Paper Republic: Chinese Literature Matters

A Dialect That No One Speaks: Is Chinese Literature Destined to be a Loss-Leader?

By Cindy M. Carter, published

"Jia Pingwa's books contain a lot of Shaanxi dialect that we Mandarin-speakers don't understand, dialect that foreigners are even less likely to understand. Another example is Yan Lianke's Shouhuo [The Joy of Living]. The translation rights were sold in 2004, but the book has yet to appear in translation. The reason is that they can't translate it - they just don't understand the dialect."

-- Southern Weekend (Nanfang Zhoumo) interview with Wu Wei, deputy director of the State Council Information Office and head of China Books International

(This follows an earlier comment thread found here.)

I wouldn't underestimate the importance of Wu Wei's comment. It may have been an off-the-cuff remark, but it came from the head of China's book export program, from the person who is supposed to be the face of Chinese literature abroad. If Wu Wei truly believes what she says, she is either a liar or a fool or both.

The foreign-language translations of Jia Pingwa's Feidu/Abandoned Capital and Yan Lianke's Shouhuo/The Joy of Living were NOT delayed because of a lack of good translators, or a dearth of foreign-type people who couldn't understand the dialect. We need to make this clear.

When I hear these pronouncements from Chinese officials, it reeks of xenophobia and makes my skin crawl. When I hear them from China-based corporate talking heads, it reeks of privileged expatriate insularity and makes me want to tear off talking heads (Jo Lusby, Penguin China: “The main challenges are ensuring good translations...” “The greatest problem is finding a good translator. It lives and dies simply in the translation...”).

Yes, yes, yes...books live and die in the why don't you cadres or talking heads ever deign to pick up the phone and actually speak to one of the up-and-coming generation of China-based translators who live in your city? When was the last time you managed to come up with an advance sufficient to support the translation of a 300 or 400-page novel? How long could YOU survive on an advance of a few thousand dollars? When will the parties who stand to profit from books in translation start pulling their weight? You get what you pay for, my friends, and you reap what you sow.

The reasons Jia Pingwa and Yan Lianke's works weren't translated earlier are complex. Some of their books were banned or appeared in expurgated versions in China. As such, they didn't make the best-seller lists. They didn't appear on the radar of foreign publishers soon enough. When they did, publishers jumped on the most controversial banned works (Serve the People, which is to Yan Lianke what The Names is to Don DeLillo) without regard to literary quality. The advances were abysmally low, so the translators had to borrow money, dig into their own pockets or rush the translations (sometimes all of the above). The foreign-language sales were disappointing, thus reinforcing the perception that Chinese fiction is a loss-leader in English-language markets.

But I don't believe it has to be this way. I think there has to be a better way.

2010 will mark the largest crop of emerging Chinese-to-English translators the world has ever seen. 2010 will be an amazing year in Chinese fiction, poetry, music and film. So why is no one buying?


# 1.   

And Shouhuo has been translated, hasn't it? To French. Maybe that doesn't count...

Anna GC, October 28, 2009, 4:43a.m.

# 2.   

For your info, has announced that the editor Bleu de Chine, specialized in chinese litterature, was taken over by the major french editor Gallimard. This is good news as Bleu de Chine was facing difficulties.Ten years ago, Genevieve Imbot-Bichet created Bleu de Chine and published around 100 titles. She has also translated two books from Jia Pingwa "Feidu" in 1997 and "Tumen", in french "Le village englouti" in 2000.

bertrand mialaret, October 28, 2009, 4:47a.m.

# 3.   

Not to mention that Feidu hasn't come out in English not because of difficulties in the Chinese, but because of problems with the English in the version that was originally shopped around. Ms. Wu has got her diagnosis backwards…

Thanks for the tip, Bertrand, Bleu de Chine has been a remarkable force for promoting Chinese literature, and it's good to know that it will continue to exist (in some form). Will Genevieve still be involved?

 Eric Abrahamsen, October 28, 2009, 4:50a.m.

# 4.   

I see things in a somewhat more optimistic light.

China -- particularly its exports, be they material or intellectual -- is hot. For all the silly news that came out of Frankfurt (and we had fun chortling about it!), demand for insight into contemporary and ancient China is bound to shoot up in 2010. There will be 500 Confucius Institutes up and running by 2010, and even Africa already hosts 81. People -- businesspeople, students, youth worldwide -- want to know what China is about. And only a tiny portion are going to learn hanyu to acquire it.

So for me, the question is: How can the Chinese-to-English translator, particularly in the arts/literature, benefit from this mega-trend?

I don't think we will get anywhere by blaming the general public for its miserable taste in literature, or publishers for being tight-fisted. That's the nature of the beast.

Publishers have their reasons, after all. Why pay in advance when translators -- like many part-time professionals and writers in general -- are chronically late in delivery? Why pay high rates when the general quality of literary translation is exceedingly "iffy"?

And, frankly speaking, in today's world, I would MUCH rather be a Chinese-to-English literary translator than English-to-Chinese, or French-to-English, for that matter. The former make absolute peanuts and have no IPR protection, while the latter are competing with huge amounts of potential competitors, given that French and English are almost "sister" languages compared to Chinese and English. By comparison, the outlook in 2010-15 for the Chinese-to-English literary translation is positively rosy.

To be blunt: Translation is an economic activity like any other. We need to know how to spot an opportunity, how to market ourselves, and how to negotiate an agreement.

From my point of view, this site is neat but could do better in helping us find "good deals" and capitalize on them. Content I'd like to see:

* Real-world advice on negotiating with authors, agents and publishers

* Standard agreements in English and Chinese for reference (e.g., permission to publish my translation of a writer's translated excerpt, contract between a publisher and a translator, etc)

* News on training opportunities to improve writing, proofreading, editing, polishing and translation skills, as well as new computer-aided tools

* Opportunities to join groups of translators who are willing to work as a translation project team

* Market intelligence on "going rates" in Chinese-to-English translation

This is by no means a criticism of Paper-Republic. Happy to be here and involved! But I frankly don't see much use in blaming our poor prospects on the "industry" or on "publishers."

We are capable of positive action, including group action when appropriate.

2009-10 is going to be a big year in China "cultural exports." To get our share, we need to "Work Smart."

 Bruce, October 28, 2009, 4:57a.m.

# 5.   

Eric It is announced that Genevieve Imbot-Bichet will handle the book selection and manage this collection within Gallimard.

bertrand mialaret, October 28, 2009, 6:33a.m.

# 6.   

I'd say it has a lot to do with the book industry in general here - copying and quasi-copying is rife, and it's very hard for good authors themselves to get anywhere near success.

On the other hand official arrogance knows no bounds. Which is a real pity when it comes to missing opportunities to market "your" product better.

Is it really about lack of critical mass though? Or also about a lack of maturity in the English-language market that you're serving? Serve the People wasn't just banned, it had enough titillation to guarantee a certain level of sales.

For one reason or another, far more works are translated into French than into English. I'm a fan of Ryu Murakami (for what he's worth) but mostly read his stuff in French rather than English - there's much more available.

William, October 28, 2009, 12:20p.m.

# 7.   

"Jia Pingwa's books contain a lot of Shaanxi dialect that we Mandarin-speakers don't understand, dialect that foreigners are even less likely to understand. .....they can't translate it - they just don't understand the dialect." Yes, of course, this is absolute and utter rubbish. Jia Pingwa is much too skilled a writer to write books which are so full of dialect no one can understand them. Personally, I find his dialect expressions slower to translate, because they take longer to work out, but not impossible. It's more of a problem working out to a way to convey the vigour and colour of some of these expressions while not writing in a 'transfer' dialect (which I don't cos I don't have one) - but that's a translator's life isn't it? "tear off talking heads .."? oh yes. Publishers only seem to be willing to commission translators who are so well-known that using them presumably poses no risk at all. Foolish and short-sighted when there are many other good ones listed on Paper Republic, for example!

 Nicky Harman, October 28, 2009, 1:03p.m.

# 8.   

I am an English-Chinese translator, and I couldn't survive at all doing translation. I've got to have a "day job", while doing translation for a hobby. I do not personally know of any English-Chinese translator who make a living just doing translation. Translators are paid next to nothing by publishers in China. And this is very frustrating, for all the hard work and creativity we put into it. Hope that publishers in your countries (who will eventually commission the translation into English, I assume?) will do better.

On another note, some Chinese publishers and writers may not even know that you folks are there and available for such work. The supply and the demand are like two blindfolded people searching and failing to find each other. I sometimes get request to translate from Chinese to English and I have to turn it down because I specialize in English-Chinese translation, which means there is demand and nobody knows who can meet this demand. Your group is too silent in Chinese media because you write in English here mainly. You do not show on their radars, I am afraid.

Berlin, October 29, 2009, 2:12p.m.

# 9.   

It's interesting to think about the importance of translation into English when talking about the success of a book considering how small the market is in the US for translated literature.

It also makes me wonder how some English literature is translated into other languages. I know a lot of works that are written in vernacular are translated, but I'd think that quite a bit of the charm of those works is lost in other languages. Literature is never written with translation in mind.

Chinamatt, October 29, 2009, 2:49p.m.

# 10.   

Great discussion. I was terrified to post this, and wondered how people would react.

Bruce brought up some good points about things we can do better at Paper Republic. We've just begun to explore the things we can do, and we can and should do more. I promise to try to be more creative in finding solutions, rather than simply grousing about the problems.

Berlin mentioned the difficulties English-Chinese translators face. By any measure - wages, working hours, opportunities, creative control, deadlines, support from editors and authors - English-to-Chinese translators have it much rougher than Chinese-to-English translators. Maybe there is some way for Paper Republic translators (most of whom work from Chinese to English) to expand our cooperation and collaboration with our Chinese colleagues.

Let's talk more about these things.

We should also have a "Suggestion Box" section on Paper Republic to solicit opinions from readers and contributors about the direction this site will take. I'd like to know how we can be more useful.

 cindy carter, October 29, 2009, 8:15p.m.

# 11.   

Another interesting point is that translations of Chinese books tend to come out first in French (see Anna's comment), Japanese and Korean. I've also noticed more translations to German and Italian. I'm not sure why this is, but it seems that authors, translators and publishers might learn some lessons from these markets.

 cindy carter, October 29, 2009, 8:25p.m.

# 12.   

Why, as Cindy notes, do Chinese novels tend to come out first in French, and to a lesser extent, in larger numbers in languages like German and Italian?

I would suggest there are four fairly basic reasons:

1) The English-language market is dominated by US publishers, and they are fixated on publishing potential best-sellers.

2) The American reading public sees Chinese literature as "interesting" mainly when the topic and its treatment confirm that China is still a ruthless police state where human rights are routinely violated. This helps explain why the Cultural Revolution and its excesses still fascinate American publishers and readers.

3) French, German and Italian publishers cater to a much, much smaller pool of potential readers, so they are (somewhat) immune to the "best-seller complex."

4) The French in particular have a long tradition of publishing what they consider "good literature", regardless of its immediate commercial potential.

Bruce Humes
Chinese Books, English Reviews

 Bruce , October 29, 2009, 10:37p.m.

# 13.   

I want to add a 5th item to Bruce's list -- (more) generous subsidy of artists, writers and translators in Europe. Literary fiction just isn't a steady job for 99% of its practitioners (poetry is worse by far), and unless a writer can find a sinecure, a teaching job with long vacations, a government stipend, or a place with good unemployment benefits, it's always going to be a struggle. This is even more true for literary translators, I'd wager. France seems to have more of all of the above -- so it makes sense that they get translations quicker.

So a reminder for those expats who may not have experimented with the absentee ballot -- we can't vote out the marketplace, but (yes?) we can choose politicians that support the arts.

Nick A., October 30, 2009, 5:18a.m.

# 14.   

A 6th item for Bruce's list: French, to say nothing of German and Italian, has much less literature being written in it. It's just a question of size. So obviously a much bigger proportion of what you find in bookshops is translated.

With English there's just no comparison - not only a huge pool of native speakers writing in it, but an utterly dominant "soft power" status worldwide, and a fair number of non-native speakers writing directly in English as well.

William, October 30, 2009, 7:30a.m.

# 15.   

I certainly do agree with Bruce's post dated yesterday but not with this last post by Nick. It is true that some of the best translators in France are university professors (but not only in France, see for example the US).But this does not explain why translations are published earlier in France. The reason is: specialised publishers and an audience for "good literature".The market share of "foreign" litterature is in France three times bigger than in the UK or the US. What is more important than speed is the number of books translated: Mo Yan 15 titles, Yan Lianke 4 titles, Yu Hua 8 titles... One subject not touched is the issue of agents: they have a limited impact in France compared with the anglo saxon world and I am not sure that their impact is really positive: they try to figure out what should sell and how to market the product; publishers in France seem more interested in the literary value...This of course very black/white...

bertrand mialaret, October 30, 2009, 7:39a.m.

# 16.   

I stand corrected -- I'm working off anecdotal evidence at best, which led me to believe that it was just easier for people to put time into translation in the French economy -- but I'm not sure I know what you mean by "of course very black/white"?

Also, I'm curious -- do French translators get advances for translation projects?

Nick A., October 30, 2009, 11:52a.m.

# 17.   

Here is an article that says a lot about the reasons translated literature (not just Chinese) is not very popular in America:

As for Chinese literature in translation, I am rather sick of the excesses of the Culture Revolution theme in the US market. So many interesting things happened during the past 30 years when China went through transformations that eventually put China at the center of the world stage. (30 years ago, we were having such a terrible sense of crisis that we'd be deprived of our global citizenship 开除地球球籍)。 One would assume people would be more interested in what happened during these turbulent years and how people experience these. This kind of literature will be more valuable than the more-of-the-same type of scar literature.

Berlin, October 30, 2009, 12:58p.m.

# 18.   

Few translators in Sweden would get an advance. Maybe if you translate something like Journey to the West, but not for a "normal" novel. But we have a system where the government gives every writer and translator a little bit of money everytime someone borrows a book you wrote or translated from a public library. It's not much, but still. And by agreement a certain part of that money is channeled into a fund that awards working grants to writers and translators. In short: successful authors share some of their gains with those who earn less.

Anna Chen, October 30, 2009, 1:44p.m.

# 19.   

When I see, like, that Hungarian Nobel winner selling 3,500 copies of a book in English, on a university press... I guess I think: why bother? Not "why bother translating it?" but, why not find another way to distribute it?

Let's say it takes someone-- how long would it take to translate one of those novels off your list of greatest untranslated Chinese novels? I won't try to figure it out in hours, but, a few months? Then pass it off to a gang of people to edit, then revise. Well, some of you probably have a way better idea of how long it takes than I do. But, anyways, it's a very doable, individual or almost individual project, that doesn't really need the support of a university press or anything.

You know all these kids translating Korean soap operas and Japanese GBA games? They're not making any money off it. Is it crazy to suggest that maybe novels could be treated the same way? If you really want Jia Pingwa to be translated, couldn't you just go to the library, spend the 6 months or whatever grinding away at it, turn it into a PDF and put it on your website and say, here it is? I mean, think of, say, Roland Soong, and all the translating he does, and how someone with half of his hustle could probably bust out a decent version of a novel in a reasonable amount of time!

I respect y'all for being up on here, pushing Chinese literature, and whatnot, but I sometimes feel like, Yeah, but, give me something new to READ, you know? Give me SOMETHING. Stop dribbling it out in first chapters and online translated fiction journals. If you think publishers don't give a shit, but you think people would like to read it, is it super naive of me to say: just do it.

There's the matter of co-operation with the author, but, most Chinese authors are either down with their stuff being online at places like Sina or are resigned to the rampant intellectual bootlegging, or support it in one way or another. Is ol' Jia Pingwa going to fly off the handle if someone translates ×Huainian Lang× and gives it away to a small audience of English readers? Is it possible that this kind of grassroots pimping of Chinese-English translation could lead to a larger audience? Is this hopelessly naive?

DylanK, October 30, 2009, 5:45p.m.

# 20.   

Dylan K's "grassroots pimping of literature" deserves to become a Paper Republic catch-phrase. You're on our wavelength, my friend, because this is exactly what we've been talking about:

Do the translations. Edit and collaborate. Get the authors personally involved. Put the stuff online, let the readers see it, and forget about the publishers and journals (until they come knocking). Publish early, publish often, publish first. Make it downloadable, PDF, print-on-demand. Give it away for free, or sell it for a very reasonable fee. Give the author and translator a bigger cut of that reasonable fee than they'd get from a conventional publisher. Above all, get it out there for people to actually READ.

The sticking point is where to find the time and money. None of our freelancers can afford to spend more than a month, much less six, working on an unpaid labour-of-love. And tag-team translations don't work as well for literature as they do for movies, tv shows or online games (although I'm amazed at the great collaborations I've seen in those mediums).

But we're working on it. In November, we will be posting lengthy excerpts from the six authors and seven books in the Paper Republic catalogue that made the rounds at the Frankfurt Book Fair. For the first time, thanks to our grant from the British Arts Council, our contributors will be paid.

So that's November. The future is more of a challenge. Maybe we need private investors, or income from advertising, or some sort of scheme in which translators tithe to support their fellows in their hour of need.

You're right in saying that we need to give readers (and publishers and agents and students and academics and anyone else who might be remotely interested in Chinese literature) more to read and see.

It's all about pimping the literature. But in this world of mini-skirts, we're still wearing crinolines, and showing mostly ankle.

 cindy carter, October 30, 2009, 10:11p.m.

# 21.   

Speak for yourself, Cindy! I'm showing right up to the tanline, but somehow it's not bringing them running. Perhaps if I shaved…

Dylan, the fire you've got there is something that all of us are feeling or have felt over the past few years. Goddamnit, just do it! That's really how this whole site started: Get the stuff out there and let the chips fall where they may. But a whole novel requires more than just financial stamina. You start as enthusiastic as all get-out, but after a few months of evening and weekend translation, when you realize you've only done forty pages of a 350-page novel, the enthusiasm flags. I think most of us here have done it/are doing it anyway (by god I will finish my Wang Xiaobo essay's before I reach retirement age!), but translation is not something that lends itself to gung-ho spurts of zeal. It is a crawling, incremental process that advances for exactly as long as you keep up the push, and grinds to a halt the moment you get tired.

In the short term I think we'll be relying on projects like the Frankfurt package (only 30-page samples for you!), funded by various funding bodies from various countries, and I have no doubt that this will go quite some distance to increasing the amount of Chinese literature "out there", both immediately and in terms of future publications.

In the long term, I think we can go where Cindy's pointing: once the technological and commercial foundations of e-publishing are a little more stable, it probably wouldn't be too hard to support ourselves that way – I think a little nest egg could be made to go a long way. Then the main problem is developing a reputation for quality, which will depend on killer editing and good marketing: both of which require cash. But yes, enthusiasm first.

 Eric Abrahamsen, October 31, 2009, 3:18a.m.


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