Sunday, April 14, 2013

Howard Goldblatt:Invisible Art Of Literary Translation

The Literary Life

An article, by Aimee Levitt, in Chicago Reader takes a revealing look at a profession that is often viewed best as invisible and behind-the-scenes, that of literary translators, a job that is as difficult as any other. Howard Goldblatt, known among literary circles for his work of translating Chinese writers, is happy to do what he loves best:

Levitt writes:
Yet 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. Despite all that, you may still have never heard of Goldblatt: even for enthusiasts of world literature, lovers of Kundera or García Márquez, Chinese novels are a tough sell. "People don't read them," Goldblatt says simply.
This may be changing. Last fall Guan Moye, better known by his pen name, Mo Yan ("don't speak"), became the first Chinese novelist still living in China to win the Nobel Prize for literature. (Gao Xingjian, who won in 2000, lives in Paris.) The Nobel committee praised him for being a writer "who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary." His novel Pow!, published in English a month after the award announcement, was heralded as a comic masterpiece by the New York Times.
In the wake of the Nobel, Goldblatt, who is Mo Yan's first, and so far only, English translator, became his unofficial spokesman in the English-language press. And later, when Mo Yan was derided by Salman Rushdie and the past Nobel laureate Herta Muller, among others, for being insufficiently critical of the Chinese government, Goldblatt took on the role of defenderGoldblatt hasn't spoken to Mo Yan since December, when the author flew several of his translators to Stockholm for the award ceremony.
But he continues work on the English translation of Frogs, a novel concerning China's one-child policy that's based on the experiences of Mo Yan's aunt, who was a midwife and an abortionist. It's the eighth Mo Yan novel he's translated, and the tenth book overall—Goldblatt's also worked on a memoir and a short story collection. But Mo Yan is just one of a half-dozen authors Goldblatt regularly translates. He has two books forthcoming: a crime novel by Song Ying, which he cotranslated with his wife, Sylvia Lin, and a retelling of the 12th-century legend of Gesar by the Tibetan writer Alai. Even before the Nobel, he was turning away work.
He's achieved the improbable: he's a man known for practicing the most invisible of arts and for living most of his life in a language not his own.
The best literary translators have a difficult and often thankless task, translating from a learned language to a mother tongue, while working assiduously and carefully to get the right tone and feeling of a work that has its own style and sensibility. That makes literary translation more difficult than the translation, say, of corporate material—and likely more satisfying, too.

Have read many fine master works of Russian literature in English translation, I now look forward to dipping into serious Chinese literature, including the works of Mo Yan and his latest work, Pow!, which came out in English translation in December 2012. The novel begins with the following epigraph:
Wise Monk, where I come from people call children who boast and lie a lot 'Powboys', but every word in what I am telling you is the unvarnished truth.
Or is it? Here is a review of the novel, in Counterpunch, by Ron Jacobs, who views its as a novel that draws the reader into its streets and villages, making the reader a participant:
The father is an honest man unable and unwilling to be untrue to himself. The son represents the new youthful, capitalist china, willing to manipulate the laws and his compatriots in the pursuit of money. For him, truth is malleable and subjective; much like the pervasive advertising capitalism requires to sell its products. His teacher is the son of a landlord disgraced after the success of the revolution. The tale is a story of the new China, where the reigning value is profit. Nothing is sacred except profit. Everything is fair; cheating, manipulation of religious beliefs, whatever it takes to make profit. There is a parade newly designed to extoll the virtues of the village’s meat products, dyed and pumped up with filler as they are. This day is called Slaughterhouse Day and Yan’s description of the Day’s parade is a clever parody of every holiday parade that substitutes merchandising for tradition and advertising for meaning. It could be Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade Yan is describing as easily as it is the manufactured feast day he relates.
I suggest that speaks for itself.


  1. Translation is difficult not simply because of linguistic patterns but because of culture. When I taught The Scarlet Letter in China, my students thought Hester Prynne got what she deserved.

    1. You're right that culture shapes how we view a narrative; the best translation cannot, I think, account for such differences.


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