Julia Lovell’s translation of “Monkey King”
EXCEPT FOR THE only mistake I spotted on its cover, Julia Lovell’s new translation of Monkey King: Journey West is the best English edition of the classic Chinese fantasy novel, Xi You Ji (literally “westward travel record”), I have never read. If you want to understand why Monkey king has been a part of Chinese popular culture for no less than five centuries, so look no further. Take this edition and you will join the 1.5 billion people who, to paraphrase Neil Gaiman’s commentary on the story, share in their DNA an intimate knowledge of the monkey’s Herculean journey as it wreaks havoc westward to find a special collection of Buddhist sutras in India.
Xuanzang, a monk from the Tang Dynasty (CE 618-907), made a 16-year pilgrimage to India in the 7th century, before bringing back Buddhist scriptures and devoting the rest of his life to translating these Sanskrit texts into Chinese. His extraordinary journey has inspired many legends of oral storytelling and folk entertainment. At the moment a version in 100 chapters of Travel west was compiled and published in 1592, there had been little resemblance between Xuanzang’s original account of his travels and the fantasy novel. The latter features a Buddhist monk named Tripitaka, his three hideous-looking disciples, and a huge group of deities, immortals, demons, and spirits. At the center of the saga is a magical monkey named Sun Wukong – often referred to as Monkey King – who is the most powerful of the disciples.
The monkey has no parents. He was born from a stone egg, fertilized and nourished by the essences of Heaven and Earth since Creation. (Chinese parents love to steal this plot and make it their own as the answer to their toddler’s dreaded question, “Where am I from?” Thus contributing to a widespread misconception about human reproduction among Chinese children. ) After attending a Taoist school, Monkey masters the supernatural powers of flying on clouds and cloning himself from hair. It is capable of 72 self-transformations, which means the Monkey can transform into another being (without the help of Polyjuice Potion), into any creature (without the restrictions imposed on Animagi), or into a stationary object.
For his outrageous daring to rebel against established deities, Monkey is imprisoned by the Buddha under a mountain for 500 years until an opportunity for redemption finally presents itself. He is to serve as a disciple and protector of the Tripitaka, who is ordered to undergo 81 trials before he can receive sutras from the library of the Buddha monastery in the western sky. In the end, the monk and his three disciples – Monkey, Pigsy, and Sandy – had all fallen out of favor in their current or past lives and were given this second chance.
Travel west is one of those classics that can be read and re-read at any age. Each time it reveals something new to you. Child readers easily identify with the flaws and weaknesses of Monkey and his fellow disciples, who are at times impatient, reckless and conceited – they are clearly not the type to pass the famous “marshmallow test” designed to assess his ability. ability to delay gratification. As I get older I am drawn to Travel west for additional reasons. The 81 predestined calamities of Tripitaka put the challenges and setbacks of mine in perspective. The kids are captivated by Monkey’s superpower, but the bruises inflicted by life have taught me to recognize where his true strength lies – in his self-acceptance in difficult times (or down centuries) and the humility to persevere. with his second chance. No matter what age you open the book, however, you’re sure to laugh at something funny, whether it’s slapstick humor or subtle mockery.
This translation earned my rating for the best English edition of the book because of the way Julia Lovell redesigned and improved the text. First, with unabashed determination, Lovell cut and condensed descriptive passages and poems that contribute little to the rhythm of the storytelling. Take the opening passage for example. Lovell’s version sums up the entire first page of Chinese verse and prose in a brief English paragraph and quickly goes to the most significant details about the fertilized stone egg. My copy of Anthony C. Yu’s The monkey and the monk (2006) shows few signs of wear, although this edition’s fidelity to the original Chinese means that it is good for learning English. Its more direct translations lead to a sinuous theoretical exposition of the history of the universe which opens the first chapter. On the other hand, Lovell knows the best things to remember. Later in the story, when a hungry Pigsy is berated by Monkey for complaining, Pigsy retorts, “We can’t all drink wind and burp mist like you.” Impressed by the expressiveness of Pigsy’s line, I checked out the 1954 Chinese edition, on which Lovell’s translation is based, and was somewhat surprised that it was straight out of the original text. However, when the pithy dialogue was buried in the original longer Chinese version, I never noticed it for once.
Second, Lovell’s selection of Chinese version episodes is satisfactory. by Lovell Monkey king is about a quarter of the length of the original. Of the 81 calamities, the episodes selected for translation are representative of the diversity of the events. Tripitaka is a magnet for peril due to being coveted by demons, who believe that a bite from the monk would give them immortality. In one of the most imaginative episodes, the pilgrims travel to the land of women, are steeped in drinking from the local river, and forced to resort to emergency abortions. I wish, however, that Lovell hadn’t eliminated one of the fun first chapters in which Monkey and Pigsy succumb to the gastronomic appeal, invite each other to taste the precious immortal fruit of ginseng, and get in big trouble – Monkey must deplete his reservoir of superpowers and god networks to reverse the rapid escalation of damage and appease the wrathful owner of the Magic Tree.
Monkey’s maturation trajectory is preserved – or perhaps even more important – due to the careful selective compression of the stories. He begins by seeking personal gratification, but learns to use his superpower to correct his own wrongs and save lives. The Pilgrims, who bicker and betray like rival siblings, aren’t exactly model team players at the start of the journey. The team demonstrates increasing mutual trust, gratitude and understanding as members survive one incident after another. In the final segments of their journey, Monkey, who fails to confess ADHD, and Tripitaka, who does not know magic, use their strengths to win a high-stakes meditation competition and outwit three cunning animal spirits.
Third, Monkey king emphasizes one of the novel’s major attractions – its humor – with embellishments made by the translator in three main ways: dialogue, the culture of immortal society and the technicality of magic. The monkey is nothing without its utter disregard for formality, even (or especially) when interacting with those who perch atop the hierarchical system of deities. It evokes both childish innocence and rebellious daring. The English edition takes this characteristic and accompanies it, here refining a choice of word and perfecting a repartee there, in keeping with the playful tone of the original. I must also mention that Lovell excels at spicing up the insults exchanged between Monkey and his enemies. One of the spirits sent to subdue Monkey threatens his monkey kingdom, “The simplest whisper of resistance and we will turn you all into baboon butter” – you won’t find “baboon butter” in the original version.
Another source of humor in the book is how the celestial administration system that governs immortals is a close imitation of the bureaucracy of the mortal world. In Monkey king, their comic resemblance is further amplified by a modernized vocabulary not found in the original. When Monkey is offered his first government post in Heaven, he meets a deity from “Immortal Resources” giving the Jade Emperor an update on the vacancies.
Lovell also reinforced the internal logic and technical rigor of magic. Flying over clouds is a major magical skill of the immortals. Monkey king is more articulated around the magical mechanics of the cloud-based transport system, which reacts to the rider’s take-off posture and the speed of the wind the immortal is able to summon.
Because it’s a story rooted in popular culture, Travel west never stopped transforming. As it has been performed by professional storytellers in tea rooms, disseminated via paperbacks printed on wood and adapted into shadow theater, Beijing operas, animated films and pop-up picture books, Generations of storytellers have relied on the work of others, thus enriching the plot and reinventing the divine world. With its careful reworking of language and details, Monkey king joined this centuries-old tradition of reshaping and refreshing the old tale for a new audience.
This brings me to the “one mistake” I mentioned on the cover. I take issue with the term “translated” by Julia Lovell. The verb almost doesn’t capture the amount of editing, narration, and improvement she made to the text. Lovell is more of a creative collaborator of Wu Cheng’en, the Ming Dynasty writer who compiled and wrote the First Complete Edition of Xi You Ji.
Almost eight decades have passed since Monkey (1943), Arthur Waley’s translation of Travel west, has been published. At that time, China and the United States were powerful allies in the midst of the Pacific war against Japan. Hu Shih, who has just completed his tenure as Chinese Ambassador to the United States, wrote in an introduction with palpable excitement that, thanks to Waley, the story “would now delight thousands and thousands of children and children. adults of the English-speaking world for many years to come. While Dr. Hu may sound overly optimistic by a notch or two, in Julia Lovell’s fluid translation and witty narrative, I see real hope that his prediction will finally come true.
There is something deeply rewarding about a good translation of Xi You Ji that speaks to a global audience. What better tribute can there be to the person who started it all – Xuanzang, the brave traveler-translator who delivered delicate scrolls of manuscripts across deserts and mountains and helped new ideas transcend language chasms ?
Minjie Chen works at the Cotsen Children’s Library, a special collection of international children’s literature held at the Princeton University Library. She is the author of The Sino-Japanese War and Children’s Literature: Friends and Foes on the Battlefield (2016) and contributes blog posts on Chinese children’s literature at blogs.princeton.edu/cotsen and Chinesebooksforyoungreaders.wordpress.com.