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329 pages, Paperback
First published January 1, 1791
HENRY BENCRAFT JOLY (1893) — “The Dream of the Red Chamber”Although the first known attempt at translating part of the novel into English was in 1812 when Robert Morrison translated part of a single chapter (the 4th), and the second was in 1868 when Edward Charles Bowra translated the first eight chapters, it wasn’t until 1893 that a translation of the complete work was attempted. The novel’s prose is notoriously difficult to translate even amongst experienced Chinese–English translators, as it incorporates various forms of classical poetry, classical and vernacular language, and culturally specific references, almost all of which are crucial to the understanding of the story itself. Of the original 120 chapters, H. Bencraft Joly, who studied Chinese in Beijing as a representative of the British government, translated 56 before his early death in 1894. This truncation is perhaps ironically appropriate, given that it’s generally believed that the author of the first eighty chapters, Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹), did not write the last forty chapters but rather left the task to Gao E (高鶚).
WANG CHI-CHEN (1929, 1958) — “Dream of the Red Chamber”Wang Chi-Chen, a Chinese-American academic, author, and translator, first published an abridged version of the novel in 1929, then later an expanded version in 1958 (sixty chapters, around half the length of the original). Both versions of Wang’s translation used Wade–Giles romanisation and emphasised the central romance over the rest of the novel, although the majority of the poetry, poetics, and plot were lost in the heavy abbreviation. The page length barely exceeds three hundred; in terms of accuracy Wang’s translation is only slightly less conservative than Joly’s, although it unfortunately lacks much of the meticulosity clearly visible in Joly’s efforts. Wang also translated into English various other famous Chinese literary works, including Lu Xun’s 《阿Q正傳》 (“real story of Ah-Q”).
FLORENCE & ISABEL McHUGH (1958) — “The Dream of the Red Chamber”This abridged translation was based off a 1932 German-language translation by Franz Kuhn (see honourable mentions). Pivot language translations are embarrassing. Don’t read it.
GLADYS YANG & YANG XIANYI (1978–1980) — “A Dream of Red Mansions”The first complete English translation (all 120 chapters) was done by noted power couple Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi (also credited as “Hsien-yi Yang,” the Wade–Giles rendering of his name), married translators working with the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing. Their original translation used the Wade–Giles romanisation system, although there have been abridged versions, which I haven’t read, so I don’t know if they’ve been updated to pinyin. The Yangs’ translation is by far the most literal version available, transliterating culturally specific terminology such as characters’ names and explaining in annotations and/or footnotes any homonyms, allusions, puns, or innuendoes that might not be obvious to an anglophone reader.
DAVID HAWKES & JOHN MINFORD (1973–1986) — “The Story of the Stone”The second of two complete English translations was done by David Hawkes and John Minford, both British translators who studied in China. Hawkes had already spent quite some time studying the novel (“红学”) when Penguin Classics hired him to translate the novel. The first eighty chapters of the novel, those written by Cao Xueqin, were translated by Hawkes, with the final forty, those written by Gao E, were translated by Minford. The five volumes of the Hawkes–Minford translation approach three thousand pages, with the estimated word count at nearly one million.
SELECTED HONOURABLE MENTIONS (other languages than English)For German, there is Der Traum der roten Kammer, translated by Franz Kuhn (1932); I have not read this translation, but I’ve heard from some German friends that it’s quite good and accurate. For Russian, there is Сон в красном тереме, translated by Vladimir Panasyuk (1958); I have not read this translation, but I’ve heard from some Russian friends that it’s also pretty decent. For Italian, there is Il sogno della camera rossa, translated by Edoarda Masi (1964); I have not read this translation. For Vietnamese, there is Hồng Lâu Mộng, translated by Vũ Bội Hoàng, Nguyễn Doãn Địch, and Nguyễn Thọ (1969); although I have not read this translation, I’ve heard from multiple sources that it is highly accurate to the original, given the similarities between Chinese and Vietnamese—meaning that, for example the puns are all preserved. For French, there is Le Rêve dans le pavillon rouge, translated by Jacqueline Alézaïs, André d’Hormon, and Li Tche-houa (1981); I have actually read this translation, and it’s... okay, I guess? I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who can also read English, but it’s not bad or anything, comparatively speaking. For Czech, there is Sen v červeném domě, translated by Oldřich Král (1986–1988); I have not read this translation. For Slovak, there is Sen o Červenom pavilóne, translated by Marina Čarnogurská (2001–2003); I have not read this translation. For Dutch, there is De droom van de rode kamer of het verhaal van de steen, translated by Silvia Marijnissen, Mark Leenhouts, and Anne Sytske Keijser (2021); I have not read this translation. I have an ongoing feud with the entire Dutch language (long story), so I probably never will, to be honest.
CONCLUSIONI’m not really one to say which translation is best per se, especially not when dealing with highly stylised fiction where translation is often subjective, so I can only speak for myself personally. I would recommend the Yangs’ translation as the best and most literal English-language translation available, although it is admittedly far more difficult to read than the Hawkes–Minford translation, which I believe is the most accessible complete English-language translation. I don’t recommend reading an abridged translation; if you only want to know the story, the Wikipedia page (perhaps unsurprisingly) has a summary of the plot. If you want to read the actual novel, however, and aren’t fluent in Chinese—to be fair, the novel is challenging even for native speakers due to the style of prose and frequent period-specific political references—you can’t find a better or more complete English-language translation than Gladys Yang’s and Yang Xianyi’s.
The Empress Nü Wo, (the goddess of works,) in fashioning blocks of stones, for the repair of the heavens, prepared, at the Ta Huang Hills and Wu Ch’i cave, 36,501 blocks of rough stone, each twelve chang in height, and twenty-four chang square. Of these stones, the Empress Wo only used 36,500; so that one single block remained over and above, without being turned to any account. This was cast down the Ch’ing Keng peak."
As regards the several stanzas of doggerel verse, they may too evoke such laughter as to compel the reader to blurt out the rice, and to spurt out the wine."