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Ideological Manipulation in Translation in a Chinese Context

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Li Li 1. Introduction:

Su Manshu and his translation of Les Misérables

Su Manshu (1884-1918), whose original name was Xuanying and his Buddhist name Manshu, was born in Yokohama, Japan, of a Cantonese merchant and a Japanese woman. At the age of six, he was sent back to Xiangshan, Guangdong Province, China, the birthplace of his father. He was a poet, writer, painter, translator, dictionary and Sanskrit grammar book compiler, anthologist and Buddhist monk.

In 1903 Su Manshu translated Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, a long novel consisting of 5 volumes (9 books). The translated version was presented in 14 chapters with 2 lines of titles at the beginning of each chapter to tell readers about the main content. He started with Book II, that is to say, omitted the entire Book, and reorganized the original chapters according to the major plots of Book II. He also created a hero named Ming Nande within his translation, whose heroic actions took place from the latter part of Chapter 7 to Chapter 13.

In China Su Manshu was mainly remembered as a pioneer of poetry translation, yet when it came to his translation of Les Misérables, the comments always centered on its unfaithfulness. No substantial study has ever been made to probe into the reasons behind such a practice. The research by such scholars as André Lefevere (1992, 1995) and Susan Bassnett (1995) on ideological manipulation of translation gives us some insight to rethink Su Manshu's translation of Les Misérables from the ideological perspective.

2. Ideologies Influencing Su Manshu's Translation Decision

The concept of ideology has been broadening and its introduction to Translation Studies has enabled researchers to probe into some translational phenomena, which might have been neglected otherwise. Translation, according to André Lefevere (1992) and Jiri Levy (2000), is one important form of rewritings and a decision process, which is not done in a vacuum, but rather influenced by certain linguistic, ideological and poetic factors.

The ideological manipulation in translation could refer to "any interference with the text, be it cultural, religious, political or otherwise, imposing modifications that are not textual constraints, for the purpose of indoctrination" (Nitsa 2000: 43). The ideologies I am going to adopt here to analyze Su Manshu's translation of Les Misérables include the following three ones.

2.1 Buddhism in Su Manshu

Su Manshu shaved his head and became a monk three times in his thirty-five years of short life. The first time was when he was only 12 years old in 1895, the second in 1899 and the last in 1903. He wrote some articles about Buddhism and he went to India, Java and other Buddhist countries to learn more about Buddhism. Here Buddhism is mainly used to analyze Su Manshu's hostility towards Christianity, which resulted in a changed image of the character in the original work.

2.2 Dominant Ideology of Qing Dynasty

Su Manshu lived most of his life at the end of the last feudal society under the Qing Dynasty. The ruling class of the Qing Monarchy used all means to preserve their reign as long as possible. Its ideology is the most traditional one from the political viewpoint, which refers to "ideas which help to legitimize a dominant political power" (Eagleton 1991:1).

2.3 Confucianism

Since the West Han Dynasty, Confucianism had been in a dominant cultural and political position in Chinese feudal society for thousands of years. Confucianism advocated benevolence and morality. There were a set of rules governing relationships between ruler (king) and his public servants, between father and son, and between husband and wife. This determined the hierarchy of male-dominated feudal China, in which women and children were greatly discriminated against and neglected.

3. Analysis of Ideological Manipulation in Su Manshu's Translation of Les Misérables

3.1 A distorted image of Bishop Myriel

Bishop Myriel under the pen of Victor Hugo is righteous and benevolent. The following few paragraphs from the last chapter (Chapter XIV) of Book First describe Bishop Myriel:

That which enlightened this man was his heart. His wisdom was made of the light which comes from there.1


He inclined towards all that groans and all that expiates. The universe appeared to him like an immense malady; everywhere he felt fever, everything he heard the sound of suffering, and, without seeking to solve the enigma, he strove to dress the wound. The terrible spectacle of created things developed tenderness in him; he was occupied only in finding for himself, and in inspiring others with the best way to compassionate and relieve. That which exists was for this good and rare priest a permanent subject of sadness which sought consolation.2

There are men who toil at extracting gold; he toiled at the extraction of pity. Universal misery was his mine. The sadness which reigned everywhere was but an excuse for unfailing kindness. Love each other; he declared this to be complete, desired nothing further, and that was the whole of his doctrine.3

From these quotations it can be clearly seen that the author is very positive towards Bishop Myriel. Yet Su Manshu, in his translation, changed Bishop Myriel into a greedy and hypocritical monk. For example, the subtitle of the fifth chapter of his translation is "贪和尚慷慨留客 苦华贱委婉陈情", which can be roughly translated into English as "Greedy Monk Generously Offers Stay, Poor Valjean Indirectly Tells Story".

Su Manshu's negative attitude towards Bishop Myriel could also be traced by his comments added in his translation. To name just one example,



This part was translated from the fifth chapter of Book II with the original title of "Tranquillity", which suggested the state of mind of Bishop Myriel when facing Jean Valjean. The first few lines of Su Manshu's translation quoted here were actually quite faithful to the original. Yet he added a sentence of his own to describe Bishop's state of mind (underlined Chinese sentence), which could be roughly translated like this: The bishop feels a kind of panic. Obviously this added sentence was not in conformity with the title of this chapter. As a matter of fact, this added sentence gave the reader a negative image of Bishop Myriel.

Another point deserving our attention is that Victor Hugo's Les Misérables is a long novel consisting of 5 volumes (9 books). Su Manshu's translation started with Volume I, Book Second, and it covered the main content of Book Second, that's to say, the whole Book First was omitted.

According to his personal ars poetica, Su Manshu was opposed to casual omissions and additions in translation. He once criticized Lin Shu's4 translation for its unfaithfulness. Why did he translate in such a way which was quite contrary to his own philosophy? In order to figure out the reasons, we should first of all look at the main content of what was omitted. Book First of Vitor Hugo's Les Misérables with the title of "A Just Man" consists of 14 chapters and it is actually a brief introduction to and a positive description of Bishop Myriel.

Su Manshu was a Buddhist monk. Buddhism and Christianity are two different religions advocating fundamentally different doctrines. It is no wonder that Su Manshu, being a Buddhist, took a hostile attitude towards Christianity. His hostility could be traced in his own novel Duanhong Lingyan Ji (Lonely Swan, where he described the Reverend Lopez, a Spanish missionary then in Hong Kong, like this: "I admire his peace and seclusion. He is an extraordinary person among the Nestorianists, who has no malicious intentions against the country other than his own."

Another piece of evidence to prove Su Manshu's hostility towards Christianity can be found in what Ming Nande says about God. Ming Nande is a hero Su Manshu created in his translation of Vitor Hugo's Les Misérables.


People in this world talk of God every day. Do you think there really exists a God? In the ancient barbarian age, many people were ignorant and they would do any mischief, so some clear-minded people thought of something that they respected to avoid the mischief of the ignorant. So God doesn't exist at all. When I was very small, I went to the church together with my father one Sabbath, I heard the Bishop saying: "If you respect God, you should bring some money from time to time and put it into the iron box in the church. Then the soul of your parents would go up to the heaven after their death." I didn't quite believe such ridiculous talk5. (PEI 1982:170)

So now it is easy for us to understand why he changed a just and benevolent bishop into a greedy monk, added some negative comments and omitted the whole Book First, which is a positive description of Bishop Myriel.

3.2 A created hero—Ming Nande

The translation of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables by Su Manshu contained major plots of Book Second and at the same time he created another hero named Ming Nande, whose heroic events took place from the latter part of Chapter 7 to Chapter 13 where he killed himself with a gun after a failed attempt to assassinate Napoleon.

Why did Su Manshu used so many chapters creating such a figure in the form of translation other than creation? It might have been easier for him to create a novel around this subject. If we didn't compare the original text with the translated one, we could hardly notice that most of this part was a creation, because of the close relationship of this character with the protagonist Jean Valjean, changing Jean Valjean's fate upon escaping from prison completely. Also, the events and descriptions such as Napoleon and Jacobins were set in France.

No doubt, Su Manshu based his hope to achieve revolutionary success resulting in a better world on such heroes as Ming Nande. What Ming Nande tried to do was to eradicate the evils and inequalities in society. The methods he used to achieve his goals, such as assassination and jail delivery, were definitely not permissible according to the dominant ideology of the Qing Monarchy. And the hopes for a better world through the mouth of the hero were definitely not what the ruling class desired. For example,

They have stipulated several regulations.

Article 1 The properties of rich people should be taken away and given to those who fight for freedom and those who are very poor.

Article 2 Those who are able to work have the right to live in the houses of and to take possessions of those who betray freedom.

Article 3 The houses, lands and other properties that have been sold may be taken back discretionarily.

Article 4 the families of those who have died for freedom should be taken special care of.

Article 5 The land in France should be the common property of the French people. Everyone is entitled to his share and no one is allowed to take more than his own share.6 (PEI 1982:193-194)

In addition, the comments Su Manshu made on society and Confucianism through the characters in the novel were obviously out of the expectations of both the ruling class and the common people. Being the core of Chinese feudal culture which had been dominating China for several thousands of years, Confucianism advocated benevolence, morality, and devotion to King / Ruler.

There were many violent attacks on Confucianism and feudal social phenomena in the part created by Su Manshu. For example,

Nande answered quickly: "The slavish indoctrination of Confucius in China is taken as a golden rule only by the lowly race there. Should we noble French citizens accept and listen to the nonsense of Confucius? ..." (ibid:148)7


The girl continued: "...Women there bind their feet with white cloth, resulting in more difficulty in walkin. Their originally good feet look like those of a pig. Isn't that ridiculous?"(ibid:171)8

If Su Manshu had written such a novel containing the illegal actions and inappropriate comments and attacks on society and Confucianism, it would have been confiscated by the ruling class and he himself would have been prosecuted. He gave some of his own ideas the form of translation, because "translation grants some kind of limited immunity to those who write it (after all, they are not responsible for what others wrote)" (Lefevere 1995:23) . "[A]s their context generally belongs to a foreign culture, the social impact of translated literary works is thought to be weaker." (ibid:14-28)

While he ruthlessly attacked Confucius and his doctrines through the mouth of the hero he created, he subconsciously judged some actions by the standards of some Confucian doctrines and values. This contradiction shows, from another angle, that one cannot be totally free of ideological manipulation.

In feudal China, a distance had to be kept between a male and a female. According to Confucian rules of etiquette, man and woman should not touch each other when giving and receiving something. Intimate descriptions such as a kiss between man and woman was certainly out of the expectations of most people. Let's look at the following description about Ming Nande's meeting with Kong Meili.

In this moment Nande knew it was the girl that he was worrying about. Then he affectionately held up her slim waist and kissed her several times (This is a western custom, please don't be surprised!)... (emphasis mine) (PEI 1982:168)9

Please pay special attention to the part in parentheses, which I have underlined above. This explanation in parentheses serves at least two functions here. One is that it reminds the readers that they were reading a translation, not creation; the other is to lessen the ideological conflict and ensure a smooth reception.

More examples are given here to show that Confucianism was regarded as one standard by which to measure what the characters said and did.

... because he is poor, his relatives and neighbors are unwilling to help him although they are rich—just as an old saying says: the rich are not benevolent, and the benevolent are not rich. Are those beasts who only care about money not benevolence and virtue willing to help him?(7) (emphasis mine) (ibid: 143)10

Benevolence, which is at the core of Confucianism, is a virtue long cherished by the Chinese people.

She became extremely angry and cursed me with the old saying: Lack of talent makes a woman virtuous. (ibid: 172)11

In feudal male-dominated China women were usually discriminated and neglected. A good lady was supposed to have no talents.

After hearing Ming Nande read what was said in the newspaper, Fan Tong said: "... Confucius in China once said: 'when in poverty, men of honor remain poor, while the flunky commit misconduct.'..." (ibid: 147)12

Fan Tong is the son of a rich man in Paris, who is pampered and spoiled by his parents in the part created by Su Manshu. He cannot read or write until he's over 20 years old. How could such an illiterate person in Paris know what Confucius said in China?

Now look at the following sentences uttered by Ming Nande's father,

If one can do his filial duties, he is a good person. It is unnecessary to talk such nonsense as fighting against injustice. (ibid:150)13

In feudal China, filial obedience was regarded as the most important duty of a child to his parents. Children were supposed to have no interest and freedom of their own.

It could be seen from those examples that it was impossible for Su Manshu, who grew up in such a Confucianism-soaked feudal culture, to escape from the very influence of Confucianism.

4. Conclusion

It is a fact that Su Manshu translated Victor Hugo's Les Misérables in a rather casual and unfaithful way in the sense that he gave readers a distorted image of Bishop Myriel in addition to creating a hero named Ming Nande. Yet the decisions to translate in such a way were not always casual, rather they reflected the translator's ideologies, namely Buddhism, the dominant ideology of the Qing Dynasty, and Confucianism.

This paper is only a study on Su Manshu's translation of Les Misérables from the ideological perspective, aiming to provide some explanations for the addition, deletion, creation and reshuffling in the translated work. Of course some other angles may provide a more comprehensive view of this subject.


1,2,3 The quoted English version of Les Misérables was downloaded from http://

  4 Lin Shu: (1852-1924) the most famous and representative of literary translator during Late Qing and Early Republican China. Not knowing any foreign language, he , in cooperation with others who could read the originals, translated about 180 works of different countries, 98 writers included.

5 - 13 are my English translations of the parts created by Su in his translation. The corresponding Chinese texts are given as end notes here.

5 男德便开口说道:"这世上的人,天天说什么'上帝'。你以为真有什么上帝吗?不过因为上古野蛮时代,人人无知无识,无论什么恶事都要去做,所以有些明白的人,就不得已胡乱捡个他们所敬重的东西,说些善恶的果报,来治理他们,免得肆行无忌,哪里真有个上帝的道理呢?我从前幼年的时候,有一礼拜日,跟我的父亲去做礼拜,只听得那主教说道:'凡人倘若敬重上帝,有钱的时时拿些钱来,放在寺院铁箱子里面,将来他父母死后的灵魂,就会上升天堂。'对他那种荒唐的话,那时候我就有些不信。"

6 会中定了几条规矩,便是:
  1. 取来富户的财产,当分给尽力自由之人以及穷苦的同胞。
  2. 凡是能做工的人,都有到那背叛自由人的家里居住和占夺他财产的权利。
  3. 全国的人,凡从前已经卖出去的房屋田地以及各种物件,都可以任意取回。
  4. 凡是为自由而死的遗族,须要尽心保护。
  5. 法国的土地,应当为法国的人民的公产,无论何人,都可以随意占有,不准一人多占土地。

7 男德即忙答道:"那支那国孔子奴隶教训,只有那班支那贱种奉作金科玉律,难道我们法兰西贵重的国民,也要听他那些狗屁吗?......"

8 那女子又道:"......他们女子将那天生的一双好脚,用白布包裹起来,尖耸的好象那猪蹄子一样,连路都不能走了。你说可笑不可笑?"

9 这时,男德才知道是他心里所惦记的美人,急忙亲亲热热地用手一把搂住那美人的细腰,连亲了几个嘴(这是西俗,看官别要见疑)......

10 ......因为他家道困穷,他的亲戚和那些左右隔壁的邻居,虽说是很有钱,却是古言道:"为富不仁"。那班只知有银钱,不知有仁义的畜生,哪里肯去照顾他呢?

11 他就大怒起来,用'女子无才便是德'的话来骂我。

12 那范桶听罢,便道:"......那支那国的孔夫子也曾说道:'君子固穷,小人穷斯滥矣。'......"

13 ......世上的人若能尽了这"孝顺"两个字,就是好人,不用讲什么为世不平的邪话。

Eagleton, Terry. 1991. Ideology: An Introduction. London: Verso.

Lefevere, André. 1992. Translation, Rewriting and the Manipulation of Literary Fame. London ;New York: Routledge.

Levy, Jiri. 2000. "Translation as Decision Process". Lawrence Venuti (Ed.), The Translation Studies Reader (148-59). London; New York: Routledge.

Nitsa BEN-ARI. 2000. "Ideological Manipulation of Translated Texts". Translation Quarterly 16 & 17: 43.

Susan Bassnett & Lefevere, Andre. (Eds.), 1995. Translation, History and Culture. London: Cassell.

Toury, Gideon.1995. Descriptive Translation Studies and Beyond. Amsterdam--Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

PEI, Xiaowei.1982.Su Manshu Xiaoshuo Shige Ji [ Seleted Poems and Novels by Su Manshu].Beijing: Zhongguo Shehui Chubanshe


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