Annelise Finegan Wasmoen is an editor and a literary translator. She is pursuing a PhD in Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis.
Daniel Medin teaches at the American University of Paris, where he helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators and is Associate Series Editor of The Cahiers Series.
The Last Lover – Can Xue, Translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, China
Yale University Press
1. How did you discover Can Xue’s fiction? What led you to want to translate this book?
Prosaically enough, I discovered Can Xue’s writing in the same place that so many others have, in a classroom. I doubt there’s a survey of modern Chinese literature that doesn’t include her short story “Hut on the Mountain.” It was immediately clear she was working at a level of experimentation that was on a different plane than her contemporaries, pushing the boundaries of fiction toward something else entirely.
With The Last Lover, it was less a matter of being led to translate the book than leaping at the opportunity to do so. I met Can Xue through Jonathan Brent, then editorial director of Yale University Press, where I worked as an assistant editor in 2007–08; he shared a sample chapter of my translation with the author and the rest went smoothly enough. What kept me translating was the incredible intricacy of the text: the novel yields new insights even after a dozen readings.
2. Anything that a new reader of Can Xue should know before diving in?
When you asked me to speak with your Contemporary World Literature class earlier this spring, one of the students asked the perfect question: is it better to try to make sense of The Last Lover while reading it, or to wait until the end? Wait to the end, if you can. Can Xue’s style of writing tends to resist immediate attempts at sense-making, but to read her fiction carefully, especially in the longer form of a novel, is to realize that there are intricate patterns and motifs woven through the text.
To the extent that there is an overarching narrative, The Last Lover begins in the West and by its end several characters have journeyed to the East, whether in dreams or in person. The primary setting is an unspecified Country A, which some readers have taken to indicate a generalized Occident, and others to be an image of America. But it’s America in the sense of Kafka’s Amerika, where the Statue of Liberty holds a sword. You can see how this might be a sort of commentary. The characters have names drawn from many different languages and cultures, with reversals of first and last names as well. The novel features three central couples—Joe and Maria (who have a son, Daniel), Vincent and Lisa, Reagan and Ida—with each chapter focusing on one of these figures.
A self-reflexive theme of reading follows the character Joe, who fails to separate the world of fiction from the world that surrounds him. Here’s a passage from the book about Joe’s reading:
The next day Joe took off from work. He began reading a book with only one page. The book was clothbound, with a drawing of a tall pine tree on the cover. Inside there was a single thick sheet of paper. This sheet could be unfolded to the length of the desk. The picture on the cover appeared to be of an anthill. The periphery of the anthill was densely written over with a miniature text, visible only under a magnifying glass. And once Joe looked with the glass, he discovered that he didn’t recognize a single word.
Then the book starts flapping around the room, then the room starts shaking, then there is an invasion of doves, etc.
The theme of love, too, pervades the novel, although in many ways The Last Lover explores how people are constantly moving away from each other through space and time, both real and imagined. As the distance between the book’s central couples increases, their communication deepens. These forms of communication from afar seem to echo the novel’s central parable about reading.
Finally, there is an interpolation of national history, namely the recurring reference to the 1930s Long March. Although technically the Long March was a very long tactical retreat, it allowed for the consolidation of the Communist Party at Yan’an; it began as a historical event and became a myth of national origins. Within the novel, several of the characters undergo an inner long march, which takes place in the middle of the night, in a not-quite-dream-state, and is associated with the characters Lisa and Maria. Luding Bridge, the site of a central battle during the Long March, also appears at several key moments.
Of course it’s up to the reader to parse and process these various elements—the journey from West to East, the theme of love and communication at a distance, the personal long march—but I hope that outlining them in this way might give hope to someone approaching Can Xue’s fiction for the first time.
For a reader who prefers a naturalizing or domesticating style, the translation might be difficult. Can Xue refers to her writing as having an inner mechanism, which sounds mysterious, but there is an associative logic that runs through all of her fiction. Since it was important to follow this associative logic that relates certain words or images to each other, I chose a translation style that kept as much consistency as possible, retaining correlations instead of attempting to achieve a natural flow. This was in the service of leaving the reader in English with the same interpretative leeway as the reader of the original, which is a risky sort of thing. This was the first novel I translated, and in other translations I’ve gone in the other direction, but this specific text seemed to call for an extreme level of fidelity: translate everything; explain nothing.
For example, in the fourth chapter, there is a “so-called greenhouse,” a large empty room with small windows and dim lighting. There are earthen bowls arrayed on the ground with coarse sand and seeds in them. The gardener holds a seed and says, “Look, it’s already burst open, but the shoots inside can’t get out. All the seeds here are in the same condition. The flowers open inside of dreams. … the seeds still keep this shape, neither sprouting nor decaying.” The flowers that bloom from these seeds appear at other places in the novel: the character Lisa looks at a tapestry and “there floated up in her mind the red sun of an early morning in the gambling city, where sprouting seeds, exhausted from a long night of breaking through, struggled out.” There is a family whose rosebushes bloom year-round, become electrified, and are uprooted by the son, whom his father has dreamed of as a body with a rose for its head. These examples are scattered across the book, available for excavation, but might be lost in the translation if any of the individual elements were disrupted: the bowls, the seeds, the flowers.
3. The Last Lover is the second novel by Can Xue to appear in English. Unlike Five Spice Street, which appeared in English in 2009 but actually dates to 1988, it’s a fairly recent work (2005). How would you distinguish her recent books from the earlier ones? In what ways has her writing changed over the course of her career?
Can Xue is perhaps best known for her mastery of the short story: condensed meditations on a single theme, an expanded metaphor, an unnerving turn of events, a strange interaction. In recent years she has been undertaking more novel-length projects, which, remarkably, maintain the same sort of intensity but at an exponential degree of complexity. To me, it seems that the experiments with longer forms mark a key development in her approach to writing.
4. Could you point out one of your favorite passages in The Last Lover, and tell us what you like about (translating) it?
Definitely the last chapter. Toward the end of the novel (spoilers), the character Joe disappears into the world of his stories and his wife discovers this world embodied in a forest of books. As I mentioned before, much of the novel treats of separation. Here, there is a moment of joy in rediscovering family bonds, worked across the literalized metaphor of the forest of books.
That night Maria went to the study because she couldn’t sleep. Although she hadn’t turned on the light, she could see that Joe’s bookcases had turned into a dark forest of books. The books had grown large, one book set next to another vertically on the floor, the pages of the books opening and closing.
Maria touched the enormous book pages with a shaking finger. She touched one after another of the letters protruding from the pages, and those letters jumped slightly, giving off electricity. Suddenly she comprehended the book’s meaning. The book told of an ancient, deserted beach. Someone climbed onto the bank from the sea. Sea birds cried ominously in the air. “That man is Joe,” Maria spoke quietly. Then her finger touched the word “Joe.” “Joe, is it you?” she asked.
Over several decades of uninterrupted reading, her Joe had created this forest. And he hadn’t removed her from it. Once she entered, she blended into this place. In the su su rustling sound made by the pages, a world of writing appeared in her mind. She realized that for many years everything she’d woven was this writing. So familiar, so pleasing—was this happiness? She began to walk from one book to another. Dry leaves made noise under her feet; her feet touched a few small stones; she even heard the song of a nightingale. It was inside the pages of the largest book, singing and then pausing.
There was a dim light in the forest of books, but when Maria looked up she couldn’t see the sky. Was there even a sky? There were grass, stones, a path, and she heard water flowing from a spring. But the air was filled with the fine smell of old books. This was Joe’s story. This story belonged to her, forever. Maria’s heart was full of gratitude. She pricked her ears, awaiting the nightingale’s singing again.
She waited till it sang, but it wasn’t one call, it was many, many calls. One rising as another fell.
The very close of the novel turns quite dark again, ending on an intensely powerful image.
From the New York Times Arts Blog:
James Joyce’s fiendishly difficult novel “Finnegans Wake” has been called many things since it first began appearing in portions in 1924, including “the most colossal leg-pull in literature,” “the work of a psychopath,” and “the chief ironic epic of our time.”
Now, it can add another designation: best seller in China.
A new translation of the novel has sold out its initial print run of 8,000 since it appeared on Dec. 25, thanks in part to an unusual billboard campaign in major Chinese cities, The Associated Press reported. In Shanghai, where the book was advertised on 16 billboards, sales were second only to a new biography of Deng Xiaoping in the “good books” category, according to the Shanghai News and Publishing Bureau.
The book’s surprise success has drawn some clucking from Chinese observers (how do you say “coffee table trophy” in Mandarin?). But at a panel on Tuesday, the translator, Dai Congrong of Fudan University, who spent nearly 10 years wrestling with Joyce’s runaway sentences and knotty coinages, confessed that even she didn’t fully understand the book. “I would not be faithful to the original intent of the novel if my translation made it easy to comprehend,” she said.
Also in today’s N.Y. Times is a story about the newspaper reporter Xu Lai, who was stabbed at a recent reading:
Mr. Xu was accosted in a restroom by two men who stabbed him in the stomach and then threatened to cut off his hand before fleeing, according to the friends and fellow bloggers who posted the news on the Internet.
Xiao Sanlang, who edits Mr. Xu’s articles at The Beijing News, said the men had announced that they were “here to take revenge.” He said Mr. Xu remained in the hospital on Sunday, but his wounds were not life-threatening. “We still don’t know why it happened,” he said.
Xu Lai has written critically of the Chinese government for his online columns, and this attack has some people worried about a “growing intolerance of dissent.”
A side-observation about this attack is just how twenty-first century the coverage is:
After Mr. Xu’s stabbing, several audience members chased his attackers into the street, snapping pictures with their cellphones as they ran, but the two men escaped. [. . .]
Word of the attack quickly spread by text message and the Twitter messaging service, and several newspapers and Web sites carried the news on Sunday.
Paper Republic has an interesting post about the politics of translation as related to the censorship of Obama’s inaugural address in China.
From The Star
U.S. President Barack Obama’s inauguration speech has a little twist in translations available on some Chinese websites where his references to communism and dissent have been cut.
“Recall that earlier generations faced down communism and fascism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions,” Obama said in his 18-minute inauguration address on Tuesday. [. . .]
In the translations available on top Chinese portals Sina, Sohu, the word “communism” is omitted and the paragraph on dissent was gone.
Serve the People! is the story of Wu Dawang, a peasant from the countryside who has joined the Red Army, and who, after distinguishing himself in his division as a politically proper soldier, has achieved the relatively privileged rank of Sergeant of the Catering Squad. Wu Dawang is assigned to be General Orderly for the Division Commander, meaning he keeps house and cooks meals for the Division Commander and his wife, the alluring 32-year-old military nurse, Liu Lian.
Shortly after the opening of the novel, the Division Commander, an older man whose first marriage ended in divorce, takes an extended leave from Wu Dawang, Liu Lian, and his Division—his presence is required at a military conference, where he will spend the next two months drafting plans to modernize and streamline the Red Army.
While he’s away, Liu Lian, lonely, bored, married to an older, impotent man, attempts to seduce Wu Dawang, but Wu Dawang’s sense of military order and thoughts of his wife and child—who remain in the countryside awaiting Wu Dawang’s promotion to officialdom and life in a Chinese city—cause him to hesitate:
Wu Dawang also decided not to go straight to bed. He wound his way around those companionable clusters of drinkers to the deserted, southernmost end of the ground. There he sat, alone. To any casual observer, this deep moonlight contemplation might have suggested an inquiry into the fundamentals of existence, into the ethics of love, desire and revolution, into the conflict between honour and self-interest, into duty and hierarchy, human nature and animal instinct. But in reality these thorny abstractions slipped by him like smoke, leaving behind only two considerations: one, Liu Lian’s extraordinarily seductive body; and two, the probable consequences of entering into the kind of relations that she seemed to be proposing, and the Division Commander finding out. The simple but powerful blade of his mind stripped the issues of all complexity, leaving only these two principal contradictions. Meditating on the former, he was lost in blissful daydreams; thoughts of the latter called up the terrifying presentiment that just around the next corner of his life an execution ground awaited.
Eventually, Wu Dawang gives in to Liu Lian’s advances, and they begin a torrid affair that threatens not only Wu Dawang’s life and Liu Lian’s marriage, but the entire Division as well.
Yan Lianke’s book has caused something of a scandal in China. Serve the People! was originally published in a magazine, where it drew the attention of the Central Propaganda Bureau, who demanded that the entire print run, some 30,000 copies, be recalled and destroyed; the book has since been banned there, as have several other of Lianke’s novels. This translation even uses that fact as a marketing hook, printing some text from the Central Propaganda Bureau’s ruling—it “slanders Mao Zedong, the Army and is overflowing with sex”—on the back of the book.
The novel definitely does all of those things, and you can see why, were you a member of a censorship board in China, it might be banned. However, much of the impact of what was scandalous in its original context—the sex, poking fun at Mao Zedong thought, Mao Zedong’s iconography, the Cultural Revolution, and the naive sloganeering of the average Red Army soldier, and Liu Lian and Wu Dawang’s abuse of the “Serve the People” slogan—is lost on Western readers. These are things, after all, which aren’t sacred cows for any of us. So, once the glamorous glow of the forbidden and titillating is stripped away, what’s left of Serve the People! is an apparently straightforward story of forbidden love, for at least the first two-thirds of the novel, anyway.
And much of that first two-thirds feels pretty familiar, which left me wanting Lianke to just get Wu Dawang and Liu Lian together, so he could get on with the rest of his story. Anyone who has seen a romantic comedy and gets to the part when misunderstandings-or-outside-forces-are-temporarily-driving-
satisfying knows what I’m talking about, but in this case with a lot more sex once they get together.
Once he gets them together however, Lianke’s story does take on a more elegiac and, to me at least, far more interesting tone. And the book does have a few powerful moments toward the end, when the current of criticism that runs through the plot—how constricting these communist slogans, once internalized, have become, and how they are used and twisted by all and sundry just to get by—affects the plot and the characters most directly and more deeply.
Serve the People!
by Yan Lianke
Translated from the Chinese by Julia Lovell
Paperback, 216 pages, $14.00
Black Cat, a paperback original imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
The world’s most populous nation, the world’s biggest consumer of raw materials, and now the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, China strides irresistibly towards its economic and political destiny. But as Beijing prepares for its Olympic extravaganza this summer, the cultural life of the 1.3 billion people who live and work in this economic superpower remains a closed book to many in the west – their bestselling authors unfamiliar, their most exciting writers untranslated.
We’ve done some thinking about China—it’s a huge oversight to miss out on publishing a book from a country of 1.5 billion people—but, based on the article, the publishing industry there sounds even more complicated that Japan’s, which is almost indescribable.
This is at least partly because of the unique constitution of the Chinese publishing industry. “Officially, publishing is still an activity reserved to the state. So unlike, say, printing or bookselling, no private or foreign direct participation is allowed,” explains Richardson. There are some 570 state publishing houses, which until recently were insulated from the vicissitudes of the market. “Now they are ‘cultural enterprises’, are expected to become financially independent and are allowed to compete in each others’ patches.”
As always in China, Richardson continues, “things are more complicated than they would appear at an official level”. Alongside the state houses are “cultural studios”, private publishers that supply creative input for the state houses (which is legal), or simply buy ISBNs and publish themselves (which is not). “Meanwhile foreign publishers also cannot participate directly, but all the major international publishing companies have some form of representation in China and many have worked out forms of co-operation with Chinese partners that get under the wire.”
We won’t give up, but it’s an uphill battle—and that’s not considering all the other hurdles in making something like this happen. China is the guest of honor at Frankfurt in 2009 (It’s sad to say we’ll be waiting this long to find a book from China to publish. I hope it’s not the case.) and we’ll definitely find a book (or two or three) at the fair.
Full-Tilt, “a journal of East Asian, poetry, translation and the arts”, which is completely new to me (and I guess everyone else, as this is their second issue), has an interview with Howard Goldblatt. The issue features several other interviews with translators as well.
Howard Goldblatt has all but single-handedly introduced contemporary Chinese-language literature to the English-speaking world. With over thirty volumes of Chinese fiction in translation to his name as well as several memoirs and a volume of poetry in translation, Goldblatt continually seeks out new talent to introduce to English-speaking readers while maintaining a commitment to more established writers. His shortlist of literary translations reads like a “Who’s Who” of important contemporary authors from China and Taiwan.
He has some interesting things to say about the art of translation (I’m tempted to quote so much more, but follow the link for the good stuff):
What are some of the problems specific to translating from Chinese into English?
Not knowing Chinese well enough, not knowing English well enough. Actually, not knowing Chinese well enough isn’t a big problem—you can always ask someone. You can ask your author, you can ask your friends. No, the thing that’s really killing translation in our field is literalism. Too many translators are afraid of the text, especially when they’re first starting out. And I understand that, because I was too. They’re all afraid of the text. You need to overcome your fear of the text, put some distance between you and it. You have to because Chinese and English are so different. Take the use of the passive voice, for example, which just runs through the Chinese language. Five different agents for the passive voice! We only have one. And the Chinese use it all the time. It is part of the language, part of the way they express themselves. But if you use it that much in English—God!
So how do you handle linguistic problems like this?
My watchword is: did the Chinese writer write it that way for a particular purpose or did his language dictate it be that way? If it’s the latter, then I put it into whatever my language dictates it should be. If I assume that it’s idiosyncratic, that the author was trying to defamiliarize the text, to slow the reader down, then I try very much to capture that.
via the ALTA blog.
Dukou Bookstore in Shanghai sounds like a fun place to browse:
Most books here are about urban life, architecture and literature. Unlike most bookstores, books here are not categorized. Instead they are randomly shelved. According to Xiao, there is a bond between the reader and the book, and categorizing the books would jeopardize this relationship.
Some of the other “concept bookstores” featured in the China Daily article sound interesting as well. Although there’s nothing like random shelving to create a unique experience . . .
The July-August issue of World Literature Today—a special issue entitled “Inside China”—is now out, with some of the articles available online.
It’s interesting to me that WLT is focusing on China. Recently, PEN America/Ramon Llull Institut released a special study on Globalization and Translation that included statistics on the number of books translated into English from around the world. As part of the study (which should be available online sometime soon, and when it is, we’ll definitely link to it), there were “Case Studies” from a number of different countries. Including China, which had this chilling statistic:
According to the national statistics, China produces about 110,000 new titles per year. [. . .] But the number of those new titles that were translated into other languages, as far as can be told from an extensive Internet search, was less than 100 titles for 2003. This means about 0.01% of Chinese books are being translated into other languages.
After hearing awful insular statistic after isolationist statistic, I didn’t think anything could shock me. But 0.01%?! Less than 100 titles translated into all other languages throughout the world! The only bright side is that there must be a ton of interesting Chinese titles available for an ambitious press to find . . .
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We know so very little; so little that what we think to be knowledge is hardly worth reckoning with at all; instead we ought to settle for being pleasantly surprised if, on the edge of things, against all expectations, our. . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .