Gao Xingjian’s Bilingual Experimentation on the World Stage: Encounters with Translation

Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian is one of the most renowned and controversial writers working in the Chinese language today. How has bilingualism shaped the contours of Gao’s experimentation? While there is a growing body of research dedicated to Gao’s role as a cultural intermediary, there is virtually no scholarship on his translation practice. This talk explores how the activities that undergird translation manifest themselves in his literary theory, considering how these techniques were transferred to his novels, with varying degrees of success. Gao’s experimental practice is intimately bound with translation: perhaps fittingly, it is through translation that his work has received critical acclaim. How does the translation process complicate or corroborate Gao’s aesthetic vision? Interrogating the transformations that 靈山 (Soul Mountain) undergoes in translation, this talk will examine how Mabel Lee’s translation upholds Gao’s aesthetic theory more potently than his own Chinese, before considering what else the novel could look like in English. Kate Costello concludes her investigation by exploring the effervescent wordplay in his French language plays as the culmination of decades of metalinguistic experimentation, carrying out the techniques from his early fiction in a new language and medium.

Kate Costello is a Chinese-English translator and doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, specializing in modern Chinese literature and culture. Her doctoral thesis examines bilingualism, language games and word play in modern and contemporary experimental literature. Her research focuses on the relationship between bilingualism and linguistic experimentation, investigating the ways that multiple language competencies are deployed within a literary text. Paying special attention to the creative manipulation of sound, script and syntax, her dissertation examines the playful, devious and irreverent ways that bilingual competencies manifest themselves in experimental writing. She has served as co-convener of the Oxford Comparative Criticism and Translation Discussion Group and has presented at international conferences including the American Comparative Literature Association annual meeting, the Modern Language Association annual convention, the Association for Asian Studies annual conference and the Association for Chinese Literature and Comparative Literature biannual conference.