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Eva Lüdi Kong – Translator of “Journey to the West

Sinologist Eva Lüdi Kong is doing pioneering work with the translation of classical novels – and bringing contemporary voices to YouTube

Eva Lüdi Kong spent 17 years on the German translation of “Journey to the West”, one of four great classics of Chinese literature. The work was as groundbreaking for East Asian culture as Dante’s “Divine Comedy” once was for Europe. This was probably why no one before Lüdi Kong had dared to fully translate the epoch-making novel into German. All Publishers the 52-year-old Swiss author approached had declared the project as “too ambitious.” Nevertheless, the sinologist, who first came to China in the early 1990s at the age of 21, continued to work relentlessly – following a feeling of “inner necessity and meaningfulness”, as she says.

In addition to her work as an interpreter and university lecturer in Hangzhou, located in eastern China, Lüdi Kong repeatedly had found herself at her desk, tracing the heroes of the novel written in the 16th century. “When it was possible, I could sit at it for days, translating the stories. In the evening, I felt like I had an incredibly eventful day – until I realized that, yes, it had all happened in the book.”

In 2017, Lüdi Kong was awarded the German Book Prize for the 1,300-page mammoth project. The renowned Reclam publishing house published the 6th edition in 2019. “Back then, I would have been quite satisfied with a few hundred readers and a dozen friendly feedbacks,” the translator says modestly. “I never expected success.” Above all, she wanted “Chinese literature to break out of the “sinology cage” and become “a natural part of world literature,” she says today.

The epic, which interweaves the journey of a monk with Chinese folk tales and themes of Buddhism and Daoism, not only belongs to the canon of China’s four classic novels but is a fundamental part of popular culture throughout East Asia. Movies, video games, and manga such as “Dragonball” are based on the works. Every child knows the monkey king Sun Wukong. The shiny hero with his many character flaws is also Eva Lüdi Kong’s favorite character from the novel. “He is the free spirit who stays true to himself without compromise. In this way, he also embodies a secret longing that runs through the entire history of China: the longing not to have to submit. In the strictly hierarchical society, this was hardly possible – except in the case of open rebellions.

The conscience of the individual is a topic that continues to keep Lüdi Kong busy, even after the completion of her major translation work. Since the end of 2019, she has been working on a collection of textual testimonies exploring the theme of “rule and dissent in China” through historical documents from ancient times to the Ming Dynasty. “The writings are made by famous figures such as Qu Yuan, Sima Qian and Ji Kang, and show great sincerity in the desire to improve social justice.”

Parallels between old novels and the present

It was precisely their commitment to human values that made these historical figures the victims of intrigues in the ruling power structure, Lüdi Kong sums up. “They could have conformed and bowed to authority to get off scot-free. But they chose to follow the voice of their conscience. The incredible courage to stay true to themselves in the face of all repression has earned them great reverence at all times.”

While she was working on the writings, the Coronavirus broke out in Wuhan. Doctors and other whistleblowers were now also faced with the choice of going public with unwelcome truths or keeping them to themselves. After some were silenced by order or even arrested, it dawned on Lüdi Kong that history was repeating itself before her very eyes. “The parallels to ancient texts were fascinating,” she says. “The advocacy of some courageous individuals for openness, for social improvement, and for justice was equal to the same attitude expressed in ancient scriptural testimonies.”

Feeling the need to make these voices heard, Lüdi Kong created a YouTube channel called “China’s Free Voices” as a side project. There she translates critical voices from Chinese into German, such as of professor Cai Xia or martial artist Xu Xiaodong, who is outlawed by the state. “With a work like this, you come to an invisible threshold, where sooner or later you have to make exactly the same decision that Qu Yuan already formulated,” Lüdi Kong admits: “Should I say what I think without reservations, even though I’m putting myself in danger?”

European policymakers also face similar questions, says Lüdi Kong, who moved back to Switzerland in 2016: “Should we rather silently ignore grievances so as not to spoil our market access?” The sinologist nevertheless dislikes the term “dissident” because it blew certain personalities like Ai Weiwei out of proportion. For her, her work is also not primarily about criticism of the Chinese state, but a critical reflection on Chinese culture, which we can no longer avoid today. Fabian Peltsch

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