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Western Theory in East Asian Contexts: Translation and Transtextual Rewriting by Leo Tak-hung Chan

Reviewed by Sarah Puetzer, University of Oxford

Western Theory in East Asian Contexts: Translation and Transtextual Rewriting, Leo Tak-hung Chan. London, New York: Bloomsbury, 2020. £21.99 (Paperback). ISBN: 9781501327827.


Translation theories have tried to define the nature of translational rewriting for decades, but have often drawn exclusively on examples from Western literature. Critiquing this Eurocentric point of view, the question has been raised as to whether Western theories can actually be used to explain phenomena in different cultural dynamics adequately, pointing at the risk of universalizing Western concerns and experiences in the process.

            In Western Theory in East Asian Contexts, Leo Tak-hung Chan explores the relevance of Western theory as applied to phenomena from non-Western traditions at the periphery, looking at East Asian contexts in particular. According to Chan, translational rewriting in East Asia has developed independently of that in Western cultures, leading to a more ‘free’, ‘adaptive’, or ‘imitative’ style of translation with its own regional characteristics. While various Western theories serve as the basis of his study, Chan argues that only with an enlarged definition of translation—one which also includes adaptation and imitation—are we are able to explain the subtleties of translational interaction between China, Korea, and Japan. Divided into three parts, Chan’s study is organised around three forms of transtextual rewriting: ‘free’ translation, adaptation, and imitation.

            Chapter One lays the theoretical foundation for the rest of the book. Chan begins by giving a brief overview of the history of translation, touching on topics such as the appreciation of originality during the Romantic movement, and leading eventually to the dismissal of adaptation and imitation. However, Chan demonstrates how the quest for originality has collapsed in recent times, drawing on Gérard Genette’s concept of ‘transtextual perfusion’, among others. He goes on to define his study’s keywords—free translation, adaptation, and imitation—and the relationship between them. Chan argues that their relationship is one between siblings, similar but not the same. Trying to distinguish the three, he sees them as being in a spectrum, where one moves from translation, through adaptation, to imitation, witnessing an intensifying degree of transformation, distortion, and infidelity.

            Part I is divided into two chapters: ‘Freely Rendered: Aesop’s Fables in Nineteenth-Century China’ and ‘A Higher Loyalty? The (Ab)uses of Aesthetic Theories of Translation’. The first one explores the question why free translation was the preferred method of translation in China at that time through a functionalist approach, drawing on examples of different translations of Aesop’s fables into Chinese. Chan concludes that this free method of translating allowed respective translators to assign the fables a new function, depending on the translators’ intentions and perception of the target audience. The second chapter gives an overview on modern Chinese translation theory and introduces the concept of ya, a translation principal that aims to ‘beautify’ the source text. Using Lin Shaohua’s translation of Murakami Haruki’s Norwegian Wood as an example, Chan examines the discourse surrounding ya and how it was (and is) put into practice. While Lin used the concept of ya to justify the liberate style choices he made to capture the novel’s ‘true spirit,’ Japanese scholars such as Fujii Shōzō see his translations as coloured by a nationalistic agenda. Chan points at the problems that occur with the importance of ya in modern Chinese translations, as terms like ‘beautifying’ and ‘true spirit’ remain very vague. Furthermore, this example reveals the nation language debates in East Asia that needs to be considered when talking about transnational rewriting in that region.

            Part II consists of three chapters. The first one, ‘Adaptation Studies through a Translation Lens’, looks at adaptation in relation to translation studies from a Western theory perspective, trying to differentiate the two. Again, Chan follows his argument of their relationship as being one of siblings, similar yet different. He argues that while translation leans towards highlighting the ‘foreignness’ of a text, adaptation can be a strategy for the assimilation or acculturation of a non-native text. The next chapter, ‘Accommodation and Adaptation: The Case of East Asia’, turns its focus more towards adaptation theories in East Asia, looking at three case examples in particular, which are 1) Korean and Japanese adaptations of Chinese classical novels since the eighteenth century, 2) adaptations of Western literature in Meiji Japan and 3) free translations in China of Western literature from the nineteenth century. He draws the conclusions that adaptations serve to make the foreign more familiar and that they are coloured by their adaptors’ agenda and the socio-political context they were created in. In the last chapter of Part II, ‘Boys over Flowers: Localization in a Web of (Re)adaptations’, the study explores the web of interconnections between several East Asian TV-adaptations of the Japanese manga Hana yori dango (1992-2004) by Kamio Yōko. The chapter is less concerned with the intermedial aspects of adaptations but focuses more on their cross-cultural dimension, as these TV adaptations span from Japan to Taiwan and Mainland China, as well as Korea. Chan examines the strategies deployed by the adaptors to enhance the reception by audiences of the respective cultures. Chan argues that the huge popularity of all these adaptions can be explained through the cultural proximity of East Asian cultures, as certain core values are shared by these communities.

            Part III deals with different forms of imitative rewriting. Starting again with a chapter on Western translation theory and how it has understood imitation throughout history, Chan goes on to explain the importance of imitative translations in East Asia, having played a major role in mediating the exchange between Japan, Korea, and Vietnam at the periphery and China at the centre. As Chinese used to be the East Asian lingua franca, the norm of transtextual rewriting in premodern times was rather transcription than translation of Chinese texts. However, with the growth of nationalist sentiments and the wish for linguistic autonomy, the view towards China changed among the East Asian countries. Chan concludes that the surge of imitations of Chinese classics in Japan can be seen as a sign of an increased distance between both countries, as these imitative rewritings not only try to domesticate the foreign, but also aim to cut the ties to the source material by incorporating multiple sources from China and Japan alike into their creative process. The next chapter, ‘Receptive Transcreation: Simulating James Joyce’s Narrative Style’, explores the link between imitation and influence by examining Ulysses’s impact on Chinese modern literature and emergence of the Chinese stream of consciousness novel in the twentieth century. Imitators of Ulysses aimed to transfer its narrative style into Chinese, which Chan describes as a process of apprenticeship rather than replication. These imitations, on the other hand, facilitated the reception of the genre, paving the way for more ‘faithful’ translations of Ulysses in the future. The final chapter of Part III, ‘The Aggregate Monkey: Parody and Pastiche in Japanese Manga’, examines another case of Sino-Japanese rewriting, namely that of the Chinese classic Journey to the West and its imitations in Japanese manga. Chan also reads these parodic imitations as a barometer of the relationship between Japan and China. Calling these manga imitations ‘radical translations’ that only leave very few of the original elements intact, Chan argues that these parodies are ‘a deconstructive act against a canonical Chinese text’ (194), implying that the imitators’ intention is to make fun of Chinese classics, going so far to see the waves of Chinese anger against manga imitations of Journey to the West as justified.

            Chan’s study of the complex web of cross-cultural rewriting of texts in East Asia and the (in)applicability of Western theories for these cultural dynamics fills a significant gap in translation studies, particularly since studies on intra-Asian translation are often sidelined by those on East-West translational rewriting. The book impresses with in-depth analyses of multiple examples, most of them from the Sino-Japanese context, but also various examples from translational rewritings of Western texts in East Asia, demonstrating how theories on translation, adaptation, and imitation can be put into practice in East Asian contexts. Chan’s study makes a convincing case for the need of a more holistic view in order to explore translational rewriting in non-Western cultures, that sees translation, adaptation, and imitation rather as siblings in the same spectrum than opposing terms. However, Chan misses the opportunity to integrate Western and East Asian theories alike to make this case. Chan himself addresses the lack of Chinese or Japanese translation theories in his conclusion, stating that there has been a paucity of theories that could be usefully deployed. However, they still do get mentioned in his study, but usually separately from Western theories and not in a discursive manner. What is also missing is a critical self-reflection of the position of the author himself. While the tone remains overall observational and mostly unbiased, there is a normative judgement of Japanese manga parodies of Chinese classics in the last chapter, going even so far to label the shift from novel to manga as one from a ‘high-brow’ to a ‘low-brow medium’ (196). This seems to contradict Chan’s otherwise convincing effort to ‘lift the cloud of suspicion’ that hangs over more liberal forms of translation.