Last night I met the translator of Mò Yán’s 莫言 Red Sorghum 紅高粱家族 (English translation by Howard Goldblatt) into Romanian. Copping to the Translator’s Invisibility I’ll leave the Romanian translator unnamed—I hesitate to speak with that authority when I haven’t conferred with him about what I’ll be writing, and I’m not sure I could spell his name correctly anyhow—but I will say that he’s primarily a scholar on the Wénxīn diāolóng 文心雕龍 (Carving Dragons from the Literary Mind) and his previous translations into Romanian include the Lǎozǐ 老子, or the Dàodé Jīng 道德經.
I can’t imagine any translator in English having quite the same scope. David Hinton has translated a library of ancient philosophy, medieval poetry, and Běi Dǎo 北島, so he comes the closest, but for some reason contemporary poetry seems less of a leap than contemporary fiction.
That the Romanian translation of Red Sorghum only came out last year interested me, too, since the US translation—where but a notorious 3% of publications are translations, and much of that only manga—has been out since 1993, after the novel’s Chinese release in 1987. That struck me as quite a bit of lag time, for a language in which I imagined that translations must constitute a large part of the book market.
I learned that translations do, in fact, constitute a large part of the Romanian book market, to the extent that my translator friend said he could name me a significant Romanian writer, and probably a second, but certainly not a third. Do translators then soak up some of the cultural cachet in the absence of celebrity authors? To a certain extent, but only for famous international writers, such as Nobel Prize-winner, José Saramago. Speaking of the Nobel Prize, were Gāo Xíngjiàn’s 高行健 works available in Romanian (I had heard that the Greek version of Soul Mountain 靈山 had been translated from Noël Dutrait’s French version)? No, because the copyright was too expensive (I found that an interesting detail: how much would a copyright have to cost for the publisher to feel like it would outweigh the money made from a Nobel Laureate’s sales?). Was he the only translator working between Chinese and Romanian? No, he was one of perhaps four or five; he was, however, the only professor to deal with Chinese literature at the University of Bucharest.
Few—though of course, “more and more”—Romanians know much about China. In the Communist period, he told me, Romania and China were united against the Soviet Union in the debate about the future of the Communist movement, but that did not seem to translate into much linguistic or cultural exchange between the two countries. I also wonder how rampant multilingualism—everyone in Romania learns English and another language in high school, and this translator was not only fluent in Chinese and English but also seemed to be literate in German, French, Italian, and Spanish—would affect the readership of translation. Evidently the relatively high status of translation and the low exposure to Chinese in Romania has not created an overflow of readers hungering for translations of Chinese literature; if most people speak English and Russian, does that mean that War and Peace and Harry Potter (how’s that for a slanted representation of cultural export and essence?) in Romanian are in higher demand or lower? And if one translator for the Lǎozǐ and Mò Yán is hard to imagine, how about the case of the reader, innocent of Chinese, who wants to know more about China, and so has read the Dàodé Jīng and Red Sorghum, but little else?