Jin Yong's Heroes now in English

Scottish translator Anna Holmwood translates the Chinese writer's Legends Of The Condor Heroes series

Hong Kong journalist and newspaper editor Louis Cha, 94, who goes by the pen name Jin Yong, is considered the grandfather of Chinese martial arts fiction.
Hong Kong journalist and newspaper editor Louis Cha, 94, who goes by the pen name Jin Yong, is considered the grandfather of Chinese martial arts fiction.PHOTOS: MACLEHOSE PRESS

For decades, generations of Chinese readers have fallen in love with the thrilling tales of Chinese author Jin Yong's Legends Of The Condor Heroes series. But this rich world has been largely inaccessible to English readers - until now.

The books are getting their first official English translation from British publisher MacLehose Press, with the first volume, A Hero Born, just released.

The ambitious project was first started five years ago by Scottish translator Anna Holmwood, 32.

"Everyone was telling me it was impossible and that's why it's never been done," she says over the telephone from Sweden, where she lives.

"It's a humbling experience to translate something so rich and complex when there's been no vocabulary for it in English. But as hard as it is to do, I feel the loss would be greater if it never made it into English."

Jin Yong, the pen name of Hong Kong journalist and newspaper editor Louis Cha, 94, is considered the grandfather of Chinese martial arts, or wuxia, fiction.

He is one of the best-selling Chinese authors living, with more than 300 million copies of his works sold worldwide.

It's a humbling experience to translate something so rich and complex when there's been no vocabulary for it in English.

SCOTTISH TRANSLATOR ANNA HOLMWOOD, on Jin Yong's Legends Of The Condor Heroes series

The MacLehose translation will span 12 volumes, encompassing the three arcs of Legends Of The Condor Heroes (She Diao Ying Xiong Zhuan), Divine Condor, Errant Knight (Shen Diao Xia Lu) and Heaven Sword, Dragon Sabre (Yi Tian Tu Long Ji).

First serialised in the 1950s and 1960s in Hong Kong newspapers, the series is set in the Song dynasty during the Mongol invasion of China and ends with the rise of the Ming dynasty in the 14th century.

In terms of scale, action and colour, the books have drawn comparisons with Western fantasy epics The Lord Of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien and A Song Of Ice And Fire by George R.R. Martin, which gave rise to ongoing hit television series Game Of Thrones.

Jin Yong's works are largely set in the world of the jianghu, a pugilistic society where martial arts exponents travel China trading blows, teaching skills and upholding a strict code of honour.

Legends Of The Condor Heroes has long evaded English translators because of its historical depth and the sheer complexity of the language of wuxia. For instance, a technique used by one of the book's heroes is Xiang Long Shi Ba Zhang, which in English produces the clunky translation of "18 Subduing Dragon Palms".

Holmwood, who is married to a Taiwanese film-maker and has a two-year-old son, says that from the moment she started learning Chinese, she was aware of Jin Yong. "His name has always been there, almost ever since I learnt 'ni hao' (how do you do)."

She began learning Chinese 10 years ago in her final year studying history at Oxford University, where she won a scholarship to spend two months in China and fell in love with it, which led her to pursue a master's degree in Chinese culture.

She has translated Chinese writer A Yi's A Perfect Crime and mystery blogger Ai Mi's Under A Hawthorn Tree.

She bought her first Jin Yong novel - The Deer And The Cauldron (Lu Ding Ji) - at the Eslite Bookstore in Taiwan. Although she struggled with the archaic language at first, she found herself hooked.

What proved most difficult to translate were the exciting fight scenes Jin Yong is famed for, which often involve multiple characters wielding various weapons and techniques.

"I used the aesthetic of martial arts films a lot to help me, as that's a lens through which a lot of Western readers will be reading Jin Yong," she says.

"I try to think of it like a film director would, where they would speed up a fight scene or go into slow motion for dramatic effect.

"I would use short sentences and short words to get that back-and-forth feeling of pace. Then, when the action needed to slow down, I would make the sentence longer and more detailed."

What could be controversial with Jin Yong purists is her decision to translate some of the characters' names literally. The book's heroine Huang Rong, for instance, becomes Lotus Huang.

Fans have been unhappy with similar decisions in the past, such as translator John Minford's renaming of The Deer And The Cauldron's anti-hero Wei Xiaobao as Trinket in 1997.

"If I took the easiest approach, which was to use pinyin (standard romanisation), I felt that would lose a lot of the richness of the characters' names," says Holmwood.

Given the daunting task of translating the next 11 volumes, Holmwood has brought in Hong Kong translator Gigi Chang to help. Chang will do the next volume, while Holmwood is now working on the third.

Though the translation has the blessing of Cha's publishers, they have yet to hear any feedback from the author himself.

The famously reclusive Cha, whose awards include the Order of the British Empire by the British government and the French Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur, declined to be interviewed for this article.

"I can only hope he is satisfied that we tried our best with humble hearts and nothing but respect for the fantastic stories he's created," says Holmwood.

Though set centuries ago in a fantastical China, she feels his tales can still resonate with readers today.

"These are individuals looking to uphold a certain morality in their crumbling, corrupt world," she says.

"Today, when we watch the news, we often see powerful people with lots of money acting in ways that aren't in the interests of the common people.

"There's something about reading a fantasy series where everyday folks can learn skills to fight against corruption and regain justice."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2018, with the headline 'Jin Yong's Heroes now in English'. Subscribe