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Mo Yan’s Jewish Interpreter

The D-student translator behind the Chinese winner of the Nobel Prize in literature

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Mo Yan and Howard Goldblatt. (Photoillustration Ivy Tashlik; original photos AFP/GettyImages and Michael Orbach)

“My father and mother told me not to speak outside,” he said at a forum at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2011. “If you speak outside, and say what you think, you will get into trouble. So, I listened to them and did not speak.”

Being one of the few literate soldiers, Mo Yan was paid to write.

Goldblatt found one of his stories in a 1985 anthology of Chinese writers. Sitting in his French-style living room, Goldblatt was unable to recall which story it was, however the story struck him as one of the first really authentic Chinese stories he’d read after the country’s disastrous Cultural Revolution. Mo Yan’s writing harked back to earlier modes of Chinese folktales.

“They weren’t new in Chinese literature; they were new in modern Chinese literature,” Goldblatt said.

Months later, when Goldblatt visited Taipei a friend handed him a magazine with an excerpt of Mo Yan’s Garlic Ballads. The book, an unflinching chronicle of a failed insurrection in a village, was initially banned in China, according to Goldblatt. Goldblatt sent a letter to Mo Yan, addressed simply to “Mo Yan, Peking” and the two began a correspondence that culminated in a translation of both The Garlic Ballads and Red Sorghum, which became a 1987 film by renowned director Zhang Yimou, starring Gong Li.

When he was asked about Mo Yan, Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy that gave the Nobel Prize, recommended The Garlic Ballads. “[Mo Yan] writes about the peasantry,” Englund said. “There is a strong moral core of ordinary people struggling to survive, struggling for their dignity. Sometimes winning but most of the time losing.”

In 1989, Goldblatt left San Francisco State for the University of Colorado. He retired in 2000 and married Li-chun Lin. (“It was easier than asking her out,” he said.) Goldblatt focused solely on translating and produced books at an astonishing rate. He continued translating Mo Yan: The Republic of Wine in 2000; Big Breasts & Wide Hips in 2005; and Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out in 2006; along with a short-story collection in 1999. Two more novels with Goldblatt’s translations have just come out: Pow!, this month, and Sandalwood Death, last November.

The harsh realism of Mo Yan’s writing turned into a kind of supernatural lyricism, or what the Nobel Prize Committee called “hallucinatory realism.” In Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, the narrator becomes, in turn, a donkey, a pig, a dog, and a monkey before finally morphing into a small big-headed boy. Goldblatt likens Mo Yan to the American author William Faulkner but says the writer’s main influence is traditional Chinese fables.

The prize was not without its share of controversy. Days after the award, writing in the New York Times, translator Jeffrey Yang and author Larry Siems accused Mo Yan of being a party hack and criticized the lack of support he’s shown for other dissident Chinese writers. “Throughout his life he has done little to jeopardize his status as one of the country’s most honored writers; he is currently vice chairman of the state-run Chinese Writers Association,” they wrote.

Goldblatt didn’t mince words about his thoughts on the article. “It was shallow, knee-jerk, and wrong-headed,” he said over a plate of beet salad. “I like Yang, but his expectations were that Mo Yan should come out and tell the officials in China that they should take a flying fuck. You don’t do that if you want to continue living and writing in China. You can do it there; in Israel, in a lot of places you can, but you can’t do that there.” Goldblatt continued, “What Mo Yan had going against him is that the government really loved the idea of him winning [the prize].”

While Yang and Siems see Mo Yan as being silent, Goldblatt instead sees a subtle, sophisticated critique of the Chinese government throughout Mo Yan’s writing. Early in our conversation he mentioned the Fu poets, whose seemingly simple poems were, on occasion, broadside critiques of the ruling government.

“Now you know why writers of the Fu are the first in the anthologies and why so many of them were beheaded,” he said. Mo Yan himself has made similar statements. “A writer should express criticism and indignation at the dark side of society and the ugliness of human nature, but we should not use one uniform expression,” he said at the 2009 Frankfurt Book Fair. “Some may want to shout on the street, but we should tolerate those who hide in their rooms and use literature to voice their opinions.”

A central question for translators is the notion of betrayal of the original text. The celebrated translator Gregory Rabassa titled his 2005 memoir If This Be Treason. When I asked Goldblatt about the notion at the tail end of our interview, he said he didn’t believe betrayal was the right term. “I used to say I would give up five years of my life if by some miraculous event I could play Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei on the cello once,” he answered. Translating, he said, “is not like music.” He searched an aging six-CD player and put on the cello version of Kol Nidrei.

“You’re not betraying the composer when you’re doing this,” he said as the music began. “But when you translate a text you’re taking this language and changing it into your own. It’s not rape, but I’ve taken it and done something terrible to it. That’s the only way I can make it available to everyone else. Translators are always apologizing. We spend our lives saying ‘I’m sorry.’ ”


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irvingdog says:

Don’t you guys proofread your articles? The Chinese romanizations are a mess, but so is the English text. Howard deserves better! I don’t know about Mo Yan.

Joshua Lotz says:

“today he delivers his acceptance speech in Oslo”… actually it was in Stockholm. Only the Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo.

John Forrester says:

I have to agree with the above posts about so many of the inaccuracies in this article. Most startlingly, the actual subject of this piece changes from Goldblatt to Goldbatt and back. This is quite embarrassing. I had to stop reading because of these issues. Please, proofread your stories, or don’t bother publishing them at all. Absolutely pathetic…

Angling Saxon says:

Born in 1939, now 74 years old?

As the other commenters said; very sloppy.

Goldblatt’s age and the pair of misspellings of his name, as well as the location of Mo Yan’s acceptance speech, have been corrected. The editors regret the errors.

Costas says:

You should also correct: Xaio Hong -> Xiao Hong; Guam Moye -> Guan Moye; Shandon -> Shandong; Noble Prize -> Nobel Prize: have mercy!

Other than that I enjoyed the content, honestly.

addmetoit says:

i think there is still a reference to Sylvia Chen that needs to be corrected? it is fixed in one place.

Burton Watson is usually recognized as the preeminent translator of Chinese into English.

Are you sure it isn’t Ge (?) HAO Wen? I’ve never seen Heo as a Chinese word before…


Good night,
It is stated Peter Englund as the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy . But the permanent secretary is Horace Engdahl. Please correct it or if I am wrong, inform me.

Wow, what a bunch of kvetches and scolds! I’m a translator who also edits other translators and have worked as a journalist and copy editor so I know the importance of getting things right, but to stop reading a fascinating article because of a few typos and misspellings and focus only on that aspect is nitpicking to the extreme. I’m not justifying the errors but I wouldn’t dismiss the entire article because of them. I greatly enjoyed this piece and would only be hurting myself by huffily walking away from it due to a few mistakes.


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Mo Yan’s Jewish Interpreter

The D-student translator behind the Chinese winner of the Nobel Prize in literature

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