Original edition of Darwin’s masterwork translated into Chinese

Wed, 04/23/2014


Brendan M. Lynch
KU News Service

LAWRENCE — A new Mandarin translation of Charles Darwin’s "On the Origin of Species" is flying off bookstore shelves in China. The book previously was unavailable in that country except as translated from its sixth edition, which specialists today view as flawed.

"There have been at least half a dozen of versions available since the early 1950s, all based on the sixth — and the last — edition," said Desui Miao, collection manager with the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Kansas, who authored the new translation. "But the sixth edition represents Darwin’s back-paddling from his original views, concessions to some unfounded criticisms, and retreats from its earlier editions, and thus is now considered less favorably by Darwin scholars and evolutionary biologists."

Published last October to critical and academic acclaim, Miao’s Chinese translation already has sold about 10,000 copies — "phenomenal" sales for a book considered to be the foundation of evolutionary biology. Miao said that the concept for the translation began with a publishing house looking for the right person to bring Darwin’s ideas to a modern Chinese readership.

"The Darwin 200 Beijing International Conference was held at Peking University in fall of 2009 to commemorate Darwin’s 200-year birthday and the publication of the 'Origin of Species' for 150 years," he said. "A renowned publisher specialized in translation of foreign language books — mainly literature and humanity — into Chinese, Yilin Press, came to the conference to solicit a translator to translate the ‘Origin’ for their ‘Essential Ideas’ series. Although I was not present at the conference, my name was recommended to the publisher by several distinguished Chinese colleagues."

The KU researcher said that initially he felt reluctant to take on the work of translating the father of modern biology.

"I was approached by the publisher, and I first turned them down out of the fear it of being too time-consuming, which turns out to be correct," said Miao. "I later changed my mind after the publisher had convinced me of its importance to the Chinese audience."

Indeed, the effort took Miao about two years. He drew upon his expertise as a biologist as well as his skills with both the Chinese and English languages.

"Mandarin Chinese is my mother tongue; however, English has been my everyday working language for more than 30 years," he said.

But even with Miao’s bilingual ability and scientific expertise, he found translating some of Darwin’s passages to be demanding.

"Of course, it’s difficult to find the right words, mot juste, in Chinese to convey the exact meaning of their English counterparts," said Miao. "For example, ‘descent with modification’ was very difficult to translate, and I’m not entirely happy with what I’ve come up with. There are convoluted sentences in places throughout the book, but overall Darwin wrote clearly — because his thinking was crystal clear."

Unlike in the U.S., where Darwin’s theories have touched off controversies since their publication in the 19th century, Miao said China has never seen dissent over evolution "because the lack of religious zeal." But, he said there have been misunderstandings of the book.

Perhaps the researcher’s new translation could help to clear up Darwin’s ideas and further boost China’s growing status in the field of evolutionary biology.

"They have strengths in several areas, such as paleobiology, vertebrate zoology and conservation biology," said Miao. "The 'Origin' is not an easy read, even in its English original, and thus is widely talked about but seldom read from cover to cover. This translation is more faithful to the original, easier to read and hopefully will encourage people to finish reading the book."

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