Real People, Real Lives
Li Yao: A translator's decades of dedication to his beloved career
By Lu Yan  ·  2024-04-02  ·   Source: NO.15 APRIL 11, 2023
Li Yao was an English major in college and finished his first English-to-Chinese book translation in his junior year. He became inspired after his lecturer gave him a high compliment on his translation, but he never expected he would one day become a translator himself, and like his lecturer, inspire numerous aspiring young translators.

More than five decades later, in March this year, Li received a Lifetime Achievement Award in Translation from the Translators Association of China for his long dedication to the country's translation endeavors and cross-cultural communication.

Devotion to translation

In 1962, Li, at the age of 16, was admitted to the now Inner Mongolia Normal University in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, to study English from scratch, which was a relatively late start compared with that of young people today. At that time, he improved his English through reading as many books in English as possible, studying late into the night. He found the English versions of masterpieces such as Victor Hugo's Les Misérables and Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and carefully compared them with the Chinese translations, studying them word by word, sentence by sentence, holding a large dictionary.

In 1968, Li became an editor and reporter for a newspaper in Inner Mongolia. English was not his working language, but he was able to write a large number of essays, short stories and literary reports in Chinese based on his interviews in villages, grasslands, factories and other places. The experience honed his writing skills and laid a solid foundation for his future work in writing and literary translation. "Chinese writing and English-Chinese translation are inseparable; if you're not good at Chinese, you can never be a good English-Chinese literature translator," Li told Beijing Review.

In the meantime, Li never gave up learning English. In 1978, he finished a translation of Charles Dickens' short story A Child's Dream of a Star, and a year later, this translation work was published by literary periodical Qinghaihu, and soon broadcast by the then Beijing People's Broadcasting Station.

Li deemed the translation of A Child's Dream of a Star to be the start of his literary translation career. In the ensuing 46 years, Li has translated more than 60 works of authors from countries including Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.

In the 1980s, he discovered Australian literature by accident and began to dig deeper. At that time, translation of Australian literature was still an area waiting to be explored in China, offering great potential and possibilities. Through sending letters and asking for advice, Li received the help of Hu Wenzhong, former Vice President of Beijing Foreign Studies University who was among the earliest Chinese scholars sent to Australia to study Australian literature after the beginning of China's reform and opening up in 1978. Later, Hu and Li jointly translated Patrick White's The Tree of Man and translated Australian short stories into a Chinese book titled A Selection of Australian Short Stories. Li has since been studying aspects of Australia and focusing on translation of works by Australian authors.

"The unique living environment, lifestyle and history of Australia have provided writers with a creative space that sets it apart from the literature of other countries. Especially since the beginning of the new century, the rapid rise of indigenous literature has garnered global attention due to its unique charm," Li said.

Building friendship

Over the years, Li has forged deep friendship with Australian writers and scholars. For example, Robert Nicholas Jose, novelist and former cultural counselor for the Australian Embassy in Beijing, has been a friend of Li for more than 30 years.

"About two thirds of the books by Australian authors I translated were recommended by Jose. He sent them to me from Australia directly," Li said. "Some people used to ask me what my criteria for selecting a book are, and I joked that my criteria are Jose's criteria." In fact, most of Jose's recommendations were winners of the Miles Franklin Literary Award, one of the most prestigious literary prizes in Australia. The Chinese versions of these books have also been well received by domestic readers.

Thomas Keneally, best known for his work Schindler's List, is also a cherished friend of Li. Back in 1996, Li translated Keneally's Woman of the Inner Sea. In 2003 when Keneally visited China, the two got to know each other in person and their friendship began. Li has translated a few of Keneally's books and the one he translated most recently, The Dickens Boy, has had a significant impact since its publication in China.

"Keneally was 85 years old when he went himself to the post office to send me the book [The Dickens Boy]. I was deeply moved," Li said.

Keneally once wrote to Li via e-mail: "My concept of China is you: an urbane, energetic, amiable man." "It's not just about me personally, although he wrote it that way in the e-mail. In fact, he was expressing his friendly feelings toward the Chinese people," Li said. "It is through these positive people-to-people exchanges that we gain a better understanding of Australia and its culture."

Li said he believes that mutual understanding between two countries includes economic, cultural, political and trade aspects, but literature always takes the lead. "Any relationship between countries begins with understanding each other through literature," he added.

Cultivating the young

Now in his late 70s, Li still spends more than six hours a day on translation. As a visiting or adjunct professor at several universities including Peking University, Beijing Foreign Studies University and Western Sydney University, Li also gives regular lectures to cultivate young translators.

"The future lies with the younger generation," Li said. "My students are mostly in their early 20s, studying for their master's in translation and interpretation. Some of them are very talented and enthusiastic. They are also proficient in advanced technological skills, which undoubtedly greatly promote their involvement in literary translation."

One of the challenges in teaching students now is the abuse of technological assistance. Some students use machine translation or AI chatbots to do their homework without making any changes. Li believes that technologies can be a great help and reference for translators, but they cannot replace them, especially those translating literary works.

"So far, the style of both authors and translators cannot be conveyed through machine translation. The same is true for vernacular or the expressions of some ethnic minorities. Also, word-for-word translation can lead to mistakes," Li said. He believes that if machine and human compete on literature translation, competent human translators will win.

(Print Edition Title: Trans-Pacific Translation)

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

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