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Translation of poetic drama “The Passerby” by Lu Xun 鲁迅《过客》英译

January 10, 2013

“The Passerby”

By Lu Xun (1925)

Translated from the original Chinese by Kieran Maynard (2013)

One day at dusk
  Some place
Elderly man: About 70 years old, white beard and hair, black long gown
Child: About ten years old, black (purple) hair, jet-black eyes, black and white chequered long blouse
Passerby: About 30 or 40 years old, exhausted and stubborn, gloomy expression, black beard, dishevelled hair, tattered black jacket and trousers, sockless feet and tattered shoes, carrying a sack by his armpit, leaning on a tall bamboo cane. (2)

  East, are a few trees and rubble; west, is a desolate mass grave; in between is the trace of a sort of path. A small earthen hovel’s door is open toward this path; next to the door is an old tree stump.

(The girl is just about to help up the elderly man sitting on the stump.)
Elderly man: Child. I say, child! Why did you stop?
Child: (Looking to the east) Someone’s coming. Look!
Elderly man: No need to look. Help me inside. The sun is about to set.
Child: I… I’ll take a look.
Elderly man: Oh, this child! Every day you see this sky, this dirt, this wind; isn’t it good-looking enough? There’s nothing better looking than these. You just have to look at somebody. Things that appear when the sun sets won’t bring you anything good… Let’s go inside.
Child: But, they’re already here. Ah, it’s a beggar.
Elderly man: A beggar? Are you sure?
  (The passerby staggers out from among the trees in the east, and after hesitating temporarily, walks slowly toward the elderly man.)
Passerby: Good evening, sir.
Elderly man: Ah, yes, much obliged. Good evening.
Passerby: Sir, I’m terribly rash, but could I have a drink of water? I’m awfully thirsty. Around here is there a pond, or a lake?
Elderly man: Oh, have a seat. (To the child) Child, bring water. Clean the cup.
  (The girl goes silently into the hovel.)
Elderly man: My guest, please sit. What are you called?
Passerby: Called? I don’t know. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been on my own. I don’t know what I was originally called. On the road, sometimes people will call me by different names, all kinds of different ones, I can’t keep them straight, and to make matters worse, I’ve never been called the same thing twice.
Elderly man: Ah. Then, where are you from?
Passerby: (Somewhat hesitantly) I don’t know. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been walking like this.
Elderly man: I see. Then, can I ask where you are going?
Passerby: Naturally.: But, I don’t know. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been walking like this; I have to walk to someplace, and that place is straight ahead. I only remember walking many roads, and now I’ve come here. Next I will walk that way. (Points west,) Straight ahead!
  (The girl carefully cradles a wooden cup and passes it to the passerby.)
Passerby: (Taking the cup) Thank you, young lady. (Downs the water in two gulps, returns the cup) Thank you, young lady. This is truly a rare kindness. I really don’t know how I should express my gratitude!
Elderly man: No need to be grateful; this will do you no good.
Passerby: Yes, this will do me no good. But now I’ve regained some strength. I must go on ahead. Sir, I suppose you have lived here a long while; do you know what it’s like up ahead?
Elderly man: Ahead? Ahead, are graves. (3)
Passerby: (Incredulously) Graves?
Child: No, no, no! Over there there are lots and lots of wild lillies, wild roses; I go and play over there a lot and go look at them!
Passerby: (Looking west, almost smiling) Not bad. Over there there are lots and lots of wild lillies, wild roses; I go and play over there a lot and go look at them. But, those are graves. (To the elderly man) Sir, what’s after the graveyard?
Elderly man: After it? That I don’t know. I’ve never been over there.
Passerby: You don’t know!?
Child: I don’t know, either.
Elderly man: I only know the south, the north, and the east, where you came from. That’s the place I’m familiar with, and probably actually the best place for you. Forgive me for intruding, but from what I can see, you’re already exhausted; you ought to just go back, because I’m not sure you can make it to the end if you go ahead.
Passerby: Not sure I can make it to the end?……(Pensive, suddenly stands) That won’t do! I have to go. Going back there, there’s not one place without a title, not one place without a landlord, not one place without explusion and jail, not one place without smiling faces, not one place without tears outside the eye socket ??? I hate them; I won’t turn back!
Elderly man: It’s not like that. You will also find tears from the bottom of the heart, and grief for you.
Passerby: No. I don’t want to see their heartfelt tears; I don’t want their grief for me!
Elderly man: Then, you, (shakes his head) you have to go.
Passerby: Yes, I have to go. Furthermore, there’s still a voice ahead of me urging me, calling me, making me short of breath. Unfortunately my feet have already walked to pieces, they have many wounds, they’ve shed much blood. (Lifts a foot to show the elderly man) Therefore, I don’t have enough blood; I need to drink some blood. but where is there blood? But I won’t drink just anyone’s blood. I can only drink some water to replenish my blood. As long as there is water on the road, I actually don’t feel any insufficiency. Only my strength is too weak; perhaps there is too much water in my blood? Today I didn’t even find a pond; perhaps because I didn’t walk enough?
Elderly man: Not necessarily. The sun has set. I think you ought to rest a while, like me.
Passerby: But, the voice ahead tells me to go.
Elderly man: I know.
Passerby: You know? You know that voice?
Elderly man: Yes. It seems in the past it has called me.
Passerby: And that’s the voice that’s now calling me?
Elderly man: That I don’t know. It only called a few times, I ignored it; it never called again. I don’t remember clearly.
Passerby: Ah, ignore it… (Pensive, suddenly surprised, listens) No! I still have to go. I can’t catch my break. Unfortunately my feet have already walked to pieces. (Prepares to walk)
Child: This is for you! (Hands him a piece of cloth) Wrap up your wounds.
Passerby: Thank you. (Takes it) Young lady. This is truly… This is truly a rare kindness. (Sits down, about to wrap the cloth around his ankle) But, no! (Stands forcefully) Young lady, you take it back, I won’t use it. Furthermore this is too much kindness, I can’t be grateful enough.
Elderly man: You don’t need to be grateful; this won’t do you any good.
Passerby: Yes, this won’t do me any good. But for me, this charity is the greatest of things. See, my whole body is like this.
Elderly man: Just don’t think of it that way.
Passerby: Indeed. But I can’t. I’m afraid I will be like this: if I happen to receive someone’s charity, I will just be like a vulture who sees a corpse, lurking on all sides, praying for her demise, to see it with my own eyes; or cursing the demise of everything outside of her, even myself, because I too should be cursed. (4) But I don’t have this kind of power; even if I had the power, I wouldn’t want her to have that kind of encounter, because they most likely don’t want to have that kind of encounter. I think, this is most proper. (To the girl)
Young lady, this cloth is too good, but a little too small, you take it back.
Child: (Frightened, retreats) I don’t want it! You take it!
Passerby: (Almost smiling) Oh… because I’ve held it?
Child: (Nods, points at the sack) You put it in there, go play.
Passerby: (Dejectedly retreats) But with this on my back, how can I walk?
Elderly man: You can’t catch your breath, or carry it. : Rest a while; it’s nothing.
Passerby: Right, rest… (Thinks silently, but suddenly surprised, listens) No, I can’t! I still have to go.
Elderly man: You’re never willing to rest?
Passerby: I’m willing to rest.
Elderly man: Then, why don’t you rest a while?
Passerby: But, I cant…
Elderly man: You always think you had better go?
Passerby: Yes. I had better go.
Elderly man: Then, I suppose you ought to go.
Passerby: (Straightens his back) All right, farewell. I’m very grateful to you. (To the girl) Young lady, I’ll give you this, please take it back.
  (The girl is frightened, pulls back her hands, ready to hide inside the hovel)
Elderly man: Why don’t you take it? If it’s too heavy, you can throw it away somewhere in the graveyard.
Child: (Comes forward) Ah! No you can’t!
Passerby: Ah, no you can’t.
Elderly man: Then, you can hang it on the wild lillies or wild roses.
Child: (Claps) Haha! Ok!
Passerby: Oh…
  (Very briefly, pensive)
Elderly man: Then, goodbye. I wish you well. (Stands; faces the girl) Child, help me inside. Look, the sun has already set. (Turns toward the door)
Passerby: Thank you. I wish you well. (Hesitates, pensive, suddenly surprised) But I can’t! I have to go. I still had better go… (Immediately looks up, hurriedly sets off west)
  (The girl helps the old man into the hovel and closes the door. The passerby staggers into the wilderness, night following behind him.)

  April 2nd, 1925
(Trans. Jan. 8, 2013 in Shanghai)


(1) First published April 9, 1925 in the 17th volume of the weekly “Yǔsī” (pronounced “Yoo-ss”, meaning “Word Threads”)
(2) 等身 as long as a person is tall
(3) “Graves”; c.f. the author in “Written After ‘Graves'” once wrote, “I am only very certain of an end point; that is: a grave. This everyone knows, and don’t need it pointed out. The problem is only the way from here to there. Of course there isn’t just one path, I just don’t know which path is right, despite that up until now at times I have searched for it.” (See 《写在〈坟〉后面》)
(4) Not long after writing this piece, Lu Xun in a letter to Xu Guangping wrote, “While those who are connected to me are alive, I actually can’t be at ease; when they die, I can rest easy; this is also expressed in ‘The Passerby.'” (See《两地书 • 二四》)

Source material: 《野草》鲁迅,大学生必读,北京:人民大学出版社,2002年

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