Of Literature and Laureates, Translations and Trends: A Q & A with Blogger, Tweeter, Translator, and “Model Worker” Brendan O’Kane
By Jeffrey Wasserstrom
There are multiple reasons that Brendan O’Kane’s been on my list of people to interview someday for this blog. One is that Megan Shank, who co-edits the Asia Section with me, has been singing his praises for a year now, saying he’s one of the smartest translators of Chinese literature out there and that we need to find a way to get him into the LARB. Another is that, last October, he wrote one of the most buzzed about—and most provocative as well as most provocatively titled—commentaries on Mo Yan’s Nobel Prize win: “Is Mo Yan a Stooge for the Chinese Government?” There’s also the fact that I find him one of the most interesting people to follow on twitter. (I’m not alone in this assessment — his twitter feed just won a coveted “honorable mention” nod in the Twitter category from the excellent website Danwei, in its annual divvying up of “Model Worker” awards for those who use digital media of various sorts to demystify Chinese political and cultural phenomena.)
Two things, though, led me to move O’Kane from my “interview someday” list to my “interview now” one. First, when I asked Julia Lovell about translation trends in my recent interview with her, she noted the importance of the magazines Pathlight and Chutzpah!, and Brendan’s a contributing editor to the former (which is affiliated with the excellent Paper Republic translation website founded by Eric Abrahamsen and Cindy Carter) and a contributor to the latter. Second, I came across a lively interview that Alec Ash, who writes regularly for the China Blog, did with him for the Anthill as O’Kane was preparing to move back to the U.S. to start graduate school after a long stint in China.
I caught up with O’Kane by email in Philadelphia and got him to answer questions on topics ranging from his blog post on Mo Yan to his initial reaction to being based again in the United States after a long stretch away.
Jeffrey Wasserstrom: Let’s start with a topic close to your heart: English language translations of Chinese literature. A lot has been going on lately. Penguin has been putting out works from China’s Republican era. A few years ago, they published a new translation of Lu Xun’s complete works of fiction. This year, they’ve published two Lao She novels that, unlike most of his best-known works, are not set in his native Beijing. One of these, translated by William Dolby and introduced smartly by Julia Lovell, is set in London and titled Mr. Ma and Son. The other, which is a reissue of an old William Lyell translation but comes with an excellent new introduction by Ian Johnson, Cat Country, is set even further from Beijing—on Mars! Some commentators have also pointed to a notable increase lately in the number of contemporary Chinese authors being translated. What struck you as the most important shift during your time in China?
Brendan O’Kane: I’d love to say that there had been a major shift, but I’m not really sure that there has — at least, not on the publishing side of things. There are more works in translation coming out now than there were before, but that’s a pretty low bar: Only 11 translations from Chinese were published in book form in the U.S. last year. That was actually down from the heady days of 2011, when a whopping 12 books came out. Literature in translation is always a hard sell for publishers in the English-speaking world, and Chinese literature in English translation hasn’t yet found its Haruki Murakami,or Italo Calvino in terms of influence and cachet, let alone its Stieg Larsson in terms of sales.
Things have changed on the translation side, though: there are now quite a lot of native English speakers with good real-world Mandarin, probably more than at any point in the past, and this is a part of a much larger and more important shift. When I started studying Chinese in 1999, it was still kind of a weird language for an American to take up. The general public’s mental image of China was probably just about evenly split between Red Guards and Kung-Fu monks. It wasn’t a place that people thought, knew, or cared very much about, one way or the other. The US is still in the very early stages of awareness — to say nothing of knowledge and understanding — but as far as I’m concerned it’s only going to get better from here on out.
So anyway: things are still pretty dire on the Chinese-literature-in-English-translation front, but we’ve got a more diverse range of translators than ever before, and they are applying their talents to a wider range of Chinese authors. (Some of these authors are even girls!) There’s a hell of a lot more happening on the supply side these days than at any point in the past, and maybe even a little more than usual on the demand side as well — much of that coming from new magazines like Pathlight and Chutzpah which I know have come up on this blog before, and also Asymptote, a more generally translation-focused publication that’s also worth watching. Publishers continue to be the major obstacle, but something’s eventually going to have to give on that front, too.
JW: One Chinese author I always like to get people to talk about is Lu Xun. He’s often referred to as China’s most important twentieth-century writer and continues to loom large in the Chinese literary landscape. He’s a tricky figure to translate. Who do you think has captured him best? Or thinking pragmatically, if I’m going to assign some of his work in my next Chinese history course, what do I pick?
BO’K: It depends on what you want the translation for. If you’re looking for an anthology, Julia Lovell’s recent translation for Penguin is by far the tightest in English, and is probably the best bet for the casual reader. William Lyell’s is a great resource for anyone reading the Chinese who wants to know more about the sorts of shades of meaning and shifts of register that often don’t survive translation. The Gladys Yang and Yang Xianyi translation sits somewhere in between the two, and would not lead your students astray either.
JW: Let’s turn to a different subject: the Nobel Prize. There are some who insist that Lu Xun should have been the first Chinese writer to win the award. Others have said that the honor should have gone to other authors who were active prior to 1949, such as Lao She. In the end, though, the first two to get it were Gao Xingjian, who was living in France as an exile by the time he won, and then, last year, Mo Yan, who is still based in his native country. You did a memorable post for the lively group blog Rectified.name about the early responses to the latter’s Nobel Prize win. Can you sum up for LARB readers who missed it what your main point was in that piece, which was discussed by many China specialists and also got caught the attention of Salon, which referred to it in its piece on the issue?
BO’K: A lot of people I generally admire and agree with (like Salman Rushdie and the China scholar Perry Link) or sympathize with (like Chinese writers in exile Liao Yiwu and Ma Jian) responded to the news of his win by accusing Mo Yan of being a state writer and an apologist for the Chinese government. Ai Weiwei did his usual thing of cursing a lot on Twitter; Meng Huang, a Chinese artist now based in Germany, struck a blow for freedom of speech by streaking outside the Nobel banquet hall in Stockholm. (Mo Yan didn’t really do himself any favors in his public remarks in Stockholm either, especially when he compared censorship in China to airport security protocols, in the sense of being an unavoidable inconvenience.) A lot of the commentary boiled down to “Mo Yan is a bad writer because Liu Xiaobo shouldn’t be in jail.”
I found the whole thing depressing and dispiriting, because this should not be an either/or proposition: Mo Yan didn’t send Liu Xiaobo to jail, and there is absolutely nothing he could say or do, up to and including getting the words “FREE LIU XIAOBO” tattooed on his bald pate, that would do one bit of good for Liu Xiaobo or anyone else in China. (This is especially clear given the Chinese government’s continued persecution of Liu’s brother in law Liu Hui, and the ongoing extrajudicial house arrest of Liu’s wife Liu Xia: the authorities are impervious to moral argument, and they have no shame.) Mo is a deputy chairman of the China Writers’ Association, which is to say that he has slightly less power, in actual terms, than your average deputy chairman at the National Endowment for the Arts in the US. Meanwhile, as much as we might wish otherwise, moral/political courage and literary merit are not the same thing — if writing bad poetry were a criminal offense, Liu Xiaobo would never see daylight again. So I wrote that post on Rectified.name in hopes of getting people to disentangle the two. Once you do that, and once you actually read Mo Yan’s books, I think you find that he’s a much sharper writer than he’s been given credit for. His books don’t make any kind of overt criticisms of the system — perhaps because he’s overly cautious; perhaps because he’s just not much interested in lifting his gaze from the village level — but they are all, in one way or another, about the human suffering created, perpetuated, and intensified by that system.
As for the question of who should or shouldn’t have gotten the Nobel: every now and then you’ll hear that Lao She had been in line for the Nobel before he was driven to suicide by Red Guards, or that Shen Congwen, another leading figure of that generation, was one phone call away from winning the Nobel at the time of his death. I’m not sure that these are any more truthful than the stories about how everyone in China might now be speaking Cantonese (or Shanghainese, or Sichuanese), but for a single vote. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Chinese author more important or influential than Lu Xun, to be sure, but I’d probably be on Team Lao She. Though if we’re allowed to pick any Chinese writer who was active in the Republican era (1912-1949), I’d rather see the award go posthumously to Qian Zhongshu, the author of Fortress Besieged — a genuinely world-class novel that unfortunately suffers badly in its current English translation.
JW: Tell us a bit more about your top two Republican era writers. What puts you on “Team Lao She” over “Team Lu Xun”? What’s so special about Qian?
BO’K: Qian Zhongshu was the high-water mark of 20th-century cosmopolitanism, I think — nobody was ever that good before him, and nobody will ever be that good again — but many of his contemporaries were also comfortable with both the Chinese and European literary traditions in a way that isn’t really imaginable now. Lao She inhaled the works of Dickens, and some of his best novels — Rickshaw Boy, say, or Crescent Moon — read like a sort of alternate-universe Chinese Dickens. He had an ear for dialogue that’s never been bettered — with the exception of Wang Shuo, few writers have ever even tried — and you get the sense that he really likedthe characters in his stories. (As opposed to, say, Lu Xun, whom I find far more compelling as a polemicist than as an author.) It’s encouraging to see Penguin rereleasing two of Lao She’s novels in translation — I’d love to see him get his due in English.
JW: Any thoughts to share on Gao Xingjian? Personally, I feel a bit out of step with the Nobel committee. I enjoyed Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie, another writer who now works in France, better than anything by Gao. And when it comes to writers still active in China, I’ve never read anything by Mo Yan I liked as much I did Yu Hua’s To Live. And while I thought Yan Lianke’s Lenin’s Kisses could have benefited from being trimmed back by about a third, as it got repetitive, I liked it better than any of the Mo Yan works I’ve tackled. Am I just a philistine?
I’ll admit I generally read the authors just mentioned in translation, as the reading I do in Chinese tends to be of sources I’m using in my research, so my varied responses could have a lot to do with whose translations I’m reading. Or it may just be a matter of personal taste, my liking different sorts of allegorical tales than Mo Yan offers, preferring more realistic fiction than the kind of surrealism Gao Xingjian sometimes goes in for, and so on. Do your tastes line up more closely than mine with those of the people who hand out the world’s biggest literary prize?
BO’K: You’ll note that I never said I liked Mo Yan’s writing! I’m not a huge fan of his stuff — or of Gao Xingjian’s, for that matter — but I don’t think that my liking other writers more makes Mo Yan a bad person. He’s harder-working than a lot of the big-name Chinese authors of his vintage — he experiments a lot with style and structure, and tries something new in each of his books — and if the books he writes happen mostly not to spin my wheels, well, them’s the breaks. (Though I’d strongly recommend his novel The Garlic Ballads and his short autobiographical essay Change, both translated by Howard Goldblatt, to anyone with even a passing interest in contemporary literature or history.)
Editing is a big problem for Chinese writers: they usually don’t get any, other than cursory checks for typos and unacceptable politics. Some big-name writers will proudly tell you that they hand over their manuscripts with the instruction zhī zì bù gǎi — “don’t touch a word of it.” Whether this is down to a romantic conception of the author-as-artist or down to Chinese literature being a boy’s club and editors largely being women, or to some combination of the two, the quality of work really suffers from it.
Writers of Mo Yan’s and Yan Lianke’s and Yu Hua’s generation often use a lot of surreal or grotesque imagery, and sometimes — as with Yu Hua’s Brothers — it feels like they’re trying to outdo themselves in gross-out satire, especially when they’re writing about the gross-out excesses of China’s 20th century. (Pro tip: if the blurb for a Chinese novel in English translation contains the word “Rabelaisian,” you should run as far and as fast as you possibly can in the other direction.) And as you say, their novels often go on far too long. A lot of writers do their best work in novella format — which means that it often doesn’t get translated, since novellas are too long to go into literary magazines or comfortably anthologize, but too short to publish on their own. To Live, which you mentioned, is only about 190 pages in Chinese. “Brothers” is 646 pages. Less isn’t necessarily more, but someone really needs to tell Chinese writers that more is almost never more.
JW: Switching gears completely, has it been easier or harder than you expected to come back to the U.S. this time?
BO’K: As Zhou Enlai said when Nixon asked what he thought of the French Revolution: it’s still too early to tell. (Though it turns out Zhou was referring not to 1789, as the story usually has it, but rather to 1968. Mark this one down in the black book of translators’ sins.) I spent the first ten days or so back in the States physically detoxing — including a sudden, intense reaction that was either hay fever or an allergy to clean air, and symptoms that a friend of mine, the former owner of a two-pack-a-day habit, identified as “smoker’s flu.” I’m just emerging from that now.
JW: Thanks to new technologies, you can Skype with people in China and keep up with the chatter on weibo, the Chinese twitter-like micro-blogging platform that’s such an important source of commentary on cultural and political issues, so does it sometimes seem that you aren’t completely gone?
BO’K: Between Skype, WeChat (a popular messaging app), and various social media, yes - it’s still possible to immerse yourself, I think. My wife stayed behind in Beijing; she and I talk on WeChat every morning and night, during the few hours of wakeful overlap between Beijing and the East Coast of the US. It’s a world away from 2004-5, the last time I spent any significant amount of time in the US, when you had to scour Chinatown bookstores for pirated VCDs of Chinese TV shows and overpriced copies of not-very-interesting novels. And there are so many more Chinese people around — and Philadelphia now even has a couple of decent Sichuan restaurants and a promising-looking Xi’an joint.
JW: Finally, what are you going to be studying—and will you still make time while taking classes to do some blogging or at least some tweeting?
BO’K: There are plenty of gaps in my knowledge of contemporary China, but I feel like I’ve got about as good a grip on it as I want to for the time being. Right now I’m interested in Ming- and Qing-dynasty literature, and in particular in the process by which vernacular novels like The Water Margin suddenly became respectable.
In his 1961 inaugural lecture as Chair of Chinese at Oxford, David Hawkes talked about the need for an understanding both of modern Chinese literature and its historical antecedents — an idea sort of similar to what E.D. Hirsch, Jr. calls “cultural literacy.” I’m hoping to take Hawkes’ points as a sort of to-do list: I’ll be spending my MA at Penn acquiring as many hardcore nerd skills as I can, from stronger Classical Chinese to at least a basic proficiency in Japanese (the language of scholarship for a lot of what I’m interested in).
I’ll still be around on blogs and social media and whatnot, but if you see me tweeting, do me a favor and tell me to knock it off and get back to work.