Howard Goldblatt on How the Navy Saved His Life and Why Literary Translation Matters


/ by Andrea Lingenfelter

Howard Goldblatt has all but single-handedly introduced contemporary Chinese-language literature to the English-speaking world. With over thirty volumes of Chinese fiction in translation to his name as well as several memoirs and a volume of poetry in translation, Goldblatt continually seeks out new talent to introduce to English-speaking readers while maintaining a commitment to more established writers. His shortlist of literary translations reads like a “Who's Who” of important contemporary authors from China and Taiwan. An impressive facility with Chinese language, both written and spoken, and an eye for literary quality account for part of Goldblatt's success; but what has most set Howard Goldblatt apart from many of his fellow translators, past and present, is his attention to English style. Until Goldblatt entered the scene, readers wanting to explore modern Chinese fiction typically had to suffer through wooden translations that gave little sense of the vitality of the originals. For many translators who have followed in his footsteps, Goldblatt's work was revelatory, and he has been an inspiration to a generation of translators, this interviewer included. On one of Goldblatt's periodic visits to Seattle, we enjoyed a long chat over coffee about translation and Goldblatt's own surprisingly circuitous path to it.

What got you into Chinese, and how did you get your start translating fiction?
It's a long story, and it may be too personal to be interesting, but here goes. I went to a state college and was an absolutely abysmal student, a terrible, terrible student. I was a “hail fellow well met” kind of guy and had a lot of fun, but I almost flunked out. They were dying to have students, so you know I had to be an absolutely terrible student if I almost flunked out there. Ironically, the only course I ever dropped in college was a course on Asian history. The guy started writing on the board in Chinese, and I said, “Who needs this? I can barely read English!” When I graduated I realized that I had no skills, and no recognizable talents—none whatsoever. I was so stupid, so irredeemably stupid that I decided to go into the Navy. I was going to be drafted, but I could have gotten out of it. But I joined the Navy, because I was in Long Beach, California, and the Navy was there.

This is the 60s, during the Vietnam war?
This was before Vietnam. But you could see it coming. Anyone else would have looked over at Vietnam and seen how stupid I was. They would have said, “This is not the time to be joining the Navy.” But I went. And I hated it. I was no longer in college where we had fraternity parties and lots of fun and drinking, and I thought my life was going to be a wreck. Out of something like 300 people in this class who they graduated, I think that 290 or so were assigned to destroyers, but for some reason they sent me to Taipei, instead. To this day I can't even begin to imagine how that happened. I wasn't sure where Taipei was. In fact, one of them said, “We're going to send you to Taipei,” and then my orders came in, and the orders said I was going to Taiwan. I said, “Now come on, you said I was going to Taipei!” That's how stupid I was. So I wound up in Taiwan as a communications officer in some big command. The world had opened up for me, I mean 1960, '61, '62. You can imagine what Taiwan was like then for a single man . . .

I can begin to . . .
Perhaps . . . Everything was wide open, absolutely wide open. I had no cares, my duties were light. Once I got drunk and was taking a pedicab drive, and the guy had to get off for some reason and I stole his pedicab . . . . Eventually, I got orders that sent me to a destroyer like everyone else, in Japan. I was a young officer on a small ship. We went into Vietnam, and then Vietnam got hot, and they were starting to send all these John Kerrys. They wanted me to go there, but I looked around, and I said, “No way.” They said, “We'll send you anywhere you want to go, because even if you go someplace else you'll be freeing up someone else.”

So you asked them to send you back to Taiwan?
Yes, and this time I was smart. I started reading—not Chinese—but I started reading books for the first time in my entire life. Then I started studying Chinese and found that was good at it. I mean my ear was good, I could hear it. So I stayed there for another two years or so until my tour of duty was over, and then I went to the Mandarin Center in Taiwan. I got my Chinese pretty good, but then my dad was dying, so I had to come back to the US, where once again I faced the same old problem: What should I do? But one day I ran into an old teacher who talked me into going to graduate school. I applied to every Chinese program I could find and was accepted at only one, San Francisco State University. I went, and I loved it. After I graduated, I taught Chinese for a year or so. But I still didn't know what to do next. And they said, “Keep going,” and I said, “Go where?” And they said, “To a program.” So once again I applied to every one, and this time I was accepted at several places and chose Indiana Bloomington. I found something I do well—it's probably the only thing in the world that I can do, but I found it. Most people don't.

When did translation enter the picture?
When I was writing my dissertation, I wrote about Northeastern writers up in Manchukuo, which no one else had been doing. I really sort of discovered Xiao Hong (萧红)—for us here in the States and even for people in China. They didn't know who she was either, really. She'd been lost, but now she's probably about the second most studied and written about writer from that period. Anyway, I translated some stuff by her, plus a piece by Xiao Jun (萧军), which was published, thanks to C.T. Hsia. And I said, “I really like doing this.” It was not a very good translation.

A lot of people first saw your work in Chen Jo-hsi's (陈若曦) The Execution of Mayor Yin (尹县长). How did that project come about?
Originally, Nancy Ing, who was the founding editor of Chinese Pen (Taiwan), was commissioned to do it. She did four of the stories, and then the publisher, Indiana University Press, said they needed to have a translator who wasn't from Taiwan because of the political ramifications. They also said they wanted a native speaker of English. I was an IU graduate, so they came to me. Then I did some Xiao Hong novels and did a few more for university presses over the course of several years while I was trying to get tenure at San Francisco State.

Did they give you tenure on the basis of your translations?
I'd done a lot of writing, and I'd published a book—not a very good one, but I'd published a book. Then one day Grove Press called me up and asked me, “Would you be interested in translating a novel by Zhang Jie (張洁)?” And I said, “Yes, of course.” This was back in the early 80s. That book did reasonably well, so then I decided that this was what I wanted to do.

It sounds like you did something you liked and people responded.
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'm not. 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.

Who do you translate for?
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.

What are some of the problems specific to translating from Chinese into English?
Not knowing Chinese well enough, not knowing English well enough. Actually, not knowing Chinese well enough isn't a big problem—you can always ask someone. You can ask your author, you can ask your friends. No, the thing that's really killing translation in our field is literalism. Too many translators are afraid of the text, especially when they're first starting out. And I understand that, because I was too. They're all afraid of the text. You need to overcome your fear of the text, put some distance between you and it. You have to because Chinese and English are so different. Take the use of the passive voice, for example, which just runs through the Chinese language. Five different agents for the passive voice! We only have one. And the Chinese use it all the time. It is part of the language, part of the way they express themselves. But if you use it that much in English—God!

So how do you handle linguistic problems like this?
My watchword is: did the Chinese writer write it that way for a particular purpose or did his language dictate it be that way? If it's the latter, then I put it into whatever my language dictates it should be. If I assume that it's idiosyncratic, that the author was trying to defamiliarize the text, to slow the reader down, then I try very much to capture that.

Fear of the text and literalism go hand in hand, don't they? And the translation suffers.
The Chinese novels that get translated without any care about good writing turn out to be crappy reads. They're often done by junior academics who have no feel for English, and who spent all of their time, as you and I did, learning how to speak and read Chinese. We didn't have time for anything else. I've spent all those years since then trying to catch up by reading good stuff in English. But many young academics don't have the time, and then they go to translate something, and they can't handle it—they believe in being literal. They read everything that comes out in Chinese—they read it all. And I want to say, “Stop! Don't read it all. Read something else. Get a sense of what English ought to be.”

Have you found editors here to be helpful with your own translations?
A good editor can help you out, but they're not always aware of the issues. We don't have editors who, number one, know Chinese, and number two, know what good translations are. In addition, they don't realize that a lot of Chinese fiction was hardly edited in the first place.

Why do you think so many books aren't edited well?
Editors are held in such low regard in China. They're no better than copy editors. And then there are the authors. One editor told me about the time a well-known writer brought in this great big brick of a novel. The writer handed it over and said just one thing: “Don't change a word” (一个字不改). Maybe Joyce could have said that to his editor, but I couldn't help thinking, “he's not that good.”

It sounds like you feel that writers have become too godly.
They suck so much oxygen out of the air there's nothing left for anyone else. The editors, the translators, and the publishers are just out of the picture. On the other hand, some writers who won't let anyone touch their original manuscripts can be easy going about translations. They'll say, “Go ahead, do what you want.”

Why do you suppose they're willing to relinquish control over the translated version?
Take Mo Yan (莫言), for example. I really appreciate his attitude about this. He can't read the English, and he says, “It's not my novel anymore, it's yours. It's got my name and my copyright, but it belongs to you.”

So, when it crosses over he's able to let go?
Absolutely. He knows what we're doing for him—we're making him an international figure. He's grateful for that. And he also understands that not everything that is accepted in China is going to be accepted in another country.

A lot of editors in the States these days are also very hands-off.
I don't need that. They're pros. That's what they're paid to do. That was what I really liked about doing Li Rui's (李锐) Silver City (银城故事)—the fact that my editors were so involved. At the same I think the worst feeling I ever had was when I saw their revisions to my translation of that novel. They were real literary people, and they did a lot, I mean a lot, so much so that it was embarrassing. But they told me, “You shouldn't be embarrassed. What you sent us was wonderful—it gave us something to work with. You should see some of the things we get.” And I'm thinking, “God, if people give you worse things than I did, you ought to check the suicide ledgers. I bet people are killing themselves over what you tell them.” And so the editor said to me, “How did we do?” And I said, “You did really well. Thank you very much, on behalf of the author.”

I wonder if it's only Chinese fiction that gets such a thorough overhaul.
Actually, no. A former colleague of mine, Steve Snyder, who translates a lot, did this long study on Haruki Murakami (村上春樹). Before I read that I thought that Chinese was the only literature in the world where editors, agents and publishers all sit down together and say, “Okay, this is a really nice novel. We're going to buy it, and now we're going to change it. We're going to shorten it. We're going to take this out, and we're going to take that out.” It turns out that other people do that too. I talk about this in an essay called, “Think Globally, Edit Locally,” the fact that we're editing what Chinese editors never thought of touching. You get these really cumbersome and awkward but actually brilliant books. But the problem is that some of the people who are bringing these books out in the US don't have a clue what to do—editors, publishers, agents. They'll say, “This is great—now the title has to go—we need a new title.” And I say, “Wow, it already has a title, actually.” There was one book, where I'd agreed to a new title, and the publisher asked me, “Can we make it shorter?” I actually said to my agent, “It's a 250-page novel. How short do they want it to be?” It was just a knee-jerk reaction on their part. They're so used to saying, “How can we make it shorter?”

Have you ever wanted to alter something significantly yourself?
Sure. There's a novel I was asked to translate, Cell Phone (手机), by Liu Zhenyun (刘震云), which I still hope to see published. In the original, the author starts off 30 years ago as a child and sets the scene. Next he does the contemporary text, and then he goes back to his grandmother's period. And that's all fine. But 40 pages into the novel an American would say, y'know this is really boring, and they'll put it down and never get to the real novel. I told the author I would take the first section of the second part, which is only six or eight pages, and put it at the beginning. So first you give it a contemporary setting, and then you do the flashback. The author agreed, and I was absolutely right about it—not because it made a difference in the quality of the novel, but because it made a difference in our ability to sell the novel. Because an American is going to sit there and is going to read eight or ten pages and say, “This is kind of interesting.” And then there's a flashback. “How long is the flashback? Oh, only 30 pages or so—that's not too long.” It'll make sense to them, and they'll get into it. They already know who this guy is. Most of them are just happy as can be. I sometimes wish that writers would think of it themselves, but Chinese writers are very chronological. They're married to the chronology.

That's a good point, and it's something I've noticed as well. Do you think that Chinese readers have different expectations of a work of fiction from Western readers, and that they're willing to give an author more leeway?
Absolutely. Partly because they believe that the writer can dictate the way things are said. And I think they had to read so much crap for so long that if they get something that's interesting they just can't let themselves put it down. They have no trouble with long, long, long novels—400,000- 500,000-word novels. They pick up a book and read it. I think they just assume that that's the way it should be. There's a tolerance, an acceptance quotient that I think the younger generation doesn't have and we don't have here in the West. We're not going to be that tolerant.

When I look at the works you've translated, especially the PRC fiction, I see a lot of historical fiction, or fiction with a historical sweep. Why this preoccupation with history?
First of all, I think that's what the generation of writers that I've been working with the most do best. I'm talking about writers like Mo Yan, Li Rui, Su Tong (苏童), but also Li Yongping (李永平) from Taiwan. They tend to be anti-historians, in terms of their view of China. They want to rewrite history, because they believe they've been fed a line of baloney, but they are historically anchored. The writers that have come to me, like A Lai (阿莱), simply like historical fiction; because I think so much of their own history has been taken from them in terms of truthfulness, and because China has always been absolutely obsessed with history. It's the old idea of wenshi bufen (文史不分), that literature and history are inseparable.

Do you think this preoccupation with the past has adversely affected their ability to write about the present?
Many Chinese novelists don't deal with contemporary values very well. In a lot of cases they've made this leap into representing a new cultural milieu—and Mian Mian (棉棉) probably does it as well as anyone—and they've had to take a lot of it from what they assumed the West—not just America—is all about. They haven't plagiarized, but they've done a lot of copying. But I think they're getting better; because they're saying, “We don't have to keep looking over there. We can just look here.” They have the tools now. They know how to do it. But I don't think the youngsters read enough. I think the problem is that the older generation read a lot but didn't spend enough time on their own craft—although some of them did. And now the young kids don't read enough, because they're too busy living, having a good time.

How well do you think contemporary Chinese novelists handle the depiction of social relations and the interior life?
Historical fiction is what they like to do the most, and I think that they write least well when they're dealing with things like normal human interaction. Have you read Ian McEwan's Saturday? It's a good novel. You really understand how these people deal with each other. In Chinese writing I don't see much of that. I don't think that they get far enough below the surface. They don't get into psychological possibilities, why things happen. I think they want to narrate what happens. And most of the negative reviews I get—except for those about how the translator probably ruined it—say that there's just no sense of getting below the surface, of what makes these people tick. We see what they've done but we're not altogether sure why they do it because Chinese culture doesn't encourage people to express their feelings. I'm probably going to do someone's autobiography—I won't say who—but I can tell you that she's done all of this wonderful stuff, and yet we never get to know her. There's an image that sticks with me. When I was in Harbin around '86 or '87, I saw a post-Cultural Revolution movie . . . something with a flower in the title . . .

Furong zhen” (芙蓉镇)?
Yeah, “Hibiscus Town.” Anyway, all the students at the university came to see it, and a half-dozen of us foreigners were there, too. It's a real tear jerker, and yet there were no tears shed. They just sat there and watched it impassively. I mentioned this to a woman student who was dating one of my American colleagues, and she told me, “We all went back to our rooms and cried our eyes out. But we weren't going to do it in a theater with everyone around us.” I'm going to have to tell this person whose autobiography I may translate, “If you're going to say you did a little dating, you're going to have to tell me how you felt. You're going to have to tell me what was going on, because American readers want to know that. Otherwise, they're going to say, ‘She's flat, she's not a real person.'”

You've translated so much. The number of books on your backlist of translations is stunning. What drives you? And what are you aiming for in your translations?
I translate mainly because I really don't think I could live without it. I don't have to do it every day, but I've invested myself in that and that's my identity. While I mainly translate for myself, my objective is to select stuff that I think deserves a second life and then give it as good a life as possible. And if the author is happy, I'm really happy. And if the author is less than happy, but the reader is happy, I can live with that. I don't think I've ever done anything that absolutely betrayed what the author has given me. I hope I haven't. But we need enrichment in our lives, and fiction is one of those things that helps.

One last question, Howard and I'll let you go. Earlier you mentioned negative reviews. How do you feel when you see one?
I've got ego too—when I'm cut I bleed. I hate reviews when they say bad things about me. But the problem is that I believe them. When they say good things I don't really believe them, but when they say bad things I always believe them.