I Wish I Knew

Howard Goldblatt

Illustration by Hugo Muecke

I once translated a story about a woman on a bus. She was in the seat by the window, sobbing uncontrollably. Not keening, not wailing, just sobbing quietly but visibly, privately, but oh so publicly. Her head was hidden, her shoulders heaved, and her hands looked to be in her lap, probably clasped together, but I couldn't tell. It was a crowded bus, that much I recall, and there were some men standing in the aisle nearby, but none of them dared sit down beside her—I know, I looked. I wouldn't have taken the seat for anything. What if they thought I was the cause! But what was wrong? There were no obvious hints—no blood, no crumpled letter, nothing that might explain it. Naturally, my curiosity—I'd say sympathy, but I guess I'm not the type—had me wondering what had made her so sad, but I figured it really wasn't any of my business.

To this day I can't figure it out. I've translated lots of stories over the years, but I haven't run into her again since, not on that bus or any other. She must still be hunched over sobbing, disturbing everyone around her, and creating a host of possible scenarios in the minds of lots of witnesses and maybe, just maybe, a young man who actually is the cause of all that sadness, but won't let on to any of us. This not knowing—I tell you, it's enough to make a grown man cry.



Howard Goldblatt is a contributing editor at Asymptote. Authors he has translated from the Chinese include virtually all major contemporary novelists. Recent translations include Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong, Su Tong's Boat to Redemption, and, with Sylvia Li-chun Lin, Bi Feiyu's Three Sisters, all winners of the Man Asian Literary Prize. He and his wife divide their time between South Bend, Indiana, and Boulder, Colorado.



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