“I want to read the best English translation of the Dream of the Red Chamber!”

So you want to read the most modern of China’s Four Great Classical Novels, also known as The Story of the Stone and A Dream of Red Mansions, and you don’t read Chinese.

Beware! The old and widely available Joly translation doesn’t contain all the chapters of the original, even though it’s almost 1000 pages long!

(If what you want is a short version, check out the illustrated Real Reads version or the Wang abridgment.)

A complete translation was not available until the mid-1980s, but now you have two to choose from: the Hawkes & Minford translation published by Penguin and the Yang & Yang translation published by Foreign Languages Press.

Dream of the Red Chamber: Translations

These translations are all in print, but only two of them are complete.

  1. 1893 – H. Bencraft Joly (truncated)
  2. 1958 – Chi-Chen Wang (abridged)
  3. 1980 – Gladys and Hsien-Yi Yang (complete)
  4. 1986 – David Hawkes & Jon Minford (complete)
  5. 2013 – Christine Sun (adapted)

“Who wrote The Dream of the Red Chamber?”

The author of the first 80 chapters was Cao Xueqin. Scholars believe it is likely that Gao E, who worked on those chapters as editor and publisher, was the one who wrote the last 40 chapters. These are Chinese names with the family name shown first.

Sometimes the authors are listed as “Tsao Hsueh-Chin and Kao Ngo”. You may see them in the opposite order as well: “Hsueh-chin Tsao and Ngo Kao”. Those are just different spellings of the names of the authors, “Cao Xueqin and Gao E”.

“Why are there variations on the title?”

The transliteration of the Chinese title of the book is Hung Lou Meng, Heng Lou Meng, or Hong Lou Meng, which maybe literally means something like “red edifice dream”. People usually have no problem translating ‘red’ consistently. (The academic field of study devoted to examining this particular work of Chinese literature is in fact called ‘redology’.) The ‘lou’ has more than one possible interpretation, though, and Chinese does not explicitly mark nouns as singular or plural the way English does. Hence ‘mansion(s)’ and ‘chambers(s)’. Variations between ‘a’ and ‘the’ at the beginning of the title are due to the lack of any such articles in Chinese.

Why did Penguin choose to call the work The Story of the Stone, a different title altogether? Certainly it’s not an unprecedented title; it may be the one the author originally preferred, and it seems to be the one the work was originally known by. According to the introduction by David Hawkes, the original 80-chapter manuscripts (which literally were manuscripts written by hand, not printed) circulated with the title Red Inkstone’s Reannotated Story of the Stone. Red Inkstone was the nickname of an anonymous commentator who must have been close to the author. The author listed five possible titles in the text; the publisher of the expanded version of the novel chose to call it A Dream of Red Mansions. Since more people read the printed version, the work came to be known more widely by this second title.

 
1892–1893 · H. Bencraft Joly · The Dream of the Red Chamber (truncated)

Who was H. Bencraft Joly?

Henry Bencraft Joly studied Chinese in Beijing and started translating The Dream of the Red Chamber while serving as a representative of the British government in Macao. He died in Korea at the age of 41, leaving his literary work sadly incomplete.

About the Joly translation of The Dream of the Red Chamber

The Joly translation of The Dream of the Red Chamber contains only 56 of the 120 chapters of the original. It was originally published in two volumes in Hong Kong.

The introduction in the Tuttle edition characterizes the translation as ‘meticulous’.

“Joly did not use generalizations in translation to suit the level of Sinological knowledge of the average reader, at the expense of details in the original Chinese text. Neither did his use of the English language mask the intricacies of the use of language in the original Chinese.”

The weakness of the translation, according to Joly, was his poetry. According to Edwin H. Lowe, author of the Tuttle introduction, the weakness of the Joly translation is that a particular sentence was edited to suit Victorian sensibilities.”

Tuttle didn’t update the text much, except to correct errors and change the spelling system from Wade-Giles to Pinyin.

Extract from the Joly translation of The Dream of the Red Chamber

Get the Project Gutenberg Joly translation of The Dream of the Red Chamber (truncated)

The lovely abstract fuschia cover image is auto-generated by Project Gutenberg. To get all 56 chapters of the Joly translation, you will need to download Book I (chapters 1 to 24) and Book II (chapters 25 to 56).

Available as an ebook.

Download Book 1 free from Project Gutenberg

Get the Project Gutenberg Joly translation of The Dream of the Red Chamber (truncated)

The lovely abstract fuschia cover image is auto-generated by Project Gutenberg. To get all 56 chapters of the Joly translation, you will need to download Book I (chapters 1 to 24) and Book II (chapters 25 to 56).

Available as an ebook.

Download Book 2 free from Project Gutenberg

Get the Tuttle Joly translation of The Dream of the Red Chamber (truncated)

Truncated, only 56 chapters. Foreword by John Minford. Introduction by Edwin Lowe. Preface by H. Bencraft Joly.

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9780804840965, 992 pages).

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Get the Tuttle Joly translation of The Dream of the Red Chamber (truncated)

Truncated, only 56 chapters. Foreword by John Minford. Introduction by Edwin Lowe. Preface by H. Bencraft Joly.

Available as an ebook (ISBN 9781462902477).

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1958 · Chi-Chen Wang · Dream of the Red Chamber

Who was Chi-Chen Wang?

He was a Chinese-American academic and writer. He was born in Shandong Province in China and attended university in the US. He translated many Chinese stories (including “The True Story of Ah Q” by Lu Xun) into English.

About the Wang translation of Dream of the Red Chamber

Wang published an abridgement in 1929. He published a 60-chapter expanded version in 1958. This version uses Wade-Giles Romanization.

Extract from the Wang translation of Dream of the Red Chamber

Get the Anchor Wang translation of Dream of the Red Chamber

Available as (ISBN 9780385093798, 329 pages).

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1978–1980 · Gladys Yang and Hsien-yi Yang · A Dream of Red Mansions

Who were Gladys Yang and Hsien-yi Yang?

Gladys was the daughter of a British missionary living in Beijing. Hsien-yi (pinyin spelling: Xianyi) was born in Tianjin. They married after meeting at Oxford. They worked together as translators for the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing.

About the Yang & Yang translation of a Dream of Red Mansions

The translation is complete, with all 120 chapters of the original. There is an abridged version too (see below).

For names, Yang and Yang used spellings which I assume correspond to the Wade-Giles Romanization system. It’s possible that later editions of their translation switched to Pinyin, but that is pure speculation, so I assume the spellings you see in the extract below are the ones you will see in recent copies as well.

Extract from the Yang and Yang translation of a Dream of Red Mansions

Get the Foreign Languages Press Yang and Yang translation of A Dream of Red Mansions

Available as a set of four paperbacks (ISBN 9787119006437).

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Get the Foreign Languages Press Yang and Yang translation of A Dream of Red Mansions

This set is out of print. You may be able to find a used copy for sale online using the links below.

Available as a set of three hardcovers (ISBN 9787119016436).

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Get the Foreign Languages Press Yang and Yang translation of A Dream of Red Mansions

A Dream of Red Mansions: Volume 1

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9781589635227, 644 pages).

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A Dream of Red Mansions: Volume 2

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9781589635326, 736 pages).

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A Dream of Red Mansions: Volume 3

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9781589635739, 620 pages).

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Get the Foreign Languages Press Yang and Yang translation of A Dream of Red Mansions

A Dream of Red Mansions (abridged)

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9780887271786, 499 pages).

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1974–1986 · David Hawkes and John Minford · The Story of the Stone

Who are David Hawkes and John Minford?

The late Hawkes was a British translator who studied Chinese in England and China. John Minford is a British translator who has studied Chinese in England and Australia and taught in China. Hawkes was his teacher at Oxford.

About the Hawkes and Minford translation of The Story of the Stone

The translation is complete, with all 120 chapters of the original.

For names, Hawkes & Minford used Pinyin Romanization, which is the current dominant system in China and internationally.

Extract from the Hawkes and Minford translation of The Story of the Stone

The five volumes of the Hawkes & Minford translation are titled:

  • Volume 1: The Golden Days
  • Volume 2: The Crab-Flower Club
  • Volume 3: The Warning Voice
  • Volume 4: The Debt of Tears
  • Volume 5: The Dreamer Wakes

They’re all available in paperback and as ebooks (see below).

Get the Penguin Classics Hawkes and Minford translation of The Story of the Stone

The Story of the Stone: Or, The Dream of the Red Chamber, Volume I: The Golden Days

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9780140442939, 540 pages).

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Get the Penguin Classics Hawkes and Minford translation of The Story of the Stone

The Story of the Stone: Or, The Dream of the Red Chamber, Volume I: The Golden Days

Available as an ebook.

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Get the Penguin Classics Hawkes and Minford translation of The Story of the Stone

The Story of the Stone: Or, The Dream of the Red Chamber, Volume II: The Crab-Flower Club

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9780140443264, 608 pages).

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Get the Penguin Classics Hawkes and Minford translation of The Story of the Stone

The Story of the Stone: Or, The Dream of the Red Chamber, Volume II: The Crab-Flower Club

Available as an ebook.

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Get the Penguin Classics Hawkes and Minford translation of The Story of the Stone

The Story of the Stone: Or, The Dream of the Red Chamber, Volume III: The Warning Voice

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9780140443707, 640 pages).

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Get the Penguin Classics Hawkes and Minford translation of The Story of the Stone

The Story of the Stone: Or, The Dream of the Red Chamber, Volume III: The Warning Voice

Available as an ebook.

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Get the Penguin Classics Hawkes and Minford translation of The Story of the Stone

The Story of the Stone: Or, The Dream of the Red Chamber, Volume IV: The Debt of Tears

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9780140443714, 400 pages).

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Get the Penguin Classics Hawkes and Minford translation of The Story of the Stone

The Story of the Stone: Or, The Dream of the Red Chamber, Volume IV: The Debt of Tears

Available as an ebook.

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Get the Penguin Classics Hawkes and Minford translation of The Story of the Stone

The Story of the Stone: Or, The Dream of the Red Chamber, Volume V: The Dreamer Wakes

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9780140443721, 384 pages).

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Get the Penguin Classics Hawkes and Minford translation of The Story of the Stone

The Story of the Stone: Or, The Dream of the Red Chamber, Volume V: The Dreamer Wakes

Available as an ebook.

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Get the Penguin Classics Hawkes and Minford translation of The Story of the Stone

This small, thin, extract was published in 1996. It was one of a series published to celebrate Penguin’s 60th anniversary.This book is out of print. You may be able to find a used copy for sale online using the links below.

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9780146001765, 60 pages).

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2013 · Christine Sun · Dream of the Red Chamber

Who is Christine Sun?

Christine Yunn-Yu Sun is a Taiwanese-Australian writer.

» Learn more about Christine Sun on her blog

Sun adapted the other three Classic Chinese novels (The Water Margin, Journey to the West, The Three Kingdoms) for the British company called Real Reads.

About the Sun adaptation of Dream of the Red Chamber

The illustrations are by Shirley Chiang.

» Learn more about Shirley’s illustrations on her site

There is a teacher’s guide (Scheme of Work) available for download from the publisher.

Extract from the Sun adaptation of Dream of the Red Chamber

Get the Real Reads Sun translation of Dream of the Red Chamber

This short retelling was illustrated by Shirley Chiang.

Available as a paperback (ISBN 9781906230364, 64 pages).

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Conclusion

Get the Hawkes & Minford translation of The Story of the Stone

Although scholars continue to debate the relative merits of the two complete translations, from what I’ve read, the five-volume Penguin translation is probably the best bet for non-specialists in terms of readability.

Here again are links to Volume 1 of the series to get you started. Enjoy!

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