(This simple set of injunctions by Brian Holton, principle translator of the Chinese Anthology I’m working on, seems to be applicable by extension beyond the field of Chinese translation, and, metaphorically, beyond the area of translation.

I’m sure many writers can think of scenarios where, for instance, an editor, organiser, academic or producer has drafted in the equivalent of the Venerable Swami Holtonanda’s ‘amateur’ to perform in a role for which any writer could suggest ten more competent and talented names.

The significance of considering the audience’s needs & pleasures, and the crafter’s time and comfort, is of course rarely given enough weight by the efficient, cash-strapped manager of any project. Particularly if they allow themselves to be led by an ideology which refuses value precisely to the needs, pleasures, creative time and comfort of non-managers.)


Don’t use Chinese people to translate literature into English, unless they are teamed with a writer who understands both English and Chinese.
Don’t use academics who have no track record of writing for the reader’s pleasure.
Don’t use amateurs! (you wouldn’t let an amateur fix your car or take out your appendix, would you?)
A speaking knowledge of Chinese is NOT the same thing as an understanding of literature (especially classical literature).
Conversely, a PhD in classical literature is no guarantee of literary quality in modern Chinese.
Listen to the experts: don’t assume that you know better than your translator.
Never trust a Chinese academic/editor/writer when it comes to the suitability of a text for western audiences: they simply don’t know enough about the western reader’s needs and pleasures.
Speed and quality are mutually exclusive: you can have one but you can never have both.
Translating from non-European languages is different from translating from French or Spanish or Latin, etc.: it is MUCH harder, it takes much longer, the available resources (esp. dictionaries) are not as good, as easily available, or as plentiful. Be patient.
Cheap work will not sell, and hungry translators will not do a good job. Don’t be cheap – translators eat too!

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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  1. I feel pained by this pandering to a “western audience,” and this first commandment which says “never let chinese people translate literature into english.” in case holton hasn’t woken up from some slumber yet, english is no longer a language of the english.

    i agree with points 4 and 5 and quite a few others though.

  2. Bill Herbert says:

    Hi Meena,

    Glad the piece provokes both agreement and debate.

    So let me pick up one point you make: it’s not so much ‘never let chinese people translate literature into english’, more that this is in some respects taken as a norm, and that, in some cases, this produces a non-idiomatic result which can not only be a misrepresentation of the Chinese, but unlikely to be read or appreciated.

    Apart from that, as I think we demonstrated in Adishakti, let versions proliferate!

    As for La Holton (born Galashiels, ardent Scots Nationalist, translated the Water Margin into Scots) pushing an English English agenda… well, if you place one hand to your ear, I think his reaction will be audible all the way down to Kent!

    All best, Bill

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