Professor Howard Goldblatt, acclaimed by some as the most important translator of modern and contemporary Chinese literature, appeared at the global launch of his English translation of Wolf Totem in Beijing.
Published in 2004, the novel about the lives of herdsmen on the Mongolian grassland in the 1960s has created a big stir. By last December, the book's Chinese version had sold 2 million copies on the Chinese mainland, confirmed Zhao Meng of Changjiang Literature Art Press, who is in charge of the book's domestic marketing.
Last November, Jiang Rong won the first Man Asian Literary Prize with the English version of Wolf Totem at the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival, which aims to promote Asian works of literature.
Adrienne Clarkson, a former governor general of Canada, who was chairwoman of the panel of three judges for the Man Asian Literary Prize, said: "This masterly work is also a passionate argument about the complex interrelationship between nomads and settlers, animals and human beings, nature and culture."
Penguin purchased the book's global English copyright in 2005 from Changjiang with an advance of $100,000 and 10 percent royalties. "Wolf Totem is a wonderful book - very different from many other Chinese novels. Besides the unique narrative style, it interests me because of its strong flavor of Mongolian culture. And I believe other Western readers will also find it interesting to read," the general manager of Penguin China Jo Lusby, who speaks and reads Chinese, was quoted as saying in an interview with Chinese media.
In translating Wolf Totem, Goldblatt has held to his usual high standards, including finding a student at Inner Mongolia University to check the Mongol spellings of the many transliterated Mongol words and phrases.
"The somewhat raw narration fits the austere setting and the violent circumstances of many of the situations," says Goldblatt of the book in an e-mail interview with China Daily. "The relationship between the narrator and (tribal leader) Bilgee is extremely complex and volatile, and serves to highlight the clash of cultures."
"Jiang Rong was generous with his responses to my inquiries, some textual, others contextual. (As for editorial decisions by the publisher) I cannot imagine any author who would be happy to have any of his work excised in translation."
A search on Amazon for "Goldblatt" (or "Ge Haowen") will turn up some 40 novels, biographies and collections by two dozen authors from both the Chinese mainland and Taiwan.
But Goldblatt has kept a low profile and says his life could have been "a wreck" if not for a sojourn in Taiwan, during the Vietnam War, when he had a talk with Andrea Lingenfelter, who is also an American expert on Chinese literature.
The renowned research professor of Chinese at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, admits to have been a "terrible" student before joining the navy in the early 1960s. Instead of being sent to Vietnam, he was dispatched to Taipei. Light duties as a communications officer gave him ample time to explore the new culture.
"I started reading books for the first time in my life. Then I started studying Chinese and found that (I) was good at it. I mean my ear was good, I could hear it."
When Goldblatt finished his duties and returned to the United States in 1968, he pursued Chinese studies.
"I found something I could do well - it's probably the only thing in the world that I can do, but I found it. Most people don't."
While completing his dissertation at Indiana University, Goldblatt "discovered" Xiao Hong (1911-42), a female writer who created scores of novels, poems, dramas and letters in just 10 years before she died in Hong Kong.
For years, the writer from rural Northeast China was overlooked even in her own country. Goldblatt's translations of her works such as Tales of Hulan River (Hu Lan He Zhuan) and a biography contributed to the literary circle's growing interest.
Besides Xiao Hong, the largest number of books of one author that Goldblatt has translated is Mo Yan. Mo gained international recognition with Red Sorghum (Hong Gao Liang), which enabled director Zhang Yimou to win the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1988.
Goldblatt's translation of Mo's Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (Sheng Si Pi Lao) is published this year. Mo is "one of those gracious individuals who sings the praises of his translator as often as his translator sings his as a novelist", Goldblatt says.
Through translation, Goldblatt says he has made a few friends among Chinese novelists.
"In part that is a result of the trust the authors - few of whom read English - have placed in me, and in part it is due to their willingness to deal with inevitable queries regarding difficulties, even errors, in their texts."
However, "translated literature from China plays a modest role in affecting views and understanding of China these days", Goldblatt says. In the U.S., translators who are devoted to Chinese literature are few and readers interested in this genre are limited to academic circles. These difficulties have not stopped him from turning out significant works year after year.
"The satisfaction of knowing I've faithfully served two constituencies keeps me happily turning Chinese prose into readable, accessible, and - yes - even marketable English books," Goldblatt was quoted as saying in the Washington Post, 2002.
In January, another of Goldblatt's translations won international recognition. The Moon Opera (Qing Yi) written by Bi Feiyu appeared on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize list, inaugurated by British newspaper The Independent to honor fiction in translation.
"I'm delighted, as much for the affirmation of my choices of what to work on, as for the translations themselves," Goldblatt says, adding that he is working with Sylvia Li-chun Lin on Bi Feiyu's Three Sisters (Yu Mi), another book that features women as major protagonists.
"This is a bit of a departure from most male authors. Bi is a very creative writer for whom the use of language is a major concern," Goldblatt says.
Faced with sharp linguistic differences, Goldblatt is happy to take on the challenges of dealing with the intricacies of cross-cultural communication.
In Red Poppies (Chen Ai Luo Ding), by Tibetan author Alai, Goldblatt and co-translator Sylvia Li-chun Lin had to figure out a way to translate "Tian Na!" - a mild oath used by all characters.
"The closest literal (and obviously inadequate) English rendering is 'Heavens!' After wrestling with several possibilities, we decided to have each character say something different.
"We used 'Ai caramba!' 'Ach du lieber!' 'Mama mia!' 'Oy gevalt!' and, even, 'Merde!' Alas, we couldn't get them past the editor. Damn!
"I love to read Chinese; I love to write in English. I love the challenge, the ambiguity, the uncertainty of the enterprise. I love the tension between creativity and fidelity, even the inevitable compromises.
"Every once in a while, I find a work so exciting that I'm possessed by the urge to put it into English. In other words, I translate to stay alive. Tian Na!"
Goldblatt has just finished Zhang Wei's early novel The Ancient Ship (Gu Chuan) which will be out later this year. He's also translating stories by Yan Lianke.
(China Daily March 12, 2008)