Sat, Feb 17, 2001 - Page 9 News List

Nobel translator taken to task

The man who has translated nearly all of Nobel Prize-winner Gao Xingjian's work, Goran Malmqvist, is put through his paces by one of the leading critics of the recent award

By Cao Chang-ching 曹長青

Illustration: Mountain People

It is highly unusual that four months after the announcement of last year's Nobel Prize in literature, Gao Xingjian (高行健), the first Chinese ever to win the prize, has yet to be the subject of an in-depth Chinese-language review that thoroughly explains the literary and artistic values of his two novels on which the Nobel Prize is principally based.

The prize generated worldwide criticism from Chinese authors and critics and raised arguments and doubts about the selection of last year's winner. Trying to gain a better understanding of the affair, I interviewed one of the key figures who helped place the Nobel crown on Gao's head; Goran Malmqvist (馬悅然) .

As Gao's most enthusiastic supporter, Malmqvist translated from Chinese into Swedish all of Gao's short stories, two novels and 14 of his 18 plays, a total of 95 percent of Gao's works. It is fair to say that Gao would not have won the Nobel without Malmqvist's support and translations.

Malmqvist was born in 1924 and began to study Chinese in 1946, according to The History of Swedish Sinology, a book published in China and which was praised for its accuracy by Malmqvist himself. Malmqvist is an authority on classical Chinese literature and Sichuan dialects. He began to pay attention to modern Chinese literature in the early 1980s and has campaigned for Chinese writers to win the Nobel ever since he was elected a member of the Swedish Academy in 1985.

As Sweden's most prominent sinologist, Malmqvist has translated as many as 700 pieces of Chinese works into Swedish, most of them ancient classics. In recent years, Malmqvist has paid special attention to three Chinese writers, Gao Xingjian, Li Rui (李銳) and Bei Dao (北島). He has translated three major works by Li Rui and all of Bei Dao's poetry.

Last year's Nobel Prize in literature is as much a triumph for Malmqvist as it is for Gao. Readers in Taiwan have heard much about Gao in the last two weeks. Learning Malmqvist's views on Gao's works, however, might be a fresh perspective for those interested in Gao's writing.

Cao: Was a Chinese candidate considered for the Nobel prize this year because no Chinese-language writer had won the prize in its 100-year history? Was this a factor in giving the prize to Gao Xingjian?

Malmqvist: It was certainly a consideration.

C: Was Gao weighed for the prize purely in terms of literary merit?

M: Yes. Literary merit was the sole criterion.

C: If the evaluation was made in accordance with literary merit, where do you think Gao's works surpass those of V.S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie and Philip Roth? Their works have been listed among the best 100 English-language novels.

M: We don't worry about this. The 18 members (of the Swedish Academy) decide who wins the Nobel prize for literature, and we do not listen to what others say. We don't care about this. No one can influence us. No matter who says Rushdie should get it, Roth should get it, Naipaul should get it, we simply don't listen!

C: You translated Soul Mountain(靈山) into Swedish before the Chinese edition was published. Don't you think you should have listened to the opinions of Chinese critics on both sides of the Taiwan Strait before concluding that it is "a work impossible to compare with anything but itself?"

M: I don't care about other people's criticisms of Soul Mountain at all. I have my own critique. I don't listen to other people telling me how it should be. Besides, there were very few criticisms of Gao before he won the prize.

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