‘There is still much to be done’. In memory of Professor Yi Lijun

The sentence that stuck in my mind the most was, "Study Polish diligently so that you can translate Polish literature into Chinese. There is still much to be done; a great many outstanding works wait to be translated." Today, recalling the Professor’s diligence, I realise that my Mentor devoted her whole life to this very task. Prof. Li Yinan commemorates Yi Lijun, an outstanding translator of Polish literature into Chinese and its great ambassador.


On 9th February 2022, the seventh day of the lunar year, I spent all day in the Polish Studies Department of the Beijing Foreign Studies University, working on a translation of Olga Tokarczuk's Ostatnie historie (“The Last Stories”). At 6pm, when I got home, I reflexively looked at my phone and saw missed calls from Professor Zhao Gang. Struck by a sinking feeling, I called back. What awaited me was dismal news that I refused to acknowledge. Professor Yi Lijun had passed away. I burst into tears out of helplessness. I could not understand the news, I heard words that did not form any meaning - it was like a foreign-sounding language whose meaning I do not comprehend and do not want to comprehend.

On the first day of the lunar year, when I visited the Professor to wish her a happy New Year, I was worried because she did not look very well. However, when she heard that I was currently translating Tokarczuk's novel, a smile immediately appeared on her face. I promised her that she would be the first reader of my translation, which is due out in the summer. After all, it was none other than the Professor and her beloved husband Yuan Hanrong who were the first translators to translate Olga Tokarczuk's works into Chinese. Their translations of the novels Prawiek i inne czasy (“Primeval and Other Times”) and Dom dzienny, dom nocny (“House of Day, House of Night”) continue to arouse great interest among readers to this day.

I was still at university when the noble couple were working on the translation of Tokarczuk's first novels, and I didn't have much of an idea about literary translation at the time. As I read their translations, it delighted my soul with its sophisticated style and almost fairytale-like story. I dreamt at the time that one day, I too would try to rise to the heights of translation and set to work on a translation of Polish literature. Professor Yi Lijun has inspired me to undertake detailed research into Tokarczuk's work, and it is to Her that I owe my academic interest in the literary works of Polish women. As an adult woman, I reached for Opowiadania bizarne (“Tales of the Bizarre”), which I translated into Chinese.

After her death, I asked myself several times why she had to pass away, was it true or was it just a bad dream? I remembered our first meeting in 2000. I still remember that winter when, as a first-year Polish philology student in Beijing, I went with my fellow group members to the Polish Embassy for a film screening. I remember that first long conversation, when the Professor was telling me about Polish literature and culture on the bus. The sentence that stuck in my mind the most was, "Study Polish diligently so that you can translate Polish literature into Chinese. There is still much to be done; a great many outstanding works wait to be translated." Today, recalling Professor’s diligence, I realise that my Mentor devoted her whole life to this very task.

In 1954, Professor Yi Lijun received a scholarship from the Chinese government and began studying Polish philology at the University of Warsaw. In her later years, she repeatedly recalled this moment and her experiences of staying in Poland. She said back then that it was not all that easy to send students abroad in China at the time. The annual earnings of many farmers covered the living expenses of one student. Recounting her story, the Professor said, "This sense of mission meant that we had to study diligently and work hard to repay the opportunity. I spent only one year on a preparatory language course, and from the second year, I started to study Polish philology with Poles. For the first two years, I studied intensively to understand and memorise the rich history of Polish literature. At first, I used to borrow notes from the Polish students, but by the third year, they were borrowing them from me. At times when I could not find a place to study, I would go to church, and there, in the back pews, I would read the Polish classics, the most important works one by one". It was thanks to her determination and great willpower that Professor Yi Lijun rose to great heights, achieving excellent results in her exams at the Warsaw Alma Mater and gaining a great deal of knowledge about the literary works of Poles from such authoritative figures as Professor Janina Kulczycka-Saloni. This knowledge was the source from which the Professor drew the most beautiful values, demonstrating them in her teaching work and, above all, in her sensitivity, which was the foundation of Her translator's output.

In 1960, the Professor defended her Master's thesis in Warsaw; after returning to China, she worked as an editor and journalist in the Eastern Europe and USSR department of the State Radio Administration; in 1962, she was appointed to the Department of Polish at the Faculty of East European Languages (now Department of European Languages and Cultures) at the Beijing Academy of Foreign Languages (now Beijing Foreign Studies University - BFSU), working there until her well-deserved retirement. She devoted herself wholeheartedly to her educational mission, taught a total of more than 10 subjects to undergraduates, masters and doctoral students, and created the first Polish language curricula in China.

While teaching, or rather talking about Polish literature in her own words, the Professor spoke from the bottom of her heart and with great sensitivity about the intricacies of history and the meanders of literary life in Poland. Her classes were an intellectual journey and a great spiritual experience for us. Thanks to her attitudes and values, she educated several generations of Chinese Polish scholars, among whom are a number of diplomats, cultural promoters, academicians, and journalists. In 1995 and 2007, she was awarded the title "Best Teacher of the Year".

Professor Yi Lijun became an excellent model for all Polish language scholars, and she repeatedly stressed the principle, "To achieve academic goals, one must first develop moral criteria within oneself.” Always modest, shying away from fame, limelight, and media renown, she showed with her life what the virtue of moderation and nobility is.

In 2007, the University of Gdansk awarded Professor Yi Lijun the title of doctor honoris causa for "her outstanding achievement in the field of translation of Polish literature, her hard work as a teacher, and her exemplary work in cooperation with Polish research institutions". As the youngest lecturer in the Polish language department, I accompanied the Professor on her journey to Poland to receive the award. This was the first time for me to see with my own eyes how much respect Polish Studies graduates of the BFSU working at the time in the General Consulate of the People's Republic of China in Gdansk had for her, how much esteem she enjoyed among graduates working in Chipolbrok and other institutions. It was an unforgettable experience, which encouraged me to work harder and gave me the determination to try, one day, to come closer to my Mentor's ideal. Later, I accompanied her and her husband many times at award, decoration, and other ceremonies. At the time, I used to joke with my colleagues that, accompanying the Professor, I would never experience hunger.

Professor Yi Lijun showed great vision, taking care not only of the development of Beijing's Polish studies, but also of the promotion of the Polish language throughout China. In 2009, when the second Polish Studies Department was opened in Harbin in the Middle Kingdom, the Professor went there without hesitation to participate in the opening ceremony, sharing her rich experience and life achievements with the fledgling institution. It was also Professor Yi Lijun who promoted Mao Yinhui's doctoral thesis, who established the Polish Studies Department in Guangzhou in 2014. She joked at the time that the Guangzhou Polish Studies Department was a continuation of the work of BFSU Polish Studies. As a matter of fact, humour and a smile accompanied the Professor throughout her life, her vivid anecdotes and witty yet philosophically profound words still move Polish scholars at home and abroad.

‘World Literature Magazine’ editor Gao Xing once said, "If we analyse the history of the translation of Polish literature by Yi Lijun, we shall see the entire panoply of the history of Polish literature as if converged in a lens.” His statement fully reflects the great merits of the Professor. She translated dozens of Polish literary works from various eras, including that of the national bard Adam Mickiewicz and the ‘heartening’ works of Henryk Sienkiewicz.

When translating the poetry of the Polish Nobel Prize winners, Miłosz and Szymborska, she looked for the most suitable words so that "a flexible tongue can say everything a head can think of". Translating Tokarczuk's prose, she wandered with its narrator through the recesses of mythicism and universality. Her translation of Iwaszkiewicz's short story Poziomka (“Wild Strawberry") has appeared in many magazines on literature and even in secondary school textbooks. Later students of Polish Studies used to say, "We are very lucky to meet a Master of Polish literature translation".

The Professor is the author of the scholarly studies Polish Literature, An Outline of Post-War Polish Literature, and Polish Poetry in the Twentieth Century, monographs which to this day remain a source of knowledge for Polish language scholars throughout China and for scholars of Polish literature.

In 2008, the Professor was honoured with the title of "Great Ambassador of Polish Language" by the Council for Polish Language at the Presidium of the Polish Academy of Sciences. It was my privilege to accompany the Professor and her husband to Poland to receive this award. I still remember an anecdote. While visiting an exhibition of Polish knightly costumes and weapons, the couple stopped at one of the showcases and started a heated exchange of views. Professor Yi Lijun turned to her husband saying, "So this is this weapon, I have just described it accurately, and so I did not make a mistake in the translation". The Polish colleagues who accompanied us were a bit confused, they did not know what was going on. The professor calmly explained that while translating Krzyżacy (“The Knights of the Cross”) into Chinese, she always discussed with her husband the best verbal equivalent for weapons or costumes, which, after all, are unknown in the Middle Kingdom. Discussions of this kind also accompanied the translation of other works, such as Ferdydurke. It can be said that a number of outstanding translations by Yi Lijun and her husband, Yuan Hanrong, are the result of such discussions and debates.

In 2018, Professor Yi Lijun received a Lifetime Achievement Award in Translation from the Translators Association of China. This highest honour for Chinese translators fully reflects the merits of the Professor, her efforts and dedication. It is impossible not to mention Dziady (“Forefathers' Eve”), which has been metaphorically described as "the first swallow enthusiastically heralding the spring of political thaw". It was the first foreign literary work to be published in China after the Cultural Revolution. The professor translated Forefathers' Eve in difficult times when the university was "relocated" to Shayang in Hubei province. At night, by the light of an oil lamp, in some shanty hut, she would translate the scenes of Mickiewicz's drama. In the summer, when the interior was invaded by mosquitoes, she sat on a bed covered with mosquito nets. It was under these conditions that the first translation of Forefathers' Eve part III was created. Upon her return to Beijing, she had already checked the quality of this translation and re-examined all the dialogue replicas to dispel any doubts.

In 2009, she participated in the International Scientific Conference "Polish Literature in the World" organised by the University of Silesia in Katowice. As always, I accompanied her on this journey. In her speech she recalled this genesis of the translation of Forefathers' Eve adding, "My era will come to an end, I now count on the young generation of Chinese Polish scholars, Wu Lan and Li Yinan. I hope they will inherit my pen and continue to work worthily on translations of Polish literature". Today, when I recall these words in much better conditions, I find it difficult to hold back my tears.

The Professor is an indefatigable torchbearer in the field of Polish literature translation, and, until her last moments, she did not put down her pen, on which the ink of Her latest translations still shines. At an advanced age, she translated Henryk Sienkiewicz's Pan Wołodyjowski (“Fire in the Steppe”, in collaboration with Yuan Hanrong), Zbigniew Herbert's Martwa natura z wędzidłem (“Still Life with a Bridle”) and Sławomir Mrożek's Słoń (“The Elephant”, in collaboration with Mao Yinhui). In the last days of her life, she was still talking to Zhao Gang about the translation of the Dolina Issy (“The Issa Valley”).

She treated translation as somewhat of a mission, wanting to pass the baton of translation to a new generation of Chinese Polish scholars. She personally educated three PhD students: Zhao Gang, Wu Lan, and Mao Yinhui. It was thanks to Her motivation that they embarked on the path of translating Polish literature. I also remember the encouragement given to me by the Professor. She asked me to attend a readers' meeting on Her behalf and to share with them my comments on Polish literature and my interpretation of Olga Tokarczuk's Tales of the Bizarre.

Today, I would like to pledge to Professor Yi Lijun that I will do everything to ensure that my translation of The Last Stories corresponds to Her models and ideals. I dedicate it to the memory of the Professor, believing that somewhere in the hereafter she will enjoy reading this text.


The air in Beijing is particularly crisp and frosty in February. I remembered one particular scene, when the Professor was sitting in her house on the university's western campus, telling us the history of Polish literature. After completing my Bachelor's degree in 2004, I took up my Master's degree with the Professor. After the start of the new semester, however, the main building on the eastern campus serving as a teaching facility was still under renovation, so the professor began to teach in her office at home. The professor always spoke Chinese with a strong accent from the Hubei province, while her Polish was excellent. She told us about Kochanowski's poignant series Treny (“Laments”) and about the romantic spirit of Adam Mickiewicz's Forefathers' Eve. During the break, she shared her experiences from her youth, recalling, among other things, her journey to Poland by train and the unforgettable view of Lake Baikal from the train windows. In this office, apart from an outdated computer that the Professor never managed to use and a simple sofa, there were many books filling the empty walls. Sometimes, we would sit together in the dining room, I could see a big wall in front of me with a small TV, various awards and medals filling the empty space of the wall. In the autumn of her life, the Professor was still kind, modest, and open-minded, and led a consistently simple lifestyle. She was not interested in the pleasures of this world, in fame or renown. She supported everyone with a warm, kind word and gave encouragement to those who doubted, having a great deal of strength and inexhaustible reserves of optimism. She lavished it on others, often forgetting herself. Whenever I was lost or unsure of what decision to make, I could always count on the Professor, at any time. In that ascetic room, the Professor dispelled my doubts about a few words and inspired me to further action. I remember all the advice as vividly as if she had given it to me yesterday.

Professor Yi Lijun is no longer with us, but Her work remains with us, it delights us, and will continue to delight successive generations of enthusiasts of Polish literature. Non omnis moriar - these words of Horace most fully reflect the greatness of Her timeless work, toil, and sacrifice for others. For all this we are eternally grateful to you, Professor!

The Professor's outstanding achievements are the most valuable key to the gateway of cultural exchange between China and Poland. And she herself is an unrivalled authority, a great person who, through her work "has made herself a monument more lasting than bronze”.

We, younger Polish scholars, still have a long way to go. Following in the footsteps of the Professor, we are moving forward with dignity and determination to fulfil the expectations she placed in us.

Prof. Dr. Li Yinan
Head of Department of Polish Language
Beijing Foreign Studies University