Mo Yan’s Jewish Interpreter
The D-student translator behind the Chinese winner of the Nobel Prize in literature
“They say translators are frustrated writers,” Howard Goldblatt explained as he waited impatiently in his blue stick-shift BMW behind a silver sedan. “I’m not a frustrated writer. I’m a frustrated Formula-1 driver.”
Goldblatt, 73, is the foremost Chinese-English translator in the world. Over the course of his almost 40-year career, he has translated more than 50 books, edited several anthologies of Chinese writings; received two NEA fellowships, a Guggenheim grant and nearly every other translation award. In the first four years of the Man Asian Literary Prize, three of the winners were translations by Goldblatt. John Updike, writing in The New Yorker, said that “American translators of contemporary Chinese fiction appear to be the lonely province of one man, Howard Goldblatt.”
Last month, the celebrated and prolific Chinese author Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and today he delivers his acceptance speech in Stockholm. Goldblatt translated almost all of Mo Yan’s novels into English and submitted a letter of nomination to the Nobel Prize Committee. NPR called Goldblatt at 5:00 in the morning with the news. He was delighted that the other Asian titan, Japanese author Haruki Murakami, who was heavily favored for the Nobel, didn’t win, when so many other Asian writers get so little attention in the West.
“I’ve reached a place that I have nothing to feel ashamed of,” Goldblatt explained after we had parked and were eating in a restaurant not far from the University of Notre Dame, where Goldblatt’s second wife and co-translator Sylvia Li-chun Lin teaches.
The prize was a strange culmination of sorts for Goldblatt, who became an translator by accident. Goldblatt lives in the town of South Bend in Indiana—a small pocket of wealth surrounded by basement churches and boarded-up storefronts. He and his wife share their red brick Queen Anne with a bossy, fat, black-and-white shelter cat named Orion. When I visited Goldblatt in October, his lawn was one of the few in the neighborhood to flaunt an Obama-Biden sign. An Ultra-Orthodox rabbi who teaches at the local yeshiva lives next door. Goldblatt said he gets along better with his hardcore Republican handyman who keeps a .38-caliber gun under his pillow than his bearded, religious neighbor who refused to shake his wife’s hand.
Initially, when I emailed him about the profile, he seemed bemused that anyone would be that interested in him. “What in the world could we talk about for several hours?” he asked.
Goldblatt was born in Long Beach, Calif., in 1939 to what he describes as a “super-low middle class” Jewish family. His father worked a variety of jobs from a jewelry seller to a watch repairman. Goldblatt’s grandfather had been wiped out by the Great Depression, so his father had a conservative streak.
“He risked nothing,” Goldblatt said. “We always had what we needed, but we never had what we didn’t need.” In school, Goldblatt was a failure. “I dated a lot; I drank a lot. I got D’s, C’s, and maybe an F.” He managed to get a degree from a local community college and, realizing that he’d be drafted anyway, signed up for officer school in the Navy. After completing his training, Goldblatt was sent to Taipei.
“I was like a 21-year-old guy set free in a harem,” he said with a laugh. “I had a good job; I worked for a three-star admiral. I was his communications guy. I was a junior officer. I had a wonderful time. I learned nothing; did nothing. I was almost amazingly stupid for the first 30 years of my life.”
When his stint was over in 1965, the signs of a war in Vietnam were becoming imminent. The Navy asked him to continue on; he agreed so long as he could go back to Taipei. This time, Goldblatt made better use of his time and began learning Chinese. He enrolled in Taiwan’s Normal Academy and met his first wife (they have two daughters who live in San Francisco: One is a concierge at a Boutique Hotel there, and the other, Goldblatt explained, is a wedding planner and a go-to-person for Asian-Jewish weddings and Asian same-sex weddings). During his time there he was given the Chinese name that he still goes by: Ge Heowen, which means “Vast Literary Talent.”
“It was the best name ever given to a foreigner,” he laughed.
When his father died in 1968, Goldblatt flew back home. He had no idea what to do with himself, and a former teacher recommended he go to graduate school. Only one graduate school accepted him: San Francisco State. After receiving his Master’s he pursued a doctorate at Indiana University. His focus was 14th-century Chinese drama, but he gradually broadened it to include modern Chinese literature as well.
Over the course of his studies, he fell in love with the work of a writer by the name of Xiao Hong, the pseudonym of Zhang Naiying. “I started translating because I had to translate some of the stuff I was using in the classes since it wasn’t available to English-speaking kids,” he said. Xiao Hong was the turning point. At the time of Goldblatt’s discovery, she was largely forgotten. Her life had been brief and tragic. Born in Manchuria in 1911; she fled an arranged marriage, but her fiancé found her, impregnated her, and then abandoned her. She narrowly avoided being sold as a prostitute by finding work at a newspaper and beginning to write stories. She became a disciple of Lu Xun, considered to be the father of Modern Chinese literature. While fleeing from the Japanese, she became ill and underwent unnecessary throat surgery that left her speechless before eventually killing her.
“She was my muse,” Goldblatt explained. “I wrote a lot of essays about her; I translated a couple of her novels.” At the end of her life, she wrote a novel and a sequel about a character by the name of Ma Bole, whose journeys in the book mirrored her own. “There was no question she wanted to make it a trilogy,” he said. Thanks to his efforts, Xiao Hong’s work has largely been rediscovered in China. Goldblatt hopes to write the concluding volume and have them all translated.
After earning his doctorate, Goldblatt returned to San Francisco State University, where he taught until 1989. He translated several books while teaching a full course load at San Francisco University. Often there was so little interest in Chinese writers that Goldblatt would give away his translations to small publishers for free. He began enjoying translating more and more.
“It’s like Bach,” Goldblatt said. “All of a sudden you say: ‘I could listen to him all day long.’ It just burrowed into the marrows of my bones. I loved doing translation.”
At the same time across the world, Guan Moye, a soldier in the Chinese army, began to write. Born in 1955 in the Shandong Province, the setting that he would fictionalize in all of his novels, he dropped out of school as a 10-year-old and took the only path out of poverty in rural China for a young man: He joined the army. He took the penname Mo Yan, Chinese for “Don’t Speak,” based on the advice his father gave him during the chaotic time of the Cultural Revolution.