After hearing this morning that Mo Yan won the 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature, I began to wonder what books are available in English and then, who his English translator is. Which is how I stumbled upon this old interview with Howard Goldblatt, who, incidentally, has worked on the translations for a few of our books, as well (above).
Howard Goldblatt is a Research Professor of Chinese at Notre Dame and has translated over thirty Chinese-language novels into English. Read the interview - his is a fascinating story and I love what he says about translation.
Q: It sounds like you did something you liked and people responded.
A: I just consider myself incredibly lucky. And even though I’m an anti-militarist, an old 60s leftist and unreconstructed liberal, I bow down to Uncle Sam, because if he hadn’t sent me to Taiwan, where would I be? I’d be dead, I’m sure. I would have had an unspectacular career selling shoes or something, because I had no other talents. And I would have been a racist, and now I’mnot. Vietnam also turned me into a pacifist. I’ve gotten older and more conservative as I go along, but still I haven’t lost that perspective. Vietnam did that to me, and to a lot of people—the ones it didn’t kill or mess up forever. It gave us a different angle.
Q: Who do you translate for?
A: I believe first of all that, like an editor, the translator’s primary obligation is to the reader, not the writer. I realize that a lot of people don’t agree, especially writers. I don’t think that these things have to be mutually exclusive, but I do think that we need to produce something that can be readily accepted by an American readership. Ha Jin can get away with writing unidiomatic English and many people are charmed by it, but a translator’s English is expected to be idiomatic and contemporary without being flashy.