Review #4: A Snake Lies Waiting

I have a neat little collection of tenuous claims to fame. Two people I was at school with have had number one songs. Ian McKellen once flirted with me. There’s a piece of china in the V&A made by an ancestor of mine. But possible my most tenuous claim to fame is that Jin Yong was my classmate at university.

How old is this guy? you’re probably thinking. Jin Yong, the nom de plume of Louis Cha, died in 2018 aged 94. But in 2010 he completed a PhD on ‘the Imperial Succession in Tang China, 618-762’ (you can order it from the BL here). I remember my Chinese literature professor telling us when he started that he was in the building to do research with the excited groupie tone that would have greeted a visit from a filmstar to our little faculty. Nevertheless the best-selling ever Chinese author was left to study in peace; most non-Chinese undergraduates were more excited a few years later when Loyd Grossman enrolled.

At that time I hadn’t actually read any Jin Yong. This is partly down to me being too pretentious – my interest in China and Chinese literature was always more Chen Kaige than Shaw Brother – but it was mostly a question of access. Incredibly, Legends of the Condor Heroes has not been available in English translation until now. What little I knew about wuxia came from Chinese friends and their parents. Scour a London bookshop for books about China in the pre-Amazon early 00s, as I did obsessively, and you would have found Penguin Classics editions of Confucius, The Story of the Stone and Monkey; you would have found Wild Swans and a whole host of 20th Century novels and memoirs which followed in its wake; you might have found Gao Xingjian and some more modern writers. Head to the Chinatown bookshops and you might have found some imported translations of more popular literature but these translations were often very poor. They were full of unwieldy and unnatural English phrases (probably overly accurate to the Chinese) and were almost unreadable, and certainly failed to convey the reasons they were so popular. Even my copy of Outlaws of the Marsh, by a major publisher, was a struggle. Tangentially, a note to Penguin Classics: you have Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Story of the Stone and Monkey, why not a new translation of Outlaws of the Marsh as well?

And if you’re looking for how to do it well, step forward Anna Holmwood, Gigi Chang and MacLehose Press. I just love this translation of Legend of the Condor Heroes. They have done everything right, navigating the fine line between precision and readability and producing something that should appeal to everyone from total newbies to Jin Yong fans. You can see it in the title – I remember someone smugly telling me that we shouldn’t call it ‘Condor Heroes’ (the title by which it is usually known in English) because condors aren’t native to China. Well, no, but that’s hardly the point here. Full marks to the team for choosing to stick with the popular name. There’s a time for pretension, and it’s not here. Holmwood and Chang have paid attention to what the text needs, and it’s exemplary work.

Every decision they have made in the translation is effective and clearly thought through with a view to making a gripping, exciting read. The number of untranslated terms are kept to a minimum (wulin, jianghu, shifu and a handful of kung fu terms); there are no footnotes and only one brief appendix, with any puns or linguistic intricacies in the Chinese clear in the translated texts; the dramatis personae at the start has been designed to be a very useful reference. Oh, and the names. Dealing with Chinese names, particularly in epic works with a large cast and in translations suitable for those with limited Chinese proficiency, is always a minefield. Do you translate literally and risk exoticising, or do you transliterate and risk losing meaning and potentially confusing readers? (As a sidebar, the gold standard for me remains David Hawkes’s Story of the Stone translation, as it is for many things) The solution here is simple – if there is an elegant translation, it is used; if not, it isn’t. So the lead characters are a mix: Lotus Huang and Guo Jing. I can’t think of a good option for Guo Jing’s 靖 either.

If I’ve any complaints, it’s that I’m a little baffled by the choice of shoutline on the edition comparing it to Lord of the Rings. I know I have a sci-fi and fantasy blindspot, and I can’t find the source of the quote used here for context, but I just don’t see how the comparison benefits Condor Heroes. The works may have a comparable stature as best-selling 20th century popular fiction in their respects corners of the global market (and they do have one major plot similarity – but that would be a major spoiler for how Volume 3 ends), but in tone, sweep, style and character they are very different. Trying to place wuxia in the modern western publishing market segments is a foolish game, but for me it’s much closer to what gets called ‘historical fiction’ – Bernard Cornwell, Robert Merle, Simon Scarrow etc. There’s much more of Uhtred of Bebbanburg in Guo Jing than there is Frodo Baggins. The historical backdrop, featuring some real historical figures like Qiu Chuji, is an essential part of the books.

Poster for the most recent (2017) TV version of Condor Heroes

So, Volume 3, and we plunge straight in (after being serialised it was published in three volumes in Chinese; this translation is in four volumes). This is action right from the off: “Count Seven, Zhou Botong and Guo Jing rushed out of the cabin and were shocked to find the water already up to their shins” is a no-nonsense first line. Given that it has been a while since I read Volume 2, I would have appreciated a ‘Previously on Lost’ recap, but it’s no matter – a quick flick through the previous volume and the dramatis personae and I could pick it right up. What Jin Yong gives you is plot plot plot. It demands your concentration – zone out for a few pages and you find that a character has died, appeared or switched sides without you noticing. Linking passages between the action are few and far between. A creative writing teacher would be utterly flummoxed by the structure. This is not remotely a criticism – it’s refreshing to read something that grabs your pressure points (so to speak) and won’t let go. It reminds me in a sense of Chinese opera, with its constant melody punctuated by heavy percussive sequences. Jin Yong’s genius is in nevertheless making the numerous characters and action sequences distinctive and building heart into them. We really do care about Guo Jing and Lotus Huang, whose complex and tender relationship is the bedrock of this book despite only being developed in occasional paragraphs between and during action.

And fabulously, charm is something that really comes through in these translations, and which I didn’t remotely expect when I started. At times it’s hilarious. Witness Browbeater Hou’s fight where, convinced that his two opponents are a demon, he charges with a pitchfork and a fistful of dung, which is soon splatted in all directions; or Guo Jing attempting a ‘birds and bees’ talk with Lotus Huang.

More than anything else though, Jin Yong gives you powerful images and set pieces that stay with you. I might struggle to recap the plots of the first two books, but the image of Cyclone Mei’s DIY trepanning technique isn’t leaving me soon. This volume has moments that are every bit the equal of this. The opening part of A Snake Lies Waiting has us at sea, building to a flaming ship sinking into a whirlpool in shark-infested waters. We even have Zhou Botong riding a shark and flipping it up onto a ship’s deck. Beat that, Hollywood.

Just as Lotus was about to turn and climb back onto the burning ship, a deafening rumble echoed all around them. A wall of water was heading their way. She closed her eyes and held her breath, waiting for it to hit, but, when nothing came, she opened her eyes again. She was astonished to see a large whirlpool drawing the ship, Guo Jing and Viper Ouyang into its churning maw.

We move to a desert island, where villainous Gallant Ouyang’s legs are crushed under a huge boulder. Soon we reach Ox Village where our heroes are hidden recuperating in a secret room in an inn watching an improbable number of previously seen characters turn up and interact, usually by fighting, including Lotus’s father Apothecary Huang with his mask of human skin, and Guo Jing’s betrothed Khojin. Thence to the Beggar Clan Assembly at Dongting Lake and finally to Iron Palm Mountain where the truth about duplicitous Qiu Qianren is revealed.

These books are just brilliant – I took my time reading this to eke out every last moment and detail of fun, thrill and terror. But as with the previous two books I’ve come away certain that there is so much more left to explore, discover and appreciate. I can’t wait for Volume 4 and my annual check-in with Jin Yong; and then I can’t wait to enjoy them all again.

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