LARB Interview with Brendon O'Kane
Over at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Jeffrey Wasserstrom (author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know and co-editor of Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land) has an interview with Brendan O’Kane, who, well, I’ll let Wasserstrom explain his importance in his own words:
_There are multiple reasons that Brendan O’Kane’s been on my list of people to interview someday for this blog. One is that Megan Shank, who co-edits the Asia Section with me, has been singing his praises for a year now, saying he’s one of the smartest translators of Chinese literature out there and that we need to find a way to get him into the LARB. Another is that, last October, he wrote one of the most buzzed about—and most provocative as well as most provocatively titled—commentaries on Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize win: “Is Mo Yan a Stooge for the Chinese Government?” [. . .]
Two things, though, led me to move O’Kane from my “interview someday” list to my “interview now” one. First, when I asked Julia Lovell about translation trends in my recent interview with her, she noted the importance of the magazines Pathlight and Chutzpah!, and Brendan’s a contributing editor to the former (which is affiliated with the excellent Paper Republic translation website founded by Eric Abrahamsen and Cindy Carter) and a contributor to the latter. Second, I came across a lively interview that Alec Ash, who writes regularly for the China Blog, did with him for the Anthill as O’Kane was preparing to move back to the U.S. to start graduate school after a long stint in China._
How interesting is this interview? Just check out the first question and response:
Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Let’s start with a topic close to your heart: English language translations of Chinese literature. A lot has been going on lately. Penguin has been putting out works from China’s Republican era. A few years ago, they published a new translation of Lu Xun’s complete works of fiction. This year, they’ve published two Lao She novels that, unlike most of his best-known works, are not set in his native Beijing. One of these, translated by William Dolby and introduced smartly by Julia Lovell, is set in London and titled Mr. Ma and Son. The other, which is a reissue of an old William Lyell translation but comes with an excellent new introduction by Ian Johnson, Cat Country, is set even further from Beijing—on Mars! Some commentators have also pointed to a notable increase lately in the number of contemporary Chinese authors being translated. What struck you as the most important shift during your time in China?
Brendan O’Kane: I’d love to say that there had been a major shift, but I’m not really sure that there has — at least, not on the publishing side of things. There are more works in translation coming out now than there were before, but that’s a pretty low bar: Only 11 translations from Chinese were published in book form in the U.S. last year. That was actually down from the heady days of 2011, when a whopping 12 books came out. Literature in translation is always a hard sell for publishers in the English-speaking world, and Chinese literature in English translation hasn’t yet found its Haruki Murakami, or Italo Calvino in terms of influence and cachet, let alone its Stieg Larsson in terms of sales.
Things have changed on the translation side, though: there are now quite a lot of native English speakers with good real-world Mandarin, probably more than at any point in the past, and this is a part of a much larger and more important shift. When I started studying Chinese in 1999, it was still kind of a weird language for an American to take up. The general public’s mental image of China was probably just about evenly split between Red Guards and Kung-Fu monks. It wasn’t a place that people thought, knew, or cared very much about, one way or the other. The US is still in the very early stages of awareness — to say nothing of knowledge and understanding — but as far as I’m concerned it’s only going to get better from here on out.
So anyway: things are still pretty dire on the Chinese-literature-in-English-translation front, but we’ve got a more diverse range of translators than ever before, and they are applying their talents to a wider range of Chinese authors. (Some of these authors are even girls!) There’s a hell of a lot more happening on the supply side these days than at any point in the past, and maybe even a little more than usual on the demand side as well — much of that coming from new magazines like Pathlight and Chutzpah which I know have come up on this blog before, and also Asymptote, a more generally translation-focused publication that’s also worth watching. Publishers continue to be the major obstacle, but something’s eventually going to have to give on that front, too.
And then this:
JW: Let’s turn to a different subject: the Nobel Prize. There are some who insist that Lu Xun should have been the first Chinese writer to win the award. Others have said that the honor should have gone to other authors who were active prior to 1949, such as Lao She. In the end, though, the first two to get it were Gao Xingjian, who was living in France as an exile by the time he won, and then, last year, Mo Yan, who is still based in his native country. You did a memorable post for the lively group blog Rectified.name about the early responses to the latter’s Nobel Prize win. Can you sum up for LARB readers who missed it what your main point was in that piece, which was discussed by many China specialists and also got caught the attention of Salon, which referred to it in its piece on the issue?
BO’K: A lot of people I generally admire and agree with (like Salman Rushdie and the China scholar Perry Link) or sympathize with (like Chinese writers in exile Liao Yiwu and Ma Jian) responded to the news of his win by accusing Mo Yan of being a state writer and an apologist for the Chinese government. Ai Weiwei did his usual thing of cursing a lot on Twitter; Meng Huang, a Chinese artist now based in Germany, struck a blow for freedom of speech by streaking outside the Nobel banquet hall in Stockholm. (Mo Yan didn’t really do himself any favors in his public remarks in Stockholm either, especially when he compared censorship in China to airport security protocols, in the sense of being an unavoidable inconvenience.) A lot of the commentary boiled down to “Mo Yan is a bad writer because Liu Xiaobo shouldn’t be in jail.”
I found the whole thing depressing and dispiriting, because this should not be an either/or proposition: Mo Yan didn’t send Liu Xiaobo to jail, and there is absolutely nothing he could say or do, up to and including getting the words “FREE LIU XIAOBO” tattooed on his bald pate, that would do one bit of good for Liu Xiaobo or anyone else in China. (This is especially clear given the Chinese government’s continued persecution of Liu’s brother in law Liu Hui, and the ongoing extrajudicial house arrest of Liu’s wife Liu Xia: the authorities are impervious to moral argument, and they have no shame.) Mo is a deputy chairman of the China Writers’ Association, which is to say that he has slightly less power, in actual terms, than your average deputy chairman at the National Endowment for the Arts in the US. Meanwhile, as much as we might wish otherwise, moral/political courage and literary merit are not the same thing — if writing bad poetry were a criminal offense, Liu Xiaobo would never see daylight again. So I wrote that post on Rectified.name in hopes of getting people to disentangle the two. Once you do that, and once you actually read Mo Yan’s books, I think you find that he’s a much sharper writer than he’s been given credit for. His books don’t make any kind of overt criticisms of the system — perhaps because he’s overly cautious; perhaps because he’s just not much interested in lifting his gaze from the village level — but they are all, in one way or another, about the human suffering created, perpetuated, and intensified by that system.
As for the question of who should or shouldn’t have gotten the Nobel: every now and then you’ll hear that Lao She had been in line for the Nobel before he was driven to suicide by Red Guards, or that Shen Congwen, another leading figure of that generation, was one phone call away from winning the Nobel at the time of his death. I’m not sure that these are any more truthful than the stories about how everyone in China might now be speaking Cantonese (or Shanghainese, or Sichuanese), but for a single vote. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Chinese author more important or influential than Lu Xun, to be sure, but I’d probably be on Team Lao She. Though if we’re allowed to pick any Chinese writer who was active in the Republican era (1912-1949), I’d rather see the award go posthumously to Qian Zhongshu, the author of Fortress Besieged — a genuinely world-class novel that unfortunately suffers badly in its current English translation.
Seriously—go read the whole thing now.