Just the Facts November 2007

A Conversation to Remember

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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.

Yvonne Rolzhausen supervises the fact-checking department at The Atlantic.
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