Reviewing translations: Jonathan stalling, Chinese Literature Today

By Nicky Harman, published

I (Nicky) was very struck by JS's review of a review in LA Review of Books of Mo Yan's Sandalwood Death. It appeared on the MCLC list. His words immediately reminded me of the endless debates we've had in UK among translators, about how we'd like our translations reviewed, and the struggles to remind even long-established cultural institutions like the BBC that translations of poetry and fiction should be credited when they are broadcast, not treated as if the author had originally written in English. With Jonathan's permission, I have reproduced his letter to the list here. In the event, it sparked off a lively debate, including contributions from the reviewer, Jiwei Xiao, herself. Those interested can join the list to read the whole thread.


I was quite excited to discover that at long last the LARB had published a review of Mo Yan’s Sandalwood Death. As the editor of the CLT Book Series that published Howard Goldblatt’s English translation of the novel at the beginning of 2013, I had all but given up on the LARB reviewing it. By the time I reached the end of this substantial review, however, I had to face a rather peculiar and unsettling reality: after nearly 2,400 words, the reviewer, Jiwei Xiao, never mentions the fact that the book she is reviewing is Howard Goldblatt’s English translation of Mo Yan’s novel. I may be a bit more sensitive to this omission given the fact that I, as the editor and a translator myself, am quite excited by the attention Goldlatt’s translation is getting from the translation community: the book has already been nominated for several awards, and, in fact, only a few months earlier Goldblatt had been interviewed by LARB about his translation work!

So while Xiao quotes liberally from the English text (sans citations), she never mentions even once that the book under review is not《檀香刑》, which was published well over a decade ago, but is instead its English translation. Of course, any review of translated literature will necessarily focus on the merits of the original, but at the very least professionalism requires a reviewer to acknowledge the work of the translator in some form. Most of the time readers rely on a review to find out whether a book is a good read in English, so it is important for a reviewer to offer a critical opinion on this matter so the reader can make an informed decision. In this review, however, the reader is invited to enter the original text as if it were still in Chinese, yet miraculously transparent to the English reader’s mind.

The reviewer spends a fair amount of time discussing the “dissonant sounds” upon which “the novel was inspired,” and while Mo Yan’s aural ingenuity naturally rests at the heart of the reviewer’s commentary, it is important to note that these aural textures were delicately and boldly translated into English by Goldblatt. In fact, I would argue that these challenging moments constitute some of the most formally experimental—and successful—moments in Goldblatt’s esteemed career. When I first read the translated manuscript, I marveled at his ability to imbue the English with a parallel set of aural textures (rhyme, meters, vocables, etc.), producing often uncanny results.

Yet this is not really what left me feeling so uneasy. Instead, I fear that there remains a deep and stubborn refusal to take translation (and translation studies) seriously enough within both Chinese Studies and our broader public literary culture (after all, the LARB editors must have first read this piece before publishing it). I am not going to speculate on the latent ideological (or epistemological) conditions that undergird moments like these, but I do feel we must take such opportunities to refocus attention on the collaborative nature of world literature translated into English. As most people know, literary translators are incredibly important cultural producers and yet most of them struggle to make a living wage from their work. In fact, a recent report by the Conseil Européen des Associations de Traducteurs Littéraires concludes with the following observation: This survey clearly shows that literary translators cannot survive in the conditions imposed on them by "the market". This is a serious social problem on a continent that is meant to be developed, multilingual and multicultural, but it is also and most importantly a very serious artistic and cultural problem. Indeed, what does it say about the quality of literary exchange between our societies if literary translators are forced to dash off their work just to be able to earn a basic living?

The objectives outlined by UNESCO in its 1976 Nairobi Recommendation are far from being realised, that is the least one can say. It’s time to act! (

What is true in the European context is even worse in the US (and for Chinese-English-Chinese translation, the pay scale of which is often calculated in RMB as a way of lowering the cost). Translators work for many of the same mysterious reasons writers do—not because it pays well (though I hope this can be remedied soon), but to contribute to the cultural work of our time, to participate in the global conversation of literature itself. If our work as translators is not discussed in reviews of our work (or even simply acknowledged), when, pray tell, will it be?

It is important for me to note, however, that I believe Professor Xiao would have gladly incorporated her thoughts on the translated nature of the text had it been brought up in the editing/review process, or if it had been listed as a prerequisite on the LARB contributor information page, or if there existed broader university support of and academic/prestige capital invested into translation inside the realm of Chinese Studies. So I do not wish for the instructive moment of this review to be reduced to a critique of this review alone (for clearly Professor Xiao has many interesting things to say about this novel), but as a general reminder to all reviewers (and to those of us who publish them) to spend a moment engaging with (or better yet, exploring) the translative nature of world literature, for this is our responsibility, not to mention one of the great joys of our work.

Jonathan Stalling Chinese Literature Today


# 1.   

There is a vigorous debate involving several other “Republicans" on the MCLC mailing list; do you think readers will be interested in the postings? If so I would be glad to post them here. Otherwise it will be hard for anyone to find them in one place. While I'm typing, I just wanted to mention that Chutzpah probably deserves the highest credit for respecting translators, by putting their names on the cover of each issue in alphabetical order along with the authors, without saying who the authors are, and who the translators are (probably because in some cases there are individuals who play both roles).

Charles Laughlin, January 8, 2014, 4:33p.m.

# 2.   

Jess Wasserstrom of LARB has asked me to point out that when the review first appeared in the LARB, there was an image of the cover of the English language edition of Sandalwood Death placed by the review. Also, after Stalling's post, a reference to Goldblatt was added into the text.

Nicky Harman, January 8, 2014, 5:35p.m.

# 3.   

I was surprised nobody called out this NYT review that gives no indication as to whether it is a review of the Chinese version or English translation and who the English translator is:

Or that nobody has called out this new press CN Times, which gives no indication/credit to their translators on their website.

I actually don't think there needs to be more academic prestige given to translation, because if that happens, and we have academics who are only translators, then there might be the danger of no academic work getting done. What we need is credit given to translators who make all introductory classes in foreign literature possible, and perhaps institutional support for something like a translation position in a foreign languages department. That person could produce new translations to enrich current course offerings and oversee larger translation projects. This could help resolve the contradiction where academics find a need for new translations, but are under pressure not to produce very many themselves.

Jeff, January 8, 2014, 5:56p.m.

# 4.   

Hi--just to prevent confusion, while I'm glad Nicky posted my note to her about the Los Angeles Review of Books and the book cover, my first name is "Jeff" not "Jess" but I am not the "Jeff" who posted the comment that went up on the site right after her note.

Jeff Wasserstrom, January 8, 2014, 6:10p.m.

# 5.   

Charles, I think there are several ways a magazine can give a literary translator the credit she deserves. The first, as you rightly point out, is to put the translator's name in a noticeable location at the front of the piece. Another and possibly more important way is to pay them a living wage for professional work.

I'm glad to see Jonathan Stalling saying that CLT has raised its rates for translation; last I knew, of the four magazines that specialize in Chinese literature - CLT, Asymptote, Pathlight, and Chutzpah - Pathlight provided the highest per-word rates for both prose and poetry. We are also the only print magazine that allows translators as much space as they'd like to curate their own pieces through the use of a Translator's Notes section.

With so many magazines demanding free content from translators, I think we can agree that the best way to get professional work is to pay for it, yeah?

Canaan Morse, January 9, 2014, 6:43a.m.

# 6.   

""I actually don't think there needs to be more academic prestige given to translation, because if that happens, and we have academics who are only translators, then there might be the danger of no academic work getting done."

That's a completely tautological argument. If there were more academic prestige given to translation, then academics who are only translators would indeed be getting academic work done. The entire point is how academic work is defined and valued.

Dee, February 20, 2014, 10:49p.m.


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