Photo by Allen Krughoff
In this CLT exclusive, modern Chinese literature’s greatest translator, Howard Goldblatt, admits unprecedented access to interviewer Ge Haowen, who happens to be his Chinese alter-ego. The ensuing discussion illuminates the many paths Goldblatt has taken toward a life lived “his way,” a mi manera. An unmistakably candid self-portrait of one of the most important figures in East-West literature, this imagined conversation touches on a number of controversial moments in Goldblatt’s career and is sure to stir further discussion about the legacy of the voice and face of contemporary Chinese literature in the English language.
The following interview took place this spring over several days in Howard Goldblatt’s home. Normally, an interview of this length could be completed in one session, with perhaps a bit of follow-up. But Professor Goldblatt was determined to have music playing in the background, and from time to time he would stop to turn up a piece he was particularly fond of. On one occasion, when the “Double Bach” came on, he stopped and began humming along, à la Glenn Gould, straining to handle both parts. On another occasion, when we went on later than usual, he opened a bottle 2007 Dashe Dry Creek Zinfandel and went “off the record.” Somewhere people’s ears were burning. He was a gracious host and remarkably spry and alert for a man of his advanced years. One of his blogosphere fans recently commented: “Goldblatt seems to have jumped the shark.” I saw no indication of that.—Ge Haowen
Ge Haowen: Before we begin, I want to thank you for agreeing to talk with me—on the record—with no conditions. Too many people, it seems, are timid about opening up when China is the issue.
Howard Goldblatt: We’ll see if it was a wise decision.
GH: I hope you don’t mind my starting out with a question some might consider disrespectful, but your work has been featured on the front pages of The Washington Post and The New York Times, even TIME Magazine, usually, if I’m correct, with praise, often by China specialists. But then came The New Yorker and John Updike. When you were told to expect it, you must have been thrilled.
HG: I was, until I read it!
GH: Well, I was going to ask about your reaction, but I guess I don’t need to now. But won’t you go into some detail about Updike’s critique and, while you’re at it, respond to his comment that the “American translation of contemporary Chinese fiction appears to be the lonely province of one man, Howard Goldblatt”?
HG: I’m not in the habit of responding to reviews, good or bad. If the former, it reeks of . . . well, supply your own word; if the latter, it calls attention to something I’d rather see forgotten, and it can’t help but sound defensive. I’m sorry Mr. Updike did not particularly enjoy Mo Yan’s Big Breasts and Wide Hips or Su Tong’s My Life as Emperor, but sorry for him, not for me or my authors. He missed an opportunity to expand his horizons, to enter an unfamiliar literary realm. A narrow, rigid view of what “good” literature ought to be closes off too many avenues of artistic appreciation, in my view. Translators make available to people all around the world literary gems that enrich us all in many ways, not least by differences in views of literariness that ought to be celebrated.
As for his specific comment, I hated it. First of all, it’s not all that lonely. There are many other translations in print, some by very talented contemporaries, and often these works are well reviewed, although I can see how a misperception has arisen. Why don’t I have more “competitors”? I don’t know, but I’ve done what I can to promote, encourage, and applaud translations by mostly young translators. Maybe they’re choosing the wrong works to translate; maybe their jobs and avocations keep them from devoting enough time and energy to the enterprise; maybe they need to spend more time on one or the other of the languages involved; and maybe it’ll just happen when it happens.
GH: Let me follow up with a related question, since you’ve mentioned two of the authors and novels you’ve translated. You’ve often been asked who your favorite author is and which translation you’ve found most satisfying. You’ve never willingly given an answer. How come? I can’t believe you don’t favor one or more authors or aren’t more pleased with some translations than others. Isn’t it about time you stopped equivocating and named your favorites?
HG: Not quite yet. Sure, I have my favorites, authors and translations.
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From Chinese Literature Today Vol. 2 No.1