Literary translations enter our canon as new works of art, bringing voices and stories from diverse cultures to a new audience. For the art of literary translation is not simply the act of converting an author’s words from one language into another; rather, it requires difficult choices and creative thinking in order to fully convey images and meaning. Today, the National Endowment for the Arts announced its latest efforts to support literary translation through $250,000 in recommended grants to 16 translators to support the translation of works into English from 13 languages and 15 countries.
The following grants have been awarded to Chinese literature:
Andrea Lingenfelter (Berkeley, California) is recommended for a grant of $12,500to support the translation from Chinese of The Kite Family, a collection of fiction by contemporary Hong Kong writer Hon Lai Chu.
George O’Connell(Omaha, Nebraska) is recommended for a grant of $12,500 tosupport the translation from Mandarin of From Here to Here: New and Selected Poems by Chinese writer Hu Lan Lan. This project is in collaboration with Diana Shi.
Art Beck reviews The Changing Room, poems by Zhai Yongming 翟永明 translated by Andrea Lingenfelter. He writes:
Other English versions of some of these poems are accessible on the internet … Various readers may prefer various translations of various poems, but Lingenfelter’s volume provides an added plus in that she worked directly with Zhai. The reader has the benefit, not only of Lingenfelter’s bilingual skills, but of being invited to share a long, ongoing conversation that took place in life as well as on the page. In Lingenfelter’s words: “I could not have completed this project without the gracious help and encouragement of Zhai Yongming herself, who has shown me around Chengdu … taking me to (historic) sites … all the while placing everything we were looking at in a larger context. She has also treated me to many memorably wonderful meals … .” Translation is, after all, a matter of the tongue, and, ultimately, nourishment.
Mo Yan 莫言 has given his Nobel acceptance speech, but that doesn’t mean the debates about whether he deserved the award have stopped–or that older pieces haven’t been resurfacing.
A good deal of the debate focuses on the contrast between Mo Yan and Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波, the imprisoned critic who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Larry Siems and Jeffrey Yang (my editor at New Directions) make the case in “China’s Nobels” that while Liu is “is serving an 11-year sentence for ‘inciting subversion of state power’ in his writings” (while his wife is under house arrest), Mo Yan “has done little to jeopardize his status as one of the country’s most honored writers.” Yang is the translator of Liu’s poems assembled in June Fourth Elegies念念六四, which has just been noted as one of Poets.org’s Notable Books of 2012. Yang and Siems do note that despite the difference between the two Nobels, their stories do converge: “Mo Yan, who had previously pleaded ignorance of his countryman’s case, told reporters that he hoped that Mr. Liu ‘can achieve his freedom as soon as possible’ and that he should be free to research his ‘politics and social system.’” Another editor of a recent Liu Xiaobo publication in English, however, Perry Link, editor of No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems of Liu Xiaobo, is less impressed: in “Does This Writer Deserve the Nobel Prize?” Link speculates, “Was Mo Yan’s ‘in good health’ phrase something that Chinese authorities had supplied to him, perhaps to prepare the way in international opinion for Liu Xiaobo’s ‘seeking medical treatment abroad’?”
More than thirty years ago, when I was in the army, I was in my office reading one evening when an elderly officer opened the door and came in. He glanced down at the seat in front of me and muttered, “Hm, where is everyone?” I stood up and said in a loud voice, “Are you saying I’m no one?” The old fellow’s ears turned red from embarrassment, and he walked out. For a long time after that I was proud about what I consider a gutsy performance. Years later, that pride turned to intense qualms of conscience.
–seems to invoke the empty chair of Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace prize two years ago.
Nor do many commentators seem to have read his books very closely. Andrea Lingenfelter, who has, though, says in her review of his forthcoming novel Pow! (translated, as always, by Howard Goldblatt) that it, “like the bulk of Mo Yan’s other novels, is a social and political critique”; interestingly, when I first caught her review online I remember it being less patient with criticisms of Mo Yan’s politics. Perhaps she was convinced by Link’s article, or Mo Yan’s defense of censorship.
The word he uses is jiancha, usually translated as “check,” either as a verb or a noun, rather than “censorship,” which my dictionary tells me would be shencha 审查. Jiancha is, of course, related to security checks, which should help explain his comparison. And as I read it, he doesn’t say that checks should exist but that they do exist. I would give a rough translation of the passage as:
I’m disgusted with checks of all kinds. When I go to the embassy for a visa, I get checked. When I take an airplane and go through customs, I get checked, even have to take off my belt and shoes. But I figure these checks must be necessary, and while I’ve never praised the system of checks on the news, I believe that checks on the news must exist in every country in the world. But measuring checks like this, the method of checking is different. If there were no checks on the news, somebody could go off in the newspapers or on TV and attack someone, or slander someone. I imagine it’s the same in any country. But I would hope all checks on the news adhered to the highest principle: as long as it doesn’t violate the truth it shouldn’t be checked, but rumormongering and defamation that violates the truth should be put under check.
In a related point, Mo Yan was cited in a Time Magazine feature two years ago:
Mo Yan is adamant that he never worries about censorship when choosing what to write about. “There are certain restrictions on writing in every country,” he says, adding that the inability to attack some topics head on is actually an advantage. Such limitations make a writer “conform to the aesthetics of literature,” Mo Yan argues. “One of the biggest problems in literature is the lack of subtlety. A writer should bury his thoughts deep and convey them through the characters in his novel.”
You may disagree. You may find this naïve. You may feel like security checks and censorship are not the same, and that the kinds of governmental controls on the news he imagines do not exist in your country and should not exist in his. You may feel that the restrictions on writing inherent to literature are of a different order from the restrictions on writing imposed by the government, and that writers can be subtle without having to worry about censorship. You may feel like the “highest principle” he wishes for is a pipe dream, that as long as the state has power to limit speech it will use that power, and the only high principle is the principle of freedom. I certainly think all those things. That is different, however, from claiming that Mo Yan advocates, let alone celebrates, censorship. I’ve written about problems of translation in English-language reporting on China before; this example, in which reporters have treated the word jiancha as if it were shencha, is more of the same.
Finally for the commentary, Charles Laughlin argues, in “What Mo Yan’s Detractors Get Wrong” (an article that mentions Xi Chuan) that “when discussing the merits of Mo Yan’s receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature, I think it is misleading for us to compare its validity to that of awarding the Peace Prize to Liu.”
Zhai Yongming 翟永明 has just won Italy's Piero Bigongiari del Ceppo di Pistoia prize for 2012. Follow the link or click the image above for the press release in Italian, with a quotation from Zhai explaining her relationship to Chinese classical and modern poetry.
Obscure to a Western reader, “double corneas” and heavy earlobes are references to Xiang Yu and Liu Bei, two of the great heroic figures of early Chinese history. In fact, all of the described abnormalities are references to specific mythicized figures. They are characters whom historical and poetic narrations have always served, never satirized.
Canaan’s framework is to discuss awakening to his aesthetic in Chinese poetry in the context of his father’s passing away, and the fading of his poetic influence–as I said, poignant and touching–but he also discusses an Andrea Lingenfelter translation of Zhai Yongming 翟永明, and Eleanor Goodman‘s translations of Lei Pingyang 雷平阳 and Shen Wei 沈苇.
My review of the first book-length collection to appear in English of contemporary Chinese poet Zhai Yongming 翟永明, Changing Room (Zephyr Press) translated by Andrea Lingenfelter, is now online at Rain Taxi.
Here's how I begin the review:
Some poets write about the problems of language and indeterminacy; some write about society and culture; some write about gender. Zhai Yongming, China’s pre-eminent contemporary woman poet whose work has finally been published in book form in English, is unique in her ability to combine all three dimensions—the interpretive function, social change, and being a woman—into one relentlessly strong poetic expression.