THERE are only a handful of people in China who understand Middle English and Professor Wu Fen is one of them. She has just finished translating Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Crisedye, the long poem of medieval romance which is sometimes described as the first great novel in the English language. 'I am not sure if it will be a best-seller; the appeal may be limited,' she admits. Professor Wu, who teaches English Literature at Beijing's University of International Business and Economics, is one of a number of Chinese translators tackling some of the difficult works in English literature. If nothing else, their work shows that the muses can still claim their acolytes in China. 'Many people are just crying out for money and material things but there are still some healthy people left,' Professor Wu said. Next spring the Foreign Languages Translation Press is releasing the first translations in China of John Donne's divine and profane poems, William Wordsworth's Prelude, the 14th century Piers Plowman and later, Spenser's The Faerie Queene. Most of these are being translated by the English Department of Beijing University, headed by Professor Hu Jialuan. The Department is reputed to be the best in China. It includes Professor Shen Hong, now at Harvard, who is one of the few people in China able to read Beowulf in the original. 'Of course, many of my friends call me eccentric for spending my time translating John Donne, instead of joint venture contracts, but I don't care about making money,' said Dr Fu Hao, who took two years to translate John Donne, and even went to St Paul's Cathedral in London to pay his respects before the poet's effigy. Dr Fu expects only a few thousand copies will be printed and has not even bothered to ask what he will be paid for his labours. Perhaps at no other period in China's long history have the Chinese been more receptive to influence of Western literature and thought. Dead white males encounter no disdain in a country where everything and anything is being translated. The effect can be compared to the period a century ago when China emerged from its self-imposed isolation and the first translations of Western literature became commonly available. At a time when tens of millions are struggling to learn English, translators can and do make large amounts of money from introducing readers to the adventures of Alice in Wonderland and the Microsoft Word operating manual. Even works like James Joyce's Ulysses, regarded even in the West as fairly impenetrable, have proved to be surprise best sellers. A new translation by Xiao Qian has sold up to half a million copies. 'People queued up to buy it because they felt it was so important and famous they had to read it,' Professor Wu said. Whether they actually did so is another question. The all-time best seller in China is Jane Eyre and there is no doubt this is read. 'It is hugely popular especially among high school and college girls and middle-aged women indulging in nostalgia,' said Associate Professor Ding Hongwei, who has just spent three years bravely tackling William Wordsworth. 'Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is almost as popular,' said Ke Hanbin, who teaches English to undergraduates at Beijing University. 'It strikes a chord because it is all about making a good marriage, very much a Chinese preoccupation.' FOR similar reasons, tragic love stories like Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, the story of an innocent girl led astray, are almost as widely appreciated. The older generation may grumble about the materialism of the new generation but the effusions of the Romantic poets are increasingly popular. 'Byron and Shelley are printed over and over again,' said Dr Fu Hao. Shelley has the stamp of official approval as a revolutionary spirit admired by Karl Marx. Chinese children even learn his Ode to the West Wind at school to imbibe its message of optimism and idealism. John Keats, too, is being re-evaluated and later this month, the People's Literature Publishing House is organising celebrations to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth. This new found enthusiasm for Western poetry sometimes surprises Dr Fu, who writes his own, because he fears poetry no longer commands the respect it once did in China. 'Every child has to memorise the 300 Tang poems but poetry in general is no longer so important. You can't make any money from poetry,' he said. Young poets are still writing, though, and tend to turn to new translations of Western poetry for ideas rather than the Chinese classics. In addition to Donne, Dr Fu has already published translations of the Irish poet W.B. Yeats and Israel's Yehuda Amichai and hopes these will all help create a 'new wind' for Chinese poets. 'His erotic poems and those about religion might raise a few eyebrows, though,' he confesses. After the long night of the Cultural Revolution, China is ready to welcome such bourgeois writers like E.M. Forster, Rudyard Kipling and T.S. Eliot, once considered beyond the pale. But the great challenge for translators is making these and earlier authors accessible to Chinese readers. 'It is true that Chaucer is an acquired taste but you have to be exposed to it first,' said Professor Wu, who has laboured mightily to produce copious foot notes illuminating the traditions of courtly love and Chaucer's England. 'Ultimately, though, it is a love story and that is a universal theme,' she said. Ding Hongwei, who spent three years translating Wordsworth's Prelude, said he found him even harder than Milton. 'I quite often got lost and did not know what he was talking about.' Ding succeeded in the end and now he and his colleagues are planning to bring out more works in a series of great works of Western literature. They plan to concentrate on plugging the largest gaps such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ding himself is not sure, though, whether it is not time to turn his skills to other ventures. 'I said when I started, that when it was finished, I must devote myself to something more lucrative,' he said. Dr Fu refuses to even consider any temptations. Besides, he says publishers have been ringing him ever since Irishman Seamus Heaney won the Nobel Prize for literature this autumn. 'I am just waiting to see if Heaney will give me permission,' he said. Dr Fu has already published translations of four of Heaney's poems - much to the bemusement of the folk in County Derry.