The Art of Translating: Howard Goldblatt

Authors usually receive all of the credit for their works, especially when their works go on to win prizes as prestigious as the Nobel Prize in Literature. However, 2012 winner Chinese novelist Mo Yan offers credit to his translator Howard Goldblatt, who has translated many of Mo Yan’s works into English. Goldblatt visited Colorado School of Mines on April 7 to speak about his background as well as his experience translating for Chinese authors.

Goldblatt received his undergraduate degree from Long Beach State College, the only school to which he applied. Shortly after finishing his degree in the early 1960s, Goldblatt was drafted into the U.S. Navy and left the U.S. for the first time in his life. He was sent to serve in Taiwan. There he first encountered the Chinese language, which would later become central to his career. After serving another tour off the coast of Japan, Goldblatt returned to Taiwan and learned to speak Chinese.

When Goldblatt returned to the U.S., he was encouraged to pursue graduate school. He did and by 1974 had earned both a master’s and PhD in Chinese. Goldblatt began teaching during his graduate school career, but it was his dissertation that led him to translating.

“I started teaching, and when I started teaching in San Francisco, I had to write a dissertation. I wrote about a writer who lxived in Manchuria who no one knew about, but subsequently became famous (because of the translation). I had to translate a lot of her work because no one else could. I thought this was absolutely interesting and it was something that I could do reasonable well,” Goldblatt said.

He translated a Chinese novel about the Cultural Revolution, which went on to become a bestseller. People came to know who Goldblatt was through this translation. Eventually, Goldblatt retired from teaching and decided to translate exclusively.

Though Goldblatt has translated many works by Chinese authors, he is best known for his translations of Mo Yan because of the success Mo Yan achieved.

“The Nobel committee could only read Mo Yan through my or French or Swedish translation,” Goldblatt said. “They’re reading Mo Yan’s novel but they’re reading my words.”

Goldblatt offered insight into the world of a translator. Though he converts other author’s works from Chinese to English, Goldblatt said his allegiance lies with his English readers.

“My readers are important. It’s gotten me into some hot water in China,” Goldblatt said. He often receives criticism about his translations from native Chinese speakers. “The only times I listen (to criticism) is when I miss something the Chinese readers would get.”

Translating Chinese works into English has become quite the business, and Goldblatt says a lot of writers in China tend to write for the translator.

“Mo Yan spoke recently and said a lot of writers these days in China tend to be writing for the translator, to make it easy for the translator. He says you absolutely cannot do that. You only write for your readers and let the translators deal with it,” Goldblatt said. “He’s absolutely right. Then we (translators) deal with it. I deal with it in a way that publishers can sell books. It’s a clunky, literal, stuffy translation that agrees very closely to the Chinese original.”

Often times though, Goldblatt will come across a phrase or idea that does not translate into English. “I just skip it or I work around it, and I make something up that kind of works,” Goldblatt said.

Translators allow works of all cultures to transcend their native language and be read and understood by different parts of the world. Some say that a translation is no substitute for the original. Goldblatt disagreed, “Of course it is. That’s exactly what it is. It’s not a rewriting; it’s a substitute.”

These substitutions allow for a broader understanding of the world. Goldblatt’s translations offer insight into the China that can only be gained by speaking to those who experienced events such as the Cultural Revolution and One Child Policy that are discussed in the novels he has translated. That ability to transcend language and allow drastically different cultures to understand each other makes translating a beautiful and essential art.

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