Gu Jinping is the last man standing. Six decades after they began their work together, all his co-translators have passed on, but at the age of 85, it is Gu alone who continues the mission he began as an 18 year old.
“Some ask me, ‘Lao Gu(Old Gu), why not retire and just enjoy life?’
“As long as my brain works, I would like to do what I can for these translations,” he said, eyes brimming with vigor despite his grey hair and back hunched by decades poring over books.
Gu’s life’s work began by translating the former Soviet Union’s “A Dictionary of Philosophy,” a book popular with Chinese intellectuals in the 1950s. Today he continues translating the works of Karl Marx from German or Russian to Chinese.
Gu compares translators to the plumbers who lay the pipes that bring water to the fountain of knowledge, allowing Marxism to flourish in Chinese soil.
For six decades, Gu has worked for the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau (CCTB). On the bookshelves that cover every space of his office walls are books that he worked on, including the complete works of Marx, Engels and Lenin.
From a corner of one shelf, he pulls a volume of the collected works of Lenin.
“The collection was our gift for the 10th anniversary of New China. We had to work overtime to complete the 37-volume collection in time. Our office was so brightly lit at night that it felt like daytime.
“Those were years of incandescent passion. Young people in their prime, fired up with the conviction that Marxism was strong and pure!” he said.
Gu’s conviction did not come out of thin air. He was born in rural Shanghai and began to study Russian at college in 1949. Two years later the central authorities summoned Gu and some classmates to Beijing.
The country was in urgent need of Russian speakers and Gu was put to work in the new Russian language compilation and translation bureau, which eventually became the CCTB.
“As the youngest in the team, my colleagues called me ‘Xiao Hai’ (little kid) and I was at a complete loss when I started to translate A Dictionary of Philosophy in 1951. I was not proficient in Russian nor did I know anything about Marxism.”
But “Xiao Hai” grew up fast. After working day and night for years, his eyesight began to fail, but his ability was undeniable and he was appointed as the final reviewer of the dictionary.
In 1953 he joined the Communist Party of China (CPC). “My belief in communism was cemented through my translation work,” he said.
Witness to the turmoils of old China under the Kuomintang, Gu recalls his joy and astonishment when he first read the argument that communism would eventually supplant capitalism.
When he was in high school, inflation was raging. Afraid that money would devalue quickly, his mother sold many possessions and bought him a gold ring before he left for school — a ring he lost, leading to a long period of hunger.
“Marxism is a philosophy with a scientific approach toward history and society. There is no other philosophy with such a far-reaching influence that has set up so many countries,” he said.
Those socialist countries have been through their ups and downs, but Gu’s convictions stood the test of time. Criticism of communism was rampant in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“Some said to me,’Lao Gu, just quit!’ But I believed that there was nothing intrinsically wrong with Marxism, and China had adapted Marxism to its own needs,” he said.
Even in the turbulent times of the Cultural Revolution when translation was halted for several years, Gu’s belief in his work never faltered.
In 1978, he was appointed deputy head of the CCTB. For 18 years his life was divided in two: management affairs by day and quiet translation by night. Sleeping in the office was common.
“Our translations embraced a new age with reform and opening up,” he said. More communication with overseas researchers and better language education strengthened the translation team.
Even the West increasingly looks to Marxism for inspiration, especially when they face financial crisis and environmental degradation, he said.
But conviction is not enough, according to Gu. Prudence is also key to translation.
“We translators are like messengers for the great men. Each word should be treated with the utmost care,” he often tells new members of the bureau.
Once, the translators changed a phrase by Engels when translating a new book, but the change met with strong protests from scholars.
“Sometimes, a translation may seem perfect on the surface, but it can be inaccurate in context,” he said. “You have to thoroughly understand what the original words mean.”
It is not easy to understand Marxist philosophers, considering the extent and profundity of their works. The most challenging work Gu handled was “The German Ideology.” The books is considered the most complete discourse on Marx’s theory of history but contains many references to other philosophers such as Feuerbach and Hegel, which required close consultations with experts in those particular fields.
Every time Gu cites an example of a translation, he stands up, plucks a book from his shelf and turns straight to the exact page as an illustration.
To celebrate the 200th birthday of Karl Marx, Gu and his colleagues have been working on a set of 18 books for the past six months. He has also been working on the second Chinese edition of the complete works of Marx and Engels, a 70-volume project. The project began in 1986 and 28 volumes have already been published. It is estimated that it will take another 20 years for the whole collection to be finished.
“I may not live to see the completion of the project,” Gu said, “but I am happy to contribute as much as I can.”
by Xinhua writer Wang Jian