George Kao; Writer-Translator Helped Readers in China, U.S. Share Cultures

George Kao, 95, translated American classics such as
George Kao, 95, translated American classics such as "The Great Gatsby." (Family Photo - Family Photo)
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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 7, 2008

George Kao, 95, an author and translator who introduced Chinese readers to Jay Gatsby, Eugene Gant and other icons of American literature and who exposed American readers to Chinese wit and humor, died March 1 of pneumonia at the Mayflower Retirement Community in Winter Park, Fla. He maintained residences in Winter Park and Kensington.

His translations included American classics such as "The Great Gatsby," "Look Homeward, Angel" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night" as well as books of his own that demystified the vagaries of American-style English and the nation's culture.

"As one whose mother tongue is not English, I have had a none-too-private love affair with its American brand these many years," Mr. Kao wrote in a Washington Post letter to the editor in 1993. He noted that he started learning English at 8 and was still learning at 80-plus.

His letter gently chided Post columnist Colman McCarthy for having "dissed the robust and long-standing 'ain't' " in a column about a new edition of Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.

Mr. Kao wrote: "What lyrics would he have substituted for the popular Gershwin tune, 'It Ain't Necessarily So,' I wonder. And in what more emphatic way would he express himself, upon hearing that famous athletes have incomes in the seven figures, than to say, 'That ain't hay!' "

Mr. Kao was born in 1912 in Ann Arbor, Mich., where his parents were among the first group of the Boxer Rebellion indemnity scholarship students. The scholarships, compensation to the Chinese government for loss of life and property during the 1900 rebellion, allowed large numbers of young Chinese to study at U.S. colleges and universities.

His parents took him back to China when he was 3, and he grew up in Nanjing, Beijing and Shanghai. He graduated in 1933 from Yenching University, an institution founded by American missionaries, and received a master's degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1935. In 1937, he received a master's from Columbia University, where he studied international relations.

"His whole life embodied the two cultures," said his son Jeffrey Yu-teh Kao. "He sincerely believed that the key to good translation was not just knowing the language but having an understanding of the people and culture behind the words."

From 1937 to 1947, he served in the New York headquarters of the Chinese news service, coordinating contacts and publications. In 1945, he attended the founding meeting of the United Nations in San Francisco as the information officer for the Chinese delegation.

From 1947 to 1949, he was director of the West Coast office of the Nationalist Chinese government's information agency and later editor in chief of "The Chinese Press." From 1951 to 1953, he was a supervisory instructor at the Monterey language institute. He moved to the Washington area in 1957 to become chief editor for the Voice of America's China broadcast.

Beginning in the 1960s, the Chinese reading public came to know Mr. Kao as the author of books and articles interpreting American popular culture. Books he wrote or edited include "Cathay by the Bay: San Francisco in 1950" (1988), "Two Writers and the Cultural Revolution: Lao She and Chen Jo-hsi" (1980) and "Chinese Wit and Humor" (1946).

The latter concept is not an oxymoron, literature scholar Michelle C. Sun wrote in a 2004 edition of "East-West Connections." She was convinced by Mr. Kao's argument that Taoism's influence in Chinese culture often expresses itself in subtle forms of humor that mock civil authority and Confucian puritanism.

Sun quoted Mr. Kao: "Chinese humor, to a greater degree than that of any other peoples, sees the ludicrous in the pathos of life. It is the result of a philosophical reaction to adversity coupled with innate optimism about the future."

After his retirement from the Voice of America in 1972, Mr. Kao was appointed visiting senior fellow at the new Chinese University of Hong Kong. There, he founded and served as the first editor of "Renditions," a journal devoted to translating classical and contemporary Chinese literature into English. He returned to Kensington in 1980.

In 1994, he co-edited with his brother, Irving K.Y. Kao, "A New Dictionary of Idiomatic American English," published by the Reader's Digest of Hong Kong. It was reissued in 2004 by the Chinese University of Hong Kong and republished in a mainland edition by the Peking University Press in 2006.

Mr. Kao's wife of 57 years, Maeching Li Kao, died in 2003.

Survivors, in addition to his brother of Ann Arbor and his son of Potomac, include another son, William Yu-wang Kao of Belfast, Maine; a sister, Laura Kao Loughridge of Gaithersburg; another brother, Edward Kao of Bowling Green, Ohio; and four grandchildren.

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