Sinological Positioning: The Giles-Waley Debate and the Inception of Arthur Waley’s Chinese Translations, 1917-1922

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The early twentieth century was a time when classical Chinese poetry gained a more prominent presence in the English literary world. The influential works of Herbert Giles around the turn of the century brought classical Chinese poetry to a wider metropolitan reading public, inspiring adaptations, imitations, and indirect translations by poet-translators. Arthur Waley’s landmark anthologies significantly expanded the corpus of translation and, according to one reviewer, brought about a “spiritual invasion from the East.” Waley’s use of unrhymed verse as a medium of translation and his connection with the literary avant-garde have been frequently remarked upon, but there is another, somewhat neglected but equally important, aspect in the inception of Waley’s career—his engagement in the sinological field, one of its most polemical manifestation being the translational-sinological dispute between Giles and Waley upon the publication of Waley’s A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems (1918) and More Translations from the Chinese (1919). While Giles and Waley primarily contested the other’s philological accuracy, this dispute is in equal measure a translational battle, though fought on ostensibly sinological grounds, where a rhetoric of “literalness” in translation is deployed in the validation of philological competence. I will try to unravel this elusive idea of literalness—with its dual discursive function as a marker of sinological credentials and an emergent translational poetics—and its formative role in Waley’s position as a sinologist-poet-translator. This crossing of swords between Giles and Waley reveals not only the evolving formation of British sinology but also the dynamism of the field of translation, where new methods of translating classical Chinese poetry came to the fore, and emergent cultural forms competed with dominant ones.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationHistory Retold : Premodern Chinese Texts in Western Translation
EditorsLeo Tak-hung CHAN, Zong-qi CAI
Number of pages33
ISBN (Electronic)9789004521322
ISBN (Print)9789004521315
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2022

Publication series

NameChinese Texts in the World
PublisherBrill Academic Publishers
ISSN (Print)2666-2361


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