Last semester, one of my favorite class periods was the one in which we talked with Harold Goldblatt about his translation, especially his translation of Mo Yan’s Pow!. One of the great moments was when I asked him how many books he had translated and he honestly wasn’t sure. “Something around 50-55, I think.”
One of my favorite moments of BookExpo America was hanging out with Stephen Sparks, who is one of the coolest and smartest booksellers out there, and a great Best Translated Book Award judge.
So here, thanks to the Los Angeles Review of Books are the two of them together.
Stephen Sparks: You just about stumbled into translating Chinese. Can you tell us a little bit about your history with the language and how coming to it accidentally has shaped your work, if at all?
Howard Goldblatt: Truth be told, I’ve stumbled into nearly every aspect of my relationship with China and the Chinese language. Had I been sent to sea directly from Naval OCS during the early phase of the Vietnam War, like my classmates, instead of Taiwan, none of the rest of my life would have turned out remotely as it did. Had I been accepted into any graduate program in Chinese other than the only one that grudgingly let me in the door, I’d not have chosen a thesis topic that led to my discovery of a writer, Xiao Hong, practically no one had heard of at the time, who is now one of the giants of the period, and who put me on the map, as it were. And since none of her work was available in English, I ventured into the field of translation and haven’t stopped since. My critical biography of her (in Chinese) and rendering of her masterwork, Tales of Hulan River, are still in print, 40 years later. Then, “affirmative action” got me a job at that same university in a department that, untill that time, was comprised solely of native speakers of Chinese. Finally, Nieh Hualing, who, with her husband, poet Paul Engle, ran the Iowa Writers Workshop, stumbled upon my translation and recommended me to translate a novel for a large commercial press. I’ve had lots of help along the way and more than a little luck; my indebtedness to those factors manifests itself in my passion (some might call it obsession) for translating literary texts — mainly fiction — from Chinese. I simply cannot think of a single thing I’d rather be doing professionally. [. . .]
SS: You’ve said, without arrogance, that anyone who reads Mo Yan in English is reading Howard Goldblatt. How do you define what a translator does? And how does your understanding of translation relate to your characterization of translators as being eternally apologetic?
HG: I still find it baffling that a reviewer of a translation can credit or fault the author of a book for good/bad writing. It’s probably wrong to do that with the translator as well, though they are her words, since unless the reviewer knows the original language, he cannot be sure where the merit/fault lies. On behalf of literary translators everywhere, let me declare that we have nothing to apologize for, save screwing up a translation and, maybe, the occasional bad choice of what to translate. And yet, some outlets continue to omit translators’ names in published reviews, leading a reader to assume that the work was written in English, and it has taken years to get publishers to prominently display the fact that what the reader has in her hands is a facsimile of the original work. Whenever I begin to question my role in the literary process, I pull out my copy of Robert Wechsler’s book, Performing without a Stage, for encouragement. He reminds us not only of the perils we face (“There is no such thing as a good translator.” I.B. Singer) but, importantly, the signal service we provide (“Translation is a more advanced stage of civilization.” Borges). One question I’m often asked is for whom I translate — the author or the reader. While the choice is more nuanced than that, my answer never varies. The author wrote for his readers, and that is for whom I translate.
There are some prizes given to translated fiction — the American PEN Center award, the Best Translated Book Award, the Man Asian Prize (also available to works written in English), the Dublin IMPAC Prize, and more. But the only U.S. prize in which the translation is first checked for accuracy is the Translation of the Year Award from the American Literary Translators Association. That means that the other prizes are given for the book, not the translation, since the judges cannot know if in fact the translators have done their job well; I served as a judge for one of the PEN contests, in which a great many languages were included, while we judges were competent in three or four. I loved the book we chose, but to this day can state only that the translation read well. [. . .]
SS: How has translation changed for you as your understanding of Chinese culture and literary practices deepened?
HG: The obvious assumption would be that the process has become smoother, more comfortable, more internalized, while in fact my progression has had a somewhat unsteadying effect; maybe it’s a case of “the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know.” Or maybe my self-imposed standards have gotten more demanding. I don’t seek perfection; I just try to ensure that my renderings are, in the end, better than anyone else’s could be. And when I fail, I grieve (that’s a bit dramatic, I know). In a recent review of a novel by Mo Yan, which the reviewer absolutely hated (she too is a novelist, a breed that as often as not seems to hate other people’s novels), she loved the English title, which was not a literal translation of the Chinese, but a homonym of part of it, but then raked me over the coals for 1) exoticizing the text (she wanted me to use “Mum” and “Dad” for “Dieh” and “Niang” — to each her own, I say), and 2) for the descriptive “sick turtle.” Why, she asked, didn’t I simply say “stupid prick”? And she was right; what was I thinking? A bad stumble, in my mind. I don’t mind so much when I make a mistake; we all do that, authors included. What I hate is fouling a work by translating words and missing their impact or intent or tone. That would not have bothered me 20 years ago, at least not as much as it does now. In some respects, experience has been a boon, in that I’ve learned how to negotiate treacherous semantic waters with the confidence to simply bow to realities and move on when I encounter untranslatable items.
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