Interview with John Balcom

  • Interviewed by Linda Morefield
  • March 19, 2013

A past president of the American Literary Translators Association, John Balcom has translated and published more than a dozen books into English from Chinese. Linda Morefield interviewed John about his recent translation of Trees Without Wind, by Li Rui.

Interview with John Balcom

Read our review of Trees Without Wind.

by Linda Morefield

What an astonishing book! This brief novel (186 pages) takes place in Stunted Flats, an infinitesimally small and remote village in which a rare affliction has stunted the residents. But poverty and isolation do not deflect outsiders from imposing the demands of the Cultural Revolution. Class ranks, even here, must be purified as Director Liu, an older revolutionary and the local commune head, becomes embroiled in a power struggle with Zhang Weiguo, a young ideologue who believes he is the model of a true revolutionary. But this is not solely a story about politics, although the devastation of the Japanese Occupation, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution underlie and drive this tale. Li Rui’s novel explores large while remaining physical and concrete! In this smallest of places with a simple and uneducated peasant population, the author very specifically examines major questions of existence and identity.

John Balcom is an award-winning translator of Chinese literature, philosophy, and children’s books.

Q&A with John Balcom, Translator, Trees Without Wind by Li Rui

Book titles are always wonderful pointers as to what a book is about.  As he attempts to educate the “masses” of Stunted Flats, Kugen’r reads from one of Chairman Mao’s directives “ . . . ‘the tree may prefer calm, but the wind will not subside’; class struggle is independent of man’s will….” Although this is one source for the novel’s title, there is another, the first of four epigrams that opens the novel, an anecdote about the man whom some consider the father of Zen, the Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng. 

At Faxing Temple, the Sixth Patriarch Hui Neng pointed to a banner blowing in the wind and, explaining the world to the assembled monks, said, “Neither the wind nor the banner moves; what moves is the benevolent.” 

After this Buddhist wisdom of emptiness, of changelessness, comes a statement from Mao of his philosophy of change and class struggle, then two personal expressions by fictional characters: a philosophy of life and a last word before death. From a quote that addresses that which is not affected by time and circumstances, the author next introduces that which is, the politics of Chairman Mao’s ideology. Then, the Stunted Flats production team leader’s all-encompassing phrase to describe the world, a phrase independent of his mood: “Fuck it all to hell.” Finally, we read Uncle Gimpy’s last word, which is actually a sound, his summation of his life: “clunk.”  

Only then does the novel begin.

Could you comment on the novel’s title, its philosophy? How does the author want the reader to approach this novel?

First let me say that I’m happy you find this book as astonishing as I do. The title is tied in with the larger historical and cultural context of the novel. For anyone who lived during the Cultural Revolution, the meaning of the title is clear. It deals with the revolution. However, for a non-Chinese audience the significance is far less obvious, but becomes clear in reading the novel. We can talk more about reception later.  The epigraphs, as you point out, establish a larger context. While we normally associate Hui Neng with iconoclastic Chan (Zen) Buddhism, we should also bear in mind that the first of the Buddha’s four noble truths is that life is suffering. Buddhism is a spiritual path that leads to enlightenment and ultimately to liberation from suffering.  Li Rui quotes, Hui Neng, the Sixth Patriarch of Chan Buddhism, whose thought represents a Chinese iteration of the Buddhist Way.  He also quotes Chairman Mao, who, as a Chinese Marxist, sought to alleviate the sufferings of the people through a materialist path.  Both paths have not been entirely successful, and perhaps in the case of the latter, actually ended up doing a good deal of harm.  The words and deeds of the two fictional characters further serve to underline the fact that suffering is part of life and that no system, religious or political, can completely change that.  The compassion Li Rui finds in life stems from the individual and not from any system.  

I am curious about censorship, and about the process and perils of writing fiction while living in an authoritarian regime. Trees Without Wind, set during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), offers a clear view of its disastrous consequences. Also referenced is the catastrophe of The Great Leap Forward (1958-1963), where perhaps 20 million Chinese died of starvation (or diseases related to starvation) as a direct result of this particular five-year plan.I was so surprised to read such unabashed criticism of Mao policies and his cult of personality, as I was surprised to hear vehement, vocal criticism of Mao when I was a first-time tourist in China last April. Mao’s huge picture looms large in Tiananmen Square and people queue to visit his tomb. The poet Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 China’s Nobel Peace Prize, languishes in a Chinese prison, denied (I have read) materials with which to write, locked-up for writing a political tract calling for political reform and greater human rights.In China, does fiction have greater latitude for examining political acts and consequences than non-fiction?

In the case of Li Rui and other novelists who have written about the Cultural Revolution, censorship hasn’t been a huge issue because they are dealing with the excesses of an earlier period.  

The issue of Mao is much more complicated. He is villainized by some, but also held up as a great nationalist by others. One of the organizing principles in Li Rui’s novel, which I avoided commenting on in the preface, but which is obvious to anyone who has read Mao, especially his Little Red Book, is drawn straight from his comments on negative aspects of Party members – the complacent, or those who have become satisfied with the power they enjoy and don’t wish to rock the boat, and the conceited, those who have become arrogant due to their successes in the fight.  Director Liu is an example of the complacent party member, while Kugen’r is an example of the conceited sort. In the end, it’s the people who suffer.     

You write in the Translator’s Preface, “Published in 1996, Trees Without Wind offers a view of the Cultural Revolution from the hindsight of twenty years.” And you refer to the book as “Anatomy of a Revolution.” Since this novel was only recently published in English (2013), I assume that it was first published in China. Is this correct? How was it received by the public? By critics?

Yes, the book was published in China. There is also a Taiwan edition, which is identical. The title of my preface is intentionally ambiguous: Li Rui’s novel dissects and deconstructs the Cultural Revolution, providing an anatomy of the revolution; but his novel is also a revolution of sorts, especially in his ability to combine the rural and regional content with high-modernist form and technique, so the preface hopefully serves as an anatomy of what Li Rui is doing. Much of the critical discourse in China places his writing in the root-seeking school of writers who write about rural China using regional dialect. Obviously that is an oversimplification, but one based on some of his early short stories. Li Rui has a following in China among readers of serious fiction. He is one of the few writers with a really serious notion of craft – his novels all tend to be short and extremely well crafted. He is completely unlike so many writers today who pen sprawling, prolix, and sloppy works of fiction, perhaps best characterized by the work of many of those writing what has been termed “hysterical realism”.  

In the novel, the young girl Nuanyu is sold by her starving family to be shared as a wife to the men of Stunted Flats, all of whom had to pool their meager resources to provide the bride price of a donkey and a sack of grain. Although dramatic, and significant to the book’s narrative, I also read this as implicit criticism of the Government’s one-child policy, which has left a significant shortage of marriageable women. This thought would never have occurred to me had I not heard, in China, stories about Chinese women being kidnapped, held in poor and rural places by men unable to pay the bride price, desperate to have a child to continue the family name.Are these stories of kidnapping true? If so, Chinese readers would have immediately picked up on this critique as well as so much more that a western reader not steeped in Chinese culture might miss. What else have I missed that would be transparent to a reader steeped in Chinese culture?

Li Rui and other writers, such as Cao Naiqian, have expanded the thematic range of modern fiction through an unflinching examination of the other China, and by incorporating formerly taboo subjects. In the case of both writers, they depict the polyandrous relationships in rural Shanxi, something that was impossible to do just a few decades ago. I don’t see Li Rui’s novel as directly commenting on any particular government policy of the moment, rather it depicts the grinding poverty and brutality that still exists in places, and that explains the kidnappings you mentioned.  

Because the novel is a translation, I know that I am missing some flavor and texture of the original work. Cervantes once wrote (from the mouth of Don Quixote) that “reading a translation is like looking at the back of a tapestry.” To translate a literary work from one language to another requires enormous skill and creativity. Words have denotation as well as connotation, (and one language has concepts that are alien to another language), meaning is conveyed by rhythm, sound, word placement. Cultures have different frames of reference. As the anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn said, “A language is in a sense a philosophy.” What were the decisions you had to make in translating this work? What had to be sacrificed for what gain? Can you give a description of what we readers are missing by not being able to see the front of the tapestry?

A language is a worldview. All translation involves compromise. A translation will never be exactly the same as the original; it is a recreation of the work in a different language. What is missing from my translation is the quality of the dialect used by Li Rui. This is nearly impossible to convey. But the meaning of dialect is easily translatable; therefore, the reader knows what is said, but not necessarily how it is said. 

Translatability isn’t the biggest problem; to be quite frank, I don’t think there is anything in the novel that is ‘untranslatable’ per se. Reception is a far bigger issue. How can any American reader ever hope to relate directly to the socio-political background depicted in the novel? The political language that people lived and breathed for a decade obviously would have a different cultural resonance for the reader of the translation. This is not to say that the novel is in any way incomprehensible to the non-Chinese reader. The story provides the context. Bear in mind that even with the Chinese readership there is a gap. People of Li Rui’s generation relate to the language in one way, which is very different from a twenty-something. The quotations from Chairman Mao and the political language that litter the text literally jump off the page for an older reader, while the resonance is different for someone who didn’t grow up with it, such as younger Chinese readers and non-Chinese readers       

Would it be possible for you to choose a word (or two) or phrase from the original, words that have no English equivalents, and walk us through your decision making process in making the translation from Chinese to English?    

As I mentioned before, the novel is remarkably free from untranslatable metaphor and the like.  Dialect is the biggest and most resistant problem. In terms of specific words, there will sometimes be a word referring to some culturally specific form of material culture, such as kang, a heatable brick bed, or, as I recall in section six, the two brothers enter Nuanyu’s courtyard through a 水洞 , which literally means a “water hole”. Obviously it is not a watering hole for animals. There is no perfect equivalent, so I simply used a paraphrase by calling it a drainage hole at the foot of the courtyard wall.  

Trees Without Wind is a modernist work, told from multiple points of view (including that of a donkey and that of the dead) that shift from character to character. Exposition occurs through thoughts. Perceptions are partially expressed. Time is not linear.You note, in your Preface, the influence of the modernists “previously considered decadent and available only to a few of the Party elite during the Cultural Revolution,” and particularly of Faulkner and his As I Lay Dying, a novel presented in multiple voices, and where character is revealed through partial impressions that shift back and forth in time.Could tell us about the impact of modernist writing on Li Rui? In addition to Faulkner, which American modernists have been translated into Chinese? Hemingway? Fitzgerald? Elliot? Was Faulkner the major influence? Did any of the other modernists have an impact on Li Rui.? On his contemporaries?

I think reading Faulkner in translation was crystallizing for Li Rui, and Trees without Wind is the most important product of that encounter. (It’s another beautiful example of the fertilizing influence of translation on the creative process. Think of the oft-cited influence of Faulkner on Latin American fiction, on writers like Garcia Marquez, for example). I don’t have a list of Modernist works that Li Rui has read in translation, but he is passionate about Faulkner in conversation. Li Rui has experimented a good deal with structure in many of his novels, and not all of it derived from Faulkner. He has written a number of historical novels that seem less experimental than Trees without Wind, but all place demands on the reader. He is a writer’s writer. 

I’m also quite curious about why the modernists were once considered decadent in China? What changed? (In the United States, by the way, some school districts consider As I Lay Dying decadent, and have either banned or attempted to ban the book because of inappropriate “situations” and coarse language!!)

The irony is that the Party elite and their friends always had access to modern and contemporary writing. In terms of the mainland literary bureaucracy, the change, the shift away from Modernism, which was considered foreign, decadent, and bourgeois, came after the Yennan Forum, when writers were urged to learn from the people. Prior to that, writers experimented with western-inspired modernism as well as more traditional approaches. What came out of Yennan became the ideological policy that drove literary expression in China for decades.  However, during the Cultural Revolution, the elite had access to contemporary American works by writers such as Salinger and Kerouac. After the fall of the Gang of Four, there was a great sense of freedom and renewal as people returned to what had been banned. (Also ironically, the government began to become concerned and we saw a backlash in all the discussions on spiritual pollution in Deng’s day). Scholars and translators of foreign languages were able to write and translate again, and suddenly readers had access to Faulkner and Woolf, among others, in translation. It was enormously liberating.   

Both As I Lay Dying and Trees Without Wind feature the making of a coffin. Faulkner’s Addie Burden listens to the “clunk clunk” of the adze as her coffin is being made.In Li Rui’s novel, sounds carry as much meaning as words. For example, “peng-deng,” the sound of the coffin hitting a column. “Hua-la, hua-la,” the sound of the coffin crossing the river to the land of the dead. And Erhei, the donkey, in deep mourning, “Dig, thud, dig, thud, dig, thud, numbing the hearts of everyone.” The last chapter, 63, consists of one line of sound:“Wu-wa-wa-wa-wa. . . .Ah-wa-wa-wa-wa. . . .Ya-wa-wa-wa-wa. . . .”With these sounds, the novel ends.Previously in the novel “wa-wa” has been the sound of crying. But here, I don’t know. Chapter 62 ends with Second Dog (a little boy) laughing as he and his older brother and the donkey run away from Stunted Flats. And the prefacing “wu,”ah,” and “ya”? For me, it’s quite effective even though I don’t know precisely what it means. I very much look forward to your explanation.

Chinese makes much greater use of onomatopoeia than English, and I have tried to retain a good deal of that in the translation. The last line of the novel is a series of inarticulate sounds. It ties in beautifully with the last powerful image of the novel of the two brothers being dragged away on the donkey cart with no control. In a sense the image and the sound encapsulate the results of the Cultural Revolution on the younger generation. You saw a generation carried away by the revolution, in which the past and traditions were destroyed, education halted, the entire nation was cut loose, unmoored, turned upside down, and swept into a decade of chaos. That inarticulate sound, in some ways, still resonates: much from that period has yet to be articulated, explained, and understood. Li Rui and other novelists have attempted, through their art, to come to grips with that tragic period.    

I’m also curious as to why the 63 chapters (each one an individual stream-of-consciousness point of view) have no designating “titles”? In As I Lay Dying, each “chapter” is headed by the name of the character whose thoughts we learn. In The Sound and The Fury, Faulkner titles his sections with dates, to anchor events in time. In Trees Without Wind, the “chapters” have no further descriptor than a number to indicate the shifting of point of view. I can clearly identify each narrator, but not always immediately. Can you comment on the author’s decision to label his chapters only with numbers?

I don’t think Li Rui is concerned with making things easy for the reader. By simply numbering the sections, he is making his reader work and actively engage the text. He is a demanding writer, one whose work calls for more than a single reading.

One thing I should mention is that Li Rui makes no distinction between voice in his novel; however, I as translator decided to indicate interior monologue with italics, a la Faulkner, thus making things easier for the English reader.  

This book, written in 1996 and just translated into English in 2012, was such a great pleasure to read, so many memorable characters. I will not soon forget the goodness of Cao Yongfu (Uncle Gimpy) who longs to be reincarnated as a donkey, or the sad, crazy, mixed-up awfulness Zhang Weiguo (Kugen’r) who adopts the fictional alter ego of Zhang Yingjie and black glasses (non-prescription) so that he has a more authorial substantial demeanor.Without your translation, Li Rui’s important book would remain unknown to the west. How are books are chosen for translation?

I’m glad you like the novel and the translation. I also appreciate this opportunity to talk about it—most of the time, a translator works in isolation. (My wife is also a translator, so we spend a good deal of time discussing translation problems). Some of the books I have translated have been proposed by publishers and/or editors, others I have proposed myself. Let me outline the process by which Li Rui’s novel came to be published. My friend Goeran Malmqvist recommended the book to me and I was completely blown away by it. Immediately after I put the book down, I decided I had to translate it. I then contacted Li Rui in hopes of obtaining his permission to translate the novel. My friend and mentor, Howard Goldblatt, had planned to translate the novel, but having so many other things to do, he graciously allowed me to take up the slack and translate it, for which I am grateful. I then proposed the book to Jennifer Crewe at Columbia University Press, an editor with whom I have worked for many years. David Wang, the series editor, lent his support and, after favorable external reviews of the translation, the title was accepted for CUP’s Weatherhead series and published. In my opinion, it’s easily one of the best novels to come out of China in the last thirty years, but I’ve been waiting for goofy American reviewers to dismiss the novel on the grounds that it is too bleak and depressing.  Maybe I’ll be surprised.


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