Nobel translator taken to task

The man who has translated nearly all of Nobel Prize-winner Gao Xingjian's work, Goran Malmqvist, is put through his paces by one of the leading critics

By Cao Chang-ching 曹長青
The Taipei Times
Saturday, February 17th, 2001

It is highly unusual that four months after the announcement of last year's Nobel Prize in literature, Gao Xingjian (高行健), the first Chinese ever to win the prize, has yet to be the subject of an in-depth Chinese-language review that thoroughly explains the literary and artistic values of his two novels on which the Nobel Prize is principally based.
The prize generated worldwide criticism from Chinese authors and critics and raised arguments and doubts about the selection of last year's winner. Trying to gain a better understanding of the affair, I interviewed one of the key figures who helped place the Nobel crown on Gao's head; Goran Malmqvist (馬悅然) .

As Gao's most enthusiastic supporter, Malmqvist translated from Chinese into Swedish all of Gao's short stories, two novels and 14 of his 18 plays, a total of 95 percent of Gao's works. It is fair to say that Gao would not have won the Nobel without Malmqvist's support and translations.

Malmqvist was born in 1924 and began to study Chinese in 1946, according to The History of Swedish Sinology, a book published in China and which was praised for its accuracy by Malmqvist himself. Malmqvist is an authority on classical Chinese literature and Sichuan dialects. He began to pay attention to modern Chinese literature in the early 1980s and has campaigned for Chinese writers to win the Nobel ever since he was elected a member of the Swedish Academy in 1985.

As Sweden's most prominent sinologist, Malmqvist has translated as many as 700 pieces of Chinese works into Swedish, most of them ancient classics. In recent years, Malmqvist has paid special attention to three Chinese writers, Gao Xingjian, Li Rui (李銳) and Bei Dao (北島). He has translated three major works by Li Rui and all of Bei Dao's poetry.

Last year's Nobel Prize in literature is as much a triumph for Malmqvist as it is for Gao. Readers in Taiwan have heard much about Gao in the last two weeks. Learning Malmqvist's views on Gao's works, however, might be a fresh perspective for those interested in Gao's writing.

Cao: Was a Chinese candidate considered for the Nobel prize this year because no Chinese-language writer had won the prize in its 100-year history? Was this a factor in giving the prize to Gao Xingjian?

Malmqvist: It was certainly a consideration.

C: Was Gao weighed for the prize purely in terms of literary merit?

M: Yes. Literary merit was the sole criterion.

C: If the evaluation was made in accordance with literary merit, where do you think Gao's works surpass those of V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and Philip Roth? Their works have been listed among the best 100 English-language novels.

M: We don't worry about this. The 18 members (of the Swedish Academy) decide who wins the Nobel prize for literature, and we do not listen to what others say. We don't care about this. No one can influence us. No matter who says Rushdie should get it, Roth should get it, Naipaul should get it, we simply don't listen!

C: You translated Soul Mountain(靈山) into Swedish before the Chinese edition was published. Don't you think you should have listened to the opinions of Chinese critics on both sides of the Taiwan Strait before concluding that it is "a work impossible to compare with anything but itself?"

M: I don't care about other people's criticisms of Soul Mountain at all. I have my own critique. I don't listen to other people telling me how it should be. Besides, there were very few criticisms of Gao before he won the prize.

C: Didn't you want to wait for opinions from critics in China before making a decision?

M: Why should I wait? I didn't wait until other people said -- until a certain critic from China said Soul Mountain was a good novel and should be translated. I simply didn't listen to other people. I decided on my own.

C: Some believe Soul Mountain is not a conventional novel and not a modernist novel. Then to what genre of novel do you think it belongs?

M: It is not a conventional novel or a modernist one. It is a very special, unique novel -- a kind of novel that has never existed before.

C: You said it is a special and unique kind of novel. Then how is it different from the world's existing literary schools?

M: He is himself and he doesn't listen to other people. He writes for himself.

C: Gao said Soul Mountain manifests three kinds of culture: Taoist and Buddhist culture, folk culture, and a culture of pure Eastern spirit represented by Laozi's (老子) and Zhuangzi's (莊子) philosophies, the metaphysical (玄學) philosophy of the Wei and Jin dynasties, and Zen. Do you believe it manifests these three cultures? Do you think one novel can manifest these three kinds of cultures which developed over several thousand years in China?

M: Certainly. He writes about a Chinese society not influenced by Confucianism. Gao is very interested in the primal culture of the Chu (楚) state.

C: But the Soul Mountain I read was all about folklore, hearsay and miscellaneous materials, without a system to express these three cultures.

M: Without a system? Gao is not so interested in systematic narratives. But [the novel] contains many anecdotes about some ancient things, magic, Zen, and Buddhist things that he saw. He wrote about things that he encountered.

C: Some believe One Man's Bible (一個人的聖經) is weak intellectually and Gao falls far short of Milan Kundera and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in his understanding of the Cultural Revolution and communism. Do you agree with such an evaluation?

M: I don't agree. In my view, One Man's Bible is a confession. "He" in the book is the author during the Cultural Revolution. I think he wrote mercilessly, describing the three different roles he played in the Cultural Revolution. It was very, very candid. He despised the rebels; he despised the oppressed; he despised the onlookers.

C: Do you believe Gao's views on communism in One Man's Bible are superior to those of Kundera and Solzhenitsyn?

M: It's hard to say. But I admire Gao very much. He ... candidly and mercilessly introduced to the readers the roles he played in the Cultural Revolution. He is very courageous -- truly courageous -- and very honest and sincere too.

C: But some have pointed out that descriptions of the Cultural Revolution in One Man's Bible are rather shallow, and even inferior to works from the early 1980s about the Cultural Revolution, like Dai Houying's (戴厚英) Oh! Human, Human! (人啊人), Zheng Yi's (鄭義) Maple (楓) and Old Well (老井), and Gu Hua's (古華) Small Town Called Hibiscus (芙蓉鎮), and so on.

M: Those are all "scar" literature (傷痕文學). Gao's works have nothing to do with scar literature. The purpose of Gao's One Man's Bible is not to write a history of the Cultural Revolution. His purpose is to tell the readers the roles he played -- three different roles. It is not a history of the Cultural Revolution. He wrote about himself, with the Cultural Revolution as a backdrop.

C: Some believe that the understanding of freedom in One Man's Bible is limited to egocentric sexual freedom. Do you think this kind of understanding is identical to Western society's understanding of freedom?

M: It's perhaps different because Westerners have not experienced the Cultural Revolution that Gao did. Our views of freedom may not be identical to Gao's. There may be some differences.

C: Both in One Man's Bible and in Soul Mountain, all the female lead characters complain that the male protagonist only use their bodies, that he only wants sex but not emotion, much less love. The women I know who have read the book are all angry about Gao's contempt for women. You have probably seen Australian Sinologist Linda Jaivin's review of the English version of Soul Mountain. She thinks Gao simply looks down on women. How do you see this issue?

M: I disagree. I disagree.

C: Don't you think this is an evasion of responsibility toward women?

M: It is. It is.

C: Then it is very different from the responsibility toward humanity stressed by Kenzaburo Oe (大江健三郎) and Gunter Grass. It also appears to be incompatible with the idealistic spirit of the Nobel prize, doesn't it?

M: We in the Swedish Academy have long ignored the idealistic direction stated by Alfred Nobel because we are not very clear what he said exactly. If he were an anarchist, then Gao would be a writer very much compatible with the idealistic direction.

C: Both Oe and Grass put great emphasis on responsibility, but Gao is different.

M: Gao is not willing to shoulder this responsibility. He writes for himself. He is not going to save society, save people. He lives for himself. As he said, he would rather come adrift and go adrift, leaving no traces. He is a person who lives and writes for the individual.

C: Then do you agree to the claims that Gao evades political responsibility and an individual's ethical responsibility?

M: This is his decision. This is his life style.

C: Then as a reader and a member of the evaluation committee, how would you evaluate it?

M: I cannot reject his kind of lifestyle. It is something he decides for himself. He wants to be so and he is so.

C: You said the book is a confession. Do you believe there is indeed an awareness of penitence in the book?

M: I believe so, even though Gao himself may disagree.

C: You said One Man's Bible is a confession and the "he" in the book points to the experience of the Cultural Revolution. Do you think this "he" is remorseful about the rebel's role he played in that episode?

M: (pause) I believe he is, but Gao may disagree with my view.

C: Can remorse be compatible with an evasion of responsibility?

M: Gao wrote One Man's Bible and dispensed with the Cultural Revolution. He doesn't want to think about it anymore. He doesn't want to write about it anymore. He has resolved it, he has thrown it away.

C: Some believe that the prose of One Man's Bible is extremely coarse. In China, such a novel certainly would have been rejected (by publishers). How do you answer to such an appraisal?

M: I don't agree with such a view.... But when China's foreign ministry heard the news (of Gao winning the prize), they said at once that the Swedish Academy had selected Gao Xingjian because he was French on the one hand and because the Academy was politically motivated on the other. The (Chinese) Writers' Association came out and said, "We have at least 200 writers who are better than Gao." They simply haven't read his works and don't know what he writes about.

C: But the people who raised the criticisms had read his works and they were also against the Chinese government. Some have criticized that One Man's Bible is all descriptions of the mechanics of sex. Do you believe the book has any descriptions of sexual psychology?

M: This is their view. I disagree. I let them have their view.

C: Among the descriptions of relations between the sexes in One Man's Bible, which sections made a particularly deep impression on you?

M: They didn't leave a deep impression.

C: When you were interviewed by the Taiwan media, you said, "Gao understands women extremely well. His ability to deeply grasp human nature is very rare, not just among Chinese writers but also in the West." The American writer Henry James has many works describing women. Do you really think Gao's descriptions of women surpass his?

M: I know. I'm not well read. However ...

C: You feel that Western writers can't necessarily match Gao's descriptions of women.

M: That's right. But I'm not a woman. (laughs) I'm guessing.

C: The Guardian has written that Gao's play Bus Stop (車站) is an imitation of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot.

M: Of course he was influenced by Beckett. Gao's early plays, like Bus Stop, are obviously concerned with the same subject matter as Waiting for Godot. Gao himself acknowledges this. Gao's early plays were influenced by Western drama, but I believe in the future, Western drama will be influenced by Gao. This is a certainty. He makes use of three different personal pronouns -- I, you, and he -- to indicate a single person. This is a new technique, one that others haven't used before. I believe that in the future, Western playwrights will discover this is an extremely useful technique.

C: You don't feel that he imitates others too much? For instance, the way Bus Stop imitated Waiting for Godot?

M: No, no, no. Influence is not necessarily negative. Look at how Li Rui's (蛹 Tree in the Still Air (無風之樹) and Cloudless Sky (萬里無雲) are somewhat similar to (William) Faulkner's works in style. This doesn't mean that Li was imitating Faulkner. He was just influenced by Faulkner.

C: Some people say that Gao's play Fugitives (逃亡) imitated Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit.

M: I haven't read it.

C: There is a passage in Soul Mountain with no punctuation. Some people say he was imitating Ulysses.

M: No, no. Not at all. This is a kind of stream of consciousness monologue. It's something Gao began using long ago.

C: You once said that you haven't read the works of Zhang Wei (張煒) and Zhang Chengzhi (張承志). Is that right?

M: I believe I haven't. I've read a lot of things, but ah ....

C: Have you read either of the two major works by Zheng Yi (鄭義) -- Scarlet Memorial (紅色紀念碑) and Holy Tree (神樹) -- published after he went into exile in the US?

M: I read his work about cannibalism (Scarlet Memorial). I haven't read Holy Tree.

C: Have you read Notes of a Desolate Man (荒人手記) by the Taiwanese author Chu Tien-wen (朱天文)?

M: I haven't read it. I'm not that familiar with Taiwanese fiction and drama. I'm more familiar with Taiwanese poetry.

C: I don't want to evaluate these authors. Rather, I just want to ask how you dare conclude that Gao's Soul Mountain is a work "impossible to compare with anything but itself" if there are still quite a few works by fairly influential Chinese authors that you haven't read? How do you know that those works you haven't read are necessarily inferior to Gao's?

M: (pause) Gao is the only one, the only one who writes short stories, novels, plays, has made excellent contributions to literary theory, extremely great contributions, and also has made great contributions to Chinese drama. He is the most versatile author writing in Chinese in the present era. No one writing in Chinese can compare with him because his work are all encompassing.

C: Could it be said that Gao's prose also surpasses the above-mentioned authors?

M: That's hard to say. I feel that Li Rui's prose, his language, and his style are superb. He can perfectly capture the language used by the poor peasants in Shanxi.

C: Your frequent mention of Li Rui reminds me of the Xinshan (新山) literary symposium held in January of last year. At that symposium, Li Rui stated that Cao Xueqin (曹雪芹) was a greater writer than Shakespeare. Do you agree with this assessment of his? M: One is a playwright. The other is a novelist. It's hard to compare. Suppose. I were to ask you, do you like apples or spicy noodles? These things can't be compared.

C: You once extolled the Shanxi author Cao Naiqian (曹乃謙) as a writer of genius. Why?

M: His writings are very difficult to find. I have a few- mostly translations. He is a writer from Shanxi who works as a policeman in Taiyuan. In Shanxi Literature (山西文學) he published some extremely short pieces, just a few hundred words in length. He can completely depict a person's life, several people's lives, in just a few hundred words.

C: Cao's works can be openly published in China. As pure literature, they don't run into political conflict with the authorities. In the past, you have expressed dissatisfaction with China's literary circles for not taking him seriously. Is it really possible that none of the literary critics in China are able to recognize his genius?

M: This doesn't concern me. I don't care what China's critics think of Cao. I have my own point of view, and I think Cao is a writer of genius.

C: Some people feel your choice of works and authors is relatively subjective. How do you treat this kind of appraisal?

M: Of course it is subjective! Of course it is subjective! How could it be an objective point of view?

C: And you don't pay any attention whatsoever to the opinions of the Chinese literary critics? Not even for reference?

M: I don't care. They don't concern me. Their opinions don't influence me in the slightest. Why should I be influenced by them? If they say Gao is no good, Gao is an inferior writer, I let them have their point of view. But they won't influence me.

C: The Los Angeles Times published an essay criticizing you. In the letter to the editor that you wrote in response to that essay, you said, "Soul Mountain, in my mind is the greatest novel of the 20th century."

M: Yes.

C:Doesn't this amount to saying that Cao's work surpasses the masterpieces of this century such as Joyce's Ulysses, Kafka's works, and Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time?

M: I meant to speak of Chinese novels.

C: But that quote clearly said, "the greatest novel of the 20th century."

M: I think it should say, "the greatest Chinese novel of the 20th century." This may be my own mistake.

C: You consider Gao's Soul Mountain to be,"the greatest Chinese novel of the century." Is it comparable then to the greatest novel of the century, Ulysses?

M: No. They can't be compared.

C: Could we say that Gao is nowhere near Joyce's equal?

M: I wouldn't presume to say that. Their styles are completely different.

C: In the past, you primarily researched ancient Chinese and Chinese dialects. Then, in the early 1980s, you began to translate works of contemporary Chinese literature. Ancient Chinese and contemporary literature are two completely different fields. Do you think you have been able to achieve an overall mastery of contemporary Chinese literature?

M: No.

C: Aren't you being too modest?

M: No. Because my time is limited, and my energy is limited.... I put a lot of effort into studying the works of a few contemporary Chinese authors, translating their pieces. People like Gao Xingjian, Li Rui, Bei Dao.

C: Among the 18 members of the Swedish Academy, only you understand Chinese. Is that right?

M: Yes. I'm the only one who understands Chinese.

C: So in the process of evaluating and selecting Gao, your opinion was of critical importance?

M: Naturally I reported to them quite a number of times - internal reports. I reported about contemporary Chinese literature, not just Gao Xingjian. I also gave quite a few reports about Gao's literary works. That's how it has been for the last few years.

C: Do you consider Gao to be an original writer?

M: He's an extremely original writer.... Every author is influenced by other authors. This is inevitable. It's also a good thing.

Cao Chang-ching is a writer and journalist based in New York.

Translated by Ethan Harkness and Francis Huang

2001-02-17 (轉載請指明出處)

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