In Memoriam Prof. Martha Cheung – Mona Baker
10 September 2013 saw the sad passing of our distinguished and beloved colleague, Prof. Martha Cheung. Prof. Cheung was both a leading scholar in her field and a superb and much-respected teacher, and had served Hong Kong Baptist University at many levels – as Head of the Translation Programme, Head of the Centre for Translation, and Associate Vice-President, to name only some of her roles. Her passing is a tremendous loss to the University, to her academic discipline, and to the broader scholarly community, as well as to all who have known and loved her.
Prof. Cheung was one of the premier translation scholars in the world. In particular, she was at the forefront of what has become known as the “international turn”, the drive to bring to the discipline insights beyond Western-oriented conceptualizations of translation through the exploration of non-Western approaches. Concerned to be inclusive in this endeavour, she strove to make available to non-Chinese scholars the full panoply of traditional Chinese writings on translation, and indeed other writings that might implicitly be of use to translation scholars. The result was her 300-page groundbreaking Anthology of Chinese Discourse on Translation, volume 1 of which, titled From Earliest Times to the Buddhist Project, was variously hailed as “awe-inspiring”, “superb” and “meticulously presented”. Such innovative work made her a much sought-after speaker on the international conference circuit, and at prestigious doctoral research training programmes such as that at CETRA in Leuven, Belgium, and the Nida School in Misano, Italy. Prof. Cheung continued work on volume 2 of her Chinese Discourse project even through her illness.
As a teacher, Prof. Cheung combined the same exacting standards with a genuine desire to help her students achieve more. She was fully capable of letting a student know if they were not doing as expected, and she believed strongly in pointing out directly what could be improved. Yet such directness was always done with the student’s best interests at heart, and was combined with a deep sense of kindness and care.
As a colleague, too, she showed the same deep caring attention to both excellence and emotional support. Asked to glance through a prospective paper by a colleague, she would come back with pages of detailed written feedback consisting mainly of sharply-worded queries, yet all prefaced with the injunction to “take the following in the spirit of a friend”; many a problematic paper was thus saved, the writer considerably the wiser for Prof. Cheung’s insights. No doubt many scholars benefited from such assistance without even knowing their reviewer, for her peer reviews were always thoroughgoing and designed to provide maximum help: she would never allow herself to write a few perfunctory lines. Such demonstrations of complete commitment to the cause of cultivating up-and-coming scholars were part of a philosophy that sought always to nurture the positive in people. She once observed that young scholars were not praised enough for research well done, and that far more such encouragement should be given.
Prof. Cheung loved teaching and scholarship far more than administrative duties, but she always believed in serving the institution she loved, and not only accepted important administrative roles—including Associate Vice President—but brought to her tasks in those roles the same broad humanistic focus on whole people and the big picture, while still paying the closest possible attention to minute details. Even when she did not have an official administrative role to play, she was always an academic leader, because she invariably exuded an influence that was at once stabilizing and inspiring. She was loved and respected by everyone at HKBU who had the good fortune of working with her.
Above all, Prof. Cheung was someone who lived life with a tremendous energy, throwing herself into whatever new possibilities presented themselves. The enthusiasm, good humour, and sheer zest with which she approached her work and life in general were infectious, and a crucial motivating force for achieving new goals, for inspiring colleagues and students, and for building the Translation Programme that she loved into one of the most respected translation programmes in the region. Her inspired leadership in that programme, as well as in the Centre for Translation and the Translation Research Summer School, has established Hong Kong Baptist University as an internationally renowned centre for translation studies.
Her passing came far, far too soon. But the commitment, positive energy, kindness and meticulous care with she worked and lived are a legacy that shall not fade.
A memorial service will be held at the University on Saturday 5 October from 10:30 to 12:30 a.m. to honour the memory of this dear and much-missed friend and colleague. More details of the event will be sent later.