Thursday, March 13, 2008

Missing Goldblatt

It's proving to be quite a week for me to miss stuff that I'd rather wanted to go to.

Penguin is staging a book launch for its English version of Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem at The Bookworm this evening - but, alas, it's a ticketed event and it sold out in no time flat, leaving me marooned on the never-shortening 'waiting list'.

The translator, Howard Goldblatt, is going to be there for a Q&A session. Goldblatt is the doyen of Chinese literary translators these days; or, one might say, the bane of them - he pretty much monopolises the market, and monopolies are never a good thing (especially when the guy can't actually write - I itemised the shortcomings of his rendition of a Mo Yan novel I read recently over on The BookBook). I would have been interested to meet him in person (and perhaps heckle a little). However, there is a very informative interview with him (and also with the author Jiang Rong) in this month's That's Beijing magazine, available online here - well worth a look.

I find the most worrying of Goldblatt's remarks here to be his insistence that one does not have to have an interest in creative writing oneself in order to be a good translator (and he thinks this is especially so of poetry, where a good poet may be too tempted to 'improve' what he's translating; although he does also say - somewhat inconsistently? - near the end of the interview that translating Chinese requires considerably more creativity than other languages to bridge the gap between what the author wrote and what the author meant). He also speaks, somewhat mysteriously, of a need to accept Chinese novels "on their own terms, rather than holding them to Western concepts of writing". If I'd been able to go to the session this evening, I would have liked to have asked him a little bit more about that.

Jiang comes across in his interview as impressively arrogant: his aim with this 'novel' (an unwieldy tome, apparently part Cultural Revolution memoir, part philosophical treatise, part eco-parable) is apparently nothing less than to overthrow the stifling influence of Confucianism in Chinese life and replace it with something more vibrant and flexible - although he finds his model for this new, more competitive ethos not in Western free-market economics but in the traditional harmony-with-nature culture of the Mongolian nomads.

The book was a huge bestseller in China; but the English-language edition, even with extensive edits, weighs in at over 500 pages, which will, I think, deter rather a lot of readers. That, and the dead hand of Goldblatt's plodding English. No, it's naughty of me to disparage it without having even glanced at it yet. I am curious about this book (it just won the Asian Man Booker Prize, after all, so it's probably not a complete steaming pile), so will probably give it a try at some point. I just need a little time to get my courage and stamina up for the task!

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