The night before this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature was announced, I sat leafing through Haruki Murakami’s ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’ on my beat leather couch. The bookies chose him at 6/4 odds to win the award, and the buzz was that Asia was due this year. I settled on this eventuality and took up his book to get familiar, even if Murakami’s originality had previously struck me with all the force of a good cappuccino, and nothing more.
The next day, a funny thing happened. Murakami, champion of jazz and record stores and quirky futurescapes, was passed up for a Chinese author, Mo Yan. I made a few calls and no one I knew in Iceland had heard of the man. I put down the cappuccino, reserving judgment. Google searches slowly filled my mind instead with the stench of garlic and glittering seas of red sorghum.
In the States, a combine harvester shudders to life when an outlier wins the Nobel Prize, reprinting old translations, commissioning new ones and publicising the hell out of him ahead of the Christmas hysteria. In a country of so many million, there will be book sales. But what happens with translation in Iceland? What is the interest in Chinese culture, even?
What is Worth a 1000 Words?
I looked into it. Hjörleifur Sveinbjörnsson is perhaps the best potential translator of Mo Yan’s work to Icelandic. In 2008, JPV published his ‘Apakóngur á Silkiveginum’ (“The Monkey King on the Silk Road”), an introduction to Chinese literature that won 2009’s Icelandic Translation Award. In the collection, Hjörleifur writes in an even style evoking the original stories without the use of overwrought literary language.
Hjörleifur’s introduction was groundbreaking in its accessibility. That was four years ago, and beside Hjörleifur, the number of Iceland’s literary translators of Chinese can be counted on one hand. In a field where the pioneer work is still being done, a translation of Mo Yan in the near future is doubtful, and something, Hjörleifur says, that the publishing houses should figure out.
He is optimistic, however, because Chinese actually shares several tender similarities with Icelandic. Both languages have their roots in rich and abundant classical forms, some of which are fine approximations for each other. And both languages have maintained a deep relationship with the lives of farmers and fisherman from which they sprung and, until recently, were predominantly used by.
Where is Mo Yan in all of this? As part of the post-Mao ‘root-seeking’ movement, he re-twined literature with traditional folklore and aesthetics. His historical epics, which colourfully evade realism, cover topics like garlic farming, mothering, drinking, drinking, and drinking. They are simply more workable in Icelandic than those of his avant-garde peers.
Mo Yan is technically translatable. But who cares?
Let Them Eat Sorghum
A week after the Nobel prize announcement, I edged my way into a room at the University of Iceland to see the film adaptation of Mo Yan’s “Red Sorghum.” The screening, hastily scheduled to buttress the news cycle, was sparsely attended.
And yet the film’s rawness easily filled the room. Scenes of tense family drama quickly evolved into those depicting masculine shame, graphic violence, rape and even the forced skinning of a prisoner alive. In the startling closing scenes, it is the Japanese who play the aggressors, but the subtext grapples with the self-inflicted horrors the Chinese themselves committed during the Cultural Revolution.
Numbed by repeated violence, swollen with some astonishing significance, I left my seat in a head rush, eager to find English translations of Mo Yan’s books. On my way out, I was surprised to hear, most immediately, negative criticism of the film: simplistic symbolism, shock value over substance, easy vilification of the Japanese—if this was all the Chinese had, it was disappointing.
I wonder if there’s something more to this—something lurking beneath the real fact that the difficulty of a project like translating Mo Yan to Icelandic far outpaces the demand for it, something beside the innocent disregard for an acclaimed film.
There is real anxiety in Iceland and the West about the cultural output of a country with heavy censorship and pervasive human rights violations. Suggestions of scandal and corruption seem to follow wherever China places its foot.
I certainly read what makes it through the censors with a grain of salt. But sometimes there is a writer whose mind dances around “BAN” stamps and still unflinchingly portrays a nation’s life, death and cannibalism.
What’s more, openness to the right cultural influences has combined with Icelandic talent for stunning results. To choose just one example, acclaimed author Sölvi Björn Sigurðsson has lit Dante’s ‘The Divine Comedy’ up as kindle for his epic poem ‘Gleðileikurinn djöfullegi’ (“The Diabolical Comedy”). And he’s remixed Murakami for the postmodern genre-bender ‘Fljótandi heimur’ (“Floating World”).
It’s not that everything that comes out of China should be treated with parity, nor its transgressions ignored. But Mo Yan’s stuff is popping, man. For people who demand a new constitution after a crisis, who care enough about corruption to put the SIC Report at the top of the bestseller list, and consistently grapple with the dark reasons everything can go so fantastically wrong in a country, Mo Yan may have a lot to say.
50 Shades of Red
And do you really need an invitation to pick up books titled ‘Happy Times,’ ‘The Republic of Wine,’ and ‘Big Breasts and Wide Hips’?
Book your day tours in Iceland right here!