Man Finishes Life's Work: Translating Famed Porn Tale
David Tod Roy finishes incredible effort with publication of final volume
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 23, 2013 1:49 PM CST
The fifth and final volume.   (Princeton University Press)

(Newser) – It's being described by the New York Times as having a "Ulysses'-like level of quotidian detail": an almost 3,000-page book that stretches over five volumes and features more than 4,000 endnotes. It also happens to be incredibly pornographic. David Tod Roy, an 80-year-old emeritus professor of Chinese lit at the University of Chicago, has spent some 30 years translating the anonymously written 16th-century The Plum in the Golden Vase (or Chin P'ing Mei) into English. The final volume was published in September, reports the LA Review of Books, which calls it "one of the world's greatest novels." It tells the tale of corrupt merchant Ximen Qing—and his six wives and many concubines. Under Mao, it was actually recommended to high-ranking officials as a case study in imperial corruption; the rest of the population was permitted only censored versions. (Roy explains to Tableau, "You would sometimes read along in Chinese and then all of a sudden it would say, 'the next 560 characters are deleted.'")

Roy discovered an unexpurgated copy in a used bookstore as a missionary kid in China in 1950 and officially began translating it in 1982, issuing Volume 1 in 1993. A professor of Chinese lit at Ohio State University describes its contents: "S-and-M, the use of unusual objects as sex toys, excessive use of aphrodisiacs, sex under all kinds of nefarious circumstances—you name it, it's all there." (The Times points out that Chapter 27 is particularly "infamous.") But in terms of the "all," there's more than the sex: It uniquely focused on ordinary people, rather than the "mythical heroes or military adventures" long Chinese narrative always followed. To wit, in his interview with Tableau, Roy notes that the book's "descriptions of sexual activity ... were no more detailed than its descriptions of eating, costumes, political corruption, funerals, and so on." Tableau's descriptions of his incredible translation efforts are worth a read. A sample: "In Chapter 29 the fortune-teller Immortal Wu tells the fortunes of each major member of the household. That took me over two years to translate, by reading traditional Chinese fortune-telling manuals and trying to master the system."
 

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