As a liberator of Chinese thought, Yen Fu (严复) is now where the snows of yesteryear are. Not only he, but his masters too, Spencer and Huxley in their capacity as philosophers, have been consigned to the limbo of oblivion. The western ideas for which he fought to win proper recognition in China have long lost their dynamic power and novelty. He was so self-conscious in his modernity, so keenly anxious to be on the crest of any incoming wave that to read nowadays some of his commentaries freely interpolated in his versions of Montesquieu, Huxley, etc. gives one the feeling of looking at a dandy of some bygone fashion: his dandyism remains, though the fashion has passed him by. He would be old enough to be venerable, if he is not old-fashioned enough to be ridiculous. This fate Yen Fu shares with all merchants of ideas past as well as future. Even that handsome edition of his translations issued by our biggest publishing concern cannot rehabilitate him. As a thinker, he is rapidly becoming the shadow of a shade. But to a connoisseur of style, his translations remain a source of delight and interest. I for one have never ceased to marvel at the skill with which Yen Fu transmutes" the original author. One would never suppose Huxley, for example, to be the virtuoso of plain style as Mr. Mencken happily calls him, if one reads him in Yen Fu's translation. Here is no master of effective assertion, no gladiator of pen, and above all no Darwin's bulldog, but a sweetly reasonable gentleman persuading in mellifluous and jewelled phrases. Of Huxley's unmistakable hard ring there is not a trace; we find only subtle overtones to make for the "other harmony" of prose.
Assuredly, this is not our idea of good translation. But we must judge Yen Fu only by the standards he himself aimed at reaching. In the introductory remarks to his famous translation of Evolution and Ethics, he stated three things to be requisite in a good translation: fidelity, intelligibility, and polished style. His theory is that a translation to be good must (1) render faithfully the ideas of the original, (2) observe the usage of the native tongue so as to be readily understood by readers who cannot read the original, and (3) in itself possess high literary merits. He quoted Confucius to lend weight to the last point that "messages conveyed in plain and unadorned language have no lasting value." Judged in the light or darkness of his own theory, Yen Fu's translations are beyond all doubt very good—indeed, too good to be good translations as we ordinarily understand them. The rub lies of course in the third point. If we apply the hackneyed antithesis of Form and Matter in art to this theory, we can see readily that the first point is concerned entirely with the matter of the original work—
"First Matter, all alone, Before a rag of Form was on," the second with the form of the translation as fused with the matter of the original, and the third with the form of translation pure and simple, irrespective of the matter. What Yen Fu calls good style is something ornamental and adventitious, something superadded and not organic to the matter of the original work. Its relation to the original matter is, to borrow the old simile, one of clothes to the body (and unfit clothes at that), not of the skin to the flesh. This is not only a dangerous theory of translation but also a crude and vulgar conception of style. It should be taken to account for the world without end of perversions and travesties which we call translations only by courtesy. Thus, as a translator, Yen Fu is not altogether beneficial in his influence.
Yen Fu's theory is historically important nonetheless for being critically unjustifiable. There were great Chinese translators before Yen Fu even as there were heroes before Agamemnon. But the great Buddhist translators of the third to die seventh century to a man neglected style in Yen Fu's sense of the word. They took care of the sense of the original and to a great extent let the style of die translation take care of itself. They coined new phrases and expressions where the old might be ambiguous, and escaped ambiguity only at times to fall into obscurity and neologism. They all tried to be faithful to the original at any cost, and even the most literary among them did not take delight in style for its own sake. In their rigidity of attitude, they may be compared, with certain important reservations, to the Tudor translators of the sixteenth century England. There is a rawness and hardness about their translations, and their style has the delectable tartness and tang of a fresh apple. The first and second of Yen Fu's three standards were not unknown to our old translators; Yen Fu, being a more self-conscious artist, added the third to the list. The bareness and ruggedness of the Buddhists' style grated on a taste accustomed to richness and mellowness. He therefore labored at the style of his translation until it became " pretty" enough to give point to Bentley's mot on Pope's Homer.
Yen Fu's view on translation naturally reminds us of Fitzgerald's set forth in his letters regarding the version of Calderon; and Fitzgerald's theory, as Mr. H. M. Paull points out, is itself an expansion of Dryden's view in his Prefaces (see Literary Ethics, p. 308).. Yen Fu, however, was not influenced by Dryden or the translator of Omar Khayyam, but by his older contemporary Wu Ju-lun （吴汝纶）, the foremost educationist of his day and the Nestor of letters. Yen Fu looked upon him very much as a "philosopher, guide and friend," and sought his advice in matters of translation. Wu Ju-lun's advice can be read in a letter to Yen Fu now included in his prose works and curiously neglected by students. The most noteworthy passage in that letter is as follows: "You (Yen Fu) said: The style should be refined of course. But in the original, there are expressions which are not of good taste and ought to be left untranslated to keep the style pure. Hence the dilemma: if I alter those expressions, I am not faithful to the original; if, on the other hand, I let them stand, I spoil the style of my translation. ' This is a difficulty indeed! My humble opinion is that you should rather be unfaithful to the original than unrefined in your style. Vulgarity in style is ungentlemanly." So we see that Yen Fu had his doubts about the third point. It is Wu Ju-lun who gave him the courage of opinion. Being ignorant of foreign languages, Wu Ju-lun did not feel qualms in departing from the original; being a sedulous ape to prose masters, he naturally conceived of style as a kind of window-dressing or floor-polishing. Yen Fu carried out this advice to the letter in his version of Evolution and Ethics. From Wu Ju-lun's enthusiastic foreword to that version we may quote another significant passage: "One can translate books only with such a style as Mr. Yen's. ... As a man of letters, Huxley is not a patch on our Tang and Sung prose masters, let alone Ssuma Ch'ien and Yang Yung. But once dressed up by Mr. Yen, Huxley's book would not suffer much in comparison with our Pre-Chin philosophers. How important style is!
It is therefore a mistake to say that Yen Fu derived his theory of translation from Alexander Fraser Tytler's Essay on the Principles of Translation. Most likely Yen Fu had not even so much as heard of Tytler's Essay. Like Yen Fu, Tytler divided his theory in partes tres: "I. That the translation should give a complete transcript of the ideas of the original work. II. That the style and manner of writing should be of the same character with that of the original. III. That the translation should have all the ease of original composition." Tytler's third rule corresponds to Yen Fu's second standard, while Tytler's second rule is much less open to objection and more difficult to carry out than Yen Fu's third. According to Tytler, the style of the translation should be imitative of that of the original and is not an independent growth like a fungus on a tree (See Chapters V and VII of Tytler's Essay). This conception is almost the polar opposite of Yen Fu's. The nearest approach to Tytler'z theory in Chinese is perhaps the one advocated by Ma Chien-tsung (马建忠), author of the famous Chinese Grammar.
The Chinese Grammar has eclipsed Ma Chien-tsung's other writings and we have all along ignored or been ignorant of his important contribution to the study of translation. In his collected prose writings (entitled "适可斋记言记行" there is an essay on translation whose general contention can be seen from the following quotation: "The translator must catch the spirit as well imitate the letter of the original with the result that the style of the translation is precisely that of the original without even a hair's breadth of difference between them." This theory believes in "holding the mirror up" to the original and may be called the photographic theory of translation. It certainly marks a great advance upon Yen Fu's view which insists on interposing a mist, as Arnold says of the translator of Homer, between his version and the original, although the mist may be a golden one through which even the most insignificant odds and ends loom up vague, formidable and clothed in lurid beauty.