Michael Berry, director of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies, has received a 2021 National Endowment for the Arts literature translation fellowship of $12,500. The fellowship will support his translation of “A Soft Burial” (Ruan mai), by Chinese novelist Fang Fang, into English. The novel is considered one of her most important works.
Last year, Berry translated the author’s “Wuhan Diary: Dispatches From a Quarantined City” (2020), an account of the spread of the COVID-19 virus in Fang Fang’s hometown. The original diary appeared as an online blog. The work provoked a backlash against the author, including an aggressive cyber campaign, and prevented its publication as a book in China. Publication of the English translation expanded the cyber campaign to include Berry as well.
“News of the National Endowment for the Arts’ support of ‘A Soft Burial’ comes after more than 10 months of protracted attacks against Fang Fang,” said Berry, a UCLA professor of contemporary Chinese culture in the department of Asian languages and cultures. A scholar of Chinese fiction, film and history, Berry is also a prolific translator. To date, he has translated five novels written in Chinese, plus the nonfiction “Wuhan Diary.”
“The NEA fellowship serves not only as a validation of the ‘Wuhan Diary’ translation project, but, more importantly, as a voice of support for a writer who has been the target of unprecedented online attacks. It also allows Fang Fang, a writer who unexpectedly became known for her nonfiction, the chance to reveal the nuance and complexity of her fictional vision,” he said.
“‘A Soft Burial’ is a novel about the fragility of memory and the erasure of history, which, ironically, cannot be read in China.” Published in 2016, the novel was banned by Chinese authorities in 2017.