The premier English-language translator of modern Chinese fiction, Howard Goldblatt, says flatly that Western audiences don’t read Chinese books. However, with last year’s Nobel Prize win for Mo Yan (and the rave review his novel Pow! received in the Times), Goldblatt and other scholars are hoping that could change.
This week, the Ransom Center at UT-Austin opened up its archives of the works of J.M. Coetzee. Because the Nobel Prize winner is an alumnus, he says it’s “a privilege to have graduated from being a teaching assistant at The University of Texas to being one of the authors whose papers are conserved here.” (Fun fact: his starting salary was $2,300 a year.
In ancient times, there was a famous chef named Pao Ding, who was an expert at carving up cows. In modern times, there was a man who was an expert at sizing them up—my father. In Pao Ding’s eyes, cows were nothing but bones and edible flesh. That’s what they were in my father’s eyes, too. Pao Ding’s vision was as sharp as a knife; my father’s was as sharp as a knife and as accurate as a scale. What I mean to say is: if you were to lead a live cow up to my father, he’d take two turns around it, three at most, occasionally sticking his hand up under the animal’s foreleg—just for show—and confidently report its gross weight and the quantity of meat on its bones, always to within a kilo of what might register on the digital scale used in England’s largest cattle slaughterhouse.
Mo Yan’s portrait of Chinese history has met ire on the mainland. Goldblatt quotes one critic as calling the novel ‘a sycophantic, shameless work that turns history upside down, fabricates lies, and glorifies the Japanese fascists and the Landlord Restoration Corps.’ The Japanese forces, whose invasion is the principal event of ‘Red Sorghum,’ are relatively shadowy in this novel; but even a Western reader insensitive to the fine points of the civil conflict that placed Mao in power must notice that in this book Communist programs and propaganda are played mostly for laughs, and that the most praiseworthy men, the Sima brothers, are associated with the old, bourgeois regime and the Nationalist Army. Mo Yan’s fate is to operate on the edge of official constraints; the novel, nearly a half-million words long as first published in 1996 in China, has undergone trimming and rearrangement right up to this translation, based upon ‘a further shortened, computer-generated manuscript supplied by the author.’ Semi-capitalist China will not replay the censorship game by the same rules as were hammered out in the Soviet Union, but free spirits in China are still short of enjoying free speech.
How do you calculate a writer’s odds?
At the very start, when we put our list together, we have people for the shortlist and we have an in-house expert who uses lots of things on the internet — forums and social media — and who is quite a big literature fanatic himself, and he puts the list together. Then he puts the odds together based firstly on who he thinks has a chance and secondly on who represents the current thinking of the panel and wider world. And obviously, as soon as people start betting, that’s also when things will change.
“The Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2011. His books sell thousands of copies in Sweden, and his poetry has been translated into 60 languages. Born in 1931, grew up in Stockholm, but spent many long summers on the island of Runmarö in the nearby archipelago. Swedish nature and landscape have inspired much of his poetry, especially Runmarö, the Baltic coast and the country’s lakes and forests. But Tomas Tranströmer is as much a poet of humanity as he is of nature. He worked as a psychologist for most of his life. He has been married for over fifty years to Monica Tranströmer, who became his voice to the world after he suffered a stroke in 1990. Since then he has only published two poetry collections and a short memoir. The stroke deprived him of most of his speech and left him unable to use his right arm. But Tomas Tranströmer is also an accomplished classical pianist. Unable to speak more than a few words, he can still express himself through music, despite only being able to play left-hand piano pieces. Swedish composers have written several left-hand piano pieces especially for him to play. This film by Pamela Robertson-Pearce and Neil Astley combines contemporary footage of Tranströmer, including his piano playing, with archive film and recordings of his readings. In the archive recordings, he reads the poems in Swedish, and the English translations are by Robin Fulton, from the UK edition NEW COLLECTED POEMS (Bloodaxe Books, 1997, 2011), and the US edition THE GREAT ENIGMA: NEW COLLECTED POEMS (New Directions, 2006); these two books have the same content but have been published for separate readerships. The two left-hand piano pieces Tranströmer plays in the film are by Fibich and Mompou. Swedish poems © Tomas Tranströmer from Dikter och Prosa 1954-2004 (Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2011).”