the travails of translators nowadays look very small indeed.

So without further ado, I have great pleasure in introducing Professor Jenner’s “Journey to the East, Journey to the West.” And may I also recommend to readers this week’s Read Paper Republic story, chapter 15 of Jenner’s Journey to the West as an essential accompaniment to this essay.

— Nicky Harman
Chinese-to-English translator
Read Paper Republic


A CHAIN OF LUCKY EVENTS led me to Journey to the West. It all started when I was a boy, 12 perhaps, stuck in bed with bronchitis and bored. My mother brought me a book she had found for me in a church jumble sale. It was a pocket-sized bookclub hardback bound in yellow cloth that soon drove the boredom away: Arthur Waley’s Monkey. It was captivating, and fun, and that was that. 

Or was it? In 1958, some six years later, I was a few days into the first year of a degree course in Latin and Greek at Oxford. I’d enjoyed them enormously with an incomparable teacher at school, but was resigned rather than eager to carry on with them at university. But the first two lectures made the heart sink. Why not jump ship? And why not switch to Chinese?

I had no serious reasons for making the choice. The magic of Monkey was one factor. Another was the show put on by the Peking opera troupe that visited London in the mid-1950s. They put on the sort of excerpts to captivate ignorant foreigners and I was completely hooked. Apart from these memories I knew nothing about China and Chinese. My choice of subject and, as it turned out, of a life’s work was based on little more than childhood memories of Sun Wukong and stage acrobatics, plus the intellectual snobbery of taking up a language that few people in England studied then.

The Chinese taught at Oxford in 1958 was all written and mostly classical, which suited me very well. Although nearly all of the few students of Chinese there had been taught modern spoken Chinese during their compulsory military service it did not matter that I could not speak. I was allowed to switch courses. I never did learn to speak very well.

I was now on the road that led to Journey to the West. In the next four years I read a lot of Chinese, mainly with the outstanding scholar Wu Shichang who had come to Oxford as a refugee from Guomindang rule in 1947. He introduced me to a lot of writing from the Zuo zhuan to Lu Xun. The syllabus included some delightful Ming fiction, and Mr. Wu helped me read through the whole of Hong lou meng. Though Xi you ji was not a set text, I now knew that there were several times more of it than Waley had put into Monkey. I can’t remember just when I started wanting to translate the whole thing, but the seeds had been planted by the time I graduated in 1962. 

Later that year, Wu Shichang went back to China to take up a position in the Institute of Literature of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. In 1963 he was able to get me a job as a translator with the Foreign Languages Bureau in Beijing. This was to be the first journey to the east on the way to Journey to the West.

When I arrived at Beijing Station in August 1963 on a two-year contract, I could read Chinese but hardly speak. At first I was assigned to the utterly dreary weekly Peking Review, but luck soon got me out of that and into the Foreign Languages Press, where I was given the proofs of a book to translate. Like the Review it was propaganda, but at least it was interesting propaganda. The heavily ghosted “autobiography” of the last Qing emperor Pu Yi was soon going to be brought out by the publishing house of the Ministry of Public Security. As China was not then party to international copyright agreements our English version needed to come out as soon as possible after the original in order to beat unauthorized foreign translations. As the publication of the original could not be long delayed, the FLP decided to bring ours out in two volumes, with the first to follow soon after the Chinese edition. That first volume appeared in 1964 and I finished the translation of the second soon after.

With From Emperor to Citizen finished I was rewarded with an offer that the Press knew I would not refuse. Would I like to translate Journey to the West? I started in the winter of 1964/1965. 

Since the 1950s the FLP had been bringing out highly readable translations of premodern Chinese literature. Most of these books were done by the extraordinary team of Yang Xianyi and his English wife Gladys Yang, Oxford’s first graduate in Chinese, who had made their lives together in China since 1940. He would bash out a literal draft translation. Gladys, with one eye on the original and one on her husband’s draft, would produce a version in clear, readable native-speaker’s English. Their joint translations of classic narrative, fiction, drama and essays from Sima Qian’s Shi ji to their four-volume selection of Lu Xun were a splendid model to follow and a delight to read. They were real books, not footnote-cluttered scholarly exercises, and they still give pleasure. Unfortunately their distribution outside China was hopeless, but for readers of English in China these books were for decades among the few titles worth buying in the foreign-language bookshops there. 

The Yangs, whose friendship and support did much to make those two years and later stays at the FLP so good for me, encouraged this new project. In the mid-1960s the Press was taking on not just Journey to the West but also the Yangs’ Dream of Red Mansions and Sidney Shapiro’s Water Margin. (Not till the 1980s did they add Moss Roberts’s Three Kingdoms. Jin Ping Mei was always a classic novel too far for the cultural bureaucracy.) 

My aim in doing Journey to the West was to make it as much fun in English as it is in the original. I also wanted it complete and uncut. The Press’s editors had tinkered with the texts of the Yangs’ Ming stories. Luckily by the time it came to the big four classic novels this was no longer a danger and they were allowed to appear unpurged. 

Around the time I took on the translation, I wrote to Arthur Waley asking if he minded my doing a full-length version of Xi you ji, as I owed him so much for his Monkey, without which I would never have undertaken the project in the first place. He replied and graciously wished me well with it. Having his blessing was good. However, once I started work on my translation I did not look at Waley’s again. This was not from lack of respect but rather from too much. The aim was not to make constant comparison between his wording and mine in passages he had included. I did not want to copy him, but neither did I want to have to keep making conscious efforts to avoid his choice of words. However, I could not help remembering his names for the main characters. Monkey I could not bring myself to drop. I regretted not being able to use Pigsy, but Pig was fine and I think I preferred Friar Sand to Waley’s Sandy, which makes him a wee bit Scottish. Sanzang was not ideal for the general reader of English, but then neither was Waley’s Tripitaka. Much later, when an American translation started appearing after I had finished the first draft of my first volume, I avoided looking at that too once I had established that it left plenty of room for my readable version.

In taking on Xi you ji I did not, of course, know what I was doing. But I soon found out that I enjoyed it. I was of course well aware that my knowledge of Ming Buddhism and Daoism was extremely limited, and I soon found that standard reference books were only going to be of limited help. The same limitations of reference books applied to some of the idioms. With the cheerful recklessness of youth I pushed ahead. At this stage I was just doing a first draft, and some problems could be sorted out later. Journey to the West probably benefited throughout from having a first draft done quickly.

By May 1965 I had a draft of the first 17 chapters, of which I only had produced a single badly typed copy. The Press agreed to retype these and did the same for the other chapters I translated before my contract expired in August 1965. I took my set of carbon copies of the 30 or so chapters drafted so far with me back to England and my first academic job as an assistant lecturer in the new Department of Chinese Studies at the University of Leeds. Keeping them turned out to be fortunate. The plan was that I would carry on with the translation in my spare time and send chapters to the FLP as they were done. 

The first academic year in a first teaching job left, of course, no time for translation or for resuming my delayed doctoral research on Northern Wei Luoyang. Meanwhile much bigger changes were happening in China. Already by the time I left in the summer of 1965, Yang Xianyi and his friends were talking about an unpleasant new political movement in the offing. I think they were expecting a centrally controlled persecution like the Anti-Rightist campaign of the late 1950s rather than the chaotic conflict and bloodshed of the so-called cultural revolution.

Once the cultural revolution got going I put aside any thoughts of an early return to the translation. Besides, from a safe distance the early stages of the cultural revolution were rather exciting with their false prospectus of letting the people take control of their lives from a repressive system. In April 1967 I wrote to the Press to renew contact. In June 1967 two letters came from the Press that were identically worded except that they were dated two days apart. One bore the official seal of the English Section of the FLP. The other had the words of the seal written out at the end. With hindsight it looks as though rival factions had agreed a form of words. Both letters asked me to stop work and send back my copy of what I had done so far. 

Whatever illusions I may have had about the cultural revolution, I had enough sense not to let go of my carbons. This turned out to be just as well. For the next 11 years they yellowed in neglect. With no prospect of publication by a press caught up in political struggles there seemed little point in getting back to work on so big a project. But I never gave up on it entirely. 

In1972 the situation in China began to look a little better. Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi, who had disappeared in 1968, were released from prison that year and Gladys began writing letters again. There was a worrying phase in 1975-76, but Mao’s death soon opened the way for some kind of normality to be restored. I raised the question through Gladys of whether the FLP would like to resume our Journey to the West from where we had stopped before the cultural revolution.

For a year or two I heard nothing definite about it. Then in the summer of 1978 the FLP sent me through Gladys an invitation to resume the translation. In July I wrote back to the Press to accept. Gladys had also mentioned that the Press planned to bring the book out in two 50-chapter volumes. I put it to them that as I already had a draft of the first 30 or so chapters I could let them have the first volume of a three-volume publication quite soon. The Press quickly agreed. The yellowing carbons in the attic came back to life, and they turned out to be not so bad, but needing more than a quick polish. 

Luck meant that I was due some study leave in 1979, and the Press welcomed me back to spend it revising the first volume in the second term of 1979. A desk in their office had been an ideal place to work on the translation before. Being there on view for the long working day with few distractions had made for steady output back then, and I hoped it would again. The length of the stay also gave a useful deadline for finishing the first volume. I was made most welcome, and found my colleagues much more open than they had been allowed to be before. The place looked very much the same, but the atmosphere was completely different. One small but pleasing benefit from the delay was that in 1979 the FLP switched from using its appalling maimed Wade-Giles to Hanyu Pinyin.

The old carbons turned out to be invaluable. The Press’s copies had not survived the cultural revolution’s destruction. Much more seriously, neither had Zhou Jiacan, the colleague who had looked after me while I was translating From Emperor to Citizen. He had died during the factional struggles. I was sorry that I was not allowed to attend the long-delayed memorial meeting held for him during my visit.

A lot more could be written about the excitement of being in Beijing in 1979, a lively time in politics and culture. In revising the first volume of Journey to the West and translating the rest, I had the Press’s full support from beginning to end. Huang Jingying of the Press took endless pains checking and improving typescript and proofs. The Buddhist scholar Li Rongxi was invited to be an expert consultant on the Buddhist terminology and much else too. His corrections saved me from many errors. I remain immensely grateful for all they did to make all three volumes happen. 

With the text for the first volume delivered in 1979 I expected to see it in print by 1980. I made it clear that I would start work on the second volume once the first one was out. Meanwhile there was the unprecedentedly lively and vital literary scene in China to try to follow in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Writing on contemporary issues mattered in ways it never had before or since in China. 

Though chapters 3, 4 and 5 of the translation were brought out as Havoc in Heaven, a small paperback, later in 1979, nothing seemed to happen about the Journey for years. A short visit to the Press in 1980 was about my volume of Lu Xun poems for them. It prompted no progress on the Journey. Not till 1982 did the first volume come out, and despite the sometimes unfortunate choice of illustrations I was glad to see it. One gratifying development was that the Press agreed that the copyright in the translation should be mine. For the first few printings this was acknowledged in a copyright notice. 

That same year I was able to go back to the FLP for a summer and get started on the second volume. This was a slower process than revising the first one as I had to start from scratch, but it was still fun. Another journey to the east in the summer of 1983 was enough to finish the second volume, which came out in 1984. Though I was putting my life through some upheavals, the Journey remained a delight. Two more journeys to the Press in the next two summers brought the project to an end. At the end of the long process I was particularly pleased to be allowed to express my own views on the book in a translator’s afterword at the end of volume III. For anyone who is interested they are still there. I wrote no introduction and was not consulted about one that has been thrust into recent printings. 

Right from the beginning in 1965 having to work quite fast on the book had been no bad thing. Whatever else it may be, Xi you ji is entertainment. The last thing it needed was the sort of laboured translation that pushed its scholarly credentials down the reader’s throat. Nothing had to get in the way of its exuberant storytelling. The English had to disappear into the story. 

Tones of voice had to be right. The language could not be blatantly contemporary, as if the fantasy were happening right now. Nor could the idioms be too strongly those of any particular English-speaking place. Yet there had to be enough difference between the ways the main characters talk to bring them alive. The fast-thinking, fearless, worldly-wise and irreverent Sun Wukong could not sound like his ever-anxious, goody-goody, dim but self-important master. While my default option was bound to be the standard English of England, my native tongue, it could not be enlivened with recognizably English cultural and linguistic references that would have jarred in a world of Ming imagination. This all led to trying to create a linguistic atmosphere in a deliberately restricted English that felt freer than it was and somehow suggested more of the unconstrained vigour and colour of the original than it could actually recreate.

Because it is a long book, the language needed to flow with easy, unemphatic rhythms that lead readers though page after page without effort. Ideally they should forget that they are reading a translation.

One feature of the narrative that would be tiresome if followed as it stands in the Chinese is the way direct speech is introduced and attributed. Almost always the pattern in the original is one dictated by the absence of quotation marks in Ming printed fiction: XX dao — XX said — then the spoken words. Followed literally this made for rather jerky dialogues. As English, like modern Chinese, has quotation marks to show where speech starts and ends, the patterns could be varied sometimes by moving said XX or XX replied into the middle of a speech. In a longer dialogue, when you know who is talking to whom, it was possible in places to let the opening and closing of quotation marks make the attribution to a speaker redundant, as in an English novel. Such trivial variation makes dialogue read more smoothly. 

If that was one issue that could be resolved easily and almost imperceptibly, a rather bigger one was that posed by the verse and descriptive parallel prose that comes up every two or three pages. Fortunately it does not make the impossible demands of great poetry on the translator. Its job originally was to recreate on the written page something of the atmosphere of the storytellers’ performances from which Ming printed fiction ultimately derived. Storytellers would break up and vary the fairly straightforward narrative and dialogue of their tale with virtuoso displays of parallel prose or verse that let them show off their linguistic invention, and this was followed by the writers of printed fiction. 

The verse I dealt with by using blank verse and normally following a pattern of about four stresses in each line. (Looking back I came across a quatrain that used rhyme, and regret it.) The parallel prose was fairly straightforward to deal with. Setting the lines out so that each one started a new line on the page helped make the parallels easily visible, as did indenting the passages and putting them into italics to indicate that this was formally different from the main narrative. Again I tried to use a discreet pattern of stresses to help the balance and keep the feel of a switch of genre.

Because this was a book written for entertainment and pleasure I did not want it cluttered with footnotes. I reckoned that as long as readers were being carried along by the story, they did not want to be distracted by an annotator plucking at their sleeves, and explaining the countless Buddhist, Daoist and other references. Those who do want the scholarly paraphernalia can always turn to Anthony C. Yu’s version. 

Another decision I made right at the beginning and stayed with to the end is one that would be wrong in translating almost anything else. I hesitate to admit it, but I did not read the book through before starting, or even as I went along. I knew the overall shape of the book from Waley’s version devoured in childhood. It is not like a poem so intricately structured that you need to be aware every word of it before attempting to translate any line of it. I found reading it for the first time as I translated it helped me to be caught up in each story. I wanted to know what would happen when I finished each page and started on the next. If it turned out that something later in the episode meant that a correction was needed in an earlier part, that could easily be put right. This questionable but attractive strategy kept me from going stale, and there was no harm in having the urgency and freshness that comes from translating something new and unexpected. 

It is now over 30 years since the Journey was finished, and it remains one that I am very glad to have made. There is plenty of room for improvement in it, and whenever I open one of the volumes my eye is caught by some awkwardness that should have been avoided or an annoying typo. But with all its faults, it still seems to be alive, and that is something to be grateful for.


W.J.F (Bill) Jenner, born in 1940, is an English student of Chinese history and culture. His secondary education was mainly in the Greek and Latin classics. He began the study of Chinese at Oxford in 1958, where he graduated in Oriental Studies in 1962. He earned his Oxford D Phil for a thesis on the history of the great city of Luoyang in the 5th-6th centruy AD. From 1963 to 1965 he was a translator at the Foreign Languages Press, for which he translated From Emperor to Citizen (volume 1, 1964; volume 2, 1965; laterreprints in two-volume and single-volume form, including one from Oxford University Press), the ghosted autobiography of Aisin-Gioro Pu Yi, the last emperor of China. He also began his translation of Journey to the West at that time.