MCLC: Sandalwood Death review (4)

Denton, Kirk denton.2 at
Mon Jan 6 09:27:03 EST 2014

From: lklein <lklein at>
Subject: Sandalwood Death review (4)

In Jeffrey Wasserstom's excellent discussion with Brendan O'Kane on the
LARB (, O'Kane says, "There are more works in
translation coming out now than there were before, but that's a pretty low
bar: Only 11 translations from Chinese were published in book form in the
U.S. last year. That was actually down from the heady days of 2011, when a
whopping 12 books came out." A footnote corrects this to "16 Chinese books
in English translation were published in the US in 2012" (and links here: In fact, O'Kane and the LARB are overlooking
poetry, in which another seven or eight translations from Chinese were
published in 2012 (for 2013's list, see But the
point still stands: we are not publishing very many translations of
Chinese literature in English. It may be relieving to some that one can
read every work of Chinese literature published in English in a given
year, but that only reveals the bigger problem of how much gets left out.

I think the quality and quantity of translations from Chinese to English
is something anyone who teaches any aspect of Chinese culture in English
(which is to say, most of us here) should be concerned with. We all engage
in what Xiao Jiwei calls "translated criticism," and simply, we rely on
translations not only to teach and do research, but to provide the context
in which our teaching and research reach their audiences (there's a
feedback loop back to scholarship in Chinese, too, as seen in how quick
the Chinese media were to report on the passing of C T Hsia, whose
monumental works were in English, compared with how slow media in English
have been to note it). So for me, the quantity and quality of translations
from Chinese to English (by which I mean primarily, but not only, literary
translations) cannot be separated from questions of how our societies
approach translation in general. And a big part of that is how we treat
translators: are translators acknowledged? Do translators get paid well
for their work, get their names on the covers of their books, have their
work credited when up for promotion or tenure? In short, are there
incentives in our society for people to work as translators? And do our
conversations about translation reflect a general understanding of the
work translation involves, its importance, its difficulty, its
shortcomings, its possibilities?

Overall, I think the answer is no. My views are not rare amongst working
literary translators, either. In his LARB interview
(, Goldlbatt says: "I still find it baffling that a
reviewer of a translation can credit or fault the author of a book for
good/bad writing ... And yet, some outlets continue to omit translators'
names in published reviews, leading a reader to assume that the work was
written in English, and it has taken years to get publishers to
prominently display the fact that what the reader has in her hands is a
facsimile of the original work." Ironic, then, that the outlet in which he
made this complaint is the outlet in which his work went largely
uncredited (largely, because the first sentence of Xiao's review has now
been corrected to state, "(originally published in China in 2001, and
translated in 2012 by Howard Goldblatt)"). Hence Jonathan Stalling's post,
and hence the defenses from Xiao and Wasserstrom.

At the end of her defense, Xiao writes, "you can't expect too much from a
2400-word essay." Many of the papers I get from my students at the end of
the semester are about 2400 words, so I can attest to the veracity of her
statement. But Dylan Suher's Mo Yan review ( is just
under 2400 words, covers both Sandalwood Death and Pow!, and still manages
to devote an entire paragraph to an informed discussion of Goldblatt's
translations, what critics have said, and where his own judgments fall. I
personally have reviewed over thirty books of Chinese literature in
translation for publication, with limits as low as 500 words, and I would
find it unconscionable not to discuss the translation (this applies even
if I don't know the language of the original; to review Farewell Shanghai,
Deliana Simeonova and Elizabeth Frank's translation of Angel Wagenstein's
Bulgarian novel, I asked a Bulgarian friend to show me how the translators
did what they did). I do this because I believe translation matters, and
the way we talk about it matters.

Here's an example. If we compare a translation against something that is
not a translation we are making a categorical mistake. As Eliot Weinberger
has written (, "The original is never better than the
translation. The translation is worse than another translation, written or
not written, of the same original." So when Xiao writes, "unlike many
other commentators on Mo Yan's work, I favor the original," I clench my
teeth at how far we are as a profession from really understanding the
nature and natures of translation, just as I clench my teeth when I read
Anna Sun saying, "The English translations of Mo Yan's novels, especially
by the excellent Howard Goldblatt, are in fact superior to the original in
their aesthetic unity and sureness" ( I feel like
she's saying, "I favor Shakespeare's script of Hamlet to Mel Gibson's

Xiao writes, "One thing that drove me to write this review essay is my
dissatisfaction with the general indifference shown to the writer's texts
here in the US ... I also believe by bringing Mo Yan's work to the
attention of readers of a well-regarded English-language magazine, I am
seriously engaged in bridging contemporary Chinese literature and the
world." I agree. But I do not agree that we can address or redress the
general indifference to Mo Yan or Chinese literature, or that we can
bridge contemporary Chinese literature and the world, without talking
about translation. Therefore, I disagree that Xiao's "choice to take out
[her] comments on the translation have nothing to do with ideology or
epistemology of the magazine": the choice has everything to do with an
ideology and epistemology that pretends translators don't exist, that
refuses to understand what we do, and that feels like there can be a
defense to not discussing the translation in the project of overcoming
indifference to a Nobel prize-winner's work. This may not be the LARB's
epistemology alone, but it is one that is prevalent in the society in
which the LARB publishes and in which Xiao Jiwei writes. I hope we can
combat that, for the benefit not only of Mo Yan or Howard Goldblatt, but
for the benefit of our profession and fields of teaching and research.


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