Lost in the Translation

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When it announced in October that Gao Xingjian had become the first Chinese author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Swedish Academy singled out for particular praise his "great novel" "Soul Mountain," calling it "one of those singular literary creations that seem impossible to compare with anything but themselves." Proving that fate sometimes smiles on publishers, an English rendition of "Soul Mountain" (HarperCollins; 510 pages; $27) was in the works well before the Nobel hullabaloo made its author an international celebrity, and has now arrived with the unexpected imprimatur of the Swedish Academy.

For a variety of reasons, including of course cultural chauvinism, Chinese literature remains a terra incognita to most Western readers. Those who would translate Chinese works into English face some heavy burdens. Unfortunately, while Mabel Lee, an honorary associate professor in Chinese studies at the University of Sydney, may have captured the literal essence of "Soul Mountain" in the original, she presents it in a strange and often irksome form of English. Run-on sentences sprawl: "I hadn't originally intended to do any reading, what if I did read one book more or one book less, whether I read or not wouldn't make a difference, I'd still be waiting to get cremated." Redundancies abound: "The tall buildings and large courtyard with a watchtower must once have been the residence of a rich and powerful family at one time"; "I have a foreboding premonition." Some usages defy explanation: "Many pretty young girls have also suicided."

Several stories emerge, darkly, through the translational murk. In one, a character called "I" learns that he does not have lung cancer, as previously diagnosed, and embarks on a journey through China in search of "spiritual tranquility." Reclusiveness attracts him, but he also craves the company of others. His indecisiveness frustrates him: "Too much analytical thinking, too much logic, too many meanings! Life has no logic, so why does there have to be logic to explain what it means? Also, what is logic?"

Another character, called "you," is on a quest to reach Lingshan, "ling meaning spirit or soul, and shan meaning mountain." He, "you" is told, will find this place at "the source of the You River." Along the way, he meets a woman, called "she," who morphs throughout the book into many different women, sometimes married, sometimes not, who have in common a pronounced tendency to whine: "She says she never wants to grow up and yet she also wants to grow up. She wants to be loved, wants everyone to look at her, but she's afraid of men's looks."

Reading "Soul Mountain" in this version is a frustrating experience, chiefly because of the sense that there must be more to it than this. Surely the Nobel Prize cannot have been decided principally on the basis of what appears here. Gao, 60, a playwright as well as a novelist, is regarded as a master of the Chinese language. Perhaps that skill cannot be completely conveyed in a translation, but a better use of English might have helped.