Chair no. 5 - Göran Malmqvist

Göran Malmqvist, born 6 June 1924 in Jönköping. Linguist and literary historian, Sinologist, translator, Emeritus Professor at Stockholm University. He was elected to the Swedish Academy on 11 April 1985 and admitted on 20 December 1985. Malmqvist succeeded the literary historian Henry Olsson to Chair number 5. A large part of his life has been spent working abroad, in China, Australia and Great Britain. He was awarded the Royal Prize in 1984 and the Kellgren Prize in 2001.

Following introductory studies of Chinese under the great Swedish Sinologist Bernhard Karlgren at Stockholm University College, Malmqvist studied in China between 1948 and 1950. He then returned to Stockholm, taking a Licentiate of Arts degree in 1951. His international research career started shortly thereafter with a lectureship in Chinese at London University between 1953 and 1955. He was then appointed Swedish cultural attaché in Peking and worked in China during 1956–58. After his time in China he moved to Australia, where he worked for seven years at the Australian National University in Canberra. During the first few years he was an Assistant Professor (1959–61) and after some important essays on Chinese language history he was appointed Professor of Chinese at the university (1961–65). In 1962 he also became an Assistant Professor at Stockholm University.

During his professorship at the Australian National University, Göran Malmqvist published scholarly articles on both old Chinese and modern Chinese. They concerned for example phonological issues and literary dialects during the Han dynasty, the syntax of bound forms in Sïchuanese and western Mandarin phonology. The compact little monograph Problems and Methods in Chinese Linguistics (1962) is an excellent general introduction to Chinese linguistics.

An important year for Göran Malmqvist was 1965. He was called to Stockholm as Professor of Sinology, particularly Modern Chinese, at the newly-established Section of Chinese in the Department of Oriental Languages at Stockholm University. This was also the year in which his activity as a translator started, with a series of interpretations of Tang lyrics in the anthology Det förtätade ögonblicket (‘The compacted moment’). Malmqvist has since translated 42 volumes of Chinese literature from different epochs.

From that point on, Malmqvist was to appear as an all-round expert on China. He effortlessly combines broad surveys of Chinese history, religion, politics and geography with increasingly multifarious work as a translator. In this capacity he moves freely between different historical periods, different Chinese languages, different literary genres.

A remarkable year in Malmqvist’s production was 1971, with several textbooks including Nykinesisk grammatik (‘Grammar of Modern Chinese’) and Nykinesisk fonetik (‘Phonetics of Modern Chinese’), a number of translations, chiefly in the journal series Orientaliska studier (‘Oriental studies’), and the large section on Chinese literature 500–1779 in the joint Nordic Litteraturens världshistoria (‘World history of literature’). This was followed up in 1973 with the section on The literature of China 1780–1890 and “Chinese literature 1890–1965”. The same year saw the arrival of the translation of Lao She’s short stories in Det sorgsna skrattet (‘The sorrowful laugh’). In 1974 Malmqvist published the popular volume Kinesiska är inte svårt (‘Chinese isn’t difficult’).

At the same time he was working on the translation of the over-one-thousand-page picaresque novel Shuihu zhuan. The Swedish title is Berättelser från träskmarkerna (‘Tales from the swamps’) and the work appeared in four splendid volumes between 1976 and 1979. The racy story, which was first written down in the fourteenth century, is clearly oral in character and gives an exceptionally rich picture of the end of the Song dynasty, during the first few decades of the twelfth century.

Göran Malmqvist’s achievement includes a further, monumental translation of a similar kind. This is the five volumes of Färden till västern (‘The journey to the west’). Färden till västern has the same status in Chinese cultural history as the Iliad and the Odyssey in western. Written down in the sixteenth century, the story of how in the seventh century the pilgrim Tripitaka brings the holy writings of Buddhism to China from India goes back to tales put out and embroidered by storytellers. During the 1970s and 1980s Malmqvist’s research turned chiefly to classical Chinese philology, syntax and semantics.

Malmqvist has also translated Swedish lyrical poetry into English, chiefly Tomas Tranströmer, and English lyrical poetry, chiefly William Blake, into Swedish. From the time after his election to the Swedish Academy in 1985, the over-five-hundred-page memoir on his teacher Bernhard Karlgren is of particular note: Bernhard Karlgren – ett forskarporträtt (1995; ‘Bernhard Karlgren – portrait of a scholar’). With exceptional insight and distinctness he here follows Karlgren’s path through the pioneering era of Sinology from his early dialectological fieldwork in China (1910–1912), which made it possible to reconstruct the sound pattern of mediaeval Chinese, to the astounding reconstruction of Old Chinese.

During the present decade, too, Göran Malmqvist has continued his extensive translation work to include translations of Laozi, Naiqian Cao and Rui Li. He has also written a fairly relaxed collection of haiku poems, Haiku för ros och oros skull (2002) Haiku for the Sake of Quiet and Disquiet) with themes both from his Scanian upbringing in the Kullaby area and from China, more particularly the south-western Chinese province of Sichuan where he lived in a Buddhist monastery during the critical years 1948-1950.

It is also this stay, before, during and under the Communist new order, that is at the centre of the memoirs Strövtåg i svunna världar (2005) (Rambles in Lost Worlds). In his portrayal of life in the Baoguosi Buddhist monastery at the foot of the holy mountain Emei and of the many eccentrics he met during his wanderings in China, his meetings with poets such as Li Bo and Du Fu emerge as major highs. Much of the book deals with the art of translation Malmquist has practised for half a century, a work of translation and introduction without parallel in our time.

Jan Arnald
(Translated by Tim Crosfield)