Because of the mirror I cannot touch the me-inside-the mirrorBecause of the mirror I get to meet the me-inside-the mirror —Yisang, “Mirror,” translated from Korean by Jack Jung
God has created nighttime, which he armsWith dreams, and mirrors, to make clearTo man he is a reflection and a mereVanity. Therefore these alarms. —Jorge Luis Borges, “Mirrors,” translated from Portuguese by Mildred Boyer and Harold Morland
Sometimes it takes a probeand a camera’s eye to show you
what you’re looking for. —Maureen Doallas, “How Argument Go.”
Many people, especially during their teenage years, spend a lot of time gazing at themselves in the mirror. One of my dorm-mates in high school was a pretty dancer. One day she started to get up an hour earlier every morning—the reason, she said, was to study. She did get up early, but she spent that extra hour looking in the mirror and combing her hair. Boys do similar things, too. Walking to the cafeteria during high school, I occasionally passed by a boy: Feet glued to the hallway, he held a stainless-steel spoon and kept glancing at the reflection of his face.
I never took a fancy to mirrors. They bear ill omens in childhood stories. Narcissus, in Greek mythology, grows infatuated with his reflection in the water and eventually dies of unrequited love. The magic mirror in Snow White stirs up the queen’s jealousy and causes a series of misfortunes to befall the innocent princess. My fear of mirrors developed when I turned 14. Two weeks after a friend broke her mirror at lunch break, she was diagnosed with leukemia. That night I did some googling and found that breaking a mirror was considered bad luck in many cultures. I knew I was being superstitious, but immediately checked all three mirrors my mother kept at home to make sure they were stable.
I don’t know whether this is related, but whenever I hear people say great literary works “mirror” society, I pause. The mirror analogy seems universal and timeless. A genre of literature known as Specula Principum became popular in Western Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Specula Principum, which translates to Mirrors for Princes, provided political instructions for rulers. One of the most famous compilations of Chinese history completed in Song Dynasty (1084 AD) is titled Zizhi Tongjian or Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government.
Last year, Shanghai Translation Publishing House, a leading press in China, asked me to translate Mystery and Manners and The Habit of Being for their forthcoming project, The Complete Works of Flannery O’Connor. I was surprised to find that in her time (the 1950s), American critics and readers wanted to enforce an orthodoxy of sorts on fiction writing:
They demand a realism of fact which may, in the end, limit rather than broaden the novel’s scope. They associate the only legitimate material for long fiction with the movement of social forces, with the typical, with fidelity to the way things look and happen in normal life. (“Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction”)
In the same essay, O’Connor quoted Van Wyck Brooks, a literary critic, biographer, and historian, who called for literature to return to its “traditional” role as a “mirror and guide for society.” To O’Connor, such literature would only “satisfy tired readers” and flatten the originality of the American Southern voice. Interestingly though, the same orthodoxy is actually the literary tradition in China that still prevails today. All the best contemporary works in Chinese are about typical characters involved in big social movements. To Live by Yu Hua chronicles the fate of Fu Gui, an average Chinese man, during the Cultural Revolution. The Red Sorghum by Mo Yan revolves around a group of peasants fighting Japanese invaders during World War II.
As a writer, I—like all other responsible citizens—agree that we need to be socially engaged. But something feels wrong about the aforementioned demand: first the words “typical,” and “social forces.” These terms suggest the life of an individual is unimportant unless it is tied to social movements, and that the artistic elements of fiction are only a vehicle for the work’s larger societal message. Second, the word “fidelity.” I never really liked that word. In her essay “Erasing the Signs of Labor under the Signs of Happiness: ‘Joy’ and ‘Fidelity’ as Bromides in Literary Translation,” poet and translator Sophie Collins discusses the feminine connotation of the word fidelity—women are required to be faithful to men. Fidelity implies a subordinate nature: Translations are asked to be the handmaids of the original texts, fiction that of reality, society, and nation.
I can see why the mirror analogy persists. The reflection of a mirror is objective, dehumanized, and thus faithful. But that doesn’t work in fiction writing (or in nonfiction writing). Art is a selective process, and selection is inherently subjective. If we require writers to exactly follow the orthodoxy, to record the “typical” in a “faithful” fashion, then we are done with fiction.
For the contemporary American reader who respects and cherishes original voices, perhaps there is no need to defend the importance of writers’ subjective feelings. But subjectivity doesn’t only involve insight and point of view. It also contains presupposition and judgment. We are now more conscious of racism, homophobia, and sexism in older American works of literature; and we demand a more faithful representation of minorities in present-day writing. So, the idea of fiction as a mirror endures—writers should be fair, balanced, and objective.
In practice, being fair often turns into being generous. Writers may feel obligated to “correct” for the prejudices of the past. They believe that their writing should reflect their values or group identity. Feminists may avoid showing any female character that is too frail or emotional; minority writers feel the urge to present a positive picture of their ethnic group. As a result, fidelity takes the form of loyalty; art serves as the handmaid of collective values.
In August 2018, after my op-ed was published in The New York Times, I was targeted by cyber bullies. I wrote the piece two days after I learned of my mother’s stroke. Grief, guilt, and grievance overwhelmed me; I couldn’t help but unleash my feelings on the page. I criticized the pragmatic tendency of Chinese culture and medical institutions that are dominated by nepotism and wealth. My Weibo account, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, was soon filled with hundreds of angry and hateful comments. My countrymen called me a “traitor” who “drank her mom’s blood to lip the American dick.”
After the storm passed, I told my friends at home I didn’t care what people had said. But that was a lie. For four months, I wasn’t able to write down a single Chinese word. My English writing also became difficult. I kept torturing myself with the following questions:
1) Was I smearing my country?
2) For whom was I writing?
3) Was my writing contributing to my country anymore?
And soon I had the answers:
1) No. All the points in my essay were facts.
2) When I write in English, I write for readers who speak that language.
3) Probably not.
The last answer killed me. Growing up in China, I had been taught to be patriotic and responsible. What value does my writing have if it doesn’t do my country any good?
In my darkest moment, I started reading Philip Roth, the great American author who, as Brett Ashley Kaplan puts it, was once considered an “enemy” by his fellow Jewish people. Roth’s characters are not pleasant. Take Goodbye, Columbus, his first major work. The Patimkins are filthy rich and snobbish, while Neil’s working-class family seem like boorish fools. But because the portrait is so raw, I can relate to Neil’s desire to fit in with the upper-middle class Jewish American community. Aunt Gladys sounds exactly like my working-class relatives in Shanghai. I understand Neil’s feelings about living with her—he fears being drowned in the unintellectual life that he despises, and he is afraid that all his hard work will come to nothing. Neil is not pleasant either: He bears the defects of both sides. Reading Roth, I know I am Neil, and Neil is me.
I probably sound like I was seeking legitimacy in Roth’s work. Perhaps I was. But I recall my days as a writer in Chinese. After my first collection, People Grow Old, But Never Die, came out in 2014, a friend brought her husband to meet me after a reading. It turned out we’d gone to the same high school. We talked about our shared memories and had a very good time. He said he couldn’t wait to read my stories. Two days later, he was the first person who posted a negative comment online. My friend told me that the dark picture of the neighborhood in my book offended him.
Back then I didn’t question whether my stories were a faithful representation of the lower-class Shanghainese, because, like many authors, my first book is largely autobiographical.
Take “A Sick Tooth,” the short story that earned me a China Times Literary Award in Taiwan in 2011. The father is useless and timid, like my father; the mother extremely economical and pragmatic, like my mother. They are good people, only stricken with poverty. But, looking back, I wonder what good that story did for my city, Shanghai. Or for my parents. As Czeslaw Milosz’s famous quote goes: “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”
But my Shanghai stories never aroused controversy; the readers who enjoy my book find in it their own images, not happy ones though, mostly their deep-buried woes and sorrows. Will the image of Shanghai and Shanghainese be tarnished by my stories? I would not be arrogant enough to think so. The question of whether my stories were useful to my city never arose while I was writing. Lost in a world of insults and curses that people hurled at me last year, I forgot the nature of art. Art is good in and of itself, as Thomas Aquinas puts it. For all my writing, I am performing painful self-reflection and I would be grateful if my readers would do the same after reading my work.
Back in my school days, Japanese horror stories were very popular. There was one titled “Miss Mirror.” One day, a young doctor works the night shift. While washing her hands in the restroom, she sings spells into a mirror. Soon, the image of a ghost appears in the mirror. After I came to the States, I learned about the legend of Bloody Mary. If you chant her name into a mirror, she will emerge.
These thoughts about mirrors came to me randomly, while I was still considering my writing identity. It struck me that I do hope my writing serves as a mirror, not an ordinary one, but a magic mirror that can summon ghosts. I have a theory about the abundance of ghost-in-mirror stories around the world: The ghost is not “the other;” when we look at ourselves long enough, we see our own grotesqueness.
Humans are born self-centered. If I don’t remind myself of the dark and ugly side that I have, I would become a narcissistic being, like in Greek mythology. I need the magic mirror on the wall to tell me the fairest girl is someone else. I may end up feeling unhappy, but at least I can have true self-knowledge. The same can be said of every individual, social group, generation, culture, and nation. As Flannery O’Connor said it, “The first product of self-knowledge is humility, and this is not a virtue conspicuous in any national character.”
In real life, I am all for inclusion and acceptance, for political correctness, that American obsession. I owe everything I have here to social justice advocates. But sometimes I wonder: What would be Philip Roth’s fate if he were a young writer today?
Author and professor Brian Morton, in his essay “Virginia Woolf? Snob! Richard Wright? Sexist! Dostoyevsky? Anti-Semite,” points out today’s college students’ tendency to condemn canonical authors for moral failings. I love the comparison he draws between reading literature of the past and time traveling.
When we imagine that writers from the past are visiting our world, it subtly reinforces our complacence, our tendency to believe that the efforts at moral improvement made by earlier generations attained their climax, their fulfillment, their perfection, in us. The idea that we are the ones who are doing the time-traveling doesn’t carry the same implication.
If, whenever we open old books, we understand from the get-go that their authors have motes in their eyes regarding important ethical or political questions, it might help us understand that the same thing could be said of us today.
Morton’s analogy reminds me of a story about Nan-in, a Japanese Zen master during Meiji era. Once a university professor came to ask for his teachings. While serving tea, Nan-in kept pouring hot water into the cup after it was full. The professor looked at the cup and said, “It’s already full. No more water.” “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions. How can I teach you Zen?”
If we are too full of our own opinions, we will never be able to see the richness of our predecessors. We must recognize our own limitations (or at least accept the possibility of our limitations) so we can begin to appreciate the merits of others.
On the other hand, racism, sexism, and prejudice persist. In “The Snow Queen,” one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most famous fairy tales, a wicked hobgoblin makes a mirror that reduces everything good and beautiful to nothing. When this mirror breaks into billions of pieces, the shards fall across the earth and become embedded in people’s hearts and eyes, causing them to only see the bad and ugly in other people.
As a writer, how can I be sure that I am not making the same wicked mirror? What is the dividing line between being critical and being hateful? How much liberty can writers take to reveal the darker side of our collective selves?
My answer is: as long as I am making the mirror of truth, and as long as I am using the mirror to reflect myself.
Writers are often called truth seekers. But what is truth? Etymologically, the Middle English word for “truth” is “trewthe,” which derives from Old English word trēowth, which mean fidelity and is akin to the Old English word trēowe, which means faithful. Here it is again: fidelity. That doesn’t help: fidelity to what?
In an indirect way, Flannery O’Connor addresses my question. As a Roman Catholic, the nature of truth is transparent to her: It is with God and with mystery. In a letter she wrote to Alfred Con, then a freshman at Emory University, who felt lost in college, O’Connor says:
Where you have absolute solutions, however, you have no need of faith. Faith is what you have in the absence of knowledge. The reason this clash [clash of different world religions] doesn’t bother me any longer is because I have got, over the years, a sense of the immense sweep of creation, of the evolutionary process in everything, of how incomprehensible God must necessarily be to be the God of heaven and earth.
I am not religious, though Christianity appeals to me intellectually. However, while translating O’Connor, I realized that she, like all the great writers of the past, shines a light on my narrow-mindedness. Like Alfred Con, I have become biased by “the stimulation of an intellectual life that happens in college.” Meanwhile, without realizing it, I have been experiencing what O’Connor calls a “shrinking of the imaginative life.” Nowadays, truth has mutated into its many degraded kin: values, reality, perspective, and group image. Exposed to them, I took the side of the majority and stuck to it. I rested my skepticism. I have stopped looking for God (truth).
Perhaps, truth is something that transcends all the comprehensible things around us. It is not something that we hold in our hands or that we fight for, but something that keeps us searching and wondering.
Truth also affords writers the liberty to be unfaithful to its degraded kin. In 2016, shortly before I came to the U.S., I asked Gish Jen at her reading in Shanghai the same question that I ask myself today: Immigrant writers take bits and pieces of their native land with them; how can they deliver a full faithful picture of their homeland or ancestors’ land to a foreign readership? Jen’s answer was refreshing, and recalling the moment now, I feel even more grateful. “They can’t,” she said. “Nobody can give a full faithful picture of his/her homeland. But writers have the liberty to be disloyal. And we pay the price for being expelled from Plato’s Republic.”
Today, I find many writers, myself included, driven by the moral demand to write “what it should be” instead of “what it is”—that is, we use the “correctness” of our values to determine “what it should be.” But, as I see it, writing for or against certain values creates propaganda. The problem with the creation of this type of propaganda is that we close our eyes and let our values do the seeing for us. In doing so, we give ourselves the illusion of flawlessness and absolute correctness. When we are complacent in this way, we have turned away from truth.
In the tradition of Zen Buddhism, the mind—the higher self—is compared to a bright mirror. There was a fierce debate between the Northern and Southern Schools in seventh-century China: one school believed that the mirror needs constant cleaning; the other believed that it was fundamentally pure, free, and unconditioned.
This is a polemical debate, and I am no expert on Zen. But this bright mirror matches my ultimate image of the mirror of truth. To me, a look at our internal ghosts won’t result in a distorted reality, like it does in “The Snow Queen.” When looking in the mirror, we also see our fundamentally good higher selves. We see what we could be. Allow me to once again quote Flannery O’Connor: “to know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around.” Speak to the mirror. Don’t shy away from anything we see. Grope your way out of the darkness and the unknown. Ultimately, we will see the light, in every corner of the world, in others, and in ourselves.
Image credit: Snapwire/Will Milne.
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.