In our November-December “Literature Issue,” we include a feature about Sidney Shapiro, the preeminent literary translator who’s been living and working in China for over 60 years. Shapiro has lived a fascinating life and is even more of a character in person. In the accompanying blog series about Shapiro, I describe my experience getting in touch with the translator, and going to his house to interview him.
Shapiro first appeared on our radar thanks to our coworker Andy, a veritable storehouse of cultural trivia.
“Allegedly,” Andy said, spreading his hands wide over our conference table, “there is this American translator who lives in Beijing…”
“Yes,” we said.
“One of the most important translators of his generation…”
“Who is 96 years old, has lived here since the 40s and is allegedly still living herein a Beijing hutong.”
(Pause for stunned silence.)
To understand our reaction, it’s important to realize that, among most Westerners, it’s generally considered impressive if you’ve lived in China more than five years. Ten years is a great achievement, and 20 is almost unheard of. Shapiro has lived in Beijing for more than 60.
As such, he materialized in our minds as a kind of mythical creature, the unicorn of expats who’s seen something that only a handful of Westerners have: China during the most turbulent years of the 20th century, through liberation and the Cultural Revolution all the way to its current state as a rising world power
Our goal in hunting Shapiro down, then, was twofold: of course, we wanted to know about his literary career, about his translations and his thoughts about the changing face of Chinese literature. But just as important was the raw curiosity about his life, the desire to hear stories from the trenches from an ex-American who witnessed a period of history that, for many Westerners, remains shrouded in mystery.
And so we started hunting. After a week or two of fruitless searching, I had, in desperation, hatched a plan to go down to Houhai, the area where Shapiro lives, and just start asking around for nage hen lao de laowai (the really old foreigner). There can’t be that many old white people living in that neighborhood, I figured. And then, the day before I was set to go, one of my coworkers dropped a piece of paper with a phone number on my desk. “Sha Boli,” she said, using Shapiro’s Chinese name.
“Really?” I said. I seized the slip and held it up to the light like I was examining a fake bill.
“Really,” she said. “It came from a friend at Foreign Language Press.”
For a second I was overjoyed; and, a second later, filled with dread. In the two weeks that I’d been searching for Shapiro, I’d also been reading articles about him and talking to journalists who’d interviewed him. One told me, “He demands that journalists read his autobiography before doing an interview. Otherwise he’ll just yell at you and turn you away.” Another writer, who’d interviewed Shapiro recently and painted him as grumpy and confrontational, sent me Shapiro’s contact info along with the sentence, “Don’t mention my name.”
I let Shapiro’s phone number sit on my desk for two days, using the excuse that I wanted to finish reading his autobiography before I called him. “You don’t have forever,” my editor warned me. “He’s 96, for God’s sake. He could go at any time.” So it was with trepidation that I finally dialed Shapiro’s number, and waited for him to pick up.