Howard Goldblatt, pictured in his home office, jokes that 'translation isn't a field anyone sensible would go into."
Howard Goldblatt, pictured in his home office, jokes that 'translation isn't a field anyone sensible would go into." Credit: Chris Davis

If Howard Goldblatt is doing his job well, no one realizes that he’s doing it at all. This is because his job is translation, which, if done correctly, is invisible—with all the characters, plot points, descriptions, and, most challengingly, the jokes reading as seamlessly as though they’d been originally created in English.

Yet readers who pick up an English translation of a book by Mo Yan, Wang Shuo, Su Tong, or any other contemporary Chinese novelist are, more likely than not, reading Goldblatt. “It’s all my words,” he says. “If they’re reading a translated novel, they’re reading the translation and hope that the translator got the story, style, and characters right.”

Because Chinese and English are completely distinct languages, with no history or linguistic roots in common, the work of any two translators of the same text will vary widely. Goldblatt is considered by authors, scholars, and colleagues to be the most trustworthy interpreter of Chinese, as well as the most prolific; to date, he’s translated more than 50 books.

Despite all that, you may still have never heard of Goldblatt: even for enthusiasts of world literature, lovers of Kundera or García Márquez, Chinese novels are a tough sell. “People don’t read them,” Goldblatt says simply.

This may be changing. Last fall Guan Moye, better known by his pen name, Mo Yan (“don’t speak”), became the first Chinese novelist still living in China to win the Nobel Prize for literature. (Gao Xingjian, who won in 2000, lives in Paris.) The Nobel committee praised him for being a writer “who with hallucinatory realism merges folk tales, history and the contemporary.” His novel Pow!, published in English a month after the award announcement, was heralded as a comic masterpiece by the New York Times.

In the wake of the Nobel, Goldblatt, who is Mo Yan’s first, and so far only, English translator, became his unofficial spokesman in the English-language press. And later, when Mo Yan was derided by Salman Rushdie and the past Nobel laureate Herta Muller, among others, for being insufficiently critical of the Chinese government, Goldblatt took on the role of defender.

Goldblatt hasn’t spoken to Mo Yan since December, when the author flew several of his translators to Stockholm for the award ceremony. But he continues work on the English translation of Frogs, a novel concerning China’s one-child policy that’s based on the experiences of Mo Yan’s aunt, who was a midwife and an abortionist. It’s the eighth Mo Yan novel he’s translated, and the tenth book overall—Goldblatt’s also worked on a memoir and a short story collection. But Mo Yan is just one of a half-dozen authors Goldblatt regularly translates. He has two books forthcoming: a crime novel by Song Ying, which he cotranslated with his wife, Sylvia Lin, and a retelling of the 12th-century legend of Gesar by the Tibetan writer Alai. Even before the Nobel, he was turning away work.

He’s achieved the improbable: he’s a man known for practicing the most invisible of arts and for living most of his life in a language not his own.

“Translation isn’t a field anyone sensible would go into,” Goldblatt jokes. “Not literary translation. I have a friend who’s with the Justice Department translating Japanese legal cases. That‘s a livelihood.”

Until recently, Goldblatt, who is 74, earned his living as a professor of Chinese literature, first at San Francisco State and the University of Colorado-Boulder and, finally, at Notre Dame, where Lin is also a professor and where he was the director of the Center for Chinese Studies until 2011. He loves to talk and read aloud and is an excellent raconteur. But translation is, he says, “my mother’s milk. I can’t not do it. The idea of not being able to speak in a translator’s voice would kill me.”

Goldblatt fell into his vocation almost by accident. Growing up in California, he was, by his own admission, a terrible student. After graduating college with no marketable skills, he enlisted in the Navy to avoid getting drafted. It was 1962 and the U.S. military was gearing up for Vietnam, but the Navy sent Goldblatt to Taipei instead of to sea. He enjoyed himself so much there that after a stint on a destroyer off the coast of Japan, he asked to go back to finish out his tour of duty.

“My life in Chinese started there,” he says. “The first 20 years of my life don’t count for much.”

In Taiwan, Goldblatt became a serious student of Chinese. He found he had a good ear for the language, and he enjoyed the humor. After his discharge from the Navy, he stayed on to study at the Mandarin Training Center, a language school in Taipei. “There was a time when I wanted to be Chinese,” he says. “I was dressing in Chinese clothes, memorizing texts the way Chinese people do . . . until I realized the folly of what I was doing.”

The only thing to do about this obsession, upon his return to America, was to enroll in grad school, first at San Francisco State for a masters, then at Indiana University, where he got his PhD. While working on his dissertation, Goldblatt did some research on Xiao Hong, a female writer from northeastern China in the 1930s who was virtually unknown in both her own country and the United States. He wrote her biography and translated two of her novels. He found that he liked it. He was good at it. Other people admired his work. He began translating more contemporary authors like Chen Jo-hsi and Zhang Jie. The field was wide open. Goldblatt translated mainland writers and Taiwanese writers and Tibetan writers and even a little bit of poetry.

“Goldblatt, because of his background, is unique,” says Dylan Suher, a contributing editor to Asymptote, a literary journal devoted to the art of translation. (Goldblatt is also a contributing editor.) “Before the 70s, if you studied China, you were a missionary or an Orientalist. Goldblatt came to Chinese literature in a different way. It keyed him into modern and urban Chinese fiction. It’s a novel approach. Others who do it have one dominant language and period. He translates everything.”

For Goldblatt, translation is a service primarily to the reader, not to the writer. The purpose of his work is to get the meaning across. Sometimes that can’t be done by remaining absolutely faithful to the original text. For instance, Tanxiang Xing, the Chinese title of his latest Mo Yan translation, literally means “sandalwood punishment.” Goldblatt chose Sandalwood Death instead because it more closely echoes the sound and rhythm of the original.

It’s especially difficult with humor. In Chinese, most humor is language based, puns and homonyms that don’t always translate. Or don’t always translate funny.

“The writer’s reputation isn’t on the line with every book. But a translator’s reputation can be destroyed by one book. It can call into question his ability to deal with the text.”—Howard Goldblatt

“They don’t have jokes like, ‘A communist, a Buddhist, and a farmer walk into a bar,'” Goldblatt explains. “The problem is not getting humor. Sometimes I can get it. Sometimes I can’t. It’s one thing you lose in the process, the inner workings. It’s too bad. But even if you get it across, an American reader may not think it’s as funny as a Chinese reader would. If you get the idea of a joke, that’s OK. If you laugh at it, that’s better. If you share it with your friends . . .”

In English translation departments in Chinese universities now, students carefully compare translations with the originals. (“Now they do mine,” Goldblatt grumbles, “and they almost always find something. They’re so pleased to get that SOB. Especially if I stray too far or get too creative with words.”) But most of the authors Goldblatt translates came of age during the Cultural Revolution, when learning a foreign language—particularly English—was discouraged. They still don’t know English especially well. They have to trust that Goldblatt will represent their work accurately.

(Only two authors Goldblatt has worked with know English. One, Pai Hsien-yung, wrote the first major gay Chinese novel, Crystal Boys. Goldblatt was unfamiliar with some of Pai’s terminology, so he and Pai, who was at that time a professor at UC-Santa Barbara, visited a gay bar in San Francisco and asked the patrons for help.)

One of Goldblatt’s most discouraging experiences as a translator came when John Updike reviewed two of his translations in the New Yorker: Mo Yan’s Big Breasts and Wide Hips and Su Tong’s My Life as Emperor. While Updike acknowledged Goldblatt’s dominance in the field of Chinese-to-English translation, he didn’t particularly like the books, complaining that “the English cliches seem just plain tired.” As an example, he cited a line from My Life as Emperor where a character “licks his wounds.” It wasn’t the worst example he could have cited, Goldblatt admits, but when he went back to the original, he discovered that Su actually had used the phrase “licks his wounds” in Chinese.

“He must have read it in Chinese and thought it sounded neat,” Goldblatt says. “These are the things we deal with. We know we’ll get slammed, but sometimes it’s our call. We feel it worse than the writer. The writer’s reputation isn’t on the line with every book. But a translator’s reputation can be destroyed by one book. It can call into question his ability to deal with the text.”

When Goldblatt reads a Russian novel, he always buys multiple translations in order to compare and get the most accurate idea of the original. That’s not an option with modern Chinese fiction; in most cases, all you’ve got is Goldblatt. Does Goldblatt’s Su Tong sound different enough from his Wang Shuo that you believe you’re reading the work of two different writers? (Mo Yan, at least, with his very folksy, very visceral prose, has the advantage of sounding like absolutely no one else. Dylan Suher, the Asymptote editor, says, if he were forced to choose, his closest English analogue would be Mark Twain or Charles Portis.)

Goldblatt, in his own humble opinion, believes that they do. Other translators agree.

“The distance between the hooligan protagonists of Wang Shuo (think Kerouac) and the gay Taiwanese narrator of Zhu T’ien-wen’s Notes of a Desolate Man is quite vast indeed,” says Suher. “Goldblatt is the rare flexible translator who makes considerable efforts to capture those distinct registers, as well as the differences in moods between books.”

And he takes on challenges that would intimidate other translators. Sandalwood Death, for instance, has several sections written as Chinese opera.

“Listen,” says Jonathan Stalling, a professor of Chinese at the University of Oklahoma and the cofounder and managing editor of Chinese Literature Today, a journal and book series to which Goldblatt is a regular contributor. He reads a section of Goldblatt’s translation of one of the opera passages and then Mo Yan’s Chinese original. Goldblatt’s work is a virtual echo of Mo Yan’s, as much as English can echo Chinese. “Howard not only includes close approximations of the Chinese vocables used by Mo Yan to indicate the opera’s instrumentation in the original,” Stalling explains, “but he uses a very similar meter and end rhymes as well, so the parts of the novel that could be sung in Chinese can also be sung aloud in English. It’s amazing. It’s not a volume of poetry. It’s a 400-page novel. That says so much about his craft.”

Goldblatt discovered Mo Yan in 1988, when a friend sent him a copy of a Hong Kong literary magazine that contained The Garlic Ballads, a novel about a revolt by a group of peasants after corrupt government officials order them to grow only garlic and then refuse to buy any of their crop. (Still Mo Yan’s most overtly political novel, it was banned, briefly, on the mainland after Tiananmen Square.)

“It was new, powerful, stylistically innovative,” Goldblatt remembers. “I’d never read anything like this from China.”

He immediately wrote to Mo Yan and offered to be his English translator.

On the basis of Goldblatt’s translation of one chapter of Red Sorghum, a novel about life in northeastern China during World War II that Goldblatt deemed even more impressive—and marketable—than The Garlic Ballads (it had been made into a movie by Zhang Yimou), they got an agent. Red Sorghum appeared in the U.S. in 1993; The Garlic Ballads followed two years later.

Goldblatt and Mo Yan are friends, of sorts. At their first lunch together in Beijing, their relationship, as Goldblatt puts it, “took a quantitative leap in, not quite friendship, but affability over cigarettes.” (They’ve both since quit.) But Mo Yan is indisputably Chinese. Except for a few words, he speaks only Chinese and feels most comfortable around Chinese people. All his fiction is set in Gaomi County, the corner of Shadong Province where he grew up and which, as a young writer, he resolved to inhabit as fully as Faulkner did Yoknapatawpha County. He’d never speak out openly against the government, Goldblatt believes, because he couldn’t bear to be exiled from China. During the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm, he clutched a piece of wood in his hand the entire time for comfort. He and Goldblatt work well together, but the translator believes that, deep down, the author would prefer if he were Chinese, too.

“I’ll never get into the heart and mind of a Chinese writer,” he says. “I have a friend in Colorado who’s a French professor. He’s French. He can go to France and be French. I couldn’t do that in China. I’m more outgoing than most Chinese. My worldview is different. I do the best I can. I translate the best I can, accurately and faithfully.”

In his spare time, Goldblatt reads as much Chinese, he says, as he has time for. He reads slowly, and Chinese novels are big. Goldblatt’s been reading a lot of crime novels lately, both American and in translation. Next month, Goldblatt and Lin will be leaving South Bend and moving back to Boulder. They won’t be teaching, but Goldblatt will still be translating.

“I’m translating a Singaporean novel in Chinese,” he says. “There are Brahms strains doing . . . something in the air. Slicing? Gliding? Wafting? I love doing this. In Chinese a lot of the time there’s a predicate, but no active verb. I like the process. It’s so anonymous. Nobody knows I created the word.”