Word and World: Notes on the Translation of The Good Life


Part of The Good Life’s Chinese Edition Book Launch and Discussion in Tongji University, June 15, 2019

Thank you everyone for coming and spending your Saturday afternoon with us. I want to thank Iñaki Ábalos for charging me with this responsibility of giving a response at the launching of The Good Life’s Chinese edition, a book I had the honour and delight to translate in the past year. I would also like to extend my gratitude to Ms.Qin Lei and Ms.Yang Biqiong of Luminocity for their patience and support throughout the process, and to Tongji University and Tongji Architectural Design Group for hosting us today.

Knowing most of our audience today are architects and architecture students, I want to acknowledge that I was interested in The Good Life first as an architecture student, and later, as an architect in practice, not a professional translator or writer. With this, I hope you would excuse any unthoughtful part of my translation, and that the personal story I am going to share may resonate with some of you.

I first encountered The Good Life when I was a student at Harvard. At that time, The Good Life was a part of the special collection of Harvard’s Loeb Library, so I had to spend my reading time in the library’s stuffy concrete basement. However, the book unfolded itself as a delightful surprise, not only for the broad range of interests and knowledge it covered, from modern history to critical theory, from design techniques to building methods, but also for the loose and easy manner in which these interests and knowledge were articulated. It presented a kind of atmosphere that were far from any forms of Anglo-Saxon writing convention, which so often tried to construct arguments only to persuade. The Good Life, if it served any purpose, was only to tell. In its telling, it also transmitted a sense of the Mediterranean smell - oceanic and lightly sunburnt - despite the fact that it was already deep into the autumn of New England. It occurs to me that the tectonic articulation of language is just like that of architecture, with implication in the matter as well as the non-matter: rhythm, atmosphere and psychological delight. Language is like buildings - with words one could construct a world.

But the idea of translating the book did not occur to me until I took a seminar in Chinese literature called From Fiction into History in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, which dealt with the dialectics between historical dynamics and literary manifestation of Chinese modernity. In this seminar, I was introduced to a novel by Chinese-Taiwanese architect Wang Dahong, who was a student of Walter Gropius and a classmate of I.M Pei at Harvard. The novel, called Du Liankui, was, what I would call, a trans-writing of Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. It was a translation, first and foremost, for it remains largely faithful to the novel’s plot line and even retains its number of chapters (20). Yet it was also a form of rewriting in the sense that all its references to the Victorian London were replaced with those to modern Taipei, re-portraying the characters based on Chinese cultural traditions. For example, the protagonist, Du Liankui, whose name was phonetically related to Dorian Gray, was depicted close to Jia Baoyu in Chinese classical novel Honglou meng, culturally re-imagined into an inextricable link to two contexts instead of one.


Two lessons I learned from reading Wang Dahong’s magnificent work, which later applied to my own translation of The Good Life: first, context is not absolute; and second, invention is inevitable. Any form of translation eventually has to involve the practice of rewriting on one level or another. It is also worth pointing out that some words that are essential to Western intellectual discourse, like “project”, have no counterpart in Chinese. Others that have double or even multiple meanings in English often have to be translated into different Chinese words pending its situation, like the two obvious key words in this book - subject (being subjective 主观/ subject manner 主题/ the person or object 主体/ being conditional 依靠) and object(being objective客观/ the person/thing 客体/ the opposing 相反).

A dual situation is implied: on the one hand, the work of translation has to be precise, not only in terms of its structure and the meaning of words, the matter, but also in terms of the atmosphere and imagination it renders, the non-matter; on the other hand, this double precision is almost impossible in any absolute manner, for the apparent cultural and linguistic differences of the languages. Therefore, an unconventional system of translation techniques has to be developed, which I reflect as the follow:

1. No origin

Any form of translation implies a point of reference - the original text. For The Good Life, we only referred to the original text for the first and final drafts of translation. All the other drafts in-between (there were eight drafts in total) only referred to the Chinese text itself. One has to admit the danger of such practice, but we also see beauty in itself: by temporarily suspending the original, we are able to create a new world that are familiar to its new language context.

2. No footnote

Academic translation often presents the translator’s notes along with the original content, which often occupy a substantial portion of the content pages. We intentionally opted not to offer reader any footnotes, but instead, provided a glossary at the end of the book for reference. The glossary, along with the writer’s original endnotes, serves as a list of key ideas for the readers to rethink the text, a collage of essential subjects and objects covered in the book.

3. No order

In the introduction, readers were gently warned that the order in which the different houses of modernity appear in the book - and their number- has not been guided by academic logic, as would be their ordering in chronological terms or in relation to size, for instance, but by reproducing the form in which they have gradually been subsumed and rendered mutually necessary in the author’s imagination, so that they maintain an order that is real yet subjective.

Similar techniques were adopted for the translation. The last chapter of the book, the House of Pragmatism, was first translated as it best aligns with the personal philosophy of Inaki and his practice, first with Juan Herreros, and later, with Renata Sentkiewicz. The translation then proceeded to the third chapter, the positivist house, as it sets the backdrop against which all the other houses have been constructed. The Chinese edition is another layer of historical re-ordering of the book’s original imagination.

The relationship between language and architecture is almost intrinsic, so as the practice of writing and building. However, just as the modernist cliche has haunted architecture discipline long before its postmodern turn, the practice of language, both in architecture and our everyday life, has also suffered from cultural taboos, sentimental nostalgia, and over-corrected politics. Yet the crisis of stereotyped language is always the threshold to profound change - this was perhaps the unconscious departure of my delightful journey of translating this book: to break free from any linguistic barrier, to unlearn the cliche that has utterly dominated our everyday practice of reading and speaking, and to create a new way of writing and building that has never before imagined.

Thank you!