紅樓夢 or The Dream of the Red Chamber is one of China’s four classics. It is said to be a masterpiece that clarifies much of China’s cultural foundation. Looking for that clarification, I tried to read it in David Hawkes’ acclaimed English translation, but couldn’t get through. A month or so ago a Dutch translation, which was also widely praised, was published. I am now at the second half of Chapter 43. (There are 120 chapters in all, in four volumes). The Dutch translation is successful for me because I can follow the sometimes lavish details and because only the leading figures of prestige have Chinese names (in pinyin, as: Baoyu) and the rest have meaningful nicknames (as: Bekoring (or Charm)). In the Dutch translation the tone is much more that of a drawn-out conversation that invites participation than the English one, which (at least in my opinion) shows much more distance and at the same time also (pre)judice. Where the word ‘kletsen’ (chat) is used for the first time in Dutch, it is ‘gossip’ in English. The context for those translations, in the second chapter, is the narrator’s setting the scene for the final situation of the novel, as discussed at length over a drink by two old acquaintances.

Translation is an art that rests on the atmosphere and climate that are influenced and evoked by the choice of words. That of the Dutch translation is, for me, unexpected and effective at the same time.

What Cao Xueqin does with his novel is akin to what Marcel Proust tries to achieve in his À la recherche du temps perdu. And in both I read main differences in culture: classical versus romantic, collective versus individual. And for both, I need a Dutch translation to arrive at a valuation. With Proust this can be illustrated on the basis of the first sentence. I compare those in the original, in the English and in the Dutch translation:

OriginalLongtemps, je me suis couché de bonne heure.
EnglishFor a long time I would go to bed early.
DutchLang ben ik bijtijds gaan slapen.
Proust’s first sentence & translations

I tried to read Proust some time ago, but his French is too difficult for me and I also did not succeed in making a connection with his novel through an English translation, like I could’nt with Cao Xueqin’s. However, a recent Dutch translation of Proust has been published too. I consulted both. See the table. And indeed, the problem shows itself with the first sentence. In French and Dutch this immediately begs the question Why? There is no such tension in the English translation. On consideration I suspect that ‘I went’ instead of ‘I would go’ can solve this one. Yet, for those who read Proust in English, things go wrong from the first sentence on, to only get worse in the crucial few pages that follow.