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.
Smitten and unrequited, Paul Legault offers up translations of Emily Dickinson’s ‘complete poems’ – all 1,789 of them as presented in R.W. Franklin’s definitive edition. He transports Dickinson into mostly fortune-cookie length snippets of contemporary English, more specifically into a dialect of American English spoken widely in urban pockets like Brooklyn, where increasing numbers of the highly educated and literary classes live, procreate, keep each other amused, and make their own cheese.
‘Yeah, well, I’ve changed.’ Her eyes flickered with a haughtiness and arrogance that underscored the boldness of her statement.
‘Into what?’ Her answer was so immature that I felt tempted to tease her.
‘I’ve just changed, that’s all. I’m not the same person I was in high school.’ There was self-hatred in the viciousness of her tone.
To hear those words, ‘I’ve changed,’ was truly sad. The traffic lights flooded Xinsheng South Road with an opulent yellow. We wandered along the red brick wall that encircled the suburbs, clinging to the giant steel fence for balance. To our left was the opulent glow of the road. To our right was the boundless jet-black of suburban hinterlands, teeming with the majestic splendor of solitude. There’s nothing that won’t change, do you understand? I said in my heart. ‘Can you count the number of lights that are on in that building over there?’ I pointed to a brand-new high-rise at the intersection.
‘Uh, I see lights in five windows, so maybe like, five?’ she said brightly.
Just wait and see how many there are later on. Will you still remember? I asked myself, answering with a nod.
Within the novel’s first sentence, two subtle and seemingly minor translation decisions have the power to change the way we read everything that follows. What makes these particular choices prickly is that they poke at a long-standing debate among the literary community: whether it is necessary for a translator to have some sort of special affinity with a work’s author in order to produce the best possible text.