The arena: The second floor of the Baiyun Hotel, an enormous official meeting hall some of us have dubbed the Great Hall of the People, complete with velvet curtains, raised podium, and (apparently) refrigerated wooden chairs.
The contestants: Jiang Rong, author of Wolf Totem, and Howard Goldblatt, translator of that novel into English.
The grudge: Billed as a conversation between translator and translatee, the event was actually a chance for Jiang Rong to air his grievances about Howard Goldblatt’s translation. The two are actually pretty chummy, but neither was averse to a little dustup – Goldblatt started off by essentially leaning back, folding his arms, and saying “do your worst”.
First, let me say that I hope to hell I never find myself in this position. By the time things have gotten to this stage the translator’s dice have long been cast, and it’s too late for anything but an apologia. It isn’t something I’d wish on anyone, though it was tremendous fun for the audience. Jiang Rong had actually drawn up a written list of complaints; item number one began on the very first page of the book. “你们汉人就是从骨子里怕狼”, literally “You Han people fear wolves in your bones”, was translated into English as “A fear of wolves is in your Chinese bones”. This is spoken by a member of China’s Mongolian ethnic group to a member of the predominant Han ethnic group. The point of contention was that the use of ‘Han’ emphasizes the different ethnic identities of speaker and listener, while in Goldblatt’s version ‘Chinese’ is a term which applies to both.
Goldblatt explained that, much as he would have liked to use ‘Han’, an English-language editor was bound to demand something more digestible on the first page, and that since the entire rest of the book was essentially about the Han/Mongolian divide, very little was lost. Someone from the government got up to make the obligatory (if tangential) speech about ethnic harmony. Someone from Taiwan gently made the point that the term ‘Chinese’ does not actually map so tidily to national boundaries. In short, all the political, social and cultural weight of literature and its translation were on display within the first ten minutes.
Jiang Rong’s other points mostly revolved around the translation of single terms. ‘White-haired blizzard’ for 白毛风, ‘tame’ for 牵, etc. The point Goldblatt made later is that when Chinese authors complain about their translation it’s usually because they’ve heard something from friends who almost speak English about how the translator has ruined their book – the evidence being a handful of words which deviate from their dictionary definitions. Rarely will you hear complaints about voice or tone, and why would you – if the writers were aware of issues on that level they probably could have written the thing in English to begin with. One more reason to avoid these situations like the dickens.
The conclusion: Each bout ended with both contestants bloodied but unbowed. No ‘problems’ were ‘solved’. A good time was had by all. Goldblatt later claimed victory, though he looked awfully happy to get down off the podium.