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Mo Yan, the Nobel and translation

Publication Date : 16-10-2012

 

Almost all men and women of letters in Taiwan are glad Mo Yan, one of China's leading writers of the past half century, won this year's Nobel Prize for Literature last Thursday. Chinese the world over are happy one of them has finally won the prize, though he isn't the first Chinese-born writer Nobel laureate in belles lettres.

Gao Xingjian, who received French citizenship in 1997, was awarded the prize in 2000.

Mo Yan is best known in Taiwan for his novella “Red Sorghum”, which was adapted for a film by leading Chinese director Zhang Yimou that won the Golden Bear Award at the Berlin film festival in 1988.

His book about the brutal violence that plagues the eastern China countryside is quite popular in Taiwan, where he has also made many friends. His friends, of course, are all convinced that he deserves the award. However, there is some complaint. Chen Fang-ming, professor of Taiwanese literature at National Chengchi University, is complaining that authors in Taiwan have written much more than their fellow men of letters in China, and yet the Swedish Academy has chosen Mo Yan, a mainland Chinese.

Professor Chang did not charge the Swedish jury with discrimination, but did ask, “Why should it be Mo Yan?”

It may be true that writers in Taiwan are much more prolific, but are their works good enough for a Nobel Prize in Literature? Few contemporary writers in Taiwan have published books truly worth reading. But the prize is awarded, more often than not, to works never considered to deserve it.

The real reason why no Taiwanese has been given the award is that Taiwanese works are all but totally unknown abroad. I am afraid the Swedish Academy jury does not read Chinese and jurors simply do not know there may be some authors in Taiwan who can be recommended as candidates in the first place. We have the problem of translation.

Strictly speaking, translation of literary works is impossible. The unique nuance in one language is lost in translation into another language, particularly not in the same language family.

Poetry, in particular, defies translation. A Tang poem, for instance, can't be translated into any non-Chinese languages without sacrificing the original rhyming scheme and “level-and-oblique-tone” verse rhythm, which make Chinese poems uniquely admirable. One best thing the Japanese do to keep the uniqueness of Tang poetry is not to translate it but to read it in their mother tongue.

And sometimes, reading a Tang poem in Japanese makes the reader better capture the deep-souled feelings of the poet than he can by reading it in Chinese. Japanese haiku can never be translated into any other language. English poetry translated into Chinese usually makes no sense. Liang Shih-chiu, the celebrated Shakespeare scholar, translated the blank verse and sonnets of the Bard of the Avon into Chinese, but even with his efficiency par excellence in both languages, he could not convey the beauty of Shakespearean poetry.

Translation of novels and short stories can be managed, however. The problem is that few translators in Taiwan have tried. “Red Sorghum” has been translated into English by Howard Goldblatt and into Swedish by Anna Chen. Gao's “The Other Side” has been translated into English by Jo Riley.

Edward Seidensticker has translated into English works of Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzabro Oe, the two Japanese winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Without the translation, none of them could possibly have won the coveted prize.

Nancy Ing, who at one time headed the Chinese Taipei PEN, translated short stories of a few authors including Ignatius Yao and the Taipei-based Rainbow Publishing Company published a number of works by Lin Hai-yin and others in English in the early 1970s with the support of the US nformation Service in Taipei. But no such translation had since been done until I translated the fiction of Lai He, father of Taiwan's modern literature, and his successor Chung Chao-cheng. The English versions were published with the support of the Council for Hakka Affairs.

Now that quite a number of universities in Taiwan have opened graduate institutes in translation studies, it is a pity that few graduates want to undertake the thankless, quixotic task of translating Taiwan's Chinese fiction into English or Japanese.

The truth is that few, if any, graduates have a working command of two of the three languages sufficiently good enough for doing the translation and there is little encouragement. They can do much easier translation to make a living and there's no incentive to spur them into attempting the challenging task of translating fiction. But they should not forget a good translation can be better than the original: That precept should be regarded as an encouragement to continue to learn the trade of translation, to emulate a great translator like Edward FitzGerald who made his English translation of “Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam”, the rubais or quatrains of the Persian poet of that name, an English classic.

Works of Taiwan professor and poet Yu Kwang-chung are likely candidates for the Nobel Prize in Literature. I think Yu should rewrite some of his poems in English or have someone he can trust to do the translation. To translate modern Chinese poetry isn't a mission impossible like an attempt at Li Po or Tu Fu or Po Chu-yi.

But in general, translated works of Taiwan's fiction — and poetry, if possible — are generally not ready to win a Nobel Prize in Literature.

 Rather, the real purpose of rendering Chinese literary works into English and Japanese is to let the non-Chinese speakers of the world know, understand and appreciate what our authors in Taiwan can offer. It should be part of international cultural exchange.

 

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