Translating Mo Yan: An Interview with Howard Goldblatt | Metaglossia: The Translation World |

I WAS INTRODUCED to Howard Goldblatt through a mutual friend, George Carroll, a publishers’ representative and champion of international literature based in the Pacific Northwest. Mr. Goldblatt, a former Guggenheim Fellow, has had a long and distinguished career as “the premier English-language translator of contemporary Chinese fiction” (Chicago Reader). He has introduced readers in the English-speaking world to Mo Yan, Jiang Rong, and dozens of Chinese writers through his translations and anthologies.

We exchanged emails shortly after Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature; it was during this time that Mo was facing intense scrutiny and criticism for his political convictions — or lack thereof. I was particularly interested in Goldblatt’s take on the controversy: as Mo’s primary English language translator — Goldblatt has translated nine of Mo Yan’s works over the past 20 years — I felt that no one would have better insight into the literary, if not political, qualities of his work.


STEPHEN SPARKS: You just about stumbled into translating Chinese. Can you tell us a little bit about your history with the language and how coming to it accidentally has shaped your work, if at all?

HOWARD GOLDBLATT: Truth be told, I’ve stumbled into nearly every aspect of my relationship with China and the Chinese language. Had I been sent to sea directly from Naval OCS during the early phase of the Vietnam War, like my classmates, instead of Taiwan, none of the rest of my life would have turned out remotely as it did. Had I been accepted into any graduate program in Chinese other than the only one that grudgingly let me in the door, I’d not have chosen a thesis topic that led to my discovery of a writer, Xiao Hong, practically no one had heard of at the time, who is now one of the giants of the period, and who put me on the map, as it were. And since none of her work was available in English, I ventured into the field of translation and haven’t stopped since. My critical biography of her (in Chinese) and rendering of her masterwork, Tales of Hulan River, are still in print, 40 years later. Then, “affirmative action” got me a job at that same university in a department that, untill that time, was comprised solely of native speakers of Chinese. Finally, Nieh Hualing, who, with her husband, poet Paul Engle, ran the Iowa Writers Workshop, stumbled upon my translation and recommended me to translate a novel for a large commercial press. I’ve had lots of help along the way and more than a little luck; my indebtedness to those factors manifests itself in my passion (some might call it obsession) for translating literary texts — mainly fiction — from Chinese. I simply cannot think of a single thing I’d rather be doing professionally.