Saint-Saens' sonatas linger softly in the air against the backdrop of an old Spanish-style villa on Fuxing Road M.
Inside, the room speaks volumes for a translator's home. Books, mostly original classics of French literature, line the shelves from floor to ceiling, the desk is piled with two stacks of dictionaries and Marcel Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu lays open at the top.
Zhou kexi, 61, has absorbed himself in words, switching between French and Chinese or Chinese and French. After retiring from Shanghai Translation Publishing House, he has nurtured an ambition to finish translating Proust's monumental seven-volume
A la Recherche du Temps Perdu and known in English as In Search of Lost Time. He has spent nine years thinking about the project and just finished the first volume Du Cote de Chez Swann (Swann's Way) -- a 350,000 Chinese character tome -- in the past year and a half. “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu is the French equivalent to the Chinese classic A Dream of Red Mansion,” says gray-haired Zhou.
“It's an epic memory. It took Proust 14 years to write this book, locked away in a cork-lined room to fight his asthma. It's well worth my time and energy to present the masterpiece in Chinese.” The book has already been published by Yilin Press in 1991, after a concerted effort by 15 top French-Chinese translators around the country was each assigned sections of Proust's work. Zhou, 46 years old at the time helped, translating the fifth volume The Captive. Indeed, if the book is already available to Chinese readers, it's fair to ponder Zhou's obsession with revisiting and retranslating the lengthy tome.
Zhou says the publishing house was eager to get Proust's book on the market, therefore many translators were used. “Although everyone did their best, it lacks continuity as a whole,” he says. “I think the best translating work should be done by one person to ensure continuity.”
Zhou will make many changes with his version including the Chinese title. The first translation was called Zhuiyi Sishui Nianhua, deeply ingrained in readers' minds, and changed to Xunzhao Shiqu de Shijian or Looking for Lost Time.
“The title of the 1991 version is pretty, but not appropriate,” he says. “The title is not as active as the original one, which emphasizes the quest.” Before 1992, Zhou was still a math professor in East China Normal University though he had already dabbled in translation. As a young boy, he was enraptured by classic novels.
Yet his love for literature clashed with his mother's desire for Zhou to become a mathematician like his father. Respecting his mother's wishes, Zhou went to the math department of Fudan University.
But his passion for literature remained. Opportunity knocked in 1980. Zhou was sent to Ecole Normale Superieure de Paris to study math. There he met a group of writers and discovered his labor of love -- translation. Encouraged by Liu Minjiu, the patriarch of French-Chinese translation in China, Zhou began his maiden work The Age of Discretion, a short story by Simone de Beauvoir. Well received amongst other translators, more solicitations for his work ensued. Zhou has also put his talent to work on Madame Bovary and Les Trois Mousquetaires or The Three Musketeers.
However, it is with Le Comte de Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas that his adroit craftsmanship was displayed to its fullest.
After that he started working for the publishing house. If, as the old adage goes, behind every great writer is a great editor, so too behind every international literary success is a great translator.
Yet translators are usually relegated to secondary status -- their names going unnoticed much like screenplay writers watching directors and actors enjoy the glory. “Most well-read people can name the books by Tolstoy and Proust, but they wouldn't be able to name the translator,” says Zhou.
“From the very start I knew it was a lonely job. But I enjoy being the behind-the-scenes hero. I give applause to myself.” A successful translation, according to Zhou, is transparent, conveying the author's voice, style and story seamlessly from one language and culture to another.
A professional translation makes readers feel they are reading the original author's work. Temps, based on Proust's life, is interwoven with a motif of epistemology, philosophy of art and ethical debate.
It's a tough task for a translator to follow the author's stream of conscious thought. “Proust could spill two pages with only one full stop. It's difficult to deconstruct his sentences,” Zhou says.
“He can describe a small thing to the point of perfection, even of insanity. For example, the linden flower tea took two pages and the jealousy about love cost one page. “The sheer size of this book would put a lot of readers off, but don't be deterred, the rewards speak for themselves.
If you listen to a massive Bruckner symphony and look at the way the novel is constructed, both are in sonata form, it starts to reveal its secrets,” Zhou continues. Proust is a man who rarely left his bed -- perhaps explaining why the novel took 14 years to write. His first 30 years were spent halfheartedly looking for a career.
He spent the last 14 years holed up in a tiny room in Paris, writing his autobiographical novel. He was more than 40 years old when Swann's Way was first published at his own expense in 1913.
At the time, he had planned the full work of only three books. However it grew in such a way that Proust ultimately conceived of his work as one novel, falling into seven volumes. Proust was a hypochondriac who refused to open windows because of germs, ate only once a day from a select group of foods, and experienced terrible insomnia at night. He was a homosexual.
His love life, such as it was, consisted of a series of unrequited crushes on unsuitable men. He spent his life as a perpetual invalid, passing through a succession of colds and fevers. He lived with his mother until she died.
Pneumonia killed him at the age of 51. Zhou will leave for Paris this month under a translation grant sponsored by the French Ministry of Culture. He'll stay for three months in the place where Proust was born and raised. “If things permit, I may join the Societe des Amis de Marcel Proust, it's like a literary fan club for him,” he says.
“This is a way to bring me closer to this genius writer.” It's hard to fathom how he could get any closer. Translating Temps essentially puts Zhou inside Proust's mind.
(eastday.com September 8, 2003)