To translate is to rewrite: Nobel writer

The first Chinese to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, Gao Xingjian found writing his first play in French to be a hard slog.

But almost as difficult for the bilingual writer, who left China in 1987 and is now a French citizen, was translating that play, Between Life And Death (1991), into Chinese.

"It was like rewriting the script from scratch," he said at his lecture at the National Museum last Friday, one of the headline events of the Singapore Writers Festival, which ended yesterday.

Though best known for his Chineselanguage novels and plays, Gao has also written extensively in French in the last 25 years since relocating to Paris.

His one-hour lecture, conducted in Mandarin in the form of a lively dialogue with moderator and Chinese literary academic Quah Sy Ren, centred on globalisation and crossing cultures as well as different art forms.

Gao, 73, is also an accomplished painter and, more recently, a film-maker. His relationship with the French language goes back to his university days as a French major at the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute in the early 1960s.

Addressing a 220-strong audience who packed the museum's Gallery Theatre, he said that for him, writing the same text in two languages amounted to "re-creation".

This was because one had to be extremely sensitive to "not just the syntax but the deeper linguistic structures". It involved "translating from one culture to another, so that it resonates with someone of that other culture".

But the self-described "citizen of the world" was adamant that such transposition was not only possible but could also be very effective. "At heart, we are all bound by a common humanity," said Gao, whose books are banned in China but have been translated into more than 30 languages.

He has written five plays in French, some of which he translated into Chinese. These explore the recurring themes of his oeuvre - such as sexual relationships, individual freedom, power, violence and death - in a more abstract and universal way. "They have nothing to do with China," he said matter-of-factly.

Despite being seen by many as a Chinese writer, the straight-talking Gao said he had long stopped following developments in his home country.

"I'm more concerned about Europe, the crisis that it is in, which is not just financial but intellectual. There are no longer any fresh ideas and philosophies."

His interest in Western culture was sown during his youth in China.

"I had open-minded parents," he said. His father was a bank official and his mother, an actress in a local troupe. The young Gao devoured European literature in translation. "I never felt I was reading a Frenchman, Russian or Englishman, just an individual whose works I was very interested in."

In today's globalised world, no one can put the brakes on such cross-cultural exchange, he added.

He paid glancing tribute to Singapore, describing it as a "striking example of a meeting place between East and West, a special environment in which to discuss this topic, and the kind of environment that I find very necessary". He first visited Singapore in 1987, on the invitation of the late drama doyen Kuo Pao Kun.

Audience members, who were also treated to a screening of his latest film, the 21/2-hour cinematic poem Requiem For Beauty, left struck by Gao's unique personality and artistic vision.

Said writer and poet Koh Buck Song, 50: "My biggest takeaway is a deeper sense of Gao Xingjian as a fascinating example of what it could mean to be 'a citizen of the world' and someone truly passionate about the arts."

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.