A literary magazine succeeds when it induces its reader to go beyond the magazine, and look for more of the work written by the same writers or, in the case of a magazine heavier on commentary than fiction or poetry like Chinese Literature Today, to encounter a writer or a work for the first time. The very readable essays, stories, and excerpts written by and about two of the most celebrated Chinese-language writers today—Mo Yan, recipient of the 2012 Nobel Prize and Su Tong, whose novel The Boat to Redemption won the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize—that anchor this double issue of Chinese Literature Today do just that. And personally, while I have read Mo Yan and loved Su Tong in the original, the quality of the translations here has caused me rethink my habitual rejection of English translations of Chinese literature (why go for the “substitute” when I can have the “authentic” experience?): as Mo Yan says in his interview, translations are almost originals in themselves.
The sections on Mo Yan and Su Tong both present essays, interviews, or speeches about their work before the works themselves. In his Nobel lecture, Mo Yan tells stories (what else?) about his urge to tell stories that blossomed early in his life. In “Mo Yan in Translation,” Howard Goldblatt, Mo Yan’s American translator, suggests that there are as many Mo Yans as there are translations of his work. He recalls an answer that Mo Yan once gave to his question about a translation: “Do what you want. I can’t read what you’ve written. It’s your book.” But perhaps, as Su Tong recognizes in his lecture “Where Do We Encounter Reality?” there are multiple realities in literature even without the process of translation.
The chapter of Mo Yan’s Sandalwood Death presented in the issue describes a man adopting a historical myth as his reality. He captures the minds of his fellow villagers, too, so that they believe that he has come back as the Song Dynasty general Yue Fei who will defeat the foreigners besieging China in the late nineteenth century. The spirit and the confidence they show at the end of the scene add to the sense of tragedy. The intonations of the main character’s operatic speech are translated with perfect pitch: “Charging into the dragon’s den, the tiger’s lair, looses a murderous river of blood. I, I, I am that judge from Hell, the messenger of death.”
Goldblatt’s skill is also evident in rendering meaning as well as the flavor of the original: “mother and father officials” and a “bowl-sized scar,” for example, are both literal translations and are not phrases used in English, but the English-speaking reader has no problem understanding them. In fact, they convey more than what an English original may have approximated: the language of fiction, after all, carries the time and place of the story, as well as the historical and cultural heritage enfolded into the characters’ emotion and diction.
In “Why Our House Has No Electric Lights,” Su Tong makes an interesting choice in perspective: that of Old Kuang, the head of the North Side Power Supply Bureau, responsible for installing electric lights in every house in town. One of the houses gets no electricity because it is a “nail house,” whose family refuses to move and let their house be razed for government development. Old Kuang is in an ambiguous moral position. He is not portrayed as a vindictive person or an ambitious or fervently loyal official, but just someone trying to get through the day. The head of the household, a woman, is kept at a distance in the story, and we only see her children reacting to the injustice in oblique ways.
The issue also includes sections on Chinese cinema, the scholar and poet Wai-lim Yip, translations of poetry and poems in English written by Chinese-speaking poets and poems in Chinese written by English-speaking poets. The incorporation of Chinese legends and classical poems is at first jarring, but perhaps that simply reflects the experience of translation and translocation. As Qiu Xiaolong’s “The Lunar Lumberjack” says:
I know I exist, wielding
my ax against the absurd,
belonging to a legend
that does not belong to me.
It’s not as new a process as it seems. People come to a language as foreigners, subvert it, discover new possibilities, and make it their own: Nabokov, Rilke, Hopkins. Only the associations and the specific language combinations are new.