Tuesday, January 22, 2008


The peasant farmers of Paradise County - in an unidentified province of China - have a brutally hard life working on the land. One year, following local government directives, they devote most of their efforts to raising garlic; but, come harvest time, there is a glut, and when the government-run warehouses are full and refuse to purchase any more, many farmers face ruin. An impromptu riot ensues, in which the local government office building is sacked.

The novel follows the lives of three peasants imprisoned for their part in the riot. It's a fascinating glimpse of life in rural China; and, although it's set in the 1980s, during the early years of Deng Xiaoping's 'reform & opening up', in many ways the condition of Chinese farmers is unchanged 20 years on. Mismanagement, favouritism and corruption in local government are still rife. And the myriad fees and taxes that support this government can still be a crippling imposition (although recent reforms are finally supposed to be alleviating this burden). This book has apparently been banned in mainland China since it was written some 15 years ago (although it has, I believe, appeared here in magazines and unauthorised editions).

Mo Yan is perhaps the best-known of China's contemporary writers overseas, largely because of Zhang Yimou's film of his work Red Sorghum. However, I'm sorry to say that this is a book to be recommended for its subject-matter rather than its writing. The multiple narrative strands - and the frequent time-jumps, as the imprisoned peasants dream, daydream and reminisce - don't seem to serve any purpose; and the occasional switch to the first person is merely irritating, confusing. Sketching the political background to the story and prefiguring the riot in the brief quotations from the 'ballads' (the extemporaneous songs of the village's blind minstrel, Zhang Kou) which begin every chapter also seems a rather lame device; when the riot finally happens, it is an anti-climax. Prolonged descriptions of the scenery and of the characters' mental states soon become tedious because of the limited, repetitive vocabulary. And there is a prurient obsession with bodily functions that becomes almost comical - in addition to the beatings and other physical privations the characters suffer, they are always being assailed by constipation or intestinal gas, vomiting, unexplained nosebleeds, etc. And one of them is forced to drink his own urine - at three different stages in his life!

This is a book that cried out for some rigorous editing; but perhaps the translator was too reverential in approaching the work. Indeed, I lay a lot of the blame for the quality of the writing on the translator: there may be problems with the structure, the tone, the repetitiveness of the original, or with the paucity of its vocabulary - but this book just isn't written in very good English. Even at the level of basic copy-editing, there are numerous flaws - places where the English is inelegant, inept, or, occasionally, outright grammatically incorrect (and there is at least one instance where the wrong word is printed - "kept away" for "kept awake"; this kind of thing should not happen). One example of inexplicably poor writing that began to irritate me early on was the repeated use of the word 'chilled'. To my mind, certain drinks are 'chilled' - or perhaps the ambience of a trendy bar, or the demeanour of a laidback person. White wine is 'chilled'; sweat, urine, sweat, a lover's shoulder blade, sweat, gnat's piss (well, I think it's actually cicada's piss - but yes, all of these examples occur within a few pages of each other) are not 'chilled'; they might be 'chill', 'chilly', 'chilling', 'cool', or just plain 'cold', but they are not 'chilled'. Another bizarre ineptitude is that Zhang Kou the minstrel is two or three times described as 'strumming' his instrument; you play the erhu (a two-stringed upright fiddle) with a bow, you don't 'strum' it. I find this kind of thing quite flabbergasting.

The translator is Howard Goldblatt, a professor at Notre Dame who has pretty much cornered the market in translating contemporary Chinese literature - well, he tends to get first call on all the biggest projects (such as Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem, which is set for a worldwide launch by Penguin this year). I think this is a pity because, impressive as his mastery of Chinese may be, on the evidence of this book and the couple of other things of his I've read, he's just not a very good writer.

This is a disappointing book, but it is a short read and provides interesting insights into Chinese life; it is thus worthwhile for anyone who's curious to learn more about modern China.

For such China-curious readers, I would like to recommend the website http://www.paperrepublic.org, a literary blog run by some young translator friends of mine which offers author profiles, interviews, and numerous short excerpts from the most interesting contemporary fiction and poetry in China. These are the kind of guys who are "waiting for Goldblatt to die". I think Chinese literature in translation would be getting a lot more favourable attention around the world if the Goldblatt monopoly could be broken and young talents like these given more opportunities.


moonrat said...

this is a problem i frequently have with chinese books in translation--it's always content over style. and you know me and how important i think content is. nevertheless, it's hard for me to embrace a national literature that doesn't celebrate the aesthetic in the least.

i also 100% do not believe this is a "lost in translation" problem. (you already know all this. this goes back to lu xun.)

Froog said...

Well, I disagree with you about Lu Xun. I think his style is 'spare', rather than non-existent. And he has been better served by translators.

I think the problem with Mo Yan here is that he is huffing and puffing away so very obviously - and in my view, unsuccessfully - to create a style. And I suppose it might be said that that the Chinese do have an aesthetic in regard to style, but that it's not compatible with ours - not sure about that, but it's possible perhaps. Maybe the Chinese just think that multiple near-identical descriptions of jute fields are, you know, not boring.

I think he just needs someone - his editor, or his translator, or his translator's editor, or his wife, or someone to tell him what's not working about this novel.

I wouldn't say that anything had been 'lost' in translation as such; but I feel that in this case the translation (and the sloppy editing) has in a few points clearly made the book (even) worse. And I think a translator has a duty to to improve a book if he can, not just not detract from it - particularly in cases where different national sensibilities may make the style or tone or content in certain passages incongruous.

Do check out the Paper Republic guys once in a while. I think some of the stuff they translate on there might change your mind a little about this.

Monique said...

Have you read Wild Swans? It's a fascinating book about the time before and during Mao.

Froog said...

Yes, love that book - but Chang Jung writes in English.

It's a bit of a pity that people in the West can't usually name a single Chinese author beyond Chang Jung, Xinran and Amy Tan. Perhaps Jiang Rong will change that (if Goldblatt's translation isn't too leaden!).

Absolute Vanilla (& Atyllah) said...

Interesting. I had a similar sense with Mo Yan's Republic of Wine. I so much wanted to read it but the language and style just really made me feel bogged down and I'm afraid I long ago gave up on persisting with books that were a struggle to read - there are too many others, which are well written, waiting to be read.

Have you perhaps tried Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian? Also a bit of a struggle and for the same reasons, the translations from Chinese to English just lose so much and that's a great pity.

I find at least that Murakami (albeit that he's Japanese) becomes far more accessible.

Froog said...

I haven't tried Murakami yet, though I know a lot of people love him. I sense that Japanese probably has a much, much broader vocabulary, and also a much more vibrant modern literary tradition, relatively unconstrained by classical conventions. Chinese literature, unfortunately, is, for the most part, ploddingly dull and repetitive. It is my constant quest to find something that transcends these limitations. There are some fantastic stories waiting to be written about this country, and some very bright people trying to write them..... but at the moment, I fear, the language always lets them down.