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


But not many of Malmqvist's or Gao's friends in Taiwan were surprised. In recent years, the pool of possible Chinese-language contenders for a Nobel Prize had narrowed considerably. The choice ultimately boiled down to three usual suspects, the poet Bei Dao (北島), the novelist Li Rui (李瑞) and Gao, as they are the three Chinese authors, thanks to the efforts of Malmqvist, best known in Sweden. With the only exception of France, where Gao has lived in exile since 1988, Sweden was the only western country in which Gao's works were available in translation.

Malmqvist first knew of Gao's writings in the 1980s. During a trip to Beijing, he tried to meet Gao, but it was not until Malmqvist had translated a number of Gao's plays into Swedish and had them produced in Stockholm did Gao finally met his Swedish champion.

Malmqvist was also one of the first readers of Gao's masterpiece, Soul Mountain. In fact, Malmqvist had undertaken a translation of the 700-page novel into Swedish before its Chinese publication. When he found Gao's handwriting difficult to decipher, he contacted Gao's friends in Taiwan to find a publishing house for the book.

Immediately following the 2000 Nobel announcement, Malmqvist was briefly caught up in controversy. Forum, the original Swedish publisher of Soul Mountain, had received a request from Gao asking for termination of contract. So, just 10 days before the Nobel announcement, the Swedish publication rights of the book went to another publisher, Atlantis, which was owned by a friend of Malmqvist. When Forum learned that they just lost a Nobel winner, they cried foul and raised questions of a conflict of interest. And no one was more happy to point the finger at Malmqvist than authorities in Beijing who had viewed the choice of Gao for the Nobel as a backhanded attack on its political legitimacy.

Beijing, who has banned Gao's works since the 1980s, continues to blacklist the writer, despite his being the first Chinese-language Nobel winner. According to Chinese officials, there are at least 200 writers better than Gao in China. When newspapers in Beijing discovered the Forum-vs-Atlantis dispute, they avidly picked up the story and widely painted Malmqvist as a self-interested merchant of literature. Malmqvist has stridently denied all accusations.

Without question, he was the prime mover behind last year's Nobel with the power to recommend authors to his colleagues at the Swedish Academy. As for the letter Forum received from Gao, he explained that the author had sent it in summer, but that the letter had gone lost in the mail and didn't reach its addressee until October.

After the fog was cleared and all the misunderstandings explained, the two houses in Stockholm settled into post-Nobel peace. Atlantis got the publication rights for Soul Mountain and Forum got a story collection titled A Fishing Rod for my Grandpa.

The 77-year-old Malmqvist has retired from Stockholm University and has just finished editing Frontier Taiwan : an anthology of modern Chinese poetry, which will be published simultaneously in the US by Columbia University Press, in Taiwan by Rye Field and in China by Beijing Literature Publishing House.

He is currently in Taipei and will give a lecture in English Feb. 2 at 4pm at the Taipei International Book Exhibition on problems a translator encounters when introducing Chinese literature to readers abroad.

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