Sifting and shifting from text to context

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Zhou Ruchang had written Cao Xueqin's biography for international readers.

But Ronald Gray and Mark Ferrara encountered many obstacles in their translation work.

The biggest issue was explaining the complex political battles that caused the tragedies endured by the Cao clan.

Cao's ancestors moved from North China to Northeast China and were taken as slaves by the Manchurian leaders who founded the Qing Dynasty. As bondservants (bao yi) of the imperial family, the Cao clan gained privilege over most Han Chinese.

Cao Xueqin's great-grandmother Lady Sun was a matron of Emperor Kangxi. The emperor patronized the Cao family, staying at the family's residence for four times during his six inspection tours of southern China.

Unfortunately, the Cao family was trapped in the fierce battles between Kangxi's sons for the throne. The subsequent emperors Yongzheng and Qianlong showed the clan little mercy, persecuting them and others who helped their rivals.

Aside from a few happy teenage years, Cao Xueqin spent most of his life in poverty, enraging his elders with bold acts, such as performing operas (actors were at the lowest rank of feudal Chinese society).

Around 1764, the talented writer, painter and connoisseur of antiques died in oblivion. His wife and young son had already lost their lives to a plague that turned the capital into a city of the dead.

Few records about Cao are left and the myriad of wild guesses about the novel's author and protagonists made the writer's life even more mysterious.

In the preface to the English biography, Gray says that contrary to mainstream views, Zhou believes Cao's novel had been seriously distorted, and the last 40 chapters have been forged under the order of Emperor Qianlong.

Zhou believes Cao had written 108 chapters, and there are 108 women characters in the novel corresponding to the 108 heroes in another classic Outlaws of the Marsh.

What makes him more controversial is that Zhou says Zhiyan Zhai (or Red Inkstone), a mysterious editor and commentator of the novel, was Cao Xueqin's cousin and second wife.

Though most people believe Jia Baoyu (the novel's protagonist based on Cao himself) loved his cousin Lin Daiyu, Zhou says Shi Xiangyun, or the Red Inkstone in real life, was Jia's real love.

In the 260-page biography, Gray and Ferrara include 216 footnotes to help readers understand the complex relationship and the China that Cao lived in nearly three centuries ago.

"One final problem we had was retaining Zhou's passionate, traditional, and, at times, rather recursive, writing style," Gray says in an e-mail. "We carefully tried to keep it and not make him sound like a Western academic."

Gray's wife Sue comes from South Korea and obtained an M.A. in Chinese from the Beijing Language and Culture University. Ferrara's wife, Bao Liangmei, is Chinese. With Chinese students' help, the wives did the initial translating and their husbands edited the copies into scholarly prose. The project was finished in June.

If the translation was difficult, finding a publisher was equally hard. Most translated works in the United States are fiction. The biography was turned down by 10 publishers before the Peter Lang publishing company contacted Ferrara.

"Peter Lang is tremendously excited to publish an English translation of such a classic work, and we look forward to publishing future translations by Asian studies scholars," acquisitions editor Caitlin Lavelle says in an e-mail.

The biography came out in October as part of Peter Lang's Asian Thought and Culture series. Following the standard of academic books in the United States, 300 copies were published in the first run. Readers can get the book from online bookstores like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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