I’m cheating on this blog here at the moment (though the posts aren’t up yet). I was attending UWS’s Literary Translation Symposium anyway, and they asked for someone to blog about it, so I volunteered. Today though one presentation left me in such all-consuming rage and bewilderment, that I felt writing about in a ‘correspondence role’ might be inappropriate. The presentation was by an American translator of Chinese literature.
(For a more balanced discussion, check the comments)
Basically the presentation went like this: Chinese literature (read prose) over the last 30 or 40 years has been appalling. There has been lots of control and censorship there for ages, so it is only recently that foreign literatures (read superior, mature literatures) have come in. This has resulted in twenty years or so of overdone imitations of these authors (like Calvino, Faulkner, and a few others) in which the only difference is the wildly divergent subject matter. Only now, are a few Chinese writers (novelists) starting to approach a mature style of literature.
My alarm bells started to ring right at the beginning, when he put up a few grabs from some ‘appalling’ Chinese writing. I quite enjoyed them. They were brutal, graphic and bodily in a way that English writers rarely write. The natural and abstract world was a kind of writhing, grotesque body, teabagging the reader. Chinese writers, he said, write as if they have never actually read literature, like they’ve had it explained to them. They stuff in as many adjectives and metaphors as possible. Only now are we beginning to see examples of ‘pared back language’ (read: the only way to write). The presentation also gave mystified and mystifying extemporaneous explanations of what literature should be (basically to ingest and then regurgitate the world of perception, but cleanly, no shit or balls please).
It was the most tragic example I have seen yet of a translator going into another literature, looking for a reflection of himself. He is holding a magnifying glass up to Chinese literature, but when he doesn’t understand what he sees, he puts down the loupe and picks up a mirror.
Directly after him Simon West ended his presentation with the extremely important observation, that ‘our conception of the literary is extremely monocultural’. Indeed.