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 This was not just a matter of acknowledging the translators’ contribution: the Prize was initially for as yet unpublished works, and I figured if anyone would know what interesting works were in the pipeline, it would be translators … Where do translators and translations fit in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.
Mo Yan 莫言, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature, continues to be a topic of conversation. Following yesterday’s posting of “A Westerner’s Reflection on Mo Yan,” here are three other links to the relationship between Mo Yan–and by extension, Chinese literature, if not China–and the world.
Reflecting Liu’s own political turn after 1989, the editors of No Enemies, No Hatred have focused on his more engaged writings–those that led to his most recent prison sentence and that played a significant part in his winning the Nobel Prize–rather than on his literary criticism. Unsurprisingly, the events of spring 1989 loom large throughout the collection, for these protests and their aftermath would prove to be a turning point in Liu’s career and personal life. In the years preceding 1989, he had won notoriety in China primarily for his contrarian literary and cultural views: for excoriating Chinese creative writing of both the Maoist and post-Mao eras. “Shit, the Chinese are just hopeless,” he impishly declared, condemning the new avant-garde writing of the 1980s as stagnant, repetitive, and imitative. In America when the Tiananmen protests broke out, he vowed to “do” rather than “just talk,” and flew back to Beijing to become one of the movement’s leaders. His involvement in the demonstrations led to the loss of his Beijing teaching post, two jail sentences before his 2009 trial, and a publication ban in mainland China.
Despite being a translator herself, Lovell does not mention translation in her review. Nor does she discuss the poetry included in the volume, though she does mention, parenthetically, that “(Those interested primarily in Liu’s poetry can refer to a new parallel-text edition translated by Jeffrey Yang, entitled June Fourth Elegies.)” I would have been interested in seeing a review that could look at both books together, or at least describe the role of the poetry in assessing Liu’s writing–why, for instance, is it included in No Enemies, No Hatred at all?
Translator and scholar Julia Lovell has a long review in the UK-based Prospect magazine on the new crop of Chinese fiction translations on offer from Path Light and Chutzpah 天南, English-language journals published in China. She discusses only fiction and doesn’t mention poetry, but here’s a taste of her worthy piece:
Pathlight and Chutzpah try to favour younger authors, who have so far been relatively neglected both in China and in translation. For the past decade, the dominant form in literary Chinese fiction has been the realist historical novel set mainly in Maoist China, as penned by male authors born in the late 1950s or early 1960s (Life and Death are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan, Su Tong’s The Boat to Redemption and others). These grand narratives have been preoccupied with the traumatic landmarks of Maoism: land reform, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and so on. Both Chutzpah and Pathlight, by contrast, draw attention to novelists born between the late 1960s and 1980s. These generations of writers are broadly unified by a couple of shared literary characteristics: by a strongly individualistic, personal voice and by a determination to illuminate (often with wry humour or playful surrealism) the intense strangeness of the capitalist society that the Chinese Communist party is now building.
It’s an interesting list. I’m glad to see literature in translation so well represented. As a novelist, it makes sense that Mason would be so drawn to fiction, but I wonder what it would take for works of Chinese poetry to make it onto such a list. Certainly I think Xi Chuan can be helpful for readers looking to know more about China, though of course the instruction does not travel in direct lines.