A longtime champion of Mo Yan’s work, and a translator of numerous works of contemporary Chinese fiction, Howard Goldblatt joined me for a discussion on the art of translation, his relationship to Mo Yan and how he partly owes their friendship to a cigarette.
SE: Were you familiar with Mo Yan’s work before you started translating him?
HG: Yes, I was. In 1985 I spent the year in Manchuria, in Hardin, writing on literature during the Japanese occupation, and it was getting really boring. So I started reading a book of stories that had just been published, called Chinese Fiction in 1985. It was badly done. There were six or eight stories in there by writers that subsequently became well known, and his was one. It was only a few years after the Cultural Revolution so writers were still trying to feel their way. Mo Yan’s was a terrific story, really unusual, quite revolutionary. Then two or three years later, after I had come back to Colorado, a friend of mine in Hong Kong sent me a literary quarterly from China. The Garlic Ballads appeared in that issue in its entirety. I was absolutely knocked out. I had never been so stunned by a piece of literature. So I immediately wrote to Mo Yan, introduced myself, and told him I wanted to translate it in English. He said, ‘Sure.’
But that didn’t end up being the first book of his you translated.
No. I started working on it, then traveled to Taipei and got deathly ill. I was staying with a friend, and had nothing to do but read. She had just bought a couple of new books. Red Sorghum was one of them. I thought, ‘This is the one we have to start with, this is absolutely the book to open up Chinese literature to the West.’
How many of his works have you translated?
Seven novels, one collection of stories and one short memoir.
Is he easy to work with? When you have a question how do you approach him?
He is very, very generous with his time and knowledge. He is an autodidact – he was educated up to the fourth or fifth grade and then dropped out of school. But he has read everything and knows Chinese literary traditions as much as any writer I’ve ever met. There is a lot I don’t know that he’s writing about. Hidden allusions and cultural eccentricities. People usually ask me how I deal with his language, but language doesn’t bother me. If I don’t know a word I can look it up in a dictionary or ask someone, that’s not the problem. What I have trouble with are those allusions or images that are very clear to him, but I just don’t get. So I will write to him, and he will come back with long, descriptive explanations, without of course giving me translations. He even used to send me drawings from time to time via fax, back when people used a fax machine. So he’s very generous. But we’ve gotten to the point where I’m asking fewer questions and he’s giving fewer answers. Sometimes he will skip one or two altogether, for the very simple reason, I think, that he wants me to figure it out on my own.
When did you first meet him in person?
I didn’t meet him until two or three of his books had been published in English. A good friend of mine had gone to China and met with him, and she came back and told me: ‘This guy is so nice, he’ll do anything for a guest.’ So I thought this is boding well for me when I go see him in six months to talk about The Republic of Wine. It would be the third of his novels I would work on. And I went there and we met for dinner and there was absolutely no chemistry between us. He and I simply did not click at all. So we are sitting there in awkward silence, and he lights a cigarette. I hadn’t smoked in years, but thought, ‘Oh well, why the hell not?’ So I said, ‘Give me one of those, will you?’ And he did, and from that moment on we were best friends. Of course then I came back to the States and it took me two more years to quit again. He doesn’t smoke any more, but back then he was a smoker. That’s how he wrote one of his longest novels. Half a million words in eighty-three days. He just sat down with a Chinese writing brush, and for eighty-three days he wrote, drank tea and smoked.
Are there aspects of his work that are untranslatable?
Yes and no. Musicality is one, and it is impossible to communicate how the words sound in Chinese. When he speaks, even, I look at the audience’s faces and they are absolutely mesmerized. One of his novels – the one coming out in December – offers a good example. It’s a brutal novel, beautiful and scary. It is set in the early nineteenth century and deals with the Boxer Rebellion against the Western Powers. One of the main characters is an executioner. And some of the execution scenes are unimaginably graphic, difficult to read and difficult to translate but beautiful in a sort of bizarre way. The other part of this novel has to do with the local opera. And what’s important here is the sound of the words, without music. Chinese opera rhymes almost every line, and Chinese rhymes much more easily than English. One way to go about it was not to worry about the rhymes and just translate the meaning. But that didn’t work. I exhausted my storehouse of rhymes. Sometimes there were ten or fifteen rhymes in a paragraph. And I had to rhyme while keeping the meaning, or changing it slightly if I could not find a word that rhymed with that exact meaning. So it was untranslatable in a way, but something could be done. Humour, jokes, puns – those are indeed untranslatable. Especially puns: there have been occasions where I had to skip them altogether. But again, in some cases, you can create solutions. In one novel I translated, there was a terrific joke in Chinese, it made me laugh out loud, but there was no way to communicate it in English. But about two lines later there was a straightforward narration that reminded me of a joke in English. So what I did was I skipped the joke when it was given, but created another joke two or three lines later. What was important there was that there had to be humour.
Jay Rubin, Murakami’s translator once said that readers were totally at his mercy. That everything they read has been filtered through his brain and it is his words that they’re reading. Do you agree with this statement?
Absolutely. Anyone who reads Mo Yan in English is reading Goldblatt. I don’t say that with a sense of arrogance. It’s just the truth. And it is pretty much true with all languages but with certain languages, like Chinese or Japanese, even more so. With Spanish or French the author pretty much tells you what to do. But in Chinese and Japanese the author just hopes that you will get it right. In Japanese, for example, the predicate always comes at the end of the sentence. You can’t do that in English. The words are essentially mine, but I don’t say this with pride. My goal in Chinese translation is that it won’t read as if it were written by an American, but that it will read as if written by a Chinese author who wrote in pretty good English.
One of the things that I have trouble deciding on, and change it from book to book, is how much of the imagery and sayings should remain Chinese. Particularly with Mo Yan, who loves animal imagery, farm imagery – he was a peasant, so he has a lot of that in his work – and a lot of his sayings are sayings that don’t really mean much unless they are somehow explained. For example, ‘Changing the sky and replacing the sun,’ could be translated to: ‘Robbing Peter to pay Paul,’ but I don’t like the idea of linking Mo Yan to all these Western sayings. But if I translate them exactly as they come in they are unconvincing. This is a problem in Chinese and Japanese and most languages that rely a lot upon popular sayings.
Did it become easier or harder to translate him the more familiar you became with his work?
That’s a very involved question. I translate a number of writers, so if I’m influenced by Mo Yan and then go on to translate someone else, then that influence either rubs on to the other writer or gets wiped away. That said, I am very comfortable with Mo Yan’s style and many readers are not. He never met an adjective that he didn’t use or love. He’s a very Dickensian writer. Long sentences and asides, things that most editors would cut. Of course he doesn’t have editors like that in China, but there are editors here who do that sort of thing with his permission, and then I get criticized for vulgarizing his novels. And it no longer bothers me because I know the truth. But I feel freer when I’m translating him, I know what I can get away with and what I can’t. When languages are as disparate as Chinese and English a literal translation would be gobbledygook, meaningless. So I have to internalize a sentence and then recreate it in English and it’s going to be quite different than the original, perhaps, but I’m hoping it winds up being essentially the same in terms of its impact and incant. And I feel more comfortable with him now in ways that I don’t always feel with other writers. Mo Yan is really good at setting tone in dialogue and narration. And it took me a while to get that, but I hope I have it now.
Photograph by flippy whale