The Journey to the Text:
There are several Chinese-to-English translations of Xiyouji, but the two I’ll focus on are Monkey, translated by Arthur Waley in the 1930s, and The Journey to the West, translated in the early 1980s by Anthony C. Yu (I have a revised edition from the early 90s). Western readers are more likely to be familiar with the inferior Monkey.
Calling Xiyouji “Monkey” is about as accurate as calling Gulliver’s Travels “Little Big Man.”
If the only purpose of the book were to amuse, then Waley’s translation would be fine. But there’s more to it than that, and substance gets lost because Waley edited Xiyouji with a machete. Big chunks of the original story—and a great deal of the subtlety—are missing.
Perhaps Waley’s most harmful cuts are to the verse portions of the story, of which nearly every word has been chopped or mashed into the prose without much care. Buddhist sutras were compiled as prose and verse together and Xiyouji mimics that format. The verse portions of Xiyouji add emphasis, a pause to revel or reflect upon some detail or emotion that might have been passed over in the frantic pace of the action-filled prose.
Did Waley remove so much of the poetry out of consideration for Western readers? Was it editorial excess? Or was he just being a dick? I’ll let the scholars debate that one.
Yu, of the University of Chicago, offers a far better—and complete—translation, all one hundred chapters. The prose and verse are all present and accounted for, and Yu knows his stuff when it comes to Buddhist and Taoist terminology. Where Waley focused mostly on the goofy aspects of the story, with Yu, you get the whole shebang (Wade-Giles: shih-beng. Pinyin: xipeing).
David Latimore, a professor of Chinese at Brown University (who is rather fond of Waley) wrote in an excellent review for the New York Times:
Waley’s ‘Monkey’ has several sorts of permanent value. But it must now relinquish its always slender claim to represent, with any degree of substantiality, the Chinese original. Waley may have caught the color of Monkey’s mind, but in his 300 pages, rendering less than a third of the complete work, he made no attempt to capture the scale of the original ‘Journey to the West’: its spiritual depths or its rich variations of style. To judge these things, the reader of English will now turn to a version that quite magnificently supersedes Waley’s: ‘The Journey to the West,’ edited and translated by Anthony C. Yu. (New York Times, March 6, 1983)
It’s shame more readers know of Waley than Yu, as Waley is to Yu what Ikea is to furniture.
Big, Big, Monkey Man!
Wu Cheng-en took Xuanzang’s real-life account and gave it what it really needed to sell big: flatulence, theft and kung-fu.
The greatest initial appeal to Xyouji all comes down to the smart-mouthed monkey, Sun Wu-k’ung. I say initial, because I think that as the story progresses, the reader becomes more and more involved in the less flashy and subtler parts of the story (which is why I feel the full translation is best). It’s like reading Henry Miller. You’re drawn in for the sex bits but stay for the deeper thoughts. And sometimes there’s deeper thought during the sex bits. It’s the same case here, only substituting monkeys for sex. (There’s a sentence I doubt I’ll ever need again.)
The monkey gets a lot of the best material. He’s arrogant and talks endless smack to anyone in earshot. If not for him, a lot of readers might never give a damn about poor old hard-working Xuanzang. (A note on the fictionalized Xuanzang: if there’s one thing I fault in the book, it’s that he’s something of an effete prig: too clean, too saintly. The real guy could not possibly have been so delicate. The real Xuanzang must have been a vigorous and rugged person or he’d never have survived his travels.)
In one sense, the monkey represents “the monkey of the mind,” the wild and undisciplined part of us all. In another sense, he’s a supernatural shit-talkin’ ass-kickin’ freakchimp.
OK, so once upon a time there was this stone on this big island and the wind carved it up into the shape of a monkey and it came to life. He became king of Flower Fruit Mountain after showing the rest of the monkeys that he had the courage to pass through the Water Curtain, a huge, scary, noisy waterfall. He was the “Handsome Monkey King.”
See, already it’s more entertaining than Xuanzang’s real-life story.
One of my favorite passages describes in terms both simple and poetic what the Handsome Monkey King found on the other side of the waterfall. It shows the mutually supportive roles of the prose and verse portions.
Look at him! He closed his eyes, crouched low, and with one leap he jumped straight through the waterfall. Opening his eyes at once and raising his head to look around, he saw that there was neither water nor waves inside, only a gleaming, shining bridge. He paused to collect himself and looked more carefully again: it was a bridge made of sheet iron. The water beneath it surged through a hole in the rock to reach the outside, filling in all the space under the arch. With bent body he climbed on to the bridge, looking about as he walked, and discovered a beautiful place that seemed to be some kind of residence.
Then he saw
Fresh moss piling up indigo,
White clouds like jade afloat,
And luminous sheens of mist and smoke
Empty windows, quiet rooms,
And carved flowers growing smoothly on benches;
Stalactites suspended in milky caves;
Rare blossoms voluminous over the ground.
Pans and stoves near the wall show traces of fire;
Bottles and cups on the table contain leftovers.
The stone seats and beds were truly lovable;
The stone pots and bowls were more praiseworthy.
There were, furthermore, a stalk or two of tall bamboos,
And three or five sprigs of plum flowers.
With a few green pines always draped in rain,
This whole place indeed resembled a home.”
(The Journey to the West, vol. 1, p. 70, Anthony C. Yu, trans.)
This portion shows what I love most about fables: the credible and direct presentation of the fantastic. Disbelief is not so much suspended as totally overridden. “Why?” is rendered moot. We see here a home fit for a king of monkeys. Never mind that you have probably never given any thought to what a monkey paradise would look like; Wu Cheng-en tells you how it is and that’s that.
The same scene exists in Arthur “The Dick” Waley’s translation, but in his the verse is gone and the details are smashed banana-like into the prose.
(Part Two of Three)