A father talks about the mental disorders of his son, master translator

A father’s heartfelt and heartfelt letter about his son’s mental health and his illustrious career as a translator has become one of the most discussed topics in China, providing insight into the family’s ups and downs in over the decades.

In a personal account of 6,000 words, Jin Xingyong described his 50-year-old son, Jin Xiaoyu, as a “genius”, devoting his life to translating more than a dozen foreign literary titles into Chinese, while fighting against the bipolar disorder. He praised his son’s talent and accomplishments and also shared details of the hardships they endured as a family.

“The translation doesn’t make much money, but every new book is a reminder when my son’s life is at stake,” the 86-year-old father wrote in his letter published Monday in the Hangzhou Daily.

Xiaoyu became a voracious reader after dropping out of high school in the eastern city of Hangzhou, finishing every English novel offered in the local library, his father said, indicating his budding romance with world literature. He translated his first book, American novelist Andrea Barrett’s award-winning collection of short stories “Ship Fever”, in 2010 and hasn’t stopped since.

Over the next decade, Xiaoyu published 17 books in Chinese from English, Japanese and German – he studied the latter two languages ​​on his own – and is ready to publish his latest work, “The correspondence of Walter Benjamin”, next month. It is also nearly halfway through the translation of Benjamin’s “Arcades Project,” the German philosopher and essayist’s portrayal and critique of 19th-century bourgeois experience.

Throughout this time, Xingyong said he has always stood by his son – as a first reader, a cheerleader and also a fierce critic.

“Our child has no friends in his life,” he wrote. “As a father, I am extremely lucky to be my child’s best friend and assistant for these 10 years.”

Left: Jin Xingyong displays the translation works of his son Jin Xiaoyu in his apartment in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, 2022; right: Some of Jin Xiaoyu’s translation work. From @杭州日报 on Weibo

But the father’s letter is not just a long assessment of his son’s accomplishments. He also talked about the family’s personal struggles with Xiaoyu’s extreme mood swings and bouts of depression, which are associated with the disease.

Bipolar disorder affects some 45 million people worldwide, including about 7 million Chinese. In China, conversations about mental health issues are often shrouded in shame and secrecy, although attitudes are gradually changing, with increasing numbers of people opening up about their experiences using art and entertainment as mediums.

In his letter, Xingyong wrote about these experiences, recounting his son’s tantrums – the time he knocked over the refrigerator and the time he smashed the TV. The father also spoke candidly about his son’s suicidal tendencies and how the family dealt with those situations.

“I bought several books on mental illness,” Xingyong wrote. “There are two things I learned that kept a dad from falling apart.”

“First, after one or two suicide attempts, these patients are less likely to have such thoughts again – they will cherish life more than before,” he continued. “Second, these patients will be extraordinary in the spiritual realm, even demonstrating genius-level creativity.”

Xiaoyu’s passion for his work, his father said, has always been his ultimate lifesaver.

Since Xingyong published his son’s story, Xiaoyu has become something of a celebrity: several national media have reported on the translator’s achievement, and two of his books — “Ship Fever” and “Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir” — are sold on various e-commerce platforms, including JD.com and Dangdang.com.

Meanwhile, the Zhejiang Translation Association on Tuesday invited Xiaoyu to join the association, according to media reports.

“I didn’t expect so much attention from people,” Xingyong told Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper, speaking of the overwhelming response to her letter. “There are many children like my son. They must be recognized and encouraged by society.

In China, the Beijing Suicide Prevention and Research Center can be reached free of charge at 800-810-1117 or 010-82951332. In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached free of charge at 1-800-273-8255. A more comprehensive list of prevention services by country is available here.

Publisher: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: Jin Xiaoyu (left) and his father Jin Xingyong. From @杭州日报 on Weibo)