Translation Course: Jiang Rong vs Howard Goldblatt

By Eric Abrahamsen, published

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.


# 1.   

This is rather amazing. Most Chinese translations of English books are gardens of errors; not even metaphorically, but factually. Although it's nice for Goldblatt to get a course on Chinese translation from the author himself (though did it have to be in front of an audience?), it seems hardly fair. I can't imagine the opposite happening with a Western author airing their grievances.

It's no wonder hardly any Chinese books get translated into English by major publishers. 麻烦 abounds.

蓝风, March 28, 2008, 11:18p.m.

# 2.   

I find the idea of an "author vs translator" debate very intriguing. I've met the translator in question, and given his high opinion of himself, I doubt he suffered much long-lasting damage!

The author reportedly received US$100,000 to sign the rights for the English version of his work over to Penguin, and Goldblatt, in very high demand these days, probably got a good chunk himself for his efforts.

So what's "unfair" here, Lan Feng? These men are stars in their own right, and quite responsible for their "performance."

A few questions come to mind about such a debate:

1) Even assuming the original author has a good grasp of the target language, just how valid are any criticisms s/he might have?

2) Many translators have little or no opportunity to proofread the edited version of their translation. Given that many publishers buy the rights to re-package a foreign book in English as they see fit, and often employ monolingual editors to shape the copy into something highly readable, just how much responsibility should we assign to a translator?

3) How differently do translators deal with their work given a) The author is alive and insists on proofing one's translation; 2) The author is alive but not accessible to the translator; or 3) The author is dead?

Bruce Humes Shenzhen

Bruce Humes, March 30, 2008, 4:12a.m.

# 3.   

I find Jiang Rong as ignorant about novelistic nuances as he is about the process of translation. Being ignorant is understandable since no one knows everything, but believing yourself immune to it just down right turns people off.

caicai, March 30, 2008, 4:52a.m.

# 4.   

Bruce: You have a good point here. If the two were scatting for a verbal bout and both wanted to actively pursue this line of debate, I've got nothing against it. In fact, I know very little about the market of translation. It could be that there exists very few foreigners who would be willing to translate major Chinese novels into English because they are simply too few or too focused on other projects that don't include novels (I imagine many translators are more focused on the business end of things that artistic), and as well it is also understandable given the little I know of translation, that if the writers or editors must find their own translator and pay out of pocket, then there is very little incentive to do so.

Still, if this kind of bout were normal in the field (translators being held accountable to their translations by the writer's grasp of English) then I could understand why not many would willingly undertake it, as translation is hard enough, much less from Chinese.

Those are all venturing thoughts without base though. It does look bad to the public to see a writer holding a conference to badger his translator with error-points, especially given that it was an excellent translation. It kind of scares away potentials.

蓝风, March 30, 2008, 9:07a.m.

# 5.   

Goldblatt tends to over "foreignize" some of his translations of culture specific items to the extent that they sound exotic in a way unintended by the original author.

He also sometimes makes mistakes in translation but sadly, the idea of hiring a translation proofreader for him doesn't seem to occur to publishers.

Zheng Yongkang, December 5, 2008, 12:18a.m.

# 6.   

郑老师, would you mind justifying that with specific examples?

Canaan Morse, December 6, 2008, 12:25a.m.

# 7.   

I've been an admirer of Goldblatt and he's been generous in sharing material with me, but I was disappointed from his first page with his effort in Wolf Totem. There was simply not the effort to get it right.

eg 1 可能就要提前天葬了 is translated: their sky burial would come early. Could, not would is needed.

eg 2 观察着狼群的包围圈 is translated: watching the wolf encirclement. Goldblatt needed to show the strength of 观察, so watching intently or something similar was needed. Just "watching" doesn't convey the experience of the old man.

eg 3 不吱声 is translated: no response. Not a peep would be much better. "No response" doesn't convey the meaning.

eg 4 不是闹着玩的 is translated: We'll be in real trouble. Much better is "will be no joke" or "won't be a party".

eg 5 雪在他的掌心被捏成了一坨冰 is translated in the active: he squeezed into a ball of ice. In fact the meaning is that the snow turned to ice in his grip and it was probably unconsciously.

That was the first page. Perhaps Penguin needs to appoint a checker for Howard in future.

Kevin McCready, April 27, 2010, 11:33a.m.

# 8.   


Are you referring to Goldblatt's original translation as submitted for editing? Or to what Penguin published?

If the original, that's one thing. If the latter, then there is no way for us to judge the accuracy or the appropriateness of his translation.

Bruce Humes
Chinese Books, English Reviews

Bruce, April 28, 2010, 1:48a.m.

# 9.   

Hi Bruce

It's got Howard's name on it, so the notion that "the publishers made me do it" doesn't wash. In any case it would take a lot to convince me that the examples above were ALL the result of a publisher. The whole think just strikes me as a rushed job for a publication deadline.

The further I get into the translation the more problematic I find it. Chunks are left out and Howard misses the golden opportunity again and again to translate 人马 as man and horse. Instead it’s completely left out. The man and horse together against the wolves is a vital point in the passage of Chen Zhen’s first wolf encounter.

He also misses the chance to translate the part where the horse and man’s fear resonate together.

I don't think it's fair to the reader not to say in the translator's introduction that chunks were deleted.

That said, there are some lovely touches which are classic Goldblatt. Unfortunately they are few and far between.

Kevin McCready, April 28, 2010, 10:20a.m.

# 10.   

@Kevin: "It's got Howard's name on it, so the notion that "the publishers made me do it" doesn't wash."

That's both naive and unfair not just to Goldblatt, but to translators and authors in general.

I have translated several full-length books for publication. In my experience, there are many factors working against a translator "controlling" the final version of his or her work:

1) The contract: It may not allow the translator to make changes to the edited version;

2) Tight deadlines: Even if the editor is willing to accept some suggestions, neither the translator nor the editor may have time to discuss many of them;

3) The editor: Like translators, editors are proud of their work, even arrogant about it at times. Current publishing practices are based on the idea that the publisher owns the rights to the work, and in the end, the editor will do pretty much what s/he wants with the text.*

None of this is to defend Goldblatt or his translation of Wolf Totem. It is simply to say that we need to remember that the relationship between the translator's draft and the published book is a murky one.

That said, publishers in the West seem to have just a handful of translators in mind when they buy the rights to render a Chinese text in English. Goldblatt is at the very top of that list, and that is a real achievement for him.

But the bottom line is that demand for Chinese-to-English literary translation is on the rise, and Goldblatt is both very busy and no longer a young man. This means others will get a chance too. I would caution, however, that newer hands rarely have the negotiating weight of a Goldblatt, and I think most of us will quickly realize that the "ideal" translation contract -- sufficient time to research, draft and rework a text before delivery; the right to suggest or even veto editing changes which represent a distortion of the original; decent pay -- is not easily obtained!

Bruce Humes
Chinese Books, English Reviews

Bruce, April 29, 2010, 12:24a.m.

# 11.   

However you wish to assign responsibility for the final manuscript, the larger issue here is that nitpicking a translation on a word-by-word basis is not a very fruitful method of critique. Specific examples of inaccuracies may be useful for illustrating a larger trend, and of course renderings that are flat-out factually wrong might be symptoms of overall carelessness, but the Goldblatt renderings contested in Kevin McCready's first comment are defensible on stylistic grounds. Certainly, having "not a peep" and "won't be a party" on the first page of Wolf Totem would alter the tone just a bit.

It's also interesting that the bland examples in that comment seem to run counter to Zheng Yongkang's suggestion that Goldblatt exoticizes his translations.

jdmartinsen, April 29, 2010, 3:43a.m.

# 12.   

I've been in the situation too of editors having control of my translations and disagreeing with them, sometimes strongly. But in the final washup it's still my decision whether to put my name on it or not.

JDM, I have to disagree that the examples I've cited are minor. Of course they alter the tone. They alter it closer to the original text. I was particularly disappointed that the first mention of 图腾 was excised. This, remember, is the Chinese title. It's clearly a statement of one of the central concerns of the novel and shouldn't have been excised. It seems the editorial intent has been to make it into an action novel and leave out the philosophy. Pity.

Further problems. HG translates 他揉去眼睫毛上的霜花 as “rubbed his eyes to clear away the mist”. This is a simple mistake and should have been picked up. Again supporting my contention that this was a rushed job.

短兵相接 translated as encounter. skirmish better But of even greater importance the text referred to the horse’s skirmish with the wolves not Chen Zhen’s. The horse was the real hero of the first battle which is the point of the text. This change, again, is unacceptable.

Kevin McCready, April 29, 2010, 8:58p.m.


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