If the end of the year is a time for lists, the beginning of a year is the time for taking stock of the Chinese poetry titles that appeared in last year’s “best of” lists. Here are three:
The PEN Award for Poetry in Translation is a $3,000 prize for a book-length translation of poetry into English. The 2015 includes David Hinton’s translation of The Late Poems of Wang An-Shih 王安石 (New Directions). Wang was an economist, statesman, chancellor and poet of the Song Dynasty; he became prime minister, the publisher writes, “and in this position he instituted a controversial system of radically egalitarian social reforms to improve the lives of China’s peasants … It was after his retirement, practicing Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism and wandering the mountains around his home, that Wang An-shih wrote the poems that made his reputation. Short and plainspoken, these late poems contain profound multitudes the passing of time, rivers and mountains, silence and Buddhist emptiness.”
Not a prize-granting organization, The Washington Post nevertheless also came up with a list of “The best poetry books for December.” Included was Empty Chairs: Selected Poemsby Liu Xia 刘霞, (Graywolf)，translated by Ming Di and Jennifer Stern. The collection draws from thirty years of Liu’s poetry, including what she’s written after she was placed under house following the imprisonment of her husband, Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波, who was sentenced for eleven years in 2009 (he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010). “In several of her chiseled poems,” the Post writes, “Liu uses dolls to convey what she cannot—and yet her voice still asserts itself, coming through bold and vital.” Empty Chairs is also the only translation from Chinese to make it onto World Literature Today‘s list of “75 Notable Translations of 2015.”
Finally, at Three Percent non-poetry reader Chad Post has come up with his list of “poetry collections I would’ve read and loved, if I read poetry. Based on my general knowledge of publishers, translators, and titles, I’m pretty much positivie that these are the best collections I should’ve read this year.” In this list he includes my translation October Dedications by Mang Ke 芒克 (Zephyr / Chinese University Press). The book isn’t actually out yet, but I can’t resist including it here because Chad writes, “Lucas Klein is a really stand-up guy who does a lot to promote Chinese poetry. He’s also been a judge for the PEN Translation Prize, and been mistaken for me at several ALTA conferences … He also likes to get all up in my shit about mis-alphabetizing Chinese authors in my various lists and posts. This is totally my fault, although it’s not always that easy to figure out …The beauty of this list that I’ve put together though is that, even if “Ke” is his surname, this book is STILL properly alphabetized. I CANNOT BE BEATENTODAY.” Congratulations, Chad. Mang Ke is a pseudonym, but yes, it should be alphabetized under M. And since the book won’t be out until sometime later in 2016, you still have time to read it and put it on this year’s list again.
this is the first year since we started tracking the publication of never-before translated works of fiction and poetry that we surpassed 500 total books for the year. That’s huge. Very huge. Let me show you just how huge.
To see how huge, click the image.
Maybe they’ll have to change the name of the blog to 3.01%
So, in terms of the simple bean counting of all this, the number of works of fiction in translation being published in the U.S. is growing pretty nicely. Actually, the 26.3% increase from 2011 to 2012 is incredibly impressive. That’s like ebook sales type growth.
What accounts for this jump? I don’t want to paint too optimistic a picture here, but there are more presses doing translations each and ever year, and basically everyone involved in publishing literature in translation is doing a little bit more
For whatever reason, PEN World Voices doesn’t have this event listed on their event calendar (at least not clearly), so let this post serve as the official announcement of the event, and a personal invitation from me to all of you to come out, celebrate the winners, and get drunk in the street.
First, the specifics: The Best Translated Book Award Ceremony will take place at 5:30 at the Washington Mews. For those who haven’t been there, this is a private gated street just north of Washington Square Park between Fifth Ave. and University Place. It is here.
This event is part of The Literary Mews, a new component to the PEN World Voices Festival that was organized by the amazing people at CLMP.
PEN reimagines the New York City street festival as an open air indie book fair. Nestled among the cobblestone streets of NYU’s storied Washington Mews, this day-long “festival within the Festival” will feature writers’ workshops in the morning and readings in the afternoon. Browse the tables where literary magazines and independent presses proffer the work of up-and-coming writers, wander the streets and cross borders as the doors to NYU’s International Houses are opened, or stop to take in busking musicians or a puppet show. Together with Le Pain Quotidien, the Mini-Fair will remind you that literature is our daily bread. A must-attend for any lover of literature.
The full [sic] list of events taking place as part of this can be found here.
Our event will take place as part of the Outdoor Indie Book Fair and will start with a discussion between me, Esther Allen, and Jill McCoy about spreading the love for literature in translation and, more specifically, the Finnegan’s List. After that, two representatives from the BTBA poetry and fiction committees will announce this year’s winners.
I have no idea who won and will be in the dark until that exact moment, so that. If I have time, I’ll post some crazy odds for the winners tomorrow morning and give you my irrational reasons why the books will or won’t win.
Following this announcement, I believe there is supposed to be a party in the street thanks to the Germans and the French. So please come down to this. Indie presses will be hawking their wares from noon onwards, which is worth checking out on its own.
John Felstiner said translation is like a window. It lets some fresh air in and allows some stale air to drift out. Here are seven books of poetry from around the world that offer some of the freshest air possible into American poetry. The Best Translated Book Awards was started by Chad Post, editor of Open Letter and founder of the blog Three Percent. This was my fifth year serving as a judge for this award and every year I have been astounded by the lyricism and innovative approaches to translation and poetry we’ve found in the books nominated for the prize. If you are looking for a book of poetry to take the top of your head off, you couldn’t go wrong with one of the finalists on this list. A discussion of these astounding books will appear on Three Percent next week:
Sandalwood Death and Pow! make the top of the New York Times’s “Editors’ Choice” book list: “Abuse of power, gross materialism, corruption and venality are the targets of the Chinese Nobelist’s satirical novels.”
Yiyun Li reviewsPow!: “Perhaps this is a way to stay away from politics: to be a fabulist, but not to be taken so seriously.”
Ian Buruma of the New York Times reviews Pow! and Sandalwood Death: “By concentrating on human appetites, including the darkest ones, Mo Yan can dig deeper than political commentary. And like the strolling players of old, the jesters and the public-square storytellers he so admires, Mo Yan is able to give a surprisingly accurate impression of his country. Distorted, to be sure, but sharply truthful, too. In this sense, his work fits into a distinguished tradition of fantasists in authoritarian societies: alongside Mikhail Bulgakov or the Czech master, Bohumil Hrabal.”
Chad Post talks to Tom Roberge in the first 3% Podcast of 2013 about Pow! and Sandalwood Death and the wrongness of how Mo Yan has been pitched for his cultural significance rather than his literary significance. Roberge asks, “What are you selling? Are you selling the book or are you selling the fact that it’s different, and a novel about China?”
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.
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.”
In “A New Normal for Chinese Literature?” Sheila Melvin wonders if China and Chinese literature can “rise above politics and [mark] the beginning of a new “normal” in which writers are free to write and readers free to read.”
In a piece called “Mo Yan’s Middle Finger,” translator A E Clark reads the stories Mo Yan tells in his Nobel lecture and points out what he sees as his self-serving defense against criticism.
My Chinese Books looks at Mo Yan’s short stories, and at Three Percent Chad Post gives an enthusiastic review of Mo Yan’s newest publication in English, Pow!
RC Davis-Undiano, executive director of World Literature Today, was interviewed for a Beijing broadcast on Chinese literature overseas and Mo Yan.
In “Between The Red Lines: An American Writer in China,” Amelia Gray says, “It’s not just Mo Yan who has to choose his words carefully. All artists in authoritarian regimes face similar stakes, and it’s time that we as an international community of artists start paying attention to those artists and those stakes.” But she spends ten days in China unable to know more than “the names of Ha Jin and Ba Jin,” as “interacting knowledgably with early- and mid-career Chinese writers is difficult, because their work is typically not translated into English.”
And in response to Charles Laughlin’s “What Mo Yan’s Detractors Get Wrong” (to which I linked in the last roundup), Perry Link in “Politics and the Chinese Language” discusses “two important questions: 1) To what extent, if any, are Mo Yan and other contemporary Chinese writers trapped in a Maoist language that constricts their expression, and perhaps their vision as well? and 2) Can writers who live under political censorship nevertheless find ways to write to write well?”
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.”