Sat, Feb 03, 2001 - Page 11 News List

Sharing the Nobel limelight

Mabel Lee, Honorary Associate Professor of Chinese at the University of Sydney and translator of Gao Xingjian's 'Soul Mountain,' talks to 'Taipei Times' contributing reporter Bradley Winterton about her 10 years of contact with the work of the first-ever Chinese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Mabel Lee says she wept so hard while translating portions of Gao Xingjian's works that she could not see her computer screen. Gao later told her that he too had cried while writing the same passages.


I first came into contact with Gao Xingjian's (高行健) work by pure chance. It was one of those mystical things that sometimes happen in life.

I don't consider myself a professional translator. My PhD, for example, was in late Qing economic thought. But while I was spending a few days in Paris in 1991, on my way to Copenhagen, I arranged to meet the Chinese poet Yang Lian (楊鍊). I had published translations of two volumes of his poetry and was working on a third. One afternoon Yang said "Let's go and see Gao Xingjian!" At that time I had only read a couple of his plays, Absolute Signal and Bus Stop.

That evening we had dinner in Gao's apartment. Yang's wife and my daughter were also present. At one point, while we were chatting, laughing and drinking, Gao brought out his novel Lingshan (靈山), eventually to be published in English as Soul Mountain. I flipped through the book and immediately felt I had an affinity to the language. It was uncluttered and sparse, with words chosen as if it was poetry. I asked him if he had a translator, and when he said no, I offered to translate it, and he accepted. The date, inscribed in the copy he gave me that night, was March 23, 1991.

Soon after I arrived back at the University of Sydney, I accepted the onerous job of "founding head" of an amalgamation of several Asian language departments. I was immediately very busy seven days a week. I also had to write research papers -- unfortunately translation does not count as research in Australian academic institutions. So I read over parts of the novel whenever I could, and in addition wrote several academic papers on Gao's work.

In the process I found myself drawn to his thinking about the place of the individual in society. My upbringing and my life generally had made me intensely aware of the importance of personal autonomy, and in addition I was teaching the approaches of late Qing and May Fourth thinkers, particularly Lu Xun (魯迅), to this very same question.

Translating Soul Mountain was a pleasure. I have described the book elsewhere as "autobiographical fiction," and the whole novel is like a single long poem. The only technical difficulty I had was with the numerous plant and animal names he includes. I didn't think of approaching a publisher until I'd finished, and in the event it took 18 months for the book to appear after I sent it to an agent, despite a very positive report that said it could easily win some literary prizes.

In his experimentation and narrative technique, Gao is perhaps unmatched among his contemporaries. He was fortunate to have studied French, so that during the period when many books in Chinese were banned, he still had access to developments in world literature, giving him an advantage of some 10 years over his contemporaries. He was also from childhood a voracious reader. He was probably born with a high level of artistic sensitivity and linguistic ability, as well as a rich imagination. He enjoys telling stories, and tells them effectively. Essentially, he creates for himself, and writes so that he, at least, will enjoy the result. Naturally he would like others to enjoy it too, but that's not the criterion he uses for literary creation.

His voracious reading means that he has acquired a deep knowledge of both Chinese and Western traditions, and he has internalized them both and is creating his own literary experiments. China's political past deprived many of his contemporaries of opportunities, but Gao's commitment to a literature that is uniquely the voice of the individual places him on a par with writers of any place and time. His insights into human behavior are penetratingly bold, frank, and beautifully expressed.

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