In Other Words: a discussion about translation and translators at Asian Review

Julia Lovell, Sophie Lewis, Arunava Sinha, Marcia Lynx Qualey and I took part in a discussion at Asian Review of Books on the nature of translation and the role of translators in bringing Asian literature to the English-speaking world. Here is an excerpt from the conversation:

Peter Gordon, editor: A work in translation is, obviously, not the same as a work in the original language. But what is it exactly that readers are actually reading when they read a translation?

Lucas Klein: First, what a translation is not: a genetic clone of some original. Many criticisms of translation—such as that translation is “impossible”—are based on impossibly narrow definitions of translation.

Peter Gordon, editor: When setting up the Man Asian Literary Prize, I included an additional award for the translator (if there was one) of the winning novel. This was not just a matter of acknowledging the translators’ contribution: the Prize was initially for as yet unpublished works, and I figured if anyone would know what interesting works were in the pipeline, it would be translators … Where do translators and translations fit in this “eco-system”?

Lucas Klein: The role of translators in that ecosystem can seem both very large and very small. If Faulkner was influenced by the Bible and the great nineteenth century Russian novelists, say, and in turn influenced Gabriel García Márquez and Mo Yan, then not only was Faulkner influenced by the King James translators, but also by Constance Garnett, who translated Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in the early twentieth century, as García Márquez and Mo Yan are influenced by the translators of Faulkner into Spanish and Chinese, while Howard Goldblatt is in turn influenced not only by Faulkner but by Gregory Rabassa and Edith Grossman—García Márquez’s main translators into English—in the formation of the literary style he has used to represent and recreate Mo Yan’s voice in English.

Click the image above for the full discussion.

A Little More Mo Yan

The Straights Times Asia Reporton how Mo Yan’s “Nobel win gets readers excited about Chinese lit” (the site is paywalled, but for excerpts, see Paper Republic)

Bruce Humes on Mo Yan and Chinese understanding of Chinese literature in translation:

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.

No End of Mo Yan

Mo Yan’s new book ‘Grand Ceremony,’ written about his trip to Sweden to receive the [Nobel Prize], made its debut on Friday at the opening of a national book fair.”

But he spent half his spoils on “a 200 sq metre (2,152 sq foot) property outside Beijing’s fifth ring road.

In a piece called “Mo Money–Nobel prize winner’s novel attacks China’s food safety,” Week in China argues that because of the “10,000 dead pigs [that] turned up in the Huangpu River,” Mo Yan’s “most recently translated book – titled POW! – … seems almost eerily timely, even though the original Chinese version came out more than 10 years ago.”

Salman Rushdie on Chinese Censorship: “the reason that so many are upset with Mo Yan isn’t that he didn’t oppose censorship, but that he went out of his way to defend it.”

And in a piece I must have missed when it came out months ago, “Mo Yan: Frenemy of the State,” Nick Frisch argues that “In the Chinese tradition, literature does not exist as a sphere outside the state: literature is the state. Or rather, the state is literature itself.”

And in an interview, Mo Yan’s translator Howard Goldblatt says, “I take pride in the fact that the head of the Nobel Literature Committee told me in Stockholm how critical my English translations were in selecting Mo Yan as the 2012 laureate; I assume he said something similar to the French or Italian or Swedish translators, since the committee members read several languages, but, with one exception, not Chinese.” But: “On behalf of literary translators everywhere, let me declare that we have nothing to apologize for”

And pictures of the town Mo Yan grew up in.

Howard Goldblatt feature in the Chicago Reader

Howard Goldblatt, pictured in his home office, jokes that 'translation isn't a field anyone sensible would go into."The Chicago Reader has a feature on Howard Goldblatt, with generous quotations from Dylan Suher of Asymptote. The first paragraph is awful, so here’s the second & third:

readers who pick up an English translation of a book by Mo Yan, Wang Shuo, Su Tong, or any other contemporary Chinese novelist are, more likely than not, reading Goldblatt. “It’s all my words,” he says. “If they’re reading a translated novel, they’re reading the translation and hope that the translator got the story, style, and characters right.”

Because Chinese and English are completely distinct languages, with no history or linguistic roots in common, the work of any two translators of the same text will vary widely. Goldblatt is considered by authors, scholars, and colleagues to be the most trustworthy interpreter of Chinese, as well as the most prolific; to date, he’s translated more than 50 books.

Still Mo Yan

Salman Rushdie writes in response to Pankaj Mishra‘s criticism of Rushdie’s criticism of Mo Yan, calling Mishra’s a “satanic view of human society,” to which Mishra responds that it’s easy “to upbraid a Chinese writer from afar.”

Hock G. Tjoa reviews Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum: “Some people love Goya’s paintings, especially those he did of Spanish royalty … But it is difficult to pay heed when there is a Guernica in the same room.”

At BBC Radio “Howard Goldblatt and novelist and film maker Xiaolu Guo discuss the nature of Chinese literature and how much Mo Yan and his fellow contemporary Chinese novelists can teach us about life inside this emerging world force.”

James Kidd at SCMP reviews Sandalwood Death and says, “Like so many of its characters and indeed China itself, the moral of the story is often hard to grasp … Those like Salman Rushdie who dismiss Mo as simply a ‘patsy’ of an authoritarian government would do well to read this complex, and subtle novel that illuminates the darkest corners of power, control and political violence.”

Yunte Huang 黃运特 reviews Pow!: “While the jury is still out as to whether the Chinese writer Mo Yan, who is said to have been toeing the party line, truly deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature, there is little doubt that his novel POW!—with its Rabelaisian carnivalesque language and surrealist narration—rightly belongs among the best of world literature.”

The Complete Review reviews Sandalwood Death, giving it an A and calling it “sensational (in every sense of the word) storytelling.”

The Boston Globe reviews Pow! and Sandalwood Death, praising Mo Yan’s work as “not realistic. It is magical, Rabelasian, satirical, steeped in blood, and obsessed with food in uncomfortable ways,” but they don’t know how to refer to Chinese people by their family name.

Chad Post of Three Percent is excited to read Sandalwood Death and gushes over the trailer.

And Dylan Suher reviews Pow! and Sandalwood Death: “There are those who are blessed with an unerring (and to others, infuriating) faith in their own view of the world … For us—the rest of us—there is literature.”

Mo Yan’s Jewish Interpreter

Tablet: A Read on Jewish Life, has a feature on Howard Goldblatt, translator of Nobel Prize-winner Mo Yan 莫言 and many other modern & contemporary fiction writers in Chinese. Here’s how it begins:

“They say translators are frustrated writers,” Howard Goldblatt explained as he waited impatiently in his blue stick-shift BMW behind a silver sedan. “I’m not a frustrated writer. I’m a frustrated Formula-1 driver.”

Goldblatt, 73, is the foremost Chinese-English translator in the world. Over the course of his almost 40-year career, he has translated more than 50 books, edited several anthologies of Chinese writings; received two NEA fellowships, a Guggenheim grant and nearly every other translation award. In the first four years of the Man Asian Literary Prize, three of the winners were translations by Goldblatt. John Updike, writing in The New Yorker, said that “American translators of contemporary Chinese fiction appear to be the lonely province of one man, Howard Goldblatt.”

Click the image above for the link.