2014 Susan Sontag Prize for Translation

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This year’s Susan Sontag Prize for Translation will award a $5,000 grant for a literary translation from Mandarin Chinese.  Here are the eligibility and proposal rules:

“This $5,000 grant will be awarded to a proposed work of literary translation from Mandarin Chinese into English and is open to anyone under the age of 30. The translation must fall under the category of fiction or letters, and the applicant will propose his or her own translation project. The project should be manageable for a four-month period of work, as the grant will be awarded in July 2014, and the translation must be completed by November 2014.

Acceptable proposals include a novella, a play, a collection of short stories or poems, or a collection of letters that have literary import. Preference will be given to works that have not been previously translated. (Previously translated works will be considered, however applicants should include an explanation for why they are proposing a new translation.) Applicants wishing to translate significantly longer works should contact the Foundation before sending in their applications so that supplementary materials can be included. The prizewinner will be notified in July 2014 and results will be announced online at www.susansontag.com.”

Application materials must be received by May 26, 2014.  Hopefully, you saw the original post on our Facebook page a few months ago, but Beyond Chinatown should have reminded you and reposted earlier.

Susan Sontag, the literary figure for whom the prize is named, is not known for her interest in China, and the competition is not always about Chinese translations.  However, she did have a connection to China, a mystique and pull deeply rooted in her belief that she was (literally and figuratively) conceived there and her attempts to find a relationship with her father, a fur trader in China who died in Tianjin when she was five.

This place “as far as anyone could go” manifests itself in her short story “Project for a Trip to China” (link goes to a portion of the story) first published in 1973 in The Atlantic Monthly and later in the 1977 collection I, Etcetera.  Her musings about her visit to China at the invitation of the Chinese government and nearly at the age of forty are, as described by Jess Row in Slate magazine, a “jumble of memories, facts, quotations, to-do lists, epigrams, and free associations”.

Sontag recalls that her first lie was telling her first grade classmates that she was born in China.   She believes that they were impressed, but “the important thing was to convince [her] classmates that China actually did exist”.  As an adult, she unsuccessfully tried convincing her friends how delicious pidan are.   It’s not easy sharing China with people.

Sontag’s China is an assemblage of impressions of Chinese culture, history, and contemporary events.  There are memories of tangible objects from China (framed calligraphy, figurines of Buddha) and a contemplation worthy of a Chinese poem:

“Outside the pestilential cities, here and there a sage crouches at the breast of a green mountain.  A great deal of elegant geography separates each sage from his nearest counterpart.  All sages are old but not all are hirsute enough to grow white beards.”

But then, an immediate recognition that real China is not so picturesque, “Warlords, landlords, mandarins, concubines.  Old China Hands.  Flying Tigers.”

She expresses uneasy feelings towards the “endless presumption of the Occident” and “Maotsetungized” China where “everybody speaks in the same voice” and “ethnic minorities have a limited permission to be folkloric”.

She understands the China she romanticized is no longer there.  “Once China meant ultimate refinements: in pottery, cruelty, astrology, manners, food, eroticism, landscape painting, the relation of thought to written sign.  Now China means ultimate simplifying”.  But being simple is a return to origins.  Substituting the Orient for The Great Gatsby’s East Egg, she quotes, “When I came back form the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart”.

For all the chinoiserie prized by foreigners and of her youth, the first Chinese object she bought on her own was a pair of canvas sneakers marked “Made in China”.

Sontag does not seem to have written further on China.  It is uncertain whether she ultimately felt settled about the place where she was conceived.  Do others with similar longings find their answers?

Image: Screenshot of Google Play page