Translating “The Last Lover”

Last year, critics fell in love with Annelise Finegan Wasmoen’s translation of renowned Chinese author Can Xue’s novel,The Last Lover, naming it a 2015 Best Translated Book Award winner. This would be a feat for any book, but the novel was also Wasmoen’s first translation project. And now, on Oct. 13, Wasmoen, a doctoral student in comparative literature and translation studies, will finally meet the author. Together, the Comparative Literature program, East Asian Languages and Cultures department, and the East Asian Studies program are sponsoring a talk by Can Xue.

“Can Xue and I have communicated by email for a handful of years,” Wasmoen says. “Her visit to WashU will allow me to meet in person a writer whom I have only been able to admire from afar before now.”

Lynne Tatlock, director of comparative literature and the Hortense and Tobias Lewin Distinguished Professor in the Humanities, says, “We are anticipating the visit of Can Xue with great excitement. Thanks in large part to our own Annelise Finegan Wasmoen, this iconoclastic contemporary writer is practically a household name in comparative literature, even among those who do not normally stay current with contemporary Asian literature.”

Can Xue is actually a pseudonym belonging to Deng Xiaohua, whose pen name translates to “dirty snow that refuses to melt.” Regarded as one of the most experimental writers in the world by some literary scholars and readers, Can Xue describes her works as “soul literature” or “life literature.” She is the author of numerous short-story collections and four novels. She has also published books of commentary on Borges, Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, Italo Calvino, and Bruno Schulz.

“Can Xue, who has provocatively described her work as an ‘experiment without an escape route,’ promises to speak at once to creative writers, translators, and scholars in her upcoming talk on her experimental literature and her workshop for our graduate students,” Tatlock says. “She thus will thrillingly address precisely the points of contact between the tracks in the comparative literature PhD program, and no doubt will remind us why we are driven to read challenging literature in the first place.”

Originally, Wasmoen stumbled upon Can Xue’s work in the classroom. She says, “Her short stories such as ‘Hut on the Mountain’ are essential reading in modern Chinese literature and have been widely anthologized even in English. Later, I was given the opportunity to translate her writing through the introduction of Jonathan Brent, the editor who tirelessly promoted Can Xue’s fiction to an English-language audience starting in the 1980s.”

“On a personal level, Can Xue’s writing has always stood out to me for its phenomenal insight into the way the storytelling part of the mind moves when freed from narrative conventions,” Wasmoen says. “At the same time, her writing is absolutely rigorous, with each new piece, whether a short story or novel, conducting an experiment with slightly different parameters. More simply, no other writer I have read in Chinese sounds anything like her. Can Xue has said that she writes for the future, and I suspect we will be reading her fiction for a long time into that future.”

Lingchei Letty Chen, an associate professor of modern Chinese language and literature, agrees. “Teaching Can Xue is both a challenge and a constant surprise, no matter how many times I have taught her stories. Can Xue’s language has a unique quality that is not found in many writers: it is intuitive, untamed by conventions, and it challenges its readers to push their imagination as far as it can go.”

Wasmoen found The Last Lover engaging from the very first page. “As readers we sometimes turn to foreign fiction looking for a representation of the author’s culture in a fairly straightforward way; The Last Lover turns this type of reading on its head.” Set in unnamed countries that draw on typical Western or Eastern characteristics, the novel was described by critic Boyd Tonkin as “a delirious cross-cultural hall of mirrors. The East dreams the West, which imagines the East as it conjures its own West.”

Before beginning the translation of Can Xue’s novel, Wasmoen provided a sample chapter for approval, and would share each additional chapter as it was finished to make sure Can Xue thought it reflected her novel in English. “She is an incredibly kind person, in addition to being a brilliant writer,” Wasmoen says.

And Can Xue has high praise for the doctoral student. Even from the first sample chapter, she says, she sensed Wasmoen’s talent. “When I first read Annelise’s text of the translation, I felt immediately that it was an amazing work. The sentences were so neat and fluent, the images it evoked were so beautiful, sometimes I even thought that it’s me, but a better me, who has written down a new version of the novel. I still remember that then I was filled with immeasurable joy for my good luck!”

“Annelise is a wonder. I think that usually there are some things that are almost impossible to communicate between two totally different languages. But she always could find the most suitable words and sentences to manage to accomplish a beautiful transformation. In short, I feel so happy for the translation of The Last Lover.”

Critics agreed with Can Xue. In addition to winning the 2015 Best Translated Book Award, The Last Lover was named Book of the Year by The Independent. It was also the only book to be long-listed for both the National Translation Award and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

“I was shocked when I heard about the awards, to be honest,” Wasmoen says. “Shocked in a good way. The Last Lover is a difficult novel, so it was wonderful to find that it resonated with these other readers so strongly. At the same time, I think Can Xue’s achievement, especially in her long-form fiction, is only starting to garner the recognition her writing deserves.”

Can Xue was also thrilled the translation received such acclaim. “Of course both of us are worthy of the prize. But Annelise is the one who is worthy first. I am the second. Because to understand a text that is so difficult, and also to recreate it is ten times harder than just to write it down.”

Under the guidance of Robert E. Hegel, a professor of Chinese language and literature and the Liselotte Dieckmann Professor of Comparative Literature, Wasmoen has now translated several contemporary plays to complete the graduate certificate in translation studies, and she translated a 17th century Chinese story for a collection Idle Talk Under the Bean Arbor, edited by Hegel, which will be published next March. Wasmoen has also begun work on a new novel by Can Xue, titled Love in the New Millennium. She hopes that Can Xue’s visit will encourage people to read her fiction.

The lecture, titled “What is Can Xue’s Experimental Literature?” will be held on October 13. A reception at 5:00pm will precede the lecture at 5:30pm in Umrath Hall, room 140.