From 1980, I began my journey of translating Australian literature into Chinese. So far, I have translated more than 50 tittles canvassing Australian literature, culture, and history, which have received recognitions in and beyond the community of Australian studies. In the past 43 years, I have been working with a group of leading and emerging Australian writers, translating their works, and communicating Australian culture in China. During the journey, I have received support from individuals and institutions in both China and Australia, which have enabled these achievements in China-Australia engagement. Translating Australian literature is also a journey of self-enlightenment, bolstering my commitment to advancing mutual understanding and cultural communication between the peoples of China and Australia.
Li Yao is a leading translator of Australian literature into Chinese. He received the Australia-China Council’s Golden Medallion in 2008 and the Foundation for Australian Studies in China’s (FASIC) Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018. He was conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by the University of Sydney in 2014 and by the Western Sydney University in 2019. He is a visiting professor of the Beijing Foreign Studies University, Western Sydney University, and Inner Mongolia Normal University.
How I started the journey
Since 1978, I have been engaged in literary translation. By the early 1980s, I had translated and published several books. It is 1980 when I embarked on translating Australian literature. At that time, China’s ‘reform and opening-up’ just began, and both literary translation and translators faced many difficulties. I was working in Inner Mongolia, a remote frontier area, making it even more difficult to undertake translation work. The biggest problem was lack of information and materials.
In the winter of 1980, at the Inner Mongolia University, I met a teacher called Alison Hewitt from the University of Western Australia. There, she trained English for young teachers to prepare them for studying abroad. Knowing that I wanted to do literary translation and had no materials, she gave me two books. One was Patrick White’s representative novel The Tree of Man and the other was Henry Lawson Favourite Stories. At that time, like many people, I was ignorant of Australian literature. For the first time, I saw the works of two of Australia’s most representative writers, and I cherished them as gem. I was deeply fascinated by the two books, which brought me into an exotic, unknown world.
Thus, I made up my mind to translate Australian literature, with the two books given by Hewitt as the starting point. But, starting from scratch, I still had many difficulties and needed help and guidance. In that situation, I recalled a person and felt he could help me. This person was Professor Hu Wenzhong from the Beijing Foreign Studies University. After the ‘reform and opening-up’, Professor Hu was among the first group of Chinese scholars sent to study Australian literature at the University of Sydney, and he had made remarkable achievements in this field then. Like tens of millions of audiences all over the country, I got to know Professor Hu through Follow Me, an English-teaching program on TV. I observed sincerity and compassion in his face and eyes on TV and felt that he might not mind being approached by a remote student. I picked up a pen and wrote to Professor Hu, who I had never met before, for instruction and advice. However, when this letter was put into the posting box, I was still on tenterhooks. Professor Hu was a well-known professor and vice president of the Beijing Foreign Studies University. Considering his heavy teaching and research tasks, I was not sure if he would have time to reply to a letter from an unknown person.
One week later, I received a reply from Professor Hu, beyond my expectation. In his letter, Professor Hu gave me a brief introduction to the history and present situation of Australian literature and warmly encouraged me: ‘Australian literary translation is still an uncultivated virgin land in China, and you can do a lot in this field.’ Professor Hu’s words greatly strengthened my determination to proceed along the direction. After that, Professor Hu and I kept correspondence. He often sent me books after learning of my lack of them. Professor Hu invited me to attend the First International Conference on Australian Studies held at the Beijing Foreign Studies University in 1988. He also recommended me to attend the Tenth Annual Conference on Australian Literature in 1988 in Sydney. For the first time, I went abroad and set foot on the mysterious land that I had been longing for. With these, I genuinely embarked on Australian literary translation.
Since 1984, under the careful guidance of Professor Hu, I began to translate Patrick White’s masterpiece The Tree of Man. After several years of hard work, the Chinese translation of The Tree of Man was published by the Shanghai Translation Publishing House in 1991. After that, Professor Hu and I translated and published Selected Australian Contemporary Short Stories. In addition, he gave me the opportunity to translate Oxford Australian History, which enabled me to have a deeper understanding of Australian history. All these experiences have laid a solid foundation for my career in Australian literary research and translation. Undoubtedly, Professor Hu Wenzhong is the man influnced my life. To him, I feel grateful and indebted.
My engagement with Australian writers
Another man who influenced my life is Nicholas Jose. I got acquainted with Mr Jose in 1988. He is a well-known writer and has written seven novels, four of which are about China, including Avenue of Eternal Peace (1989), The Rose Crossing (1994), The Red Thread (2000), and Original Face (2007). I have translated three of these four novels, as well as his novel The Custodians and his prose The Story of the Moon Bone. Over the past 30 years, Jose has not only arranged for me to visit Australia, give talks, and participate in various literary activities for many times, but also recommended Australian literary works to me. A considerable number of books translated by me were bought by Mr. Jose in Australia and sent to me in China. Mr. Jose and I have maintained close contact for more than three decades. During my visits to Australia, he drove me to many places. And he also travelled in my hometown, Inner Mongolia. Australian literature has interwoven us closely.
In August 1988, I visited Mr Patrick White in Sydney when I attended the 10th Annual Conference on Australian Literature. Mr. White enjoyed solitude. However, he was very friendly and warm to me. He inquired about the details of my translation of The Tree of Man with great interest. He took a copy of his autobiography Flaws in the Glass off the shelf, and hoped that I could also translate it into Chinese and publish it in China. He said that he had wished to visit China, but his age and health prevented him from doing so. If he could enter China in such a way, his wish would be fulfilled. I happily agreed. Mr. White wrote these words on the title page of the book: ‘To my brave translator Li Yao, may he and his readers be rewarded. Patrick White, Sydney, 1988.’ Looking at White’s eyes—worn but blue—at that moment, I decided that I should not let him down and should complete the translation of the book as soon as I could, so that Mr. White, whom I respected so much, could enter China in his own way as early as possible.
After returning to China, I translated around the clock. In August 1990, Flaws in the Glass was published in Chinese by the Chinese and Foreign Cultural Publisher. While I was discussing with Mr Jose, the Cultural Counsellor of the Australian Embassy in China at that time, how to send the book to Mr White as soon as possible, a friend sent me a copy of the Sydney Morning Herald. The newspaper wrote that Mr. Patrick White, the Australian literary giant, passed away on 30 September 1990. Reading this news, my heart was saddened. I felt that I failed to live up to Mr White’s expectations and did not to publish his autobiography in Chinese while he was still alive to satisfy his wish. What made me a little gratified was that in 1991, the Shanghai Translation Publishing House published The Tree of Man, which was translated jointly by Professor Hu Wenzhong and me. In 1995, the China Literature Publishing House published another representative work of Mr. White, A Fringe of Leaves, which was translated jointly by me and Ni Weihong. Of these books, Flaws in the Glass is more popular with readers in China. Since its publication in 1990, it has been published for five times. During the past two years, I stayed at home and translated Mr. White’s favourite and most difficult novel The Twyborn Affair. The book will be published by the People’s Literature Publishing House soon.
In 1992, I began to translate Alex Miller’s novel The Ancestor Game. The Ancestor Game won the Commonwealth Literature Award and the Miles Franklin Award. In 1994, I was invited to attend the Melbourne Writers Festival, and I stayed at Alex Miller’s house. I taught Miller how to make Chinese dumplings (jiao zi), and he taught me how to make sandwiches; I sang the Mongolian folk song Gada Meiren, and he sang the Australian bush ballad Click Go the Shears. Laughter continued from dawn to dusk. But we spend most time sitting by the sea, looking at the blue sky and clear water, and talking about literature and art, similarities and differences between Chinese and Western cultures. After its publication, The Ancestor Game won the 1996 Inaugural Translation Prize awarded by Australia-China Council. In 2007, I translated his Landscape of Farewell, which won the 2008 Novel of the Year of the Foreign Literary Award by the People’s Literature Publishing House. Alex Miller came to Beijing to receive the award.
In 2007, when I visited Melbourne he introduced me to Anita Heiss, an Australian Aboriginal writer. Anita Heiss is a very talented Doctor of Letters and has written many novels. I translated her novel Who am I? Kevin Rudd, Australia’s former prime minister, wrote the foreword and spoke highly of the translation. In 2013, I visited Australia again and stayed at Alex Miller’s house for several days. He gave me his newly published novel Coal Creek. And my translation of it was published by the Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press in 2017. It won the Hu Zhuanglin Outstanding Translation Award at the Peking University in the same year.
In 1991, I translated and published Brian Castro’s The Birds of Passage, which won the Miles Franklin Award. During the process of translating The Birds of Passage, I established a solid friendship with his family. Brian Castro’s mother used to teach Chinese at a middle school in Hong Kong. In those years of translating the book, she often corresponded with me in Chinese. And I would ask her about the puzzles that I encountered in translation. The Chinese title of The Birds of Passage was decided jointly by me and his mother. Till today, I still cherish their family photo lovingly. At that time, Brian Castro was a young and promising writer. Later, I also translated his After China.
In 1996, I translated and published Woman of Inner Sea by Thomas Keneally, the most famous contemporary Australian writer and author of Schindler’s Ark. In 2003, Thomas Keneally visited China, and the Australian Embassy in China hosted a welcome banquet and invited me to attend. Knowing that I was the translator of Woman of Inner Sea, he was very happy, and sent me several other books. These books had all been translated either by me or by younger translators organised by me and had been published one after another. In 2017, Keneally came to Beijing to participate in the Australian Literature Week. We had a reunion. At the Peking University, he orated an excerpt of Woman of Inner Sea, and I orated my translation in Chinese.
In 2020, 85-year-old Keneally went to post office and sent me his new book Dickens Boy. Its translation took me a year. In August 2023, this book was published by the People’s Literature Publishing House. Keneally has deep and profound feelings for the Chinese people.Recently, Thomas Keneally, at the age of 88, sent me his newly published novel Corporal Hitler’s Pistol which won the 2022 ARA Historical Novel Prize. Now I am translating this book into Chinese, and the People’s Literature Publishing House will publish it.
Colleen McCullough—author of The Thorn Bird—is a long-time good friend of mine. In 2003, I translated her novel Morgan’s Run, which was published by the People’s Literature Publishing House. In 2006, I translated her book The Touch, which was probably the best-selling book of my translations. The first batch of 50,000 printed copies were sold out immediately. Colleen wrote forewords for both books in Chinese. In 2011, her autobiography Life Without the Boring Bits was published and she sent me a copy soon after. Although I have not had time to translate this book, certain chapters have been used as materials in the course of Advanced English-Chinese Translation taught by me at the Peking University.
Working with Aboriginal and minority ethnic writers
In the past 20 years, one prominent feature of Australian literature was the rise of a group of Aboriginal writers who have grown rapidly since the White Australia Policy was dumped in the 1970s. Aboriginal literature, with its dazzling brilliance, has entered mainstream Australian literature. In recent years, I have turned more attention and energy into the translation of Aboriginal literature, since it is an even more ‘uncultivated virgin land’ in China. In 2003, I translated and published Kim Scott’s novel Benang from the Heart that received the Miles Franklin Award. In 2009, I started to translate Alexis Wright’s novel Carpentatria. Alexis Wright’s great grandfather was a Chinese who migrated to Australia from Kaiping, Guangdong province. From a pile of historical archives, I helped her locate the evidence showing that her great grandfather’s name was Xu Sanbao. In 2018, when she attended the 4th China-Australia Writers Forum in Guangzhou, she used the opportunity to seek her roots and ancestors. With the help of local government, she found the Xu Ancestral Hall in Kaiping county, worshipped her ancestors, and obtained a book of family genealogy. We became very good friends, and she regarded me as an elder brother.
Carpentatria won the Miles Franklin Award and is the pinnacle of Australian Aboriginal literature. This book involves Aboriginal languages, beliefs, customs, and habits, and its translation confronted great difficulty. After two years of arduous work, its translation was published by the People’s Literature Publishing House in 2012. The Australian ambassador to China, Frances Adamson, held a grand book launch at the ambassador’s residence. Tie Ning, chairman of the Chinese Writers Association, and Mo Yan, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, attended it and delivered warm and congratulatory speeches. Later, I collaborated with Professor Li Ping from the Renmin University of China to translate another important book of hers, The Swan Book. In June 2023, this book was published by the Shanghai Translation Publishing House. In 2020, I and Professor Yasue Arimitsu, a famous Japanese translator, translated her Odyssey of the Horizon. This book—a collection in English, Chinese, and Japanese—has been published in China and Japan in succession.
Tara June Winch, born in 1983, is an outstanding representative of the new generation of Aboriginal writers. In 2020, Tara June Winch’s The Yield won the Miles Franklin Award. In May 2023, the Writers Publishing House published my Chinese translation of it. It has attracted widespread attention in China since its publication.
Melissa Lucashenko is one of the best Aboriginal writers who have emerged in recent years. In 2019, her novel Too Much Lips won the Miles Franklin Award. Her latest book, Edenglassie, is a very affecting novel with a fluctuating and engaging plot. I have translated this book into Chinese. I have a deep friendship with Melissa Lucashenko. In 2014, I visited Brisbane and stayed at her house. With her, I learned a lot about Aboriginal history and culture. When translating this book, I got a lot of help from her and acquired many Aboriginal words.
In the 21st century, another feature in the development of Australian literature is the emergence of literature by Chinese and other minority ethnic writers, along with the increasing establishment of multiculturalism. In recent years, many young minority writers born in the 1970s and 1980s have risen, making fresh contributions to Australian literature and remarkable achievements. Mirandi Riwoe, a writer of Chinese-Indonesian descent, is one of them. In 2021, I translated and published her Stone Sky Golden Mountain. Michael Mohammed Ahmad, a Doctor of Letters from the Western Sydney University, was born in 1986. He is one of the best young Australian writers rising in recent years. He is of Lebanese descent. Several works of his have won prizes of Australian literature. In 2014, I met him in the Creative Writing and Translation Class jointly organised by the Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press and the British Writers Association. Later, I translated his famous book The Tribe. I also translated his latest novel The Other Half of You. In 2020, this book was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and won a novel award of the University of Queensland. My translation of it will be published by the China Workers Publishing House in late 2023.
Translation makes me noble
Over the past 40 years, I have translated over 50 works by representative writers of various periods in the history of Australian literature. I also engaged many first-class Australian writers and became friends with many of them. These writers and their works have influenced me subtly but deeply. Translating their works is like having a dialogue with them. Their profound thought and brilliant creativity have moved and inspired me. And the process of translation has also reshaped and remade me, with knowledge, strength, and resilience. I wrote an article titled Translation Makes Me Noble. I believe so, because the process of translating the works by those reputed Australian writers is also one of enhancing, purifying, and enlightening myself.
Editor: Yang Binghui