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Mo Yan, Mo Translations

Talking with Howard Goldblatt, the Nobel laureate’s translator

Adam Chandler
February 04, 2013
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)

If you happened to read this weekend’s New York Times Book Review then you probably saw that the 2012 Nobel Laureate Mo Yan was featured on the cover. The article went into great depth about two of Mo Yan’s books “Sandalwood Death” and “Pow,” which were praised thusly:

What gives Mo Yan’s novels their highly idiosyncratic tone is the combination of a great literary imagination and a peasant spirit. Howard Gold­blatt’s translations catch this atmosphere brilliantly. The prose reads well in English, without losing a distinctly Chinese feel, but it is very far from the classical Chinese tradition. There is nothing mandarin, or even urbane, about Mo Yan’s work. He has retained the earthy character of rural Shandong, where he grew up in a farming family.

Also containing great literary imagination and perhaps a bit of the peasant spirit is Howard Goldblatt, whom the reviewer references as Mo Yan’s able translator. Just weeks after the Nobel Prizes were announced, we ran Michael Orbach’s interview with Goldblatt, who was an unlikely choice to end up at the translator of an internationally acclaimed author.

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.

Check out the rest here.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.