With questions over how ideas are translated across borders and between languages as acute as ever today, it is sometimes easy to forget that our efforts to understand each other are mediated through many accreted layers of previous translations. Pu Wang
’s The Translatability of Revolution: Guo Moruo and Twentieth-Century Chinese Culture
(Harvard University Asia Center, 2018) takes us deep into this world of past linguistic and cultural interpretations, shedding invaluable light on broad questions how ‘history’, 'the people', 'revolution' and many other ideas have emerged as products of exchange between East Asian and European contexts.
But this book is much more than this, being the first study of the whole life of Guo Moruo, the ‘writer, poet, dramatist, Marxist historian, paleographer… revolutionist and cultural fighter’ (p. 5), as Deng Xiaoping eulogised him. Wang skilfully weaves together an analysis of Guo’s extraordinarily diverse written works – from translations of Goethe to autobiography and interpretations of oracle bone inscriptions – with a rich account of the man's personal life and events in China at large. As a poet and translator himself, Wang is uniquely positioned to tell this richly creative story which is at once personally intimate and vast in scope. As difficult to encapsulate in a short blurb as the tumultuous life of Guo himself, this book offers us a portrait of a deeply complex and controversial figure and a picture of Chinese culture in the age of revolution which emerged in dialogue with innumerable historic voices.
Ed Pulford is a postdoctoral researcher at the Slavic-Eurasian Research Center, Hokkaido University. His research focuses on friendships and histories between the Chinese, Korean and Russian worlds, and northeast Asian indigenous groups.