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UPDATED: December 3, 2009 NO. 49 DECEMBER 10, 2009
Resting in Peace
A highly acclaimed translator of Chinese literature left behind a precious legacy for international readers

WHEN LIFE'S GOLDEN TURNS TO GRAY: Even if golden hair turns gray, a heart of gold will not change. Yang Xianyi and his wife, Gladys Yang, in their study (SUN ZHIJIANG)

Yang Xianyi, China's prolific and consummate translator, died of lymphatic cancer in Beijing on November 23 at the age of 95. He joins his beloved wife and lifelong collaborator, Gladys Yang, who died 10 years ago.

The couple was known throughout China and much of the literary world for the wide range of Chinese classic works from the past two millennia they translated into English. Among the most memorable of these are Selections From Records of the Historian, Selections From the Book of Songs, Tang Dynasty Stories and the great Qing Dynasty novels—A Dream of Red Mansions and The Scholars. The pair's translations also covered modern classics and contemporary writers such as Lu Xun: Selected Works and The Song of Youth.

"It's a huge loss to China's translation circles and international translation and sinology circles," said Feng Qiyong, an expert on China's literary history and A Dream of Red Mansions.

"In the area of Chinese to English translation, Yang is number one in contemporary China, and serves as a model for others," said Huang Youyi, Vice President and Editor in Chief of the China International Publishing Group. Huang said there are at present no more than 100 professionals in China qualified to translate literature.

China boasts a long list of translators who convert foreign languages into Chinese, but much fewer established Chinese to English translators such as Yang and his wife. "The couple has devoted their entire life to translating China's classic literary works into English, and their translations—accurate, vivid and elegant—are second to none among Chinese contemporary translators in terms of quantity and quality as well as significance," said Li Jianjun, a literary critic.

What was precious about Yang was that he "availed himself of his erudition of both Western and Chinese cultures to overcome language barriers and make China's classical masterpieces accessible to a larger Western audience while maintaining their original flavor," said Hu Baomin, Publisher of the Foreign Languages Press, where the Yangs worked for more than three decades.

A love story

Born to a wealthy banking family in the westernised port city of Tianjin in 1914, Yang began to pursue higher education at Oxford University in 1936. While a love between Yang and Gladys B. Tayler sprouted as did their first attempt at collaborating on translation.

Tayler was born in Beijing in 1919 where her father was a missionary and returned to Britain for education in 1926. She met Yang through a mutual friend at the Oxford China Society.

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