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.

Chinese Names in Push Open the Window

When I first wrote about the Copper Canyon anthology Push Open the Window, I said, “My only quibble with the book so far is that, while everything is printed with Chinese and English en face, for some reason the Chinese characters of none of the poets’ names made it into the book.” Co-translation editor Sylvia Lin has worked to address this, writing in a recent post to the Modern Chinese Literature & Culture email list:

List members may be interested in a new bilingual anthology of contemporary Chinese poetry, Push Open the Window, the third volume in a larger project of bilingual anthologies of contemporary poetry funded by the NEA. The poems were selected by the Chinese editor, Qingping Wang, with Sylvia Li-chun Lin and Howard Goldblatt as translation editors.

Despite our objections, the publisher, Copper Canyon Press, chose not to include the poets’ names in Chinese. We are making them available here; feel free to share the list with other users of the anthology.

Shi Zhi 食指
Mang Ke 芒克
Shu Ting 舒婷
Yu Jian 于坚
Zhai Yongming 翟永明
Wang Xiaoni 王小妮
Sun Wenbo 孙文波
Gu Cheng 顾城
Bai Hua 柏桦
Zhang Shuguang 张曙光
Wang Jiaxin 王家新
Song Lin 宋琳
Xiao Kaiyu 肖开愚
Han Dong 韩东
Chen Dongdong 陈东东
Zhang Zao 张枣
Qing Ping 清平
Sen Zi 森子
Huang Canran 黄灿然
Xi Chuan 西川
Huang Fan 黄梵
Cai Tianxin 蔡天新
Zang Di 臧棣
Hai Zi 海子
Ye Hui 叶辉
Ma Yongbo 马永波
Shu Cai 树才
Yi Sha 伊沙
Yu Nu 余怒
Ge Mai 戈麦
Lan Lan 蓝蓝
Xi Du 西渡
Yang Jian 杨键
Sang Ke 桑克
Chen Xianfa 陈先发
Lin Mu 林木
Zhou Zan 周瓒
Zhu Zhu 朱朱
Jiang Tao 姜涛
Yan Wo 燕窝
Jiang Hao 蒋浩
Ma Hua 马骅
Han Bo 韩博
Leng Shuang 冷霜
Duo Yu 朵渔
Hu Xudong 胡续冬
Qin Xiaoyu 秦晓宇
Shen Muqin 沈木槿*
Wang Ao 王敖

* The book prints this name as Shen Mujin; the character can be pronounced either jǐn or qín.

Translation & Cultural Distinction

In his introduction to Xi Chuan and Zhou Zan from their 92nd St. Y reading on October 10th, Forrest Gander referred to something his Brown University colleague John Cayley had said about classical Chinese poetry in English translation. Sylvia Lin and Howard Goldblatt, the translation editors of the NEA anthology Push Open the Window, also picked up on the same statement, writing in their “Translation Co-Editors’ Preface”:

When we agreed to take on this exciting project as translation editors, we were reminded of a comment that has long resonated with us, as readers and translators of Chinese literature and as “shameless” promoters of the best of it, in the original when possible and in translation otherwise. John Cayley, himself a translator and a publisher of Chinese poetry in translation, has written: “Incontestably, the translation of classical Chinese poetry into English has given us a body of work which is culturally distinct from the poetry of its host language but which has immediate appeal, and is often read with intense pleasure and a deep awareness of its moral and artistic significance.” The challenge, for us, was to assist in bringing over contemporary poetry from China such that Cayley’s assertion could be modified by replacing a single word and remain true.

This is interesting to consider. Certainly what Cayley says is true, that English translations of classical Chinese poetry have been loved by readers and influential to poets who have little or no knowledge of Chinese as a language or a culture otherwise; Eliot Weinberger‘s early Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei and more recent New Directions Anthology of Classical Chinese Poetry are testaments to this fact. And yet, when it comes to contemporary Chinese poetry, I’m not so ready to agree (I’ve been critical, for instance, of anthologies of contemporary Chinese poetry that seem to exploit the creativity of the translator and suppress what makes the original original).

Certainly translating a poem from a thousand years ago and a poem from this decade are somewhat different activities. Certainly the cultural distinction of contemporary Chinese vis-à-vis the contemporary anglophone world is much less than the cultural distinction of China in the Tang or Song. Do facts of proximity–from globalization to immigration to travel to…–mean that we translators have less cultural leeway when dealing with contemporary Chinese writing than with writing from ancient China? In other words, do we have to make our translations less culturally distinct from their originals because contemporary Chinese originals are already closer to us than ancient Chinese originals? I find this question especially relevant to translating Xi Chuan, who often incorporates a view of classical China from (for instance, his series “Thirty Historical Reflections” 鉴史三十章).

This deserves more thought, of course, and I certainly don’t want to prescribe anything all translators everywhere have to follow. I will say this, though: my goal in translation is to satisfy three kinds of readers, those who read Chinese poetry, those who read poetry in English, and those who read translations. If I don’t think what I’ve written satisfies those three very different sets of demands, I don’t think I’ve written a good translation.