AT the age of 88, Swedish sinologist and translator Goran Malmqvist, a permanent judge of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is compared by his friends to a windmill, always going full tilt.
Malmqvist, a translator and friend of last year's Nobel Prize in Literature winner Mo Yan, is the only permanent member of the Nobel literature committee who reads Chinese and he is considered a talent scout for Chinese literature. The major reason Chinese literature isn't better known on the world stage is lack of good translations, he says.
He says his responsibility is to promote Chinese literature on the world stage, "not to nail a Nobel Prize for China."
He is not Mo's major translator but has recently translated some short works that will be published this year.
Malmqvist is famous for praising the richness and nuance of traditional Chinese characters and lamenting that simplified characters used on the Chinese mainland to promote literacy, to his way of thinking, cannot convey the same depths.
These days Malmqvist is busy translating and lecturing, and he recently engaged in a juicy public spat with Beijing poet and translator Li Li about the quality of Li's translation and Malmqvist's translation. Li wrote a distasteful poem that apparently took a dig at Malmqvist's personal life and his much younger second wife, who is Taiwanese. Malmqvist was furious. Li then said it was only about the phenomenon of rich older Chinese men keeping much younger women.
The nasty tiff was played out online in both men's Sina Weibo microblogs and also reported by media. It's just the kind of spat that gets attention in literary circles and it sheds some light on the temperamental world of translation.
It all started over two so-called "competing" translations into Chinese of the works of Swedish poet and 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Tomas Transtromer, one by Malmqvist and an earlier one by Li.
During Malmqvist's visit to Shanghai in October to promote his own translation, he was asked by reporters why he translated Transtromer into Chinese since Li had already done so. Malmqvist responded that many works to a number of different translations in the same language, saying he wanted to do his own translation of Transtromer into Chinese. He added that he found some errors in Li's translation.
Li responded online by saying that Malmqvist was "a translator with no literary taste" and that he "exercises dictatorship." He also wrote a poem about an unsavory liaison between an old man and a much younger woman.
In late November, Malmqvist blogged that Li should "change his career," saying he found 136 major errors and calling the translation "a total mess."
"I used to think Li was a poor poet and worse translator," Malmqvis wrote. "Now I feel very sorry that there is such a vicious so-called poet in this world. He uses poems as a tool of revenge. The real insult was to the creation of poetry."
What Li calls artistic "recreation" is simply mistranslation, Malmqvist argued.
Poetry lovers who read both Chinese and Swedish can see for themselves.
Debate on translation
The role of translators is widely debated and Chinese is especially difficult to render meaningfully into other languages. Rendering into Chinese is also difficult. Some say translators should stay close to the original, while others argue that many words and terms are not translatable and thus there should be literary license to make a work accessible to foreign readers. Some people, famously German sinologist and translator Wolfgang Kubin, have said that good foreign translators make Chinese writers look better than they really are.
Li is one of those arguing for flexibility to "restore artistic beauty" when he renders Swedish into Chinese. He sometimes change words to vividly express the authors' ideas. For example, he changed "chantarelle mushrooms" to "caramel" in Transtromer's poem. He says Chinese readers have no idea about chantarelles and the word "caramel" gives them a better idea of what the poet is trying to express.
Today the row has died down.
In an e-mail interview with Shanghai Daily, Malmqvist stressed that "a translator is a craftsman, not a creator."
"A translator has double responsibilities toward the author of the work that he or she translates and toward his own reader," he said. "He must not add anything, nor detach anything from the text. He must be careful."
Malmqvist, known in China as Ma Yueran, has dedicated himself for more than 60 years to the study of Chinese language and culture, ancient and modern literature and philosophy. He is the only one of the 18 Nobel Prize life-time judges to sit on the literature committee and the only one reading and translating Chinese.
"The existence of few translations is the main reason that Chinese literature is marginalized in the world," Malmqvist told reporters in Shanghai in October. The white-haired scholar, wearing a white silk, Chinese-style jacket was joined by his wife Chen Wenfen, a former journalist who helps when he has trouble hearing.
"What is world literature? World literature is translation," Malmqvist said, quoting a former permanent secretary of Swedish Academy.
"Between the 1920s and 1940s many Chinese writers, poets and dramatists produced literary works equal to the best in the world," he said in Shanghai Daily e-mail interview, citing Lu Xun, Lao She, Wen Yiduo, Xu Zhimo, Cao Yu and Chen Baichen, among others.
Outspoken sinologist Kubin once said there's virtually no Chinese prose written after 1949 that's worth reading, though he praise some contemporary poets.
One problem, Kubin has said, is that few Chinese writers can speak or read a foreign language, so they cannot use another language to enrich or examine their own work and have a poor understanding of foreign literature.
Malmqvist disagreed, telling Shanghai Daily, "Chinese writers like Mo Yan, Yu Hua, Su Tong and Li Rui don't speak English. But it's not a problem at all for them to read Faulkner. They are all deeply influenced by Faulkner."
He said there are many outstanding writers in China today, including Yu Hua, Su Tong, Han Shaogong, Jia Pingwa, Feng Jicai, Li Rui, Cao Naiqian, Yan Lianke, Wang Anyi and Can Xue.
In addition to Mo Yan, of course. Mo's main Swedish translator is Malmqvist's former student, Anna Gustafsson Chen.
Malmqvist says the late Hunan-born writer Shen Congwen (1902-88) should have been China's first winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, but Shen died several months before the prize was announced. Shen is considered a great writer but the Nobel is never given posthumously. Malmqvist made repeated and, finally, tearful appeals.
The expert receives many requests to translate. One senior person in a culture-related department in Shandong Province even tried to bribe him with calligraphy, painting and ancient books, he told Shanghai media in October. He said the man wanted his own work translated and wanted a Nobel nomination. "I get the reputation and you (Malmqvist) can have the prize money," he quoted the man as saying. This created a stir. Provincial officials asked Malmqvist to name the person, but he remained silent.
Work of love
For Malmqvist, translation is a labor of love, it's about promoting Chinese literature. It's not about money, though he is usually paid after publication. He wasn't paid for his translation of Mo Yan's short novels, which will be published this year, because the Swedish Academy already paid him for that.
Critics call Malmqvist very subjective, and he concurs.
"The Nobel Prize is not the world championship," he said to media in Shanghai. "We just awarded the prize to a good writer. There could be 1,000 good writers in the world every year, but the winner is just one."
Born in Jonkoping in Sweden in 1924, Malmqvist first wanted to teach Latin and Greek in high school. In university he read "The Importance of Life" (1937) by Lin Yutang and became interested in Chinese philosophy and literature.
"In the 8th century, when my people were living a wild life in the forest and wearing bear skins, Tang (AD 618-907) poets were creating poems ... Whoever reads them will fall in love," he once told a newspaper.
After two years of studying ancient Chinese, 24-year-old Malquvist went to Chengdu, Sichuan Province, to study local dialect for eight months. While war raged, he lived in Baoguo Temple at the foot of Mt Emei and befriended young monks who at first thought he was, as he recalls, "a horrible, child-eating monster," because of his big nose and green eyes. He listened to monks chanting sutras and whispering words between lovers. He watched boatmen and listened to their work songs.
He later wrote a paper about the syntax of the Sichuan dialect and pronunciation rules of whispered words. He also married the daughter of a Chengdu scholar.
Malmqvist is not known for holding back in his criticism and has said the simplification of Chinese characters was "a huge mistake." He has expressed confidence that eventually traditional ones will replace the simplified characters.
"It has been argued that traditional characters are difficult to learn. This is not so," he told Shanghai Daily. "In my 40 years as an academic teacher of Chinese I have noticed that average non-Chinese students are capable of learning about 2,500 (traditional) characters during three years of study," he said.
Since 1948, he has translated a range of literature, including classics such "A Tale of the Fountain of the Peach Blossom Spring" by Tao Yuanming, "Book of Rites," the "Analects of Confucius" and Shen Congwen's "Border Town."