"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 translation...so 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?