Mo Yan in Translation: One Voice among Many

By Howard Goldblatt

Howard Goldblat and Mo Yan
Mo Yan and Howard Goldblatt in Sydney, Australia

Mo Yan’s English translator, Howard Goldblatt, was thrilled when he heard the news that the author he had so long translated was to be the recipient of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature. Not only
had Goldblatt translated seven novels and a collection of short fiction by the author, but as a long-term friend and fierce critical advocate of his work, this recognition was both hard-fought and much appreciated. The award also meant that Goldblatt would have the opportunity to travel to the Nobel ceremony in Sweden, where he would share the moment with Mo Yan’s other translators from around the world, an experience that Goldblatt paints in positive if also humorously ambivalent tones.

While Mo Yan thanked his translators during his banquet speech, stating that, “without you, there would be no world literature,” and “your work is a bridge that helps people to understand and respect each other,” translation is an unstable cultural space prone to being overlooked and often underappreciated. Yet despite this, and though Mo Yan has other champions in the West, his fiercest literary advocate has always been his English translator, Howard Goldblatt.

When CLT Deputy Editor in Chief Jonathan Stalling asked me to write a short introductory piece for the special section on the winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature, I told him I’d try. He was, I assumed, hoping I would reveal something significant, or at least interesting, about Mo Yan 莫言 that would usher readers into the meatier contributions to follow. But that got me thinking: which Mo Yan did he want me to introduce? The Chinese author of a dozen or so novels, many of which have been labeled hallucinatory realism by the Academy? Or maybe the Swedish Mo Yan, who lives most of her life as Anna Gustafsson Chen? Or how about the Japanese Mo Yan, an engaging fellow otherwise known as Tomio Yoshida? Then there are the two French Mo Yans, Noël Dutrait and Chantal Chen-Andro; a Norwegian Mo Yan who wrote to me as Brith Sæthre; even an Italian Mo Yan, Patrizia Liberati. I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least give a shout-out to the American Mo Yan, whose other name is on the tip of my tongue . . . well, you can see where this is going. In December 2012, the newly elevated laureate invited several of his translators to join him in Stockholm for the annual conclave, generously picking up what must have been a hefty tab. Beyond the excitement of actually dressing up for this most celebratory of ceremonies and participating in the week-long festivities surrounding it, we less-famous Mo Yans were given an opportunity to compare notes, discuss issues of fidelity, literariness, even marketing in relation to our versions of such novels as Red Sorghum, Big Breasts and Wide Hips, and more. It didn’t quite pan out, in part because all those unfamiliar tongues kept getting in the way, and because we saw the experience more as play than work. Perhaps we’ll find another time and place.

A lot has been written in China and elsewhere lately about how Mo Yan’s translators, one in particular, actually earned the prize for the Chinese novelist. I’m sure that can’t please him. He has reason to be unhappy, for the novels for which he was nominated and chosen for the prize are his creations. Or are they? He once responded to a question of mine in regard to one of his translations with something like: “Do what you want. I can’t read what you’ve written. It’s your book.” See what I mean?

We know that only one Swedish Academy member reads Chinese, so they had to rely on other Mo Yans to determine the Chinese Mo Yan’s worthiness of selection. But this can’t be the first time. How many Italian readers were there among them when they selected playwright Dario Fo? Russian for Joseph Brodsky? Hungarian for Imre Kertész? Chinese (again) for Gao Xingjian 高行健? I do not mean to diminish the accomplishments or qualifications of any winners of this coveted prize; rather I want to acknowledge the critical role a writer’s translators play, especially when the talk rolls around to “words.” Some writers have a cordial, rewarding relationship with their translators; some do not. Mo Yan has never been especially vocal in his support or disapproval of those of us who not only love but lovingly translate his novels into many languages, but he has referred to some of us publicly and seems to be quite friendly with most. He has insisted that a writer must not write for the translator—unfortunately it happens (no names)—and, to his credit, he does not. I imagine that, like many writers, he would be happier if a decent Google translation program could put us “stylists” out of business, but if that were the case, then only Swedish writers would win Nobel Prizes from here on out. We don’t want that, despite the pleasure we get from reading Henning Mankell and Håkan Nesser.

I cannot speak for the ladies and gentlemen I cited above, but I’m happy to acknowledge their important role, along with mine, in helping Mo Yan win a prize that we believe he fully deserved. Now on to the meat.

From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 3 No. 1 & 2

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March 2011 Issue

Volume 3, No. 1&2

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Table of Contents




Chinese Poets Writing in English

  • 35 Qiu Xiaolong
  • 38 Yun Wang
  • 40 Wai-lim Yip

Non-Chinese Poets Writing in Chinese

  • 43 Jami Proctor-Xu
  • 45 Denis Mair
  • 48 Afaa Michael Weaver




  • 95 Small Town by Yu Jian



  • Editor's Note
  • Contributors
  • Chinese Literature in Review

ON THE COVER Chinatown Sunset, 2013, by Fong Qi Wei


  • Featured Essay
  • Introduction: Writerly Self-Knowledge, or When Authors Confess, by Alexa Huang
    Writing Chinese Literary History: A Tweet for Sore Eyes by Sabina Knight
  • Sheng Keyi, Northern Girls. Shelly Bryant, tr.
  • Petrus Liu, Stateless Subjects: Chinese Martial Arts Literature and Postcolonial History
  • Ba Jin, Ward Four: A Novel of Wartime China. Haili Kong and Howard Goldblatt, tr.
  • Jacob Edmond, A Common Strangeness: Contemporary Poetry, Cross-Cultural Encounter, Comparative Literature
  • Michael Gibbs Hill, Lin Shu, Inc.: Translation and the Making of Modern Chinese Culture
  • Xi Chuan, A Bend in the Great River: Thoughts in Search of Poetic Possibility
  • Lai Hsiang-yin, Thereafter
  • Yu Jian, On the Long Journey. Tang Xiaodu, ed.
  • Shijiang Li, The Chinese Department
  • Gu Mingdong, Sinologism: An Alternative to Orientalism and Postcolonialism

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