Thu, Feb 01, 2001 - Page 11 News List

Translator of the Chinese star

The Swedish sinologist Goran Malmqvist is seen as integral to Gao Xingjian's selection for last year's Nobel Prize in Literature


Goran Malmqvist is one of the West's leading sinologists and a member of the Swedish Academy, which nominates candidates for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Malmqvist's membership in the academy was seen as a key factor in the selection of Gao Xingjian for the 2000 Nobel literature prize. The scholar is in Taipei to participate in seminars at the Taipei International Book Exhibition next week.


One can say that the Tao Te Ching (道德經) changed Goran Malmqvist's life.

Unable to appreciate the 6th-century Chinese classic in its original linguistic splendor, the young Swede tried to fathom Lao Tzu's (老子) wisdom in French, German and English. But the differing translations of the same passages only confused him further. Finally he sought the help of the great sinologist, Bernhard Karlgren, and was so dazzled by the hint of poetic possibilities in Karlgren's interpretations that he changed his course of studies from Latin to Chinese.

In 1948, near the end of the Chinese Civil War, Malmqvist went to the heartland of China to study regional Chinese dialects. In an ancient monastery of Sichuan Province, he lead the ascetic life of a Buddhist initiate, doing cleaning chores and studying. Except instead of Buddhist scriptures, he studied Tang and Sung poetry under the monastery's head, who was a classic scholar-turn-monk but who deviated wildly from the traditional rules of abstinence. Between puffs of opium and quaffs of rice wine, the head monk taught this young student to write poems in classical Chinese. Before his return to Sweden, Malmqvist also found time to fall in love with an opera-singer, who later became his wife.

After Karlgren's death, Malmqvist became the most prominent Swedish sinologist. He continued his mentor's work of teaching about the great Chinese classical writers at the University of Stockholm and translating such poets as Tao Yuan-ming (陶淵明) and Su Tung-po (蘇東坡) into Swedish. In 1985, he became the first sinologist ever to be elected into the venerated Swedish Academy.

Founded by Gustaf III in the 18th century for the aim of maintaining the "purity, vigor, and majesty" of the Swedish language, the Swedish Academy consists of 18 life-long members, all scholars or writers.

Since 1901, the Academy assumed literary importance on a global scale, being charged with the task of accepting nominations from around the world for the Nobel Prize in literature and deciding on a winner. Many of the laureates in the first half of the century are now forgotten and accusations of euro-centrism have long dogged the world's most prestigious literary prize. The addition of the sinologist into the academy was clearly intended to correct the earlier imbalance in the judging. Since his election into the academy, Malmqvist switched his focus from ancient to contemporary Chinese literature and has made frequent trips to Taiwan, Hong Kong and China, making many friends among Chinese writers.

Needless to say, since his election, many in Taiwan have placed great hopes on seeing a writer writing in Chinese winning Nobel.

Chinese authors showered him with books and would repeatedly ask: "who is the most likely Chinese to win the Nobel?" or: "Who's your favorite Chinese living writer?" Malmqvist would typically provide only evasive answers to these queries, saying he liked a bit of everything. And he was speaking the truth, as Chinese writers were often dazzled by his deep knowledge of and passion for contemporary Chinese letters.

When Gao Xingjian (高行健) was announced as last year's Nobel Prize winner, the news shocked people around the world, especially in the US, where none of Gao's works were available in English, and in Germany where only one play by Gao had been translated into German. And that play was already out of print.

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