Saturday, May 3, 2008

Lost in Translation

The NYT book section is introducing a bunch of contemporary Chinese novels, which allows me to be re-educated about the literature scene in China. Featured are Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (生死疲劳) by Mo Yan, Wolf Totem (狼图腾) by Jiang Rong, and The Song of Everlasting Sorrow (长恨歌) by Wang Anyi.

Skipping through Mo Yan's newest endeavor, I am not impressed, just as I was not impressed by his Big Breasts, Wide Hips, his defining fiction, many years ago. I've always felt there were elements of gimmickry in the language Mo choose to tell the story, or even in the many fetish he depicts. In fact, in my view his nonfiction work about his days in rural Shandong is better. Now I think he's in danger of relegating himself to irrelevance.

More interesting is that of Wang, who used to be one of my favorite novelists. Her ability of tell story in unhurried pace and command of unpretentious writing are both admirable, especially in her short and medium length works. The Song of Everlasting Sorrow happens to be one of her books that I haven't read. So, I'm interested in taking on the English version, enough that I read the available excerpt in one breath.

The narrating style has some Wang's feel, but overall it just isn't Wang Anyi enough. After locating the original Chinese copy, I find the translation is quite liberal, leaving out whole blocks of sentences at times. I guess Chinese has such unique rhythm, while a whole section of metaphors may work in Chinese, verbatim translation into English would probably feel like a drag-out. Is that what they call lost in translation?

The most interesting and informative piece of the bunch though is an essay about Guo Jing Ming and the status of China's pop fiction. In conversation with F, I've also learned that cockiness is a trademark of those young writers. So young Chinese are treating popular literature like entertainment, even more so than Americans. I don't know whether I should be elated that Chinese are catching up quick, or be worried.

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