I was given the wonderful opportunity to have a conversation with Hopkins-Nanjing Center alumnus and award winning author, translator, and Professor of modern Chinese history at the University of London, Julia Lovell. Professor Lovell was a certificate student at HNC from 1997-98 and has since published numerous acclaimed historical writings, including The Opium War: Dreams, Drugs, and the Making of Modern China, The Great Wall: China Against the World, and The Politics of Cultural Capital: China’s Quest for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Prior to our interview, Professor Lovell had been traveling on academic leave to conduct research on Maoism in Nepal and India.
Can you briefly introduce the research you’ve been doing on the propagation of Maoism outside of China? You described your recent work as tracking the “transnational history of Maoism”, what does that imply?
Transnational history, as I see it, is not just tracking the global travels of certain ideas; it’s exploring how these travels change the original ideas. Moreover, the global reception of these ideas can also change the way they are perceived or implemented in their territory of origin. In the case of global or transnational Maoism, I’m looking at how the theory and practice of Mao’s revolution was translated (and mistranslated) into other languages and cultures, and how the international vogue for Maoism (amongst certain constituencies) from the 1940s to the present day changed the way Mao and other Chinese people viewed Chinese communism.
I’m curious about how you first became interested in historical writing and translation? Did you know you wanted to be a writer when you first came to the HNC?
I studied at the center for one year from 1997-98; during that time they only offered the one-year certificate program. The way that I saw my time there was as a preparatory year before beginning full-scale academic graduate research in Chinese studies. I knew that I wanted to go into academic research but I also knew that I needed to “up my game” linguistically and also in terms of engaging with Chinese-language readings in their historical context. As you’ve probably experienced, the curriculum at the Center is a kind of “fast-track” towards using Chinese, not just as a mode of communication but also as a tool for academic analysis.
Aside from the language-training aspect, how else did your time as an HNC student help you center the focus of your future academic work?
While at the Center, I was also given the time to read widely. Not only was the library at the center really great but I also had the chance to explore book shops, to talk with experts at the center and at Nanjing University to get reading suggestions, and just to get more of a background in contemporary Chinese literature. So at that time I didn’t have an exact topic or specific titles in mind that I wanted to translate or research, but I probably did know that was what I wanted to do. My year at the center gave me an ideal springboard to the next phase of my career.
After you graduated from the center what was your next step in your path to becoming a published author and translator?
I remember how David [Davies, alumni and current American Co-director of the HNC] during our time at the Center had once mentioned Feng Ji-cai and his work writing about the memory of the Cultural Revolution. That seeded some kind of idea in my head and I ended up actually writing my M.Phil., my master’s dissertation on Feng Ji-cai and his 报告文学 “Reportage Literature”, so that forms a nice academic link between my time at the Center and my next step.
Are there any other academic connections or highlights that stand out in your mind when thinking back to your time studying at the HNC?
One academic highlight was definitely being taught by a professor from Nanjing University, Professor Gao Hua. While I was at the Center he taught two papers, one each semester, on 20th century and contemporary Chinese cultural issues. Those papers were absolutely fascinating and invaluable to me in terms of content and analysis, but also I did an independent study with Gao Hua in which I started to investigate a topic which I ended writing on for my PhD, which was the quest of Chinese writers for the Nobel Prize in literature. It was really that professor who enabled me to start exploring and testing some of the ideas that I would later develop in my PhD. The opportunity to have Gao Hua as my first supervisor in my research into Chinese literary history was an extraordinary privilege.
I can certainly relate to appreciating the amount of guidance and patience that has been provided by my professors here at the HNC…
Exactly, and Gao Hua also had extraordinary patience because I was working through ideas and materials much more slowly than his Chinese students at Nanjing University, so he was a terrific mentor to have at that stage because he was incredibly helpful in guiding me to think more seriously and practically about primary but also secondary sources.
Due to recent technological developments in this field, I’ve sometimes been met with cynicism when talking about studying a foreign language and translation as a potential career. Why do you think foreign language study is still important?
When you are speaking directly to professional contacts – and this has been particularly important to me, as I’ve always done a lot of interview work for my research – you can’t use Google Translate; you either have the language or you don’t. We live in an information age, in which communications are vastly improved compared to the time that I was at the Center. And yet, what’s going on in world politics today shows us that miscommunications, misunderstandings, misperceptions occur as easily as they ever did. The ability to communicate directly with individuals from very different linguistic and cultural backgrounds remains as important as it has ever been.
What are some obstacles you’ve faced related to your work as a researcher and translator?
Learning foreign languages is crucial to being able to communicate directly and immediately, and I felt this myself very strongly when I was doing research in India and Nepal. Although India is supposedly one of the easiest places in Asia for an English speaker to get around, even in that context I felt quite hampered by not knowing any Hindi. When I was in Nepal I had to rely on an excellent translator, but given that I’m used to working directly without the mediation of a translator when I’m in China I felt the difference because when you’re talking to someone directly its easier to understand the nuances of what someone is saying. And every work that I have translated has posed its particular challenges of recreating the original’s content, tone and style. Going back to your previous question, I believe that literary translation requires human mediation – however good Google Translate gets. Though I don’t understand exactly the nature of the technological advances translating software, I would be somewhat surprised to discover that these advances would be able to cope with the great stylistic and tonal demands that are made on the translator of a literary text.
Finally, do you have any advice to current or future students who are interested in pursuing a similar career path in translation or academia?
The way that I started was to read as much as I could and find individual works of literature that I felt passionate about. I often came to those works of literature through recommendations from friends and professors. In fact, the first Chinese novel that I translated into English was recommended to me by professor Gao Hua, who I mentioned earlier, and I first read it sitting in the Center library. Looking back to what I got out of my time at the Center, it was a fantastic time to develop and explore academic interests, and to meet new professors, classmates and friends around the city. I have very appreciative memories of my time at the Center.
Thank you again Julia for your time and the insightful conversation!
Written by Amanda Bogan, HNC Certificate '17