7 April 14 | Chad W. Post

Today’s entry in the “Why This Book Should Win” series is from Jonathan Stalling, an Associate Professor of English at Oklahoma University specializing in Modern-Contemporary American and East-West Poetics, Comparative Literature, and Translation Studies. He is also the co-founder and deputy editor-in-chief of Chinese Literature Today magazine and book series.

Howard Goldblatt’s translation of Sandalwood Death by Mo Yan is nothing short of astonishing. With over three dozen volumes of Chinese fiction in translation to his credit, Howard Goldblatt is widely considered one of the most prolific and influential translators of our time. Authors he has translated include a wide range of twentieth-century novelists and major figures of the post-Mao era. In 1999, his translation of Notes of a Desolate Man (with Sylvia Lin) by Chu Tien-wen was selected as Translation of the Year by the American Literary Translators Association. Three of his recent translations—Wolf Totem (Jiang Rong), The Boat to Redemption (Su Tong), and Three Sisters (Bi Feiyu, also with Sylvia Lin)—have won the Man Asian Literary Prize. He has received two translation grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and, in 2009, a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is the only English-language translator of Mo Yan, who won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature. Yet Sandalwood Death marks a new level of accomplishment for Goldblatt because of its complex aural formalism and this is why it deserves to win this prize. Sandalwood Death was written in the form of an opera and has long been considered one of Mo Yan’s most ambitious work—the famously speedy and prolific writer took over five years to complete the book. Set in turn-of-the-century China at the dawn of the boxer Rebellion, Sandalwood Death explores the violent intersection of unstoppable global forces on the scale of vulnerable, individual lives. The novel—part thriller, part love story—weaves together several strands of a single family: Sun Meiniang is the daughter of Sun bing, a well-known folk opera star and a leader of the boxer Rebellion in Gaomi County in Shandong, Mo Yan’s ancestral home. Sun Meiniang’s father-in-law, Zhao Jia, is the Empire’s most accomplished state executioner, a master of the killing arts (he claims to have cut off more than 1,000 heads) who is called to perform a ritualized execution of Sun bing so viscerally precise and grisly it must be read to be believed. As an allegory of the dismemberment of the Qing Dynasty body politic itself, Mo Yan’s tour-de-force exploration of the public spectacle of executions is carried out on the most intimate level, deeply affecting characters that readers can both identify with and feel a great deal for.

While reviews of Sandalwood Death have marveled at the novel’s powerful narrative, few have explored how Mo Yan’s novel skillfully assumes the form of a Shandong folk opera. Most chapters open with formal arias with metered and rhymed language which Goldblatt translates faithfully capturing both the aural and semantic sinews that anchor each chapter into the operatic whole. In the chapter “Divine Altar,” the narrator’s voice weaves in and out of the protagonist’s plaintive and wrathful singing. In this climatic chapter, we find Sun bing, a famous Cat Opera performer, in shock after having witnessed the gruesome murder of his wife and most of his children at the hands of German soldiers. Climbing down from a tree on the far side of a river, he takes up a club and plunges into a fierce opera virtuoso rendered masterfully by translator Howard Goldblatt, who follows the original Chinese operatic form with such care that the chapter could be performed out loud. Just as in the Chinese original, Mo Yan’s narration continues in the standard font while Sun bing’s fierce Sprechgesang (a form of intonation between speaking and singing) is rendered in italics: “He struck out with his club, pointing east and striking west, pointing south and hitting north, shattering bark. Willows wept. You German devils! You, you, you cruelly murdered my wife and butchered my children~~this is a blood debt that will be avenged—bong bong bong bong bong—Clang cuh-lang clang Only revenge makes me a man. 德国鬼子啊! 你你你杀妻灭子/好凶残~~这血海深仇/一定要报——咣咣咣咣咣——里格咙格/里格咙——咙要报—/非儿男.” From the meaningless vocables (indicating folk opera instrumentation) to the rhythm and rhyme, the English carries the vitality of the original. In short, this is a stunning translation of a historic novel.

Most translators of Chinese poetry shy away from the challenge of replicating such formal elements, but Goldblatt does so consistently through this 500 page novel which marks it as not only one of the great translations from the Chinese in recent times, but one of the great translations of our time.


Comments are disabled for this article.
....
My Brilliant Friend
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Reviewed by Acacia O'Connor

It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .

Read More >

Stealth
Stealth by Sonallah Ibrahim
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

From the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Egypt was going through a period of transition. The country’s people were growing unhappy with the corruption of power in the government, which had been under British rule for decades. The Egyptians’. . .

Read More >

Miruna, a Tale
Miruna, a Tale by Bogdan Suceavă
Reviewed by Alta Ifland

Miruna is a novella written in the voice of an adult who remembers the summer he (then, seven) and his sister, Miruna (then, six) spent in the Evil Vale with their grandfather (sometimes referred to as “Grandfather,” other times as. . .

Read More >

Kamal Jann
Kamal Jann by Dominique Eddé
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

Kamal Jann by the Lebanese born author Dominique Eddé is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. It is a well-told story of revenge and, what’s more, a serious novel that. . .

Read More >

I Called Him Necktie
I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

While looking back at an episode in his life, twenty-year-old Taguchi Hiro remembers what his friend Kumamoto Akira said about poetry.

Its perfection arises precisely from its imperfection . . . . I have an image in my head. I see. . .

Read More >

Return to Killybegs
Return to Killybegs by Sorj Chalandon
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

The central concern of Sorj Chalandon’s novel Return to Killybegs appears to be explaining how a person of staunch political activism can be lead to betray his cause, his country, his people. Truth be told, the real theme of the. . .

Read More >

The Last Days
The Last Days by Laurent Seksik
Reviewed by Peter Biellp

Spoiler alert: acclaimed writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Lotte kill themselves at the end of Lauren Seksik’s 2010 novel, The Last Days.

It’s hard to avoid spoiling this mystery. Zweig’s suicide actually happened, in Brazil in 1942, and since then. . .

Read More >

Selected Stories
Selected Stories by Kjell Askildsen
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

To call Kjell Askildsen’s style sparse or terse would be to understate just how far he pushes his prose. Almost nothing is explained, elaborated on. In simple sentences, events occur, words are exchanged, narrators have brief thoughts. As often as. . .

Read More >

Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories
Letter from an Unknown Woman and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

After a mysterious woman confesses to an author simply known as “R” that she has loved him since she was a teenager, she offers the following explanation: “There is nothing on earth like the love of a child that passes. . .

Read More >

Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage
Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
Reviewed by Will Eells

Floating around the internet amid the hoopla of a new Haruki Murakami release, you may have come across a certain Murakami Bingo courtesy of Grant Snider. It is exactly what it sounds like, and it’s funny because it’s true,. . .

Read More >

The next few events from our Translation Events Calendar: See More Events >