This renewed interest in defining what constitutes a “good” literary translation comes in the wake of the awarding of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature to China’s Mo Yan (莫言). Chinese translation professionals—and government officials charged with expanding the country’s soft power overseas—are searching for lessons to be drawn from Mo Yan’s resounding success.
One key lesson could be that China’s customary academic emphasis on word-for-word translation, in the belief it yields the greatest accuracy, doesn’t actually fly, marketing-wise. The article points out that Mo Yan’s English translator, Howard Goldblatt, edited freely as he translated (连译带改) Mo Yan’s Garlic Ballads (天堂蒜薹之歌), and that the German publisher chose to base its translation on the English too.
And Anjum Hasan in “Chinese Whispers” on how Chinese literature looks from India:
When Mo Yan won the latest Nobel Prize for Literature, I was struck by a curiosity that the prize is perhaps meant to trigger: I hadn’t read Mo Yan and was wholly ignorant about contemporary Chinese fiction. So I ordered his novella Change (2010) from Seagull Books. The title had been put out as part of their ‘What Was Communism’ series, with a cover designed in-house that prominently mentioned the win. Change (and Mo’s Pow!, also published by Seagull) turned out to be the only examples I could find of Chinese fiction independently sourced and published in India. Most Chinese literature available to us, I discovered in the coming months as I looked for more to read from that country, travels here through Western channels—either reprints of Western editions or these editions themselves, priced for Indian markets.
This piece in its entirety is one of my favorite takes on Chinese fiction in a contemporary global context. Too often our discussions of world literature, in Chinese as well as English, assume the centrality of the New York – London publishing axis; here, I found the view from India particularly illuminating.
New Nobel Prize-winner for Literature Mo Yan 莫言 has, for obvious reasons, become a hot topic of discussion. I’ve assembled some of the analysis that’s recently appeared online in various forms.
First, my highschool classmate & translator from Swedish B J Epstein has written about the Nobel from an outsider’s perspective, bringing a discussion she and I had recently into her report.
Next, poet & translator Eleanor Goodman talks about the different reactions to the Nobel from within China and without.
Then, translator Bruce Humes covers the other side of the issue, demonstrating how “references deemed unbecoming to China’s image are often ‘airbrushed'” from a published Chinese translation of the NYTimes report of Mo Yan’s prize. And Brendan O’Kane asks “Is Mo Yan a Stooge for the Chinese Government?” (Brendan sez the short answer is ‘no’).
Next, Sabina Knight (Smith College) on Mo Yan’s Nobel (from NPR):
Earlier, Granta‘s John Freeman interviewed Mo Yan (from Silliman’s blog):
And PBS‘s Jeffrey Brown talks to Charles Laughlin (University of Virginia) and Xiao Qiang (University of California, Berkeley) about Mo Yan:
Over at The China Beat (they have my favorite tagline on the web: Blogging How the East Is Read) is Mike Frick’s review of Dream of Ding Village 丁庄梦 by Yan Lianke 阎连科. The novel was translated by Cindy Carter, though you’d never know it from reading Frick’s review. Here’s an excerpt of Frick describing the writing:
Yan’s writing is at once richly metaphoric and attuned to the rhythms of Chinese farming life. He describes needle marks on the underarms of blood sellers as “angry red sesame seeds” and pinched veins as “fat-streaked pork.” Mostly this language is effective, though at its weaker moments the metaphors can feel overwrought, particularly in the dream sequences that mark major turning points in the plot. Dreams haunt the sleep of Qiang’s grandfather and serve as convenient devices for moving the narrative forward, although this sometimes occurs at the expense of good story-telling. Major revelations about Ding Hui’s greed and artifice are revealed through lushly animated dreams that allow Yan to transcend the narrative strictures of time and place. Through these dreams we see Ding Hui ingratiate himself with government officials until they appoint him chairman of the county taskforce on HIV/AIDS. In his first move as chairman, Ding Hui intercepts the free government-issued coffins intended for AIDS patients in Ding Village and sells them to other AIDS-affected villages for a profit. For his efforts, he labels himself a “philanthropist.” Left without coffins, those dying in Ding Village ransack the school for blackboards and desks to build their own. The transformation of the school into a funereal supply yard carries particular poignancy given China’s storied reverence for learning and scholarship.
Editorial Director Qiu Huadong (邱华栋) revealed some of the first issue’s contents:
Excerpts from the novels that won the 2011 Maodun Literary Prize, plus interviews with their authors. He did not specify which novels would be excerpted, but the five winners were: On the Plateau, Zhang Wei (你在高原 , 张炜著) ; Skywalker, Liu Xinglong (天行者, 刘醒龙著); Massage, Bi Feiyu (推拿, 毕飞宇著); Frogs, Mo Yan (蛙, 莫言著) ; and One Sentence Worth Thousands, Liu Zhenyun ( 一句顶一万句, 刘震云著) See Rewarding Writer-Officials? for insight into the controversy surrounding this year’s Maodun Prize.
Short stories by authors born in the 1970s and 1980s, including Jiang Yitan (蒋一谈), Qi Ge (七格) and Di’an (笛安).
Poems by Xi Chuan (西川), Lei Pingyang (雷平阳) and others
Short stories by other writers including Li Er (李洱)
Introductions to new books such as Ge Fei’s Spring in Jiangnan (春尽江南, 格非著), Wang Anyi’s Tiānxiāng (天香, 王安忆著), Jia Pingwa’s Old Kiln (古炉, 贾平凹著), and Fang Fang’s Wuchang City (武昌城, 方方著)
The Xi Chuan pieces they’ve published are “Looking at the Mural in the Ruicheng Temple of Eternal Joy” 观芮城永乐宫壁画, “Ill Fortune H 00325″ 厄运 H 00325, “Dragon” 龙, and “The Body and History” 体相与历史.