Mo Yan’s “Frog” Reviewed: Call for Diversity among Chinese-to-English Translators

Frog by Mo YanIn Literary Prowess Lost, we have one of the first coherent — and highly critical — reviews of a modern novel translated from the Chinese in which the reviewer knows the source language and doesn’t shirk from calling out the translator on several points:

Without multiple translations of the same work, it’s impossible to adequately evaluate the author. To what extent Mo Yan writes in clichés or to what extent it’s a tic of the translator is not a judgment call that the average reader can make. This means that placing him alongside authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kundera, and Haruki Murakami is difficult. Although all of the authors are themselves presented to an Anglophone audience in translation, there are at least multiple translations available. In the case of Kundera, the imprecision of translation drove him to such despair that he spent years correcting the translations of his own work into the four languages he can read.

Both Mo Yan and Marquez have received the Nobel Prize for literature, while Kundera and Murakami are regularly tapped as potential winners (Murakami was odds on favorite to win the 2014 prize according to the British bookmaker Ladbrokes). What is important to note is that unlike the other denizens of magical realism, we only ever see Mo Yan’s work through the prism of Howard Goldblatt. In that case, it seems unfair to make a comparison and to evaluate his oeuvre. As Goldblatt himself noted in an interview with The LA Review of Books, “What the reader has in her hands is a facsimile of the original work.” We should therefore see multiple facsimiles, and then we can decide on Mo Yan’s true place within literature.

Literature is important in providing nuanced and divergent interpretations of a country so often rendered in stark black and white terms. Translating a country as vast and diverse as China to a wider audience may be Sisyphean, or it may be 精卫填海 (Jiangweitianhai) or like a bird trying to fill the ocean with pebbles. Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from the plurality of voices emerging from China today is not what separates our cultures, but how ontologically similar they are. For every Sisyphus and his bolder, there is a 精卫 and his pebbles.

It’s thus a sad systemic irony that many great novels from contemporary China, which are so crucial in providing a sounding board for the diversity of the Chinese experience, suffer from being the sole preserve of one translator. Until the field opens dramatically, much of what is being said will be lost in translation.

Ethnic ChinaLit Quote of the Week: Chi Zijian on Confusing Blood with Paint

有读者写信告诉我,他们读这个故事 [额尔古纳河右岸] 之前,压根儿没听说过这个民族。最初小说发表后,有评论说我虚构了一个不可能存在的部落,我的内心有说不出的痛楚。有时我们生活得太贫血了,所以当真正的鲜血喷溅时,竟以为那是油漆。


(Chi Zijian, author of Last Quarter of the Moon (额尔古纳河右岸), in a recent interview, 作品是需要长点皱纹的)

On the National People’s Congress Agenda: Hùkǒu Management for Future Dalai Lama

In Who Will Control Tibetan Reincarnation?, Evan Osnos at The New Yorker writes:

In Beijing this week, delegates to the National People’s Congress took a moment away from debating annual targets for consumer price inflation (3 per cent), unemployment (4.5 per cent), and cuts to carbon intensity (3.1 per cent), to reiterate their policy position on the migration of the soul.  Not any soul, to be precise: the soul of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan leader in exile, and those of other high-ranking Tibetan Buddhist lamas.

Padma Choling, the chairman of the Standing Committee of the Tibet Autonomous Regional People’s Congress, explained to reporters that the power to determine the future location and durability of the Dalai Lama’s spirit properly resides with the Communist Party in Beijing. “It’s not up to the Dalai Lama,” Padma said. For the current bearer of that soul to suggest anything else is “blasphemy against Tibetan Buddhism,” he added.

To read the full essay, click here.


Great Openers when Interviewing Winners of Nobel Prize for Literature

Orhan Pamuk was recently in Egypt to inaugurate the Cairo Literary Festival. Here’s the tail-end of the opening question to the Turkish Nobel laureate, put to him by Egyptian writer Mona Anis:

It is not that we want any vulgar Sisi-versus-Erdogan quote from you, but perhaps we can discuss your relationship with politics.

Which immediately made me think of an equally audacious open-ended question to pose to China’s new Nobel man, Mo Yan:

It is not that we want any vulgar quote equating literary censorship with an airport security check, but perhaps we can discuss your relationship with politics.

For the full — and very revealing — interview with Pamuk, check out Ottoman Culture in Disguise.


Ethnic ChinaLit Quote of the Week: Wang Meng Waxes Nostalgic about His Xinjiang

Wang Meng (right): Fond memories of Xinjiang when interethnic relations were warmer

Wang Meng (right): Fond memories of Xinjiang when interethnic relations were warmer

“王震在新疆主政时有这么一条政策:进入新疆的干部和战士,学会维吾尔语,通过考试的,行政级别一律提一级。这样的政策,让干部和官员沉下去, 能够和当地老百姓交流沟通,和当地的老百姓打成一片。今天,还有多少干部能够做到这一点?”

(Author Wang Meng (王蒙) questioning why Han cadres in Xinjiang don’t speak the local lingua nowadays as they (and he) did back in the 60s and 70s when he labored in Ili. An excerpt from  《个民族之间需要精神层面的 ‘混泥土’ 》, a promotional piece for a new film about his 16 years in Xinjiang,  《巴彦代》)

Three-body Problem’s Liu Cixin on Translation, Publication Timing and Readership Outside the English-speaking World

Chinese sci-fi writer Liu Cixin is on a high these days, and understandably so. His Three-body Problem (三体, 刘慈欣著) in English translation reportedly sold 20,000 copies within three months of launch, and he has already signed a Chinese movie contract. A few highlights from a Feb 12 interview in Chinese follow (西方读者好懂):

The Dark Forest, sequel to The Three-body Problem, due out in 3Q 2015

The Dark Forest, sequel to The Three-body Problem, due out in 3Q 2015

New gold standard for translator invisibility?

  • “The most commendable aspect is that while [translator] Ken Liu himself is also a sci-fi author, in translating my novel he absolutely did not utilize his own writing style; the style particularly resembles mine.” Unfortunately, the article neglects to mention whether Liu Cixin knows English.

Trilogy release dates: One volume a year?

  • Liu Cixin confirms that the publisher intends to launch the second volume of the trilogy in July this year, and save the last for 2016. The article notes that Ken Liu (刘宇昆) translated two of the three, and does not identify the other translator. Liu Cixin says he has not seen the other volume, but I assume it is The Dark Forest (above) by Beijing-based Joel Martinsen. For a synopsis of The Dark Forest, click here. 

French, German, Japanese and Spanish versions coming soon

  • But for Liu, these are apparently minor tongues. “Readers in these languages are very few in number, so I don’t expect that many copies will be sold.”

Reception in the West

  • “I think that readers in the West actually adapt more easily to dark depictions [of reality] in sci-fi novels than do readers in the East, and may even be more intrigued by them . . . I’ve read a large number of readers’ comments, and I’ve yet to discover one that faulted the tale for being overly dark.”

Yi Creation Epic Published in Korean, Based on “Reconstructed” Mandarin Version

The creation epic of the Yi people, Meige (梅葛), was translated and published in Korean in 2014 by Seoul-based 民俗苑, according to a news item from the bimonthly Forum on Folk Culture (彝族创世史诗《梅葛》在韩国出版). There are some 8 million Yi (彝族) living in China, Vietnam and Thailand, of which over 4.5 million reside in Yunnan Province.

As is so often the case in news relating to literature in the non-Han languages of China, the item neglects to mention salient details of the “original” text. It appears — I cannot confirm — that the Meige source text used for translation was in fact one published in Chinese in 1959 by Yunnan People’s Publishing House.

Given that there are two Yi scripts, one classical and one 20th century using the Latin alphabet, this begs the question: Why use a monolingual Chinese text to tell a primordial Yi tale?

The synopsis of a piece of scholarly research by National Chengchi University Dept. of Ethnology lecturer Huang Chi-ping (黃季平), Memories from Meige, the Epic Poem of Creation: Traditional Songs of Chuxiong Yi and Their Re-presentations, appears to explain the choice of Chinese, and points to its usefulness in promoting tourism: [Read more…]

Ethnic ChinaLit Briefs (Feb 11)

Shaanxi Fiction via French Comics
One of China’s best-selling, classic works of “rural fiction,” the White Deer Plain by Chen Zhongshi (白鹿原,陈忠实), has still not been translated into English, but is available in French (Au pays du cerf blanc) in a rendition by Manga-Au pays du cerf blancShao Baoqing and Solange Cruveillé. This month, the comics version (连环画, right) made its debut in French at the Angoulême Int’l Comics Festival. In an interview with Huashang Newspaper (正准备画贾平凹), artist Li Zhiwu (李志武) revealed that another famous Shaanxi author, Jia Pingwa, granted him the rights to render Shaanxi Opera (秦腔, 贾平凹著) in comics several years ago. Li says he is preparing to begin soon. For a discussion of why Jia Pingwa’s works have not appeared widely in English, see Low Profile in Translation. If you can read French, see a fascinating feature on Li Zhiwu and his illustrations by Brigitte Duzan, « Au pays du cerf blanc » : après le roman, la bande dessinée.  

Censorship Watch

Why did Islamic State’s jihadi recently seize and burn 2,000 books from the city library of Mosul, Iraq, instead of dousing them with acid or burying them? In Moussoul et les grands autdafés de l’Histoire, François Boespflug, Professor Emeritus at the University of Strasbourg, explains: [Read more…]

“Funeral of a Muslim”: Korean and Serbian Rights Purchased

Funeral of a Muslim by Huo DaWith sales of some 2.5 million copies, Funeral of a Muslim (穆斯林的葬礼,霍达著), Huo Da’s tale about three generations of a Hui family in Beijing, is quite possibly the most popular ethnic-themed novel ever published in China. It spans the turbulent years of the Japanese invasion, World War II and part of the Cultural Revolution.

I was commissioned by Eric Abrahamsen at Paper Republic to translate an English excerpt from this best seller. So I am happy to learn from Beijing October Art and Literature Publishing House that rights have been sold for two foreign-language editions: Wisdomhouse Publishing Co. Ltd has acquired the Korean rights, while Albatros Plus has done so for a Serbian edition.

For an English extract from Funeral of a Muslim and information on overseas rights, contact Mr. Han Jingqun, Chief Editor at Beijing October Art and Literature Publishing House, at

Here is a backgrounder on the novel: [Read more…]

Light Reading for Tibetans: “1984” and “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”

"1984" in Tibetan: But will readers on the Roof of the World recognize this is supposed to be fiction?

“1984” in Tibetan: But will readers on the Roof of the World recognize this is supposed to be fiction?

Orwell’s 1984 — in Tibetan (གཅིག་དགུ་གྱ་བཞི།, at left) — is now available in the PRC, confirms French Tibetologist Françoise Robin in an e-mail today. I assume it has the official stamp of approval, because it is published by the state-run Gansu Nationalities Publishing House, according to a news item in Tibetan (here). It was translated by Dorje Tseten (རྡོ་རྗེ་ཚེ་བརྟན་), who lives in the US. According to the report, he is currently translating Animal Farm.

Also published earlier in the same “Collection of Tibetan Translations of Famous Novels of the World” series was Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1962 grim novel of life in the Soviet gulag, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (tr. G. yang ‘bum rgyal གཡང་འབུམ་རྒྱལ།).

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that China’s literary translation policy has indeed been undergoing some major changes of late. Earlier largely uni-directional translation — read from Han Chinese into various other languages of China — has evolved into a markedly more multi-directional approach. That means more fiction by non-Han writers is getting translated into Chinese, and more international writing is appearing in Uyghur, Mongolian, Tibetan, etc.

Other examples of English and French literature recently published in Tibetan: [Read more…]