Translating Mo Yan: An Interview with Howard Goldblatt

Stephen Sparks interviews Howard Goldblatt

Translating Mo Yan: An Interview with Howard Goldblatt

May 26th, 2013 reset - +

Triptych image: David Korty, "Film Still (Iris)," 2013
Courtesy of Night Gallery and the artist

I WAS INTRODUCED to Howard Goldblatt through a mutual friend, George Carroll, a publishers’ representative and champion of international literature based in the Pacific Northwest. Mr. Goldblatt, a former Guggenheim Fellow, has had a long and distinguished career as “the premier English-language translator of contemporary Chinese fiction” (Chicago Reader). He has introduced readers in the English-speaking world to Mo Yan, Jiang Rong, and dozens of Chinese writers through his translations and anthologies.

We exchanged emails shortly after Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature; it was during this time that Mo was facing intense scrutiny and criticism for his political convictions — or lack thereof. I was particularly interested in Goldblatt’s take on the controversy: as Mo’s primary English language translator — Goldblatt has translated nine of Mo Yan’s works over the past 20 years — I felt that no one would have better insight into the literary, if not political, qualities of his work.


STEPHEN SPARKS: You just about stumbled into translating Chinese. Can you tell us a little bit about your history with the language and how coming to it accidentally has shaped your work, if at all?

HOWARD GOLDBLATT: Truth be told, I’ve stumbled into nearly every aspect of my relationship with China and the Chinese language. Had I been sent to sea directly from Naval OCS during the early phase of the Vietnam War, like my classmates, instead of Taiwan, none of the rest of my life would have turned out remotely as it did. Had I been accepted into any graduate program in Chinese other than the only one that grudgingly let me in the door, I’d not have chosen a thesis topic that led to my discovery of a writer, Xiao Hong, practically no one had heard of at the time, who is now one of the giants of the period, and who put me on the map, as it were. And since none of her work was available in English, I ventured into the field of translation and haven’t stopped since. My critical biography of her (in Chinese) and rendering of her masterwork, Tales of Hulan River, are still in print, 40 years later. Then, “affirmative action” got me a job at that same university in a department that, untill that time, was comprised solely of native speakers of Chinese. Finally, Nieh Hualing, who, with her husband, poet Paul Engle, ran the Iowa Writers Workshop, stumbled upon my translation and recommended me to translate a novel for a large commercial press. I’ve had lots of help along the way and more than a little luck; my indebtedness to those factors manifests itself in my passion (some might call it obsession) for translating literary texts — mainly fiction — from Chinese. I simply cannot think of a single thing I’d rather be doing professionally.

SS: Did similar good fortune play a role in leading you toward Mo Yan?

HG: During a research fellowship year in Manchuria, I read a deeply affecting story of his. Soon after that, I ran into a friend who’d signed up half a dozen young writers, planning to publish story collections of each in English. Unrealistic. I saw he’d included Mo Yan, so I talked him into “releasing” him to me. No one told Mo Yan, of course. The following year, a friend sent me a copy of what would become in English The Garlic Ballads, and I was hooked. I wrote to Mo Yan, care of the now-notorious Writers Association, asking for permission to translate and locate a publisher. He had no idea who I was, but was happy to find a broader readership for his work. Before that happened, however, I read and fell in love with Red Sorghum, got his permission to switch, and, well, it was a good beginning. World Literature Today listed it as the best foreign book of 1993. To date I’ve translated seven of Mo Yan’s novels (I’ve signed on to do the eighth), a collection of stories, a short memoir, and his Nobel lecture. I take pride in the fact that the head of the Nobel Literature Committee told me in Stockholm how critical my English translations were in selecting Mo Yan as the 2012 laureate; I assume he said something similar to the French or Italian or Swedish translators, since the committee members read several languages, but, with one exception, not Chinese.

SS: You’ve said, without arrogance, that anyone who reads Mo Yan in English is reading Howard Goldblatt. How do you define what a translator does? And how does your understanding of translation relate to your characterization of translators as being eternally apologetic?

HG: I still find it baffling that a reviewer of a translation can credit or fault the author of a book for good/bad writing. It’s probably wrong to do that with the translator as well, though they are her words, since unless the reviewer knows the original language, he cannot be sure where the merit/fault lies. On behalf of literary translators everywhere, let me declare that we have nothing to apologize for, save screwing up a translation and, maybe, the occasional bad choice of what to translate. And yet, some outlets continue to omit translators’ names in published reviews, leading a reader to assume that the work was written in English, and it has taken years to get publishers to prominently display the fact that what the reader has in her hands is a facsimile of the original work. Whenever I begin to question my role in the literary process, I pull out my copy of Robert Wechsler’s book, Performing without a Stage, for encouragement. He reminds us not only of the perils we face (“There is no such thing as a good translator.” I.B. Singer) but, importantly, the signal service we provide (“Translation is a more advanced stage of civilization.” Borges). One question I’m often asked is for whom I translate — the author or the reader. While the choice is more nuanced than that, my answer never varies. The author wrote for his readers, and that is for whom I translate.

There are some prizes given to translated fiction — the American PEN Center award, the Best Translated Book Award, the Man Asian Prize (also available to works written in English), the Dublin IMPAC Prize, and more. But the only U.S. prize in which the translation is first checked for accuracy is the Translation of the Year Award from the American Literary Translators Association. That means that the other prizes are given for the book, not the translation, since the judges cannot know if in fact the translators have done their job well; I served as a judge for one of the PEN contests, in which a great many languages were included, while we judges were competent in three or four. I loved the book we chose, but to this day can state only that the translation read well.

SS: Following up on the previous question: Do you think the role of a translator varies according to the language (and/or literary style) he or she translates from? What difficulties arise in particular relation to Chinese?

HG: I’m not sure how this is going to come out, but here goes. In one important sense, all translators do the same thing: we become proficient in a foreign language, we study the culture(s) where it is spoken, we go deeply into its literature and more, we work on our own writing skills, and we labor alone. But then things begin to change, sometimes a little but sometimes a lot. Alphabetic languages, especially those that diverge only slightly from one another, require heightened fidelity to the text as written; most Spanish/French/Italian/etc. texts will tell the English-language translator not only what to “write,” but, to a significant degree, I believe, how to “write” it. Differences between two or more faithful translations in these languages ought to be slight — here I’m speaking only of prose — and translating them back into the original language should produce a remarkably similar text. If I’m wrong I’m sure I’ll hear about it.

That is impossible in Chinese; what we do is theoretically the same but radically different in practice. The correspondences between semantic items frequently do not exist in a meaningful way, the structure is both different and inconsistent,  punctuation is hit-and-miss, neologisms abound, and interpretations can vary widely. Add to that socio-linguistic concerns — levels of iteration, differences between the spoken and the written — and the much smaller vocabulary in Chinese, and it really is a new ballgame. In Chinese, dependent clauses precede independent clauses; a text might be made up exclusively of declarative sentences; and so on. To single-mindedly replicate any of these constructions would create an unappetizing text in English.

For us it’s a process of absorbing a phrase or a sentence or more to determine its intent and then recreating it in our own language, staying close to the original wherever possible, striving to capture images, mirroring language register and the like, but usually in a new structure, often with different words. Two translations of the same Chinese text by experienced translators might well strike a reader as fundamentally different; retranslating them back into Chinese would produce wildly divergent texts. With the increased freedom this appears to bring comes the double curse of heightened self-doubt and intensified scrutiny.

SS: Beyond the linguistic concerns you face, there is the fact that Mo Yan’s work incorporates historical and mythological references, allusions, and tropes that are unfamiliar to most Western readers. How much of a role does this fact, if indeed you see it as a fact, play in shaping your work as a translator?

HG: I suspect that all translators waver when it comes to the matter of “explaining” a text. After all, we assume that a domestic reader will be familiar with most of the historical, cultural, mythological, and political references in a story or a poem in ways that a foreign reader will not, at least not to the same degree. So what to do? There are many strategies; I’ve tried the bulk of them, and have yet to be fully satisfied with any. Context or degree of significance can be determining factors where further explication is concerned. But the historical and literary references for a phrase like “driven to Mt. Liang,” for instance, a Robin Hood-ish reference in which one is forced by circumstances to join a bandit horde, cannot be fully appreciated by a Western reader without a brief tutorial on the significance and origins of the phrase. “Driven to despair” captures the meaning, and most of the time, I think, is preferable to quaint references to historical China’s “merry men.” There’s always the footnote, which I avoid, or the endnote, which I have used. In the main, however, I weigh the necessity of making every alien reference or concept clear to my reader; as often as not, I leave it unexplained, welcoming the reader to skip it, figure it out, or curse the translator.

SS: How has translation changed for you as your understanding of Chinese culture and literary practices deepened?

HG: The obvious assumption would be that the process has become smoother, more comfortable, more internalized, while in fact my progression has had a somewhat unsteadying effect; maybe it’s a case of “the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know.” Or maybe my self-imposed standards have gotten more demanding. I don’t seek perfection; I just try to ensure that my renderings are, in the end, better than anyone else’s could be. And when I fail, I grieve (that’s a bit dramatic, I know). In a recent review of a novel by Mo Yan, which the reviewer absolutely hated (she too is a novelist, a breed that as often as not seems to hate other people’s novels), she loved the English title, which was not a literal translation of the Chinese, but a homonym of part of it, but then raked me over the coals for 1) exoticizing the text (she wanted me to use “Mum” and “Dad” for “Dieh” and “Niang” — to each her own, I say), and 2) for the descriptive “sick turtle.” Why, she asked, didn’t I simply say “stupid prick”? And she was right; what was I thinking? A bad stumble, in my mind. I don’t mind so much when I make a mistake; we all do that, authors included. What I hate is fouling a work by translating words and missing their impact or intent or tone. That would not have bothered me 20 years ago, at least not as much as it does now. In some respects, experience has been a boon, in that I’ve learned how to negotiate treacherous semantic waters with the confidence to simply bow to realities and move on when I encounter untranslatable items.

SS: Speaking of “sick turtles,” in a sense, can you elaborate on Mo Yan’s relationship to animals and how that relationship may differ on the whole or in parts from that of writers in the West?

HG: Like Orwell — perhaps only in one novel, but, oh, what a novel — Mo Yan is fond of making animals talk and think, creating their own parallel, usually antagonistic, universe. While that runs through much of his work, nowhere is it more manifest than in the deeply meaningful novel Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (the title in Chinese emanates from the Buddhist expression “Living and dying are exhausting, desire is born of greed,” or something like that). A wrongly executed man returns to earth via samsara, the Buddhist wheel of life, over and over, each time as a different barnyard animal that interacts with the protagonist, a principled peasant whose real-life model was someone the author had observed and ridiculed in his youth, but came to admire as an adult. The speech, behavior, and thought processes of each anthropomorphized creature is distinctive and convincing, and a polemic that might otherwise not have made it past a timorous editor’s blue pen (or delete key) survives in the mouths of animals that witness the sequential phases of communist rule and its multitudinous follies. No one who has read this novel, which won the inaugural Newman Prize for Chinese, could ever, in good conscience, characterize Mo Yan as a government stooge.

SS: How would you characterize the role of food and drink in his work?

HG: Mo Yan’s formative years coincided with the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), from age 11, when he was taken out of school because his family, who owned a small plot of land, was too rich to be “red,” to age 21. Having spent much of that time in impoverished circumstances, he admits to being hungry much of the time, and, whether or not it is fanciful mythologizing, has stated that he became a writer after being told that he could eat jiaozi (dumplings) three times a day from his earnings.

So food plays a significant role in much of his fiction, but nowhere as compellingly or creatively as in the satirical tour de force The Republic of Wine, a tale whose central construct is the scrutiny of a place where children are raised as food for the jaded palates of local officials. Liquor too is pervasive here and in other of Mo Yan’s fiction, but the genesis differs. The paucity of food in the author’s youth may have given birth to its widespread appearance in his novels. The omnipresence of liquor, on the other hand, may well stem from a bout of nearly fatal alcohol poisoning he suffered after one of China’s ritualistic drinking contests. The novel, which the The New York Times called a “wrenching cri de coeur for the lost soul of [Mo Yan’s] country,” can be read in part as a critique of the Chinese obsession with alcohol and a pathological desire to get one’s guests falling-down drunk. When Mo Yan is compared to Rabelais, this picture of gluttony, this focus on appetites, is one of the reasons.

SS: You alluded to the controversy of Mo Yan’s politics early. The scrutiny a writer comes under after winning the Nobel Prize is always intense, but the criticisms leveled at Mo Yan seems particularly vehement. What’s your take on the controversy regarding his selection? And, more generally, what role do you think literature plays or should play in a heavily censored culture like that of communist China?

HG: Things were pretty nasty at the beginning, with shrill outbursts that his selection was a “catastrophe” (Laureate Herta Müller, who is close to the expatriate dissident Liao Yiwu, who has launched a crusade against one of the Academy members), reckless remarks that he is a government “patsy” (Salman Rushdie, who likely has read little if any of Mo Yan’s fiction), the sophistry of otherwise rational individuals, such as Perry Link, and outsider calls for him to use his newly won leverage as a soapbox to demand change (Ai Weiwei, et al). He was criticized for belonging to the 80 million-member Communist Party; for his membership in the Writers Association, a government sponsored guild to which virtually all writers in China belong, and in which he holds an honorary vice-chairmanship; and for only once asking for Liu Xiaobo’s release from prison (I have heard a rumor that he was summoned for a chat with the authorities in the wake of that single public comment, nearly the first thing he said after the announcement). In the weeks and months since, the situation has changed dramatically, in part owing to the excellent reviews of his latest offerings in translation; I have seen only a couple of hostile reviews of POW! and none of Sandalwood Death. Virtually every reviewer has referred to the controversy, more or less in passing, and then has concluded that Mo Yan was a worthy recipient of the literature prize. Just about everyone in China, it seems, agreed with that — itself proof to the uninformed that he was everything they called him. The verbal histrionics and intemperate remarks in op-eds, long articles, and a host of published cheap shots are a reminder that it sometimes makes sense to get the facts before popping off.

Mo Yan was reviled most severely for his views of and statements on censorship. For him censorship, including self-censorship, is part of the system under which he and his fellow writers work, and is accepted as such by most, to a greater or lesser extent, so long as it serves the country, and not just bureaucrats and their ilk, and is not capriciously implemented. That may be a hard pill for us in the West to swallow, but not necessarily by writers within China’s borders. As novelist Yu Hua points out in a recent New York Times op-ed piece, in China there are varying degrees of censorship. The internet, as we know, is heavily censored. Film directors also suffer from arbitrary decisions by government censors. Literature, on the other hand, is less closely monitored. While there are proscriptions against openly defaming the Party, advocating the overthrow of the government, or calling for Taiwanese or Tibetan independence, writers need not worry about heavy-fisted censors redacting their texts in accord with perceived heresies. Mo Yan writes in a gray area in which he avoids direct, overt criticism of established institutions and policies while revealing social pathologies and what he has termed a devolution of attitudes and behaviors in the PRC. Though not alone in this, he does it better than most.

For those who want to see what the writer himself has to say on the subject, in a recent interview published in der Spiegel, Mo Yan responds to the criticisms in detail. He goes so far as to equate the calls for him to step up his appeal for Liu Xiaobo’s release to the drumbeat of verbal orthodoxy during the Cultural Revolution. He is unapologetic in regard to his stances and statements and insists, “Everything I have to say is in my writing.”

SS: What can a reader expect to find in Mo’s writing? He has been called Rabelaisian and Dickensian. Are there other writers you would compare him to?

HG: I’ll let others do that. His novels have more than once been declared Kafkaesque, though I think the similarities are slight. More convincing are the equations with Eastern European writers like Mikhail Bulgakov and one of my favorites, Bohumil Hrabal, whose comical tone is in the finest tradition of satirists. While comparisons with Orwell are limited and specific, I think the authors’ critical projects are similar and similarly laudable. If you enjoy works like Catch-22, The Confederacy of Dunces, and, of course, Jonathan Swift, humor-laced works with deeply serious foundations, you will probably like Mo Yan, always keeping in mind the verity that he’s a lot funnier in the original than in the (my) translations, his barbs more sharply pointed. He himself has mentioned his novel POW! as resonant of Gunther Grass’s The Tin Drum, if only in the retardation of the protagonist; he is quick, however, to make clear that while Oskar stopped growing physically but not mentally, Luo Xiaotong is a fully grown man who relates and reminisces about his childhood to a quiescent monk; he is, as one reviewer has termed it, a “wise simpleton, a kind of Chinese Soldier Schweik.” As nearly as I can recall, no similar character exists in modern Chinese literature, but then the same could be said of Zhao Jia, the executioner in Sandalwood Death, Li Yidou, the hapless writer in The Republic of Wine

SS: What are his recurring themes and obsessions? Where does his work stand in relation to other contemporary Chinese writers?

HG: In works like Sandalwood Death, The Garlic Ballads, Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, and more, Mo Yan is concerned about the relationship between the individual and the collective; it is an egregiously unequal relationship, with the power of the collective, led by a monolithic government, a constant threat to the well being of the individual citizen. State policies and bureaucratic ineptitude and mendacity appear as clearly antithetical to the struggle of the individual to maintain dignity and hold on to principle. Mo Yan declares himself to be a communist, though I would call him a communist idealist, one who clings to the theory while condemning the practices. But that may be an over interpretation on my part and unfair to him.

As a writer, Mo Yan stands apart from most of his peers, not necessarily, but often, in terms of theme and ideology, but most assuredly in style. He manipulates time — moving back and forth in strict temporal narration, often with apparent illogic (Red Sorghum), and he employs multiple points of view, with different characters narrating subjectivized interpretations of events (Sandalwood Death, The Garlic Ballads). In these he may not be unique, just more effective than most. But in one respect he stands virtually alone: a fictional author (named Mo Yan) appears as a referent, even a character in many of his novels and stories, but nowhere with the ingenious effect that we encounter in The Republic of Wine, easily the most complex novel I’ve ever read, with four separate narratives gradually merging at the end. He once wrote that other writers might have been able to produce some of his novels, but no one, other than he, could have written The Republic of Wine. I see no reason to dispute that.

I cut my teeth in the field writing about and translating the literary works of Xiao Hong, a devotee of modern China’s most famous literary figure, Lu Xun, a young woman who wrote for a decade in the 1930s and early 1940s. One aspect that made her such a distinctive literary figure was the breadth of her offerings — three novels, none remotely resembling the others or novels by her peers, short stories and essays that include a range of styles and themes, and a couple of brilliant memoirs (she even wrote a mime play not long before her death in Hong Kong at the age of 30). Mo Yan — novelist, essayist, dramatist, memoirist, librettist — is like that. No two of his dozen or more novels are siblings in the sense that the works by many of his contemporaries often — sometimes always — are. Then there are all those other things. Ask me for one reason why he is a worthy Nobel laureate, and that’s it.

SS: Does he fall into a particular lineage of Chinese letters?

HG: As he made clear in his Nobel lecture, he is first and foremost a storyteller; I would take that further and add that he is a fabulist very much in the mold of Pu Songling, the early Qing dynasty writer of supernatural tales whose birthplace is near Mo Yan’s. No writer has been more deeply influenced by this master of the fantastic story than Mo Yan, whose morality tales and surreal scenes and characters are simultaneously traditional and modern. He often alludes to a childhood in a town where elders, including family members, regaled the young with a vast array of oral tales.

SS: Finally, what works would you include on a list of essential Chinese works for an English-language reader?

HG: Start, I suppose, with Edgar Snow’s Red Star over China to learn about the political and societal beginnings of the PRC. For a historical view of the dynamic 20th century, told through the prism of writers, there is Jonathan Spence’s The Gate of Heavenly Peace. Though somewhat dated — but still in print and still used in classrooms — my Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused is the best collection of short fiction from China currently available. Push Open the Window, co-edited by Sylvia Lin and me, showcases the best Chinese poetry of the past few decades. Yu Hua’s China in Ten Words (not, to my knowledge, available within China) is a critical view of contemporary Chinese society and government. An enlarging corpus of long and short fiction, by important writers, many of whom I’ve translated (Su Tong, Bi Feiyu, Li Rui, et al) represents the best of Chinese writing; some but not enough of it is available in English and other languages. For sheer delight, read either of two brilliant satires by Wang Shuo: Playing for Thrills and Please Don’t Call Me Human. Man Asian winner Wolf Totem, set in Inner Mongolia, and Red Poppies, set in Tibet, are good, informative reads. Since we have been talking only about Goldblatt as translator and Mo Yan as novelist, I’ve not brought Taiwanese literature into the discussion, though I’ve translated and recommended rather a lot of it over the years. Two Taiwanese writers deserve a special shout-out: Li Ang for her The Butcher’s Wife, characterized by one reviewer as the meanest book ever written about a man’s abuse of a woman, and Chu T’ien-wen for her Notes of a Desolate Man (Sylvia Lin was a co-translator of this gay-themed, somewhat existential novel); winners of prestigious prizes, both have garnered a passionate and loyal readership in the West. Finally, of course, reading anything by Mo Yan is time well spent.


Stephen Sparks is a writer and bookseller living in San Francisco. His essays and interviews have appeared in Tin House3:AM Magazine, and the Quarterly Conversation.