Famed Chinese translator dies

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MARCO WERMAN: China's official news agency today announced that Yang Xianyi has died at the age of 94. Yang Xianyi was a translator of literature. He brought some Western classics to life in Chinese. But he perhaps best known for his translation of Chinese classics into English. Writer Simon Winchester is mourning the loss of a great translator but also of a dear friend.

SIMON WINCHESTER: He was the most remarkably kind, courteous, scholarly, intellectual, old man I think I've ever known in China. I first met him about 20 years ago. At the time his wife was alive. She was an English woman, Gladys Taylor. He, Yang Xianyi, was educated at Oxford at Merton College Oxford where he read English. It was there that he met Gladys and the two of them moved back to China in the 1940s. They were dedicated communists and lived working for the Chinese People's Publishing House translating both classic works of Chinese into English and English works like Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw into Chinese. And it became a sort of right of passage with any young foreign correspondent, as I was at the time, visiting Peiking or Beijing as it is now, to go and see Yang Xianyi and Gladys. And they lived in a modest apartment in the center of the city passionately in love with Chinese literature and they couldn't have been more warm and welcoming and memorable people and I'm desperately sad that he's died.

WERMAN: Were all the books that he translated novels?

WINCHESTER: I believe so yes. I mean he was doing the most amazing work. Even when at Oxford he was translating Chinese works into couplets in the style of John Dryden. And when he got back to China he looked at all that great classics, things like the Dream of the Red Chamber, where there was not a particularly sensational English translation. But he took on this task and if you go to any book seller today and buy The Dreams of the Great Chamber it's almost 100% likely that his will be the translation because it was so beautiful and elegant and he had the metaphors and the vernacular of both languages off to a tee. And Gladys was equally good but he was really the giant among translators. But I believe nearly everything that he worked on was indeed as you say fiction and poetry.

WERMAN: And he also wrote some of his own poetry and in a BBC interview a few years ago he recalled how outspoken he was in some of his writing.

YANG XIANYI: I wrote some poems defending Khrushchev saying that his denouncing Stalin was very good. And party secretary copied it down. But at that time she was polite to me and didn't accuse me of anything until the Cultural Revolution starts.

WERMAN: And Simon Winchester tell us how exactly did that end up by biting Yang Xianyi during the Cultural Revolution? I mean he was caught up in the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.

WINCHESTER: He most certainly was and it ended tragically for all concerned. I mean they came in the middle of dinner I think. They first of all took him away leaving Gladys with their son who I think at the time was about 14 or 15. Then a week later they came and took her away and the poor little boy had no idea where his parents had gone. They just disappeared. So the little boy was then taken off to England for a while by a very well-known professor of art at Oxford and he was fostered but no one knew if the parents were still alive. Well this uncertainty deranged the poor child and he killed himself. I think he gassed himself as far as I recall. So this was an added burden for the family because of course they were eventually rehabilitated and the communist government apologized to them formally and then this diminished family remained in China and he didn't waiver � neither of the two of them wavered � in their support of the communist government despite the awful things that had happened during the revolution. And the next time we heard from him publicly was at the time, 1989 June the 4th, the Tiananmen Square incident, the massacre, when he went on the radio and was denouncing it in very, very strident terms. And then he was by then a fairly elderly man and he disappeared into a gentile retirement but nonetheless believing all the while that [INDISCERNIBLE] despite the [INDISCERNIBLE] was the right man for China.

WERMAN: Writer Simon Winchester, a friend of the late Yang Xianyi. Simon's most recent book is The Man Who Loved China. Thank you very much.

WINCHESTER: Thank you so much Marco.