During the 12th and 13th centuries, Toledo, Spain, became a neuralgic center for the production and dissemination of knowledge in Europe. As part of what came to be known as the Renaissance of the 12th Century, the collaborative translations carried out in Toledo by Jewish scholars, Mozarabic Toledans (Arabic-speaking Christians), and Christian intellectuals from all over Europe made available to the Latin West key texts by Hippocrates, Aristotle, Euclid, Galen, and Ptolemy, among others, that would make possible the foundational works by Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon.
While the collaborative translations in medieval Toledo fundamentally changed the Latin West, the translations of Western classics into Mandarin carried out by Lin Shu (1852-1924) and his “factory of writing” transformed modern Chinese culture and offered new ways to imagine Chinese national identity. Lin Shu, however, represents the case of a translator who was not versed in other languages, and hence depended on over 20 different bilingual assistants. This collaborative system allowed Lin Shu’s “factory of writing” to offer Chinese versions of almost two hundred classics of Western fiction, including Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), Oliver Twist (1837-9), and, via an English translation, of Cervantes’ Don Quijote (1605).
Lin Shu’s Don Quijote was a great editorial success. Recently, the Instituto Cervantes published a Spanish rendering of Lin Shu’s version. Given the occasion, BBC Mundo interviewed Prof. Michael Gibbs Hill, specialist in Lin Shu’s work, and author of Lin Shu, Inc.: Translation and the Making of Modern Chinese Culture (Oxford UP, 2013). Prof. Hill explains that Lin Shu’s collaborative methodology was not uncommon at the time, and that it allowed him to make authors like Dickens and Tolstoi available to Chinese readers. Lin Shu’s “factory” was so efficient that it produced around 180 titles over 20 years. And while the Quijote translation seems to be rather ‘faithful,’ Prof. Hill explains that Lin Shu would sometimes introduce deliberate changes. For instance, his version of Dickens’ Oliver Twist underscores a very negative image of England in order to suggest that, by identifying its ailments, literature could transform and better a society. Despite his success, Lin Shu eventually came to be seen as too commercial, and too conservative by his younger readers.
The full note from BBC Mundo is available in Spanish.