Interview with Professor Wilt Idema

Professor Wilt Idema (Harvard University) will be publishing his third book, The Legend of Prince Golden Calf in China and Korea, with Cambria Press, in addition to The Immortal Maiden Equal to Heaven and Other Precious Scrolls from Western Gansu and Insects in Chinese Literature.

Below is a recent interview with him.

Q: How has the pandemic affected your work?

WI: I consider myself one of the lucky ones. So far I have been in good health. As a retired person working at home I have not been affected that much by many of the lockdown measures. I am not involved in teaching, so I did not have to change to on-line teaching with all its challenges and limitations. For my research I could rely on my own books, and the libraries have been very helpful within their possibilities. The availability of digital facilities is a great boon is of course a great boon under the present circumstances. Also some colleagues abroad have been very helpful.

Q: Are there any tips you could share as a scholar in these challenging times?

WI: Let’s hope that with the current vaccination programs the situation can return to some degree of normalcy after the summer. In the meantime I can only wish all colleagues actively involved in teaching all the strength, patience, and inventiveness they will need.

Q: We are very honored and excited about publishing your third book with us. Could you please tell us more about your forthcoming book?

WI: The legend of Prince Golden Calf tells the story of a little prince who is transformed into a calf when the jealous rivals of his mother try to kill him by feeding to a mean cow. When the king next develops a special affection for the little animal, the jealous women feign an illness and want to eat its heart and liver. When the king cannot but order the butcher to slaughter the calf, the butcher allows the calf to flee. The calf is later selected by a foreign princess as a her groom, and when the princess is chased away by her father, she is eventually rewarded for her loyalty to her husband when the calf turns into a very handsome prince, who later on also is reunited with his father and saves his mother. It is a fascinating tale that also has had a very interesting history in China and Korea. In Korea its origin in China was forgotten and the tale has long been considered an originally Korean legend. The Legend of Prince Golden Calf in China and Korea offers translations of the major versions of the legend of Prince Golden Calf from both countries. The texts range from (fragments of) manuscripts discovered at Dunhuang to contemporary folktales, and also includes a Chinese version only preserved in Korea and a Korean retelling. As a collection of translations, it is first of all a case book that hopes to stimulate questions rather than a monograph that provides answers. The translations are preceded by a general survey of bovine lore in China and Korea, with a special emphasis on the affection between owners and oxen as household animals. As the book illustrates the development of the legend in China and Korea, it could not have come about without the cooperation of Allard Olof, a specialist in Korean studies from Leiden, who already earlier had published on the versions of the legend of Prince Golden Calf that circulated in Korea.

Q: What are some similarities and differences from your earlier book “The Immortal Maiden Equal to Heaven” and Other Precious Scrolls from Western Gansu and Insects in Chinese Literature?

WI: The Legend of Prince Golden Calf in China and Korea reflects two of my research interests. The first of these is my interest in Chinese popular literature, especially the traditions of prosimetrical narrative such as precious scrolls. I first became interested in the legend of Prince Golden Calf when I came across the precious scroll adaptation of this legend that is included in translation in the volume. The second interest is my fascination for animal tales in which talking animals as animals (and not in human guise) interact with each other and with humans. One of the popular themes of such tales is the court case of animals in the underworld when they bring their complaints to King Yama. One of the earliest examples of such underworld complaints is actually “The Complaint of the Ox,” a long set of songs by Yao Shouzhong of ca. 13OO. In my The Immortal Maiden Equal to Heaven and Other Precious Scrolls from Western Gansu I included an adaptation as a precious scroll of the underworld court case of the mouse against the cat. And Insects in Chinese Literature concludes with an adaptation, this time as a play, of the underworld court case of the louse against the flea and the bed bug. A full translation of “The Complaint of the Ox” is included in the introductory chapter on bovine lore.

Q: What was it that made you decide to work on Prince Golden Calf? And generally, what are some factors that help you decide on a work to translate?

WI: Once I had read one of the precious scrolls on the legend of Prince Golden Calf and started to look into the background of the tale, it turned out that the many versions of the legend in China and Korea had attracted considerable attention recently because of new discoveries. It was also an exceptional stroke of luck that I could collaborate with Allard Olof. But first of all I was attracted to these materials because they are great stories. Each individual adaptation gives the story its own twist, and each of them makes for a great read. No wonder the story remained popular for one millennium and a half.  It is also still performed on stage today. On the internet one can for instance find a full recording of a performance as a all-female Yueju opera of only a few years ago.

Q: What are some works you would like to see translated?

WI: As translators we have only scratcheded the surface of Chinese literature. When it comes to pre-modern literature there are still no end of novels, plays, and narrative songs and prosimetric narratives that cry out for translation. But we need publishers that are willing to print also translations that do not yet have a secure place in the undergraduate curriculum. I am very grateful for Cambria and my other publishers for their support in this respect.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who wishes to translate a work?

WI: Perhaps start with something small and try it out on your students in class? But first of all, only translate what you loved to read in the original and what you would want to see translated. Not all texts that have a high status in China or Korea lend themselves automatically for translation, whereas many texts that only have a marginal position in China or Korea may do very well in another language. As teachers, I think, we want to present Chinese and Korean culture in all their variety and complexity through the ages.

Professor Idema’s books are part of the Cambria Sinophone World Series, headed by Professor Victor Mair (University of Pennsylvania).

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