Sandalwood Death - By Mo Yan

Translator’s Note

The challenges for the translator of Mo Yan’s powerful historical novel begin with the title, Tanxiang xing, whose literal meaning is “sandalwood punishment” or, in an alternate reading, “sandalwood torture.” For a work so utterly reliant on sound, rhythm, and tone, I felt that neither of those served the novel’s purpose. At one point, the executioner draws out the name of the punishment he has devised (fictional, by the way) for ultimate effect: “Tan—xiang—xing!” Since the word “sandalwood” already used up the three original syllables, I needed to find a short word to replicate the Chinese as closely as possible. Thus: “Sandal—wood—death!”

Beyond that, as the novelist makes clear in his “Author’s Note,” language befitting the character and status of the narrators in Parts One and Three helps give the work its special quality of sound. Adjusting the register for the various characters, from an illiterate, vulgar butcher to a top graduate of the Qing Imperial Examination, without devolving to American street lingo or becoming overly Victorian, has been an added challenge. Finally, there are the rhymes. Chinese rhymes far more easily than English, and Chinese opera has always employed rhyme in nearly every line, whatever the length. I have exhausted my storehouse of rhyming words in translating the many arias, keeping as close to the meaning as possible or necessary.

As with all languages, some words, some terms, simply do not translate. They can be defined, described, and deconstructed, but they steadfastly resist translation. Many words and terms from a host of languages have found their way into English and settled in comfortably. Most of those from Chinese, it seems, date from foreign imperialists’ and missionaries’ unfortunately misread or misheard Chinese-isms: “coolie,” “gung ho,” “rickshaw” (actually, that comes via Japanese), “godown,” “kungfu,” and so on. I think it is time to update and increase the meager list, and to that end, I have left a handful of terms untranslated; a glossary appears at the end of the book. Only one is given in a form that differs slightly from standard Pinyin: that is “dieh,” commonly used for one’s father in northern China. The Pinyin would be “die”!

This is a long, very “Chinese” novel, both part of and unique to Mo Yan’s impressive fictional oeuvre. There are places that are difficult to read (imagine how difficult they were to translate), but their broader significance and their stark beauty are integral to the work.

I have been the beneficiary of much encouragement in this engrossing project. My gratitude to the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation for its generous support, and to Ed, Mike, Jonathan, and David for writing for me. Jonathan Stalling has been in my corner from the beginning, as have representatives of the University of Oklahoma Press, for whose new and important series this is the inaugural work of fiction. Thanks to Jane Lyle for her meticulous editing. Finally, my thanks to the author for making clear some of the more opaque passages and for leaving me on my own for others. And, of course, to Sylvia, my best reader, sharpest critic, and, from time to time, biggest fan.



Head of the Phoenix


Meiniang’s Lewd Talk

The sun rose, a bright red ball (the eastern sky a flaming pall), from Qingdao a German contingent looms. (Red hair, green eyes.) To build a rail line they defiled our ancestral tombs. (The people are up in arms!) My dieh led the resistance against the invaders, who responded with cannon booms. (A deafening noise.) Enemies met, anger boiled red in their eyes. Swords chopped, axes hewed, spears jabbed. The bloody battle lasted all day, leaving corpses and deathly fumes. (I was scared witless!) In the end, my dieh was taken to South Prison, where my gongdieh’s sandalwood death sealed his doom. (My dieh, who gave me life!)

—Maoqiang Sandalwood Death. A mournful aria




That morning, my gongdieh, Zhao Jia, could never, even in his wildest dreams, have imagined that in seven days he would die at my hands, his death more momentous than that of a loyal old dog. And never could I have imagined that I, a mere woman, would take knife in hand and with it kill my own husband’s father. Even harder to believe was that this old man, who had seemingly fallen from the sky half a year earlier, was an executioner, someone who could kill without blinking. In his red-tasseled skullcap and long robe, topped by a short jacket with buttons down the front, he paced the courtyard, counting the beads on his