Gao Xingjian's 70th Birthday Symposium

By Nicky Harman, published

I went to the second day of the two-day events to celebrate Gao Xingjian’s birthday at School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

Apparently, the lecture theatre was crammed to bursting on the first day – less so yesterday but still a fair showing, about two-thirds Chinese and the rest British/European, and including, in addition to Gao Xingjian himself, many other UK-based writers like Ma Jian, and the poet Yang Lian. Liao Tianqi from Independent Chinese PEN presented the session and Yang Lian, a delightful man, chaired in exemplary fashion. Proceedings were in Chinese and English. Gao presented his new work Ballade Nocturne, written in French (translated into English by Claire Conceison) and then staged by two actors in English. There was some strikingly beautiful imagery in it, which only close reading would do justice to. As a feminist, I did wonder whether lines which, if I heard correctly, went something like “women give love…use charms as weapons; men crush life…their weapons kill” were meant to be taken seriously or were satirical. As a translator, my burning question was whether Gao feels “Chinese” when he writes in French, whether his works express this, and indeed whether this is a meaningful question at all. But time was pressing and I only got a half-sentence answer, along the lines of “it was written in French so it couldn’t be Chinese”. Gao was asked a somewhat similar question (about the significance of reading French work in the original or in translation) at a 2001 forum at the Asia Society, New York but answered it only by saying his French gave him access to a greater variety of works. Interestingly, just as I was about to post this, I found an article The French Gao Xingjian, Bilingualism, and Ballade Nocturne but infuriatingly, it’s available to subscribers only.

Ballade Nocturne was followed by a DVD showing of Snow in August, 八月雪,written in 2000 in Chinese - stunning, left me wanting to watch it again.


# 1.   

I came from Paris two attend both days and to interview Gao Xingjian.For the first session,the amphitheater was full but the heating very low under the snow in London !Possibly this had a negative impact on the attendance the next day. Apart from various presentations from his friends specially from his translators into French,Noêl and Liliane Dutrait, two of his films were shown specially "After the Deluge" (25 minutes) and "Shadows"(90 minutes).These films with magnificent images and his paintings blended with a great sound track (Bernd Aloïs Zimmerman and Bach); it is as innovative as the"Soul Mountain". On the second day, it should be mentioned the film recording of his opera "Night in August" presented in Taiwan and in France in 2003 .It is a exceptionnal attempt to blend Peking style opera and western opera; the outcome is quite remarkable; Gao should not be seen as a writer only but a very talented painter cum cinema and theater innovator.

Bertrand Mialaret, January 6, 2010, 11:14p.m.

# 2.   

Sorry, the opera is "Snow in August" and not "Night" !

Bertrand Mialaret, January 6, 2010, 11:19p.m.

# 3.   

I recently translated a conversation between Gao Xingjian and Yang Lian that took place at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The topic: Writing Between Two Languages.

It is not up on line yet, but parts of the conversation -- and quite a bit more on just Gao Xingjian -- can be seen in the Winter issue of Asia Literary Review which is on newsstands now.

Am reading La Montagne de l'âme (French rendering of Soul Mountain (灵山). Am not sure if it is because the translation is so fine, or Gao has a French soul, but it does read marvelously in French. He is only the second Chinese writer to have seemingly grasped the French spirit; Qian Zhongshu is the other.

[Chinese Books, English Reviews]

Bruce, January 7, 2010, 12:44a.m.

# 4.   

Bruce: Agree with you, the quality of the translation is superb in French.Noel and Liliane Dutrait work together and have translated the book (660 pages)at the request of Gao and without any publisher contract! First Noel produces a translation which is reviewed in French by Liliane and then discussed and then read loud (reading it loud is what they consider essential); in case of difficulty, they have a contact with their friend Gao. Noêl is professor in Aix en Provence and has organized in Aix and in cooperation with the University of Hong Kong a special documentation and research area, based on a donation of manuscripts by Gao,and on a collection of world wide publications concerning all artistic activities of Gao. Numerous symposia have been organised in Aix on the works of Gao.

PS: Agree with Nicky Harman, Yang Lian is not only a great poet,he has a very pleasant personnality. "Conversations" between Gao and Yang Lian have been published in 2004 by Editions Caractères, it is very useful to understand the importance of language for Gao and it answers part of the question of Nicky Harman.

Bertrand Mialaret, January 7, 2010, 9:06a.m.

# 5.   

Re: the translators and translation practices mentioned above by Bertrand

My paperback copy (Editions de l'Aube) does NOT credit Noel and Liliane Dutrait. Happily, they are identified as the translators on (visibly on the cover of the book and also in the online credits) , but it seems a real pity that -- as far as I can see -- some copies of the book ignore their role.

Regarding their method of reading the translated copy aloud, that's a neat practice and actually consistent with Gao Xingjian's own creative "methodology". I read an interview with him conducted in Taiwan soon after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, and recall that he said he dictated much of Soul Mountain on a tape recorder, and then took it down in traditional Chinese characters for further polishing.

Chinese Books, English Reviews

Bruce, January 7, 2010, 11:30a.m.

# 6.   

Bruce:as you are fluent in French,you should be interested by the blog of Noël Dutrait, Pierre Kaser and their crew in Aix on asian literature and translation

Bertrand Mialaret, January 7, 2010, 1:01p.m.

# 7.   

Many thanks!

Believe it or not, is blocked by the Chinese authorities.

I will find a way to check it out nonetheless.

Bruce, January 7, 2010, 11:51p.m.

# 8.   

Just to clarify, is inaccessible because all Blogspot content is currently blocked in mainland China. Same applies to Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, and many other social networking and blog-related sites. These are dark days of the soul for Chinese and China-based internet users without VPN access.

Cindy Carter, January 8, 2010, 3:54a.m.

# 9.   

Hi Nicky, Bruce and Bertrand and others, I am the translator of 'Ballade nocturne' from French into English, and would be very happy to share my article from the recent issue of Hong Kong Drama Review that Nicky cites above ("The French Gao Xingian, Bilingualism, and 'Ballade nocturne'"). If anyone who would like to email me, i can attach it as a pdf in reply email ( My translation of 'Ballade nocturne' is being released in March as the next monograph in the Cahiers Series of the American University of Paris, edited by Dan Gunn (published by Sylph Editions, UK) and info on it can be found on the Cahiers and Sylph websites very soon. The Cahier will have the translated English text, an insert with the original French text, a brief preface written by me (far shorter than the HK Drama Review article), and reproductions of a few of Gao's paintings. The premiere full production of the play (in its original French) will be in mid-March in Paris at Theatre de l'Epee de Bois, directed by Marcos Malavia and Muriel Roland. I was very sad not to be able to attend the event in London for Gao's birthday, but very happy to provide my translation so they could stage a reading of his new play. Nicky and Bertrand, I would love to hear more about the reading and anything you remember from the discussion. And if there is a program from the event that can be sent or scanned, I would love to see it! I met Yang Lian when we were on a panel together at Brown University in April, and agree that he is a warm and engaging presence and gifted poet. I am currently working on a book project about Gao's French plays. Bruce, I am very interested in reading your translation of the recent dialogue between Gao and Yang at the Frankfurt Book Fair (in English, French, or in its original which I am guessing was in Chinese/), so if you are able to share it, it will be very valuable for the research I am doing and I will be sure to cite you. I don't know where to find Asia Literary Review, but if you can help me find it or make the dialogue available to me in future, I would be most grateful. Bertrand, if you could help me locate the 2004 "Conversations" by Editions Caracteres, i would also be grateful. Nicky, thanks for putting us all in touch, and thanks for your kind comments on the piece--i look forward to further conversation, and wish everyone well in 2010!

Claire Conceison, January 10, 2010, 7:56p.m.

# 10.   

Nice to hear from you, Claire.

Pls write me at

bruce, January 11, 2010, 12:24a.m.

# 11.   

Hi Claire, the program is here: Hope that helps, Nicky

Nicky Harman, January 11, 2010, 10:47a.m.

# 12.   

Just to let you know that we have now put issue 14 of the Asia Literary Review online. A selection of articles and all the poetry is free-to-view. The rest is available online and in print by subscription.

All the best,


Martin Alexander, January 18, 2010, 9:08a.m.

# 13.   

A few years ago in Beijing I took part in a discussion in a book club for foreigners about Soul Mountain. There were 4-5 different nationalities: German, US, UK, French, Hong Kong, Scandinavia, etc. We all had read the book in our own mother tongues. To my surprise, a majority of readers didn't like the book, which I loved. I had a hard time swimming against the flow. I was less interested at the time in literary translation issues, but I came to the conclusion that part of our different opinions came from the various translations, particularly important for such a book in which style and poetry particularly matter. My Chinese wasn't good enough for any serious reading in Chinese, but I had read the book in both English and French. Mabel Lee had obviously done a good and difficult job -it took her nearly a decade to translate the book into English, in Sydney-. As she said, she had been attracted by the poetical aspects of the book in the first place -she was a translator of poetry-. However, in my view, you can't really translate poetry. You can try but the result is seldom, even never up to the quality of the original, even if the name of the translator of the poem is Charles Baudelaire or François Cheng (a brilliant French writer and poet, member of the French Academy ...who learned French when he was about twenty !). It's an old story and debate (there is a forum somewhere on Internet with a rather heated and long discussion on this subject, initiated a few years ago by my own "poetic" translation into French of a song of Leonard Cohen "Dance me..." which I loved; some fans of LC didn't even like the idea apparently of such a translation, considering it pretentious and hopeless). In any case, I really liked Soul Mountain thanks to its French translators. But then, there is the issue of "does the translation really reflect the style of the original ?" (There is one of the best professional translator, from Chinese into French, based in Beijing which, if I remember well, had been accused by one of her publishers in France of "writing too well..."). Besides -for the record, and as a reminder of the importance of translators and translations-, Gao's Nobel Prize is for a large part due in the first place to his early admirer and translator into Swedish, Goran Malmqvist (born 1924 !). Below are a few very brief abstracts of a global and large study which I wrote in recent years about the book business and China, abstracts drawn from a chapter named "copyrights, translations and scouts": (quote) [...] Even more revealing aspects of the problems of translations, in complement to the above mentioned interview of US translator Edward Goldblatt, are expressed in an interview of the French translators of 2000 Literature Nobel Prize Gao Xingjian, Noël and Liliane Dutrait. Noel Dutrait is known as one of the 2-3 best French translators of Chinese works as well as a senior scholar and scout, specialist of [ be continued]

Arthur Syel, January 20, 2010, 12:51a.m.

# 14.   

[cont'] contemporary Chinese literature. Several points are emphasized in this interview by Noël Dutrait for explaining first the quality of (his) translations (i) Noël, the expert in Chinese language, works in fact in close tandem with his wife Lilian who is a former archeologist and journalist, visibly talented with the French language, but also mastering the Chinese language as well, similarly to her husband (both their names appear as translators of the French edition of Gao's Soul Mountain) and she acts as his (co)editor, (ii) they both have other main activities and sources of income, and thus they can both take their time for common -even confrontational- analyses and rewrites, and also let translations have the "necessary rests", (iii) they have close relations with their usual publishers(s), specializing also in Chinese literature. [...] Mabel Lee from Sydney, was contacted by Gao for the English translation of Soul Mountain during her visit to Paris in 1991, through Chinese poet Yang Lian. Mabel Lee, born in Australia, a Chinese-Australian scholar -Sydney U, School of Asian studies- had done little translation works from Chinese to English apart Yang's poetry until 1991. She offered to Gao to work on the translation as she was attracted by the poetical tone of the book in skimming in Paris through its Taiwanese edition [the book, which Gao took seven years to write and which was first published in 1989 in Taiwan, is not yet officially published in the PRC where all Gao's works are banned and his name hardly mentioned still in 2008; only Premier Zhu Rongji dared in 2000 to congratulate -ironically- Gao for his Nobel Prize]. Lee worked on the translation several years in Sydney, with little time available, until 1999; then, when Lee chose a local literary agent, Gao and Lee agreed between them on a 60:40 split...; and then, lucky bet for Lee, Gao received his prize. [...] Julia Lovell, born in 1975, belongs to a new generation of bright translators-cum-literary scouts; a student in history and then Chinese, and later on, after a year in Nanjing, PhD and former junior research fellow at Cambridge University (Queen's College), she nowadays teaches in the UK; on top of translation works, she started writing in the early 2000's essays, as well as articles and book reviews for renown Press titles concerning Chinese/Asian literature -starting with her 2002 PhD memoire which became in 2006 a book titled "The Politics of Cultural Capital: China’s Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature" [...] Lovell's has apparently a very precise and assertive -young but conservative- taste and also tone. Both taste and tone appear for example in the following Guardian article, dated May 15, 2004, titled "Shrink to fit". This article is a book review of the book "Buying a Fishing Rod for My Grandfather" by Nobel Prize Gao Xingjian (small collection of 6 short stories written in 1983-2000, translation by Mabel Lee, UK ed. 2004). [ be continued]

Arthur Syel, January 20, 2010, 1:35a.m.

# 15.   

[cont'] The long introduction of this article is in fact a rather surprisingly sardonic and abrupt critic in one block of Gao's two long main novels, on supposedly "purely" literary grounds. Her harsh review will probably be remembered ...for better or worse. She is curiously much more indulgent with Gao's friend and fellow writer Ma Jian. Lovell's "literary grounds" appear to us here in fact rather light -poorly justified- and expressing first of all rather personal intuitive feelings concerning the author (accessorily, possible translation issues do not seem considered ?). [...] (unquote)

I reproduce below the first three § of the above mentioned article by J. Lovell in the Guardian, because they are worth reading -especially for those who like Soul Mountain (I know that they are people reading this website who also like Julia Lovell-

(quote,,,1216283,00.html ) Soul Mountain and One Man's Bible, the two novels for which he was awarded the 2000 Nobel literature prize, defined Gao Xingjian as a writer with three signature themes. The first was his libido; the second was the individual (and his libido) suffering under communism. Both books starred a strongly autobiographical, middle-aged protagonist working through the traumas of political persecution and exile by "merging" with almost every woman he met. So far, so dull. Mid-life crises - even those induced by communism - tend to be interesting mainly to their sufferers, and Gao's sprawling, self-indulgent take on the horrors of political oppression lacked the wry discipline that, for example, Solzhenitsyn and Kundera have brought to similar subject matter. Gao's fascination with himself had the additional unfortunate consequence of sidelining his third, and most interesting concern as a novelist. Like many serious Chinese authors of the past 100 years - a century in which writers began systematically reading, worshipping, sometimes imitating modern western literature - he has spent his career searching for a literary language and form that manage to be both modern and Chinese; in other words, a voice that is more than a rehash of western modernism. Gao has tried to achieve this by combining the structural looseness of traditional Chinese literature - weak on plot, strong on emotive imagery - with a western-style fixation on subjectivity and alienation. The novels that resulted, Soul Mountain and One Man's Bible, caught the worst of both eastern and western literary worlds - rambling, self-obsessed and over-theorised - and forgot the key lesson Ezra Pound, the high priest of Anglo-American modernism, drew from classical Chinese literature: show, don't tell. (unquote)

I don't know well Gao, either his works -apart his novels- or his personality. Maybe the above mentioned "egotist libido", by J. Lowell, meant also between the lines "sexism" (an idea suggested in Nicky Harman's above article) ...of which J. Lowell [ be continued]

Arthur Syel, January 20, 2010, 1:43a.m.

# 16.   

[cont'] could have been herself the target while studying (interviewing?) Gao ?
Otherwise how to explain such unbalanced and obviously disputable hatred from such a smart young lady -we met once- against both Soul Mountain -a book attached to a Nobel prize- and above all Gao himself apparently (unclear if she targets either the book or the personality of the writer) ? Besides, J. Lowell neither mention in what language she read these books, nor mention the quality of the translation (she is herself a translator) ? Well, literary critic and translation, or even Sinology, are obviously rather different jobs and require rather different skills and experiences. Very few can do both with talent ... and ponderation -save humility-. For example Pierre Ryckmans, aka Simon Leys, who lives in Australia and writes in French, is both an immense Sinologist, and also a marvelous multi-cultural writer and literary critic, probably -together with Gao Xinjian- not far behind icons such as Nabokov (English writer, mother tongue Russian) or Borges (who translated Kafka and Faulkner) --rare people indeed !--.
[the end !]

Arthur Syel, January 20, 2010, 1:44a.m.

# 17.   

Wow! that's quite a comment. Can I take the liberty of also creating a doc of it and uploading to Gao XIngjian's page under Authors, Arthur? Easier to access that way

Nicky Harman, January 20, 2010, 9:39a.m.

# 18.   

To Nicky Harman, no problem, you may do that !

Arthur Syel, January 20, 2010, 9:51a.m.

# 19.   

Interesting discussion, as always. Thoughts upon reading this, and upon re-reading Julia Lovell's Guardian review: I don't think it's fair to chalk the review up to "hatred" for the work of Gao Xingjian, or to some personal, gender-related prejudice on the part of the reviewer, much less to some perceived offense perpetrated by the author himself. Lovell's commentary isn't personal; it indicates a difference of literary and artistic opinion.

My impression here is that Lovell is genuinely disappointed with the breadth and depth of Gao's understanding and depiction of the world, as it appears in this collection. Given his abundant references to western literary and philosophical tradition, Gao has set the bar rather high, and has (in this case) not lived up to the expectations set by his reader/reviewer. While Lovell does credit the author's stylistic influences and innovations, I confess that this last bit leaves me flummoxed:

"At its worst, Gao's short fiction sums up everything that is wrong with his absorption of western influences: unoriginal, ill-digested, over-philosophised. But at its best, it achieves the understated, expressive concision that defines China's singular contribution to modern literature."

If I knew nothing else about this collection, I honestly wouldn't know whether to read it or not. It seems that the reviewer is praising the author's style (or stylistic influences) to the detriment of his world-view. A confusing conclusion, but perhaps a courageous one: rarely do Chinese-English translators venture to critique Chinese authors, for fear that they will negatively affect the reputation of Chinese literature as a whole (and therefore, the translator/commentator's own bread-and-butter). I'm not sure I agree with everything Lovell said in her review, but I'm quite certain she wasn't being petty. In fact, if I had to put a word to it, I'd call her review "brave".

Cindy Carter, January 20, 2010, 8:17p.m.

# 20.   

I do not wish to comment specifically on Julia Lovell (though I appreciate her book and I also appreciate the information Arthur posted here--I also agree with Nicky it would be easier to digest as an uploaded document...), but I have mentioned in two previous publications (quite a while ago) that a thoughtful feminist analysis of Gao's works is sorely needed... such a text would be a hugely valuable contribution. I do not personally know of anyone working on such a text (which is interesting since many Gao scholars are in fact women), but I hope one will emerge. In my own developing work on his French plays, I will tackle this subject to some extent, but not with the talent and insight a scholar rigorously and devotedly trained in feminist theory and feminist readings of literature could. For those interested in my "call" for such an analysis about a decade ago, see my article review of Henry Zhao's book and Gilbert Fong's translation anthologyin China Quarterly fall 2001 (available on JSTOR etc) and also this link to a short online article in MCLC:

Claire Conceison, January 22, 2010, 1:48p.m.

# 21.   

I said about Lowell "Her harsh review will probably be remembered ..."; sorry I had not read at the time Maya Jaggi's article, published 4 years later precisely in the Guardian, in 2008, a more balanced report, by a possibly 'less-brave' but full-time and award-winning cultural renown journalist, whom I should have quoted in the first place -at least she deserves it as well- (quote) ...For Jung Chang, Gao has "immortalised the memories of a nation suffering from forced amnesia; my own memories flooded back reading him". Ma Jian, the London-based author of Beijing Coma, sees Gao as "both a linguistic innovator and a writer of integrity, whose work constantly reaffirms the importance of the individual over the collective. He was one of the first writers of the post-Mao era to absorb developments in western literature and philosophy, and meld them with Chinese classical traditions to create a new kind of drama and fiction." By contrast, the critic Julia Lovell commends his shorter fiction yet feels the novels are a "sprawling, self-indulgent take on the horrors of political oppression".... (unquote)

Arthur Syel, January 28, 2010, 3:50p.m.


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