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.”
Fiona Sze-Lorrain‘s review of Jeffrey Yang‘s translation of June Fourth Elegies 念念六四 by Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波 is now up on Words Without Borders. Strangely, her review doesn’t mention Yang by name, but she does discuss the translation, calling it “a stylistic rendering of Liu Xiaobo’s plainspoken language, which at times can be physical—gnawing and piercing in its implications.”
Here’s how she begins her review:
Poetry charts a circular path to freedom for Chinese political activist and writer Liu Xiaobo. “I am merely / a discarded wooden plank / powerless to resist the crushing of steel / still, I want to save you no matter if you’re / dead or still barely breathing, breathing,” the poet writes in “Memories of a Wooden Plank,” on the twelfth anniversary of the 1989 Tian’anmen Massacre. Powerless to narrate history as a public intellectual in his own country, Liu finds in poetry a force of resistance and an unlikely promise of solace. “I’m still alive / with a name of some disrepute / I possess neither courage nor qualifications,” he confesses in the second elegy, “For 17.” A year after writing those lines, Liu still believes poetry has a singular power to disarm. As he concludes in the third elegy, “Suffocating City Square:”
This death-cast girl
has become a line of pure poetry
that surrenders all ideograms
Yesterday we talked at some length about methods of reading, preparing a text, working with authors, and revising. It is sometimes said that translators can’t do anything about the plot of the works they translate, but this seems to me an oversimplification and not really correct, because the effectiveness of the plot is always dependent on pace, and pace is a function of language at the level of phrase, sentence, and paragraph, which is what translators have control over. They can easily make a plot ineffective, so the obverse must also be true. Our conversation reminded of Amy Leach’s discussion of “exhilirated intermediaries,” which at times seems apt here.
Valentino also mentions the the sessions where writers are visited by their translators, among them translator into German Beatrice Fassbinder visiting Jeffrey Yang, whom she’s translating. In addition to being a poet and translator (most recently of June Fourth Elegies 念念六四 by Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波), Yang is my New Directions editor for my translations of Xi Chuan in Notes on the Mosquito.
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?