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Mo Yan’s Jewish Interpreter

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

Michael Orbach
December 10, 2012
Mo Yan and Howard Goldblatt.(Photoillustration Ivy Tashlik; original photos AFP/GettyImages and Michael Orbach)
Mo Yan and Howard Goldblatt.(Photoillustration Ivy Tashlik; original photos AFP/GettyImages and Michael Orbach)

“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.

“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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Michael Orbach is a writer living in New York.

Michael Orbach is a writer living in New York.