Lots in translation

  • Source:China Daily | Liu Xiangrui | 2018-01-29

Zhang Butian has passion for rendering scientific books into Chinese, and he uses this to make knowledge more accessible. Liu Xiangrui reports.

As a translator, Zhang Butian is one of a kind given that most of his translations are related to the history of science, an academic branch that is just finding its feet in China.

For now, extremely few translators are engaged in such work - because it's typically dull, difficult, and not very remunerative.

Even the most outstanding translators in the field are seldom known to the public.

However, a passion to share knowledge has prompted Zhang to dig deep into these usually thick books.

Zhang says that the study of history of science is critical for understanding it as well as the modern world, and he believes through translating the classics of the subject he can help the Chinese people learn more about the West, and in turn understand their own culture.

Over the past 17 years, Zhang, 39, has produced more than 40 books on history of science, and several more are waiting to be published.

As a student, Zhang, who did his bachelor's degree in physics at the University of Science and Technology of China in 2000, was driven by questions like "Why do the world and humans including himself exist?"

So, he decided to move on from science to philosophy, and got his master's and PhD in the subject from Peking University.

He then worked at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences before taking up his current job as an associate professor at the department of the history of science in Tsinghua University.

During the winter break at the university, Zhang says he finds more free time to translate.

When he is translating, Zhang sits in front of a laptop with an open book next to it and keeps working except for taking short breaks.


When translating The Theological Origins of Modernity written by American scholar Michael Mien Gillespie, he says he thought about giving up twice.

"But, when that happens, all I do is to stand up, take a break, calm myself and then go back," says Zhang.

For Gillespie's book, Zhang traveled to other cities but carried the work along - just to change the environment he was working in.

After sitting up for two months in an office in Beijing without air conditioning in the hot summer, he finished the book, which was rated 9.3 out of 10 by readers on Douban, a popular review website.

The readers described it as "smooth" and not like many other translations of books.

Years of devotion have earned Zhang a good name in the publishing circle, and he is given the freedom to pick which book should be translated.

Zhang has independently planned and translated two series of books.

While Zhang is prolific, he takes his time and does his work carefully.

As the original languages in which the classic books are written are German, Dutch or even Latin, his knowledge of German, which he learned at university, and Latin, which he learned on his own, are of great help.

For some important books, he checks the content in the original language, and compares it carefully with the English version, and adds footnotes.

Commenting on his work, Li Tingting, one of Zhang's editors, says: "He honors simplicity. In his translation, you can hardly find any redundant words."

According to Li, Zhang has a clear idea about what he wants to do and then focuses on it.

While Li says that it takes great determination to devote so many years to translation - which is lowly paid and not regarded as an academic achievement - Zhang says he is lucky to have found a mission he wants to accomplish.

He insists that both academic work and translation are "serious fun" for him.

Zhang says he does not want to publish papers for utilitarian reasons, and he believes that doing translation is more important than writing books at present.

Looking ahead, he says: "There are too many good books waiting to be translated. I have accumulated some experience in translating. It would be a pity not to take advantage of it."



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