Portrait – 25th February, 2016

Yu Zemin: the Chinese voice of Hungarian literature

Portrait–25th February, 2016


Yu Zemin: the Chinese voice of Hungarian literature

The first volume of Péter Nádas’s Parallel Stories received the prize awarded to the best translated book in 2015 in Taiwan. The novel was translated by Yu Zemin, the Chinese voice of Kertész, Krasznahorkai and Márai, among others.

After the first (The Silent Province), the second volume of Nádas’s trilogy (In the Depths of the Night) was published for the Taipei International Book Exhibition in February 2016, where Hungary was the Guest of Honor country.

Born in Beijing, Yu Zemin was trained as a medical doctor. He left China after the student revolts in 1989 as he feared that a new version of Mao's 'cultural revolution' would be implemented by the regime. He has been living in Hungary since the 1990s. Yu Zemin learnt Hungarian all by himself, mastering it to the extent that he is now able to translate works by Péter Nádas, Imre Kertész, Péter Esterházy, László Krasznahorkai, Attila Bartis, György Dalos, György Dragomán and Sándor Márai into Chinese.

While translating Parallel Stories, he was also working on Esterházy’s Celestial Harmonies and Krasznahorkai’s Satantango. In an interview with the literary website konyves.blog.hu, Yu Zemin said that before coming to Hungary, Sándor Petőfi had been the only Hungarian poet he had ever heard of. Lu Xun, the greatest 19th century Chinese writer considered Petőfi as one of the four greatest poets in the world besides Byron, Schiller and Pushkin.

In 1998, Yu Zemin accompanied László Krasznahorkai on a trip to China, and when they returned, he decided to translate one of Krasznahorkai’s short stories. That story was followed by others, and now Krasznahorkai's Satantango will be published in China this year in Yu Zemin's translation.

As for Nádas's Parallel Stories, he told konyves.blog.hu that when the Taiwanese press Xinbu had bought the rights two years ago, they contacted him and asked him to translate it. If he wouldn't be able to take the job, the publisher said, they would have to translate it from German or English. As neither the publisher nor Yu Zemin wanted that, he decided to take the job, although he was translating both Satantango and Celestial Harmonies at the time. "The second volume of Parallel Stories is out now," Yu Zemin said, "and I have finished Satantango. So now I have only two books to work on day and night, practically without sleep." Though translating the trilogy is extremely challenging, Yu Zemin's training as a doctor and a writer, as well as his knowledge of psychology, have proved very helpful. "I feel as if I have been preparing for this book all my life," he added.


As for the presence of Hungarian literature in Taiwan, Yu Zemin said that although works by Kertész and Márai had been translated into Chinese, they were not based on the Hungarian original. The first book to be translated from Hungarian was György Dragomán's The White King.

Yu Zemin hopes that Parallel Stories will also be published in Greater China, though he is worried because the censorship system is still alive there, and he hasn’t received an answer from the Chinese publisher for more than a year.

Asked whether Taiwanese readers found the explicit descriptions of bodies and sexuality in Nádas’s book disturbing, Yu Zemin answered that Taiwan being an open society, there are no taboos in literature, and so far, he had only had positive feedback on Parallel Stories. "Nádas has built a gigantic pyramid or church in the culture of the human body. He can only be admired for that."


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