Literary Prowess Lost: On Mo Yan’s ‘Frog’ and the Trouble with Translation

There is a famous saying from Mao Zedong that all students of Chinese learn early into their studies: 好好学习天天向上 (haohao xuexi tiantian xiangshang), which implores students to apply themselves every day if they hope to improve and rise up. 好好学习 天天向上 (haohao xuexi tiantian xiangshang) functions because of its rhythm. It plays with the flexibility of characters in Chinese, which are monosyllabic. Its literal translation, however, “good good study, day day up” is essentially meaningless. The Chinese often hold this example up as a reason why their language is so hard for foreigners to study. Often it just doesn’t translate.

Chinese is a much more flexible language than English, which makes it beautiful to study but a nightmare to translate. I recently saw a post on 微信 (weixin), Chinese Twitter, that left me stumped. The title was 最近有活动 (zuijin you huodong). The final three characters mean “an event,” but the first two, 最近 (zuijin), can mean either recent or upcoming. So I had no idea from the post whether the person was celebrating the fact that there had recently been an event or whether he or she was promoting an upcoming one.

The flexibility and playfulness of the Chinese language is in full force In Mo Yan’s latest novel, Frog. Mo Yan controversially won the Nobel Prize in 2012, being simultaneously lauded at home by the ruling CCP and criticized abroad for not adequately distancing himself from that same party. That he has published critical books, such as Red Sorghum, and even called for the release of fellow Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobao (albeit only once) seemed to elude the critical voices. His new book, therefore, is released under something of a cloud.

As is typical of his novels, Frog takes place in North Gaomi township, which is his own hometown, a small city in Shandong province in northeast China. It takes on the politically sensitive topic of forced abortions under the infamous “One Child Policy” and simultaneously charts the fortunes of multiple generations of residents, from those who suffer from the great famine caused by the Great Leap Forward in the 1960s to the “sweet potato” generation born after, who become teenagers in a China tentatively embracing capitalism. It’s a nuanced portrait of China and hardly a paean to the CCP. Still despite its ambition, it isn’t without its problems, particularly in translation.

Frogs are omnipresent. As a repeated metaphor, it can seem a bit strange — lacking the weight of kitsch in Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being or the whimsical beauty of balloons in Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life. In a review for The Guardian, Isabel Hilton states that the reasoning behind calling the book Frog is the “meandering connection Mo Yan makes between human sperm, early stage embryos, tadpoles and bullfrogs that is woven through a novel concerned primarily with the importance of love and life.” Other reviewers have dwelt on the notion of the frog as a symbol of fertility in Eastern cultures and on quotes from the text such as, “The croaking of frogs is often described in terms of drumbeats…But the cries that night were infused with a sense of resentment and of grievance, as if the souls of countless murdered infants were hurling accusations.”

Although these reasons are all valid in their own way, they result from the flatness of the translation. The word frog in Chinese is 蛙 (wā), while the word for child is 娃 (wá). Frogs are omnipresent in the text and haunt Gugu, a village obstetrician who rabidly enacts China’s infamous family planning policy and is thus responsible for thousands of abortions. The beauty of the metaphor lies in the ambiguity between these two similar sounding words. If we substitute the word frog for child, then the constant references to frogs throughout becomes haunting.

At one point in the novel, Gugu, returning after a night of drinking with friends, is chased by frogs. In the English translation, she is initially unsettled by the sound of croaking reverberating “as if the cries of infants” before eventually being chased by “an incalculable number of frogs.” But in Chinese, both the cries of frogs and children are also 哇 (wā). So in the Chinese original, this paragraph hangs on the inflections of these three wa sounds. If we see Gugu as chased by the ghostly wails of the children she has aborted, as opposed to the mere croaks of frogs, then the scene takes on the gravity and weight appropriate for a Nobel Prize winner. The way the meanings interweave due to their similar pronunciation is ethereal and translucent — and entirely lost in the English translation.

Without understanding the similarity between the Wa sounds that appear throughout the novel, the metaphor of frogs seems labored and bizarre. Without context, the constant recurrence of frogs is arbitrary. Rather, in the original, the metaphor of frogs is multifaceted and beautifully subtle. It’s thus strange that the book only makes a passing reference to this, embedded within the text, glossed over in a single sentence in the latter third. There is no translator’s note prefacing the work, which is limiting for readers unfamiliar with Chinese.

Why then is such a note missing from Frog? It’s no doubt intentional and stylistic. Excessive footnoting not only disrupts texts but also can turn fictional works into something resembling an academic thesis. To explain the intentional ambiguity in the text is also problematic, as it would break down the natural flow and could sound patronizing (it would obviously sound ridiculous to state that Gugu was chased by “an incalculable number of frogs, a word which sounds a lot like ‘child’ in the original Chinese”).

Howard Goldblatt, the translator, has chosen to stick to the flow of the original and not encumber it with excessive intrusions from the translator. While laudable, this means that some of the most interesting aspects of the prose remain out of reach for the average reader of the work in translation.

There are further issues, but these are more systemic and common to all works of Chinese fiction in translation. Most translation is done by sinologists, who come from a thoroughly academic background. Goldblatt, who has dedicated a life to translation, is regarded rightly as the foremost translator of Chinese into English. He has translated more than 50 books and received numerous translation prizes.

Yet utter proficiency and experience in a foreign language is not tantamount to literary prowess. Roy Harris argued in the Times Literary Supplement that today, “the translator’s primary function is no longer mimetic but analytical.” This being the case, the translator draws as much from unique life experiences, wide reading, and a deeply embedded knowledge of both the culture he is translating from and the one he is translating into. The problem however is that the vast majority of translation comes from within the academy (Goldblatt has a PhD and taught for many years at Notre Dame), which means that sometimes though the translations are mimetic, they are too formal and stodgy to be accurate portrayals of the texts themselves. This is certainly the case in Frog, in which many of the characters, despite being farmers and lacking formal education, often sound as if they too have PhDs. It’s a catch-22: To be proficient enough in the language to be an accurate translator requires a high level of education, but just such an education can cripple the ability of the translator to render the text accurately.

Goldblatt is so totemic and the universe of literary translators from Chinese to English is so small that often there is only one translation for literary texts. When languages have a similar linguistic root (i.e. Latin for romance languages), cognizant words, and similar grammatical structures, then translation should be straightforward. The measure of a good translation of French to English is that one could translate the English back into French and arrive at largely the same text as the original. The same is not true in translating from Chinese to English because the languages are so fundamentally different. Translation is largely subjective. If one were to translate back from the English into the Chinese, the text would only vaguely resemble the original, like the hazy outlines of a skyscraper in smog. This is problematic because the average reader only has Goldblatt’s subjective decisions to go by. It’s impossible to arrive at a consensus of how Mo Yan should sound in English when there is only one translation that we can go from.

This is why flawed aspects of the text, such as characterization, become so frustrating. The characters in Frog suffer not just from sounding overly formal, but also from the translation of key phrases that makes them sound like literary constructs, not human beings. Take this sentence, “Money is nothing; it’s as transient as floating clouds.” Undoubtedly beautiful and poetic, it nonetheless sounds bizarre coming from a peasant farmer in response to his friend. It’s a direct translation of the word 浮云 (fuyun), which does mean floating clouds and is often used metaphorically in the context of aspirational desires such as money and fame. But was Goldblatt right to not dilute the translation in this context? It’s far more likely that the character, were his native language English, would respond something along the lines of “Don’t worry about money; it comes and goes.” This construction is undoubtedly less interesting, but it’s also more authentic. Chinese often has multiple levels of translation. A surface level translation retains the original form and the metaphor intact, while a deeper level gives the meaning straight and without the flowery symbolism of the original. 浮云 (fuyun) thus goes from “transient as floating clouds” to “temporary” or “ephemeral.” What’s crucial is the context. Were 浮云 (fuyun) not directly reported speech, then the surface level translation is beautiful and worth retaining. As speech between farmers, a deeper level would have been more appropriate.

What’s more jarring is that there are multiple instances in the text of characters dismissing things as “floating clouds,” which to a western reader makes the author seem lazy and grasping for metaphors. There is an ontological difference in what constitutes great writing between Chinese and English. Chinese writing values the ability to deploy 成语 (chengyu), four character idioms which come from canonical works or poems. English on the other hand has no such affinity for tradition and rabidly eschews cliché.

Take the following hypothetical: My room is a mess. Were I to describe it in a literary context in Chinese, I would say it’s 乱七八糟 (luan qi ba zao) or seven parts chaos, eight parts spoiled. In English, however, were I to say, “My room is a disaster area,” it would be seen as lazy and painfully clichéd. This sort of criticism plagued the reception of The Goldfinch, with Francine Prose in The New York Review of Books highlighting clichés such as “Theo’s high school friend Tom’s cigarette is ‘only the tip of the iceberg'” or “The bomb site is a ‘madhouse.’” A crucial subjective decision is made over the translation of these idioms. Does one choose a similar idiom or quote in English and risk sounding clichéd, or does one get inventive and risk being unfaithful to the text? I would capture some of 乱七八糟’s (luan qi ba zao) vividness by describing my room as “covered in clothes scattered as haphazardly as falling snow,” but that is neither a faithful nor direct translation.

Kundera quotes his Italian publisher Roberto Calasso, as saying, “The mark of a good translation is not its fluency but rather all those unusual and original formulations that the translator has been bold enough to preserve and defend.” There is certainly something to be said for this, but in Frog the inclusion of original formations is overdone and makes the text heavy and unwieldy. There happens to be a 成语 (chengyu) for this: 画龙点睛 (hualongdianjing). It translates as “adding the pupils to a painting of a dragon,” in other words, to put the finishing touches to bring a work of art to life. Original formations, when over done, are not merely dotting the “i”s; they are scribbling over the original outline and intention of the work.

Without multiple translations of the same work, it’s impossible to adequately evaluate the author. To what extent Mo Yan writes in clichés or to what extent it’s a tic of the translator is not a judgment call that the average reader can make. This means that placing him alongside authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kundera, and Haruki Murakami is difficult. Although all of the authors are themselves presented to an Anglophone audience in translation, there are at least multiple translations available. In the case of Kundera, the imprecision of translation drove him to such despair that he spent years correcting the translations of his own work into the four languages he can read.

Both Mo Yan and Marquez have received the Nobel Prize for literature, while Kundera and Murakami are regularly tapped as potential winners (Murakami was odds on favorite to win the 2014 prize according to the British bookmaker Ladbrokes). What is important to note is that unlike the other denizens of magical realism, we only ever see Mo Yan’s work through the prism of Howard Goldblatt. In that case, it seems unfair to make a comparison and to evaluate his oeuvre. As Goldblatt himself noted in an interview with The LA Review of Books, “What the reader has in her hands is a facsimile of the original work.” We should therefore see multiple facsimiles, and then we can decide on Mo Yan’s true place within literature.

Literature is important in providing nuanced and divergent interpretations of a country so often rendered in stark black and white terms. Translating a country as vast and diverse as China to a wider audience may be Sisyphean, or it may be 精卫填海 (Jiangweitianhai) or like a bird trying to fill the ocean with pebbles. Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from the plurality of voices emerging from China today is not what separates our cultures, but how ontologically similar they are. For every Sisyphus and his bolder, there is a 精卫 and his pebbles.

It’s thus a sad systemic irony that many great novels from contemporary China, which are so crucial in providing a sounding board for the diversity of the Chinese experience, suffer from being the sole preserve of one translator. Until the field opens dramatically, much of what is being said will be lost in translation.