Wolf Totem a landmark of Chinese literature
In more than 25 years of translating Chinese literature, Howard Goldblatt has never come across a novel quite like Wolf Totem. “It caught me in its grip,” the American exclaims, conversing with the Straight in his Beijing hotel suite on the day of the official launch of the Chinese novel in his English rendering.
The affable professor at the University of Notre Dame—widely considered to be the world’s foremost English-language translator of contemporary Chinese novels and stories—says most of the prose he’s worked on has dealt with people living modern lifestyles in the midst of China’s fast-paced economic development. But the setting of Wolf Totem (Penguin, $26.95, due out Saturday [April 12]) is far from urban. The novel is a semi-autobiographical work about a student named Chen Zhen who spends years in the remote Mongolian grasslands during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Through the guidance of a Mongol elder, Chen learns the importance of grassland wolves to their ecosystem, and how we must respect the balance between animals and humans. Chen becomes so fascinated with the wolves that he is determined to study them by rearing a wolf cub. And in the end, the wild animal teaches him an unforgettable lesson.
The main characters also openly criticize the Chinese government’s treatment of the environment and minorities. So it’s not surprising that when the book came out four years ago, the author kept his identity concealed under a pen name, Jiang Rong. It was only recently revealed that Jiang was Lu Jianmin, a 62-year-old retired professor of political economy who spent one-and-a-half years in prison for his part in the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989.
Yet Jiang (as he is still widely known) continues to shy away from publicity and rarely grants interviews. There are also rumours that his health is not good. When, in November, Wolf Totem won the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize, the prestigious award established to recognize Asian novels not yet translated into English, Jiang did not attend the Hong Kong ceremony to accept the award, citing health reasons. (Jiang has also said that he is unable to travel abroad because he has been stripped of his passport as a result of his political activities in 1989.)
Despite his reclusive nature, Jiang’s book has become a record-breaking national bestseller, with over 2.5 million official copies and some 17 million black-market copies sold, making it the second most widely read work in China after Chairman Mao’s “little red book”. Film rights to Wolf Totem have reportedly been sold to director Peter Jackson, maker of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And the novel has even been taken up by the Chinese business community as a kind of handbook describing the strategy of wolves in gathering knowledge, being patient, and making calculated attacks.
The English version is wonderfully translated by Goldblatt, as the novel alternates its pace from action and violence to tranquillity and reflection. The translator explains that the story line is so unusual and gripping that he decided to translate the book chapter by chapter (rather than reading it through first, as he usually does), in order to maintain his sense of the momentum and excitement of the plot.
“I had to hold back. There were places where I said, ”˜I can stop here.’ There were other places when I was translating where I simply couldn’t stop to translate,” he explains. “I had to find out what’s going to happen to this young wolf, what kind of exchanges the urban youth sent out from China had with the Mongol hosts, and what was happening to Inner Mongolia.
“But I forced myself: when I could come to a place where I could take a breath, I would translate,” Goldblatt says. “And then I would continue on. And then I’d hit another spot again and I had to continue reading. And that’s why I think it worked as a translation. Had I known everything ahead of time, I might have approached it”¦with the sort of nonchalance of a translator who is only dealing with text. I wasn’t dealing with text—I was dealing with wolves. That still scares the pants off me, I have to admit, and the periods of violence, periods of calm, periods of beauty, periods
of sheer ugliness really caught me up as I was translating.”
As Chinese and English are so disparate, translating is a highly complex challenge. Goldblatt loves the Chinese language for its ambiguities, which can lead to many different interpretations. Although the English language can be precise, he says, Chinese words and terms can have an array of meanings that vary depending on linguistic and historical context.
“My sense,” Goldblatt explains, “is that if you are Chinese, and you have grown up with it, you can see these multiple interpretations unconsciously as you are reading through it. It [the word] could be this and it could be that, and you move on. But when you get to a translation into English, of course it’s either that or it’s this. And sometimes that causes me some anguish.”
Goldblatt jokingly blames this fretting for his hair loss and white beard. “Translation is just a compendium of losses,” he says, “which is a sad way to look at your life’s work. But the process is wonderful.”