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August 28, 2011

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Found in translation

HOWARD Goldblatt, an American who started learning Chinese at the age of 27, is acclaimed by some as the most important translator of modern and contemporary Chinese literature.

He has translated three winners of the Man Asian Literary Award since the prize was established in 2007: Jiang Rong's "Wolf Totem" (2007), Su Tong's "The Boat to Redemption" and Bi Feiyu's "Corn" or "Three Sisters" (2010). He has introduced more than 40 Chinese works to an English-speaking audience.

A self-described "bad student" in college and a Naval communications officer sent to Taiwan in the early 1960s, Goldblatt was a research professor of Chinese at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, and now a distinguished full-time literary translator.

Some say Goldblatt, 72, is so accomplished that he makes writers appear better than they are and their works more accessible to a Western audience. The controversy over translation goes on: How much should a good translator change? How faithful should he or she be to the letter or spirit of the original?

Goldblatt was interviewed by Shanghai Daily via e-mail in June and he sheds some light on translation.

Q: Something normal and admirable to Chinese people may be appalling to foreigners, especially when it comes to food. Does translation sometimes distort the reading of a culture?

A: Let me begin with a related anecdote. On a US TV food channel, there's a fellow who goes around the world eating the slimiest, grungiest, most disgusting things imaginable, things no respectable diner would consider. He stated that of all the "exotic" foods he has eaten, he finds only one utterly repellent, something he'll never eat again: chou doufu, or stinky bean curd, one of my all-time favorite snacks.

Trying to imagine what in a translated text might repel a reader is risky business, in large part because there is no stereotypical reader. But that doesn't answer your question. Yes, it seems to me, not only possible but likely, that elements in a text will be misunderstood or lost in translation.

That said, I don't think that explication is a prime responsibility of a literary translator, at least not often. The curious or bewildered reader of a puzzling reference has many means to unravel it; most will simply read on, the way you read "Finnegan's Wake," I suppose. And, of course, none of this lessens the importance of the translation enterprise in general.

Q: Are some things in one language simply untranslatable?

A: I surely realized, even three decades ago, that there are untranslatables, probably between any two languages, but certainly between alphabetic English and "ideographic" Chinese. Nothing would have been gained by translating and then explaining that sentence or by drumming up a sort of equivalent in English. Of course, the best translators will find solutions; I'm reminded of Y.R. Chao's inspired translation of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and, to a lesser extent, an amalgam of the several translators of "Ulysses." Puns, clever sayings and the like are highly resistant to translation, of course, so laugh and move on.

Q: Are there certain kinds of texts or writers that you find most difficult to deal with?

A: Certainly the most allusive (and therefore elusive) writers - Wang Anyi, for one, Jia Pingwa or Chu T'ien-wen for another - require many hours of digging through reference materials, which then must culminate in accessible form and prose in translation. Writers who do strange and interesting things with language, like Bi Feiyu, also present a distinct challenge. I assume that's what you meant when you said "deal with!" There are, I contend, no "easy" writers.

Q: Who are your favorite English writers?

A: I have many. British master of the short story William Trevor; Canadian Alice Munro; Dickens, of course; any three of the current crop of novelists from India - mostly female - writing in English; Michael Chabon (though I have trouble finishing his novels); and, I'll admit it, Michael Connelly and Donald Westlake. I'm sure there are more, but that gives you an idea. I've sort of given up on Julian Barnes and Philip Roth, both of whom can still write a mean sentence, but have grown a bit stale, in my view. I can't stand John Updike, but that's probably related to his somewhat negative review of my Mo Yan and Su Tong translations. And the winner is: Paul Auster.

Q: As the mainland's economy develops, is the quality of literature, especially from young writers, declining?

A: I don't know, partly because I don't read enough of it, and what I do read leans toward the more established writers. That's my fault, I guess, and I'm always open to newer, younger writers when people whose tastes I respect call them to my attention, but that's happening less frequently these days.

Q: Many of your translations deal with land, home, exile and content that is exotic for foreigners. Is this related to personal experiences?

A: More to do with world view, I suspect, than personal experiences. I've translated works by both radical (Wang Shuo and Li Ang, for instance) and conservative (Wang Meng) novelists, by urban writers (most of them) and their rural brethren (Huang Chun-ming and Gao Xiaosheng), by women and men, old and young, Han and ethnic, exotic and erotic. Some I've chosen, others were more or less chosen for me; all gained my respect during the translation process. Writers who thumb their nose at power always pique my interest, though I would not choose their work for that reason alone.

Q: You spent a lot of time in Taiwan where you seem to have found significance in your life. What impressed you so much?

A: I was anything but rebellious - that came later. Reading books? I was bored (I often stood midnight to 8am in a closed room with little to do), I loved riding my bike around Taipei and window-shopping, and pirated books in English were cheap and plentiful. Books, the Chinese language, authentic Chinese food and personal freedoms all converged during my early stay in Taiwan. There's something about that remarkable island and its people that continues to work its magic on me and, it seems, on just about every mainland writer who visits there. Islanders think and behave differently from mainlanders, and Taiwan's prospects and perils make it an extraordinary place to grow up in, as I did - sort of.

Q: How often do Chinese authorities commission translations? Are writers keen on introducing their works overseas?

A: I'm never commissioned by Chinese authorities. I'm occasionally sought out by publishers, agents and authors themselves, but I'm at a point in my career where I can be somewhat choosy - and that includes translating works that fall outside the mainstream.

The US novelist/translator (Italian) Tim Parks recently commented in a review of two Swiss novels that the author has made translation easy by a more globalized writing style, no longer pegged to domestic ways of writing. I think the same could be said about writing emerging from lots of countries, China included. Everyone, it seems, wants everyone else to read their work, not just their countrymen.

Q: How long did it take you to become a sophisticated translator of Chinese literature?

A: I began taking Chinese lessons at the age of 27, too late for it to be as ingrained as I'd like. Since then, there have been peaks and valleys, times when I thought I could call myself bilingual, other times when I struggle with both languages. That said, I think all my translations are good, some better than others, of course, but never as good as I'd like them to be. I'm not a perfectionist, just modest.

Q: Some people think translating must be tedious and boring. How do you feel?

A: I spend more time working than I should, but I can't stop myself, since I find nothing tedious or boring in translating literature and associated activities. To be perfectly frank, I wonder how anyone who likes to read, loves language and likes writing could feel that way. Spare time? I generally fill it with music, good food, cycling and "hanging out" with my wife and a small circle of close friends.


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