“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.

“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 · The Dream of the Red Chamber (truncated)

H. Bencraft Joly

“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. 

The Joly translation of The Dream of the Red Chamber contains only 56 of the 120 chapters of the original.

Get the Joly translation of The Dream of the Red Chamber free

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).

Download Book I free from Project Gutenberg

Download Book II free from Project Gutenberg

Joly

Get the Joly translation of The Dream of the Red Chamber from Tuttle

If you want a paperback or a better-formatted ebook, the Joly translation is also available for sale from Tuttle (ISBN 9780804840965, 992 pages). Still only 56 chapters.

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Joly

1974–1986 · The Story of the Stone

Hawkes & Minford

“Who are David Hawkes & 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.

Their 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 & Minford translation of The Story of the Stone

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

  • The Story of the Stone Volume 1: The Golden Days (540 pages)
  • The Story of the Stone Volume 2: The Crab-Flower Club (608 pages)
  • The Story of the Stone Volume 3: The Warning Voice (640 pages)
  • The Story of the Stone Volume 4: The Debt of Tears (400 pages)
  • The Story of the Stone Volume 5: The Dreamer Wakes (384 pages)

ISBNs: 9780140442939, 9780140443264, 9780140443707, 9780140443714, 9780140443721

Hawkes & Minford

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

Here are links to Book 1 to get you started if you think you want to read the whole thing. (AFAIK, Penguin doesn’t sell all five volumes as a box set.)

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Hawkes & Minford

1978–1980 · A Dream of Red Mansions

Yang and Yang

“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. 

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

For names, Yang & 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 & Yang translation of a Dream of Red Mansions

Get the Yang & Yang translation of A Dream of Red Mansions

A hardcover set of three books (ISBN 9787119016436) and a paperback set of four books (ISBN 9787119006437) were published by Foreign Languages Press. Someone reissued the three hardcovers as paperbacks. I’m not sure whether any of them are still in print, but there are definitely some copies floating around.

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Yang & Yang

Short Versions

Get an extract of The Dream of the Red Chamber (Hawkes & Minford)

This small, thin, 60-page Penguin Classics extract (ISBN 0146001761) was published in 1996. It was one of a series published to celebrate Penguin’s 60th anniversary.

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Hawkes & Minford

Get the abridged translation of A Dream of Red Mansions (Yang & Yang)

This 499-page edition (ISBN 9780887271786) was published in 1999.

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Yang & Yang

Get the Abridged Translation of Dream of the Red Chamber (Wang)

This 60-chapter abridged version by Chi-Chen Wang (ISBN 9780385093798, 329 pages), originally published in 1958, is an expanded version of his 1929 abridgment.

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Wang

Get the Illustrated Retelling of Dream of the Red Chamber (Sun/Chiang)

In 2013, a British company called Real Reads published a 64-page illustrated retelling of the Chinese classic by Christine Sun, illustrated by Shirley Chiang (ISBN 9781906230364).

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Real Reads

In 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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Hawkes & Minford