Defile, Violate, φ, F : on the English translations of Honglou Meng

Research output: Journal PublicationsJournal Article (refereed)


A brief examination of a number of English translations of the great Chinese novel Honglou Meng produced in different periods and places shows that all of them contain translational shifts: vulgarities are removed in most cases, characters are sometimes reshaped, and details may be deleted, added or changed. While traditional translation critics would have simply attributed such shifts to a lack of language competence or objectivity on the part of the translators, analysis reveals that there is a pattern in the shifts found in each version or in versions with a similar socio-cultural background, and that they are in all probability caused by the deliberate use of a strategy to adapt the texts to the dominant ideology of the time. It can be seen that no translations are entirely value-free, and all of them, including those that have been praised by one critic or another for accuracy, were inevitably produced under the constraints of this or that ideology. While theorists may go on insisting that translation should or can be a true reflection of the original, the reality is that distortion is the rule, especially for translation from a weak literary polysystem into a dominant one.

A lesson that can be drawn from this study is that traditional translation theories that dismiss or ignore such shifts and harp on faithfulness have done harm to translation studies in three ways: they have given a superficial and distorted account of the picture of translation and excluded fascinating material from their field of research; they have misled students into believing that as translation is just for translation’s sake, having no other purpose to serve, fidelity is the only worthwhile goal; and, by perpetuating the myth of the faithful translation, they have served to keep innocent readers blind to the subtle manipulations of literary translation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)44-55
Number of pages12
Issue number1-2
Publication statusPublished - 1998


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