Shameless fact-checkers may like to name-drop their conversations with the famous—for light cocktail-party chatter, I’m not above trotting out my exchanges with Oliver Stone and Geraldo Rivera—but it’s sources like Xiao Qian, an 85-year-old Chinese translator famous only to his own, who stand out. In 1995, I spoke to Qian, who had just spent five years translating James Joyce’s Ulysses into Chinese with his wife. As he told me with a laugh, “What else would I be doing at this age?”
Qian saw great connections between his own life translating an Irish classic of a single day’s journey and his road as a translator of a groundbreaking Western novel. He was absolutely thrilled that a magazine on the other side of the world would care enough about his work not only to write about the project but to double-check the details. Perhaps because tackling Joyce’s stream of consciousness—in any language—calls for a love of detail, Qian saw us as kindred spirits across the miles. In fact, he interviewed me almost as much as I questioned him.
When the first edition of the three-volume translation was published, it sold out its 85,000 copies and became a best seller – quite an accomplishment given that it cost the equivalent of a week’s wages. Sadly, Xiao died in 1999, leaving behind to his countrymen not just his life’s work but, for at least one American on the other side of the world, an indelible memory.