“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

Beijing Book Fair – Translation Related Events

By Eric Abrahamsen, published

This nudge from Bruce is timely – the Beijing Book Fair is indeed going on over the weekend, we are indeed attending, and even hosting some events.

The events we think you'll enjoy the most (ie, the ones we're involved in) are four small talks on topics related to translation. The schedule is as follows:

  • Saturday, Sep 5

    3pm The translation process: the changing roles of author, translator, agents and publishers.

  • Sunday, Sep 6

    10am Translating culture: When is simply translating language not enough, and is the translator justified in "helping" his/her readers to understand unfamiliar cultural content?

    3pm Foreign perceptions of Chinese literature, and how that affects what books get translated/published, and how they're received.

  • Monday, Sep 7

    10am Translation of foreign literature inside China: Quantity vs quality.

Tickets to get into the fair are 20 RMB. You're all welcome to come and heckle; the events are taking place in Building 8 of the International Exhibition Center (the building where the foreign publishers are located), in the section reserved for countries to display their literary promotion programs. We're right next to the coffee.

Comments

# 1.   

The last topic is interesting. Did you see the article in The People's Daily where they complained about the lack of translators and claimed they would train Chinese students to translate into other languages?

Anna GC, September 3, 2009, 2:18p.m.

# 2.   

Didn't see the article but recognize the approach.

Beginning in the 1950s when China was demonized as a communist society and thus internationally isolated, the Chinese began to copy the Soviet Union in terms of foreign language policy, i.e., which foreign languages were to be taught (or not), how they were to be taught and how politically correct translation was to be carried out.

One of the leftovers of that mindset is the idea that only Chinese natives truly understand Chinese, and therefore Chinese translators should be trained to translate from -- and into -- foreign languages. This attitude is partly a self-fulfilling prophecy: Since only a precious few foreign translators could live/work in China until the late 1980s, the quality of translation from the Chinese by foreigners was no doubt often problematic.

But this attitude is quite tenacious. Take a look at advertisements for translators here in China: they almost always call for the ability to translate "both" ways.

One side-effect of this policy is the continued practice of commissioning native Chinese speakers to translate literature into European languages. This flies in the face of the current global practice of insisting that a translator translate literature INTO his or her mother tongue so as to ensure better readability.

Besides the limited pool of native English speakers who are also qualified Chinese-to-English translators, another problem is cost: Most native English speakers who have spent 10+ years mastering Chinese just won't work for the unspeakably low wages paid by Chinese publishers...

Bruce Humes Chinese Books, English Reviews

 Bruce, September 3, 2009, 9:46p.m.

# 3.   

To understand why there are so many slipshod translations these days, consider the going rates for Chinese to English literary translation (in China):

60-80 yuan (6.6-8.8 British pounds) per 1000 English words. That means a novel of 100,000 English words, which translates to about 140,000 Chinese characters, would pay 6000-8000 yuan (660-880 British pounds).

Even in China, that's not a living wage.

This is why so many novels are translated from foreign languages into Chinese in a matter of weeks, rather than slowly and carefully, over a period of several months. The Chinese translation of The Kite Runner (see Bruce Humes' article and translator interview) was completed in 12 days.

Cindy M. Carter, September 5, 2009, 11:25p.m.

# 4.   

Consider the going rates for original fiction: this author wrote "寫一本長篇小說從著筆到出版至少要花 6 ~ 8 個月出版後可以拿到約 6 萬元版稅等於一個月的新水是 7500 ~ 10000 ( )。" That's in NT$, which is equivalent to 15,000 RMB. In her case it was over the course of six to eight months. Virtually no one's making money in literature...

jdmartinsen, September 6, 2009, 9:57p.m.

# 5.   

@Joel

"Virtually no one's making money in literature..."

Fiction writers and their translators do have it tough, of course, but we are not really in the same boat.

A novelist may be able to make money, in the mid- to long-term, from these aspects: retail sales of the novel; translation into foreign languages and subsequent sales; movie rights; celebrity that may arise from book-signings, book "tours"; short-term teaching gigs; signing bonuses for subsequent writing (assuming one of the author's books sold well), etc.

To a certain extent, authors are a bit like musicians nowadays who don't necessarily "make money" from recording songs, but who (if they are business-minded) "manage" their celebrity to make money in other ways.

I would submit that much of what I've listed above happens only very rarely to a successful fiction translator. This is not a complaint per se, because -- in my eyes -- the creative element behind fiction writing makes the original author a very valuable commodity. But the author, translator, publisher and retailer of fiction are in very different positions, market-wise...

Bruce Humes
[Chinese Books, English Reviews]

 Bruce, September 6, 2009, 11:58p.m.

# 6.   

Ditto Bruce's comment. Writing literature is not the same thing as translating literature, just as making films is not the same thing as translating films.

I think Joel's comment misses the point: you cannot liken the role of a literary translator to the role of a novelist, or compare their investments and possible returns, because the novelist enjoys a whole range of intellectual property rights and possibilities that do not extend to the translator.

As a novelist, I might spend 5 years on my novel and still not make any money from it, but I would retain the following things that a TRANSLATOR of my novel would not: (1) the copyright to my work (2) the translation, foreign publication, serial and movie rights (3) the freedom to publish excerpts from my novel - and to be paid for those excerpts - in newspapers, magazines or online (4) the simple courtesy of having my NAME printed on the cover of my book (whereas translator names are always buried. Sometimes you have to search to find them; in some magazines, they're not included at all. Shame on you publications...you know who you are.)

This doesn't even touch on the gap between book advances and translation advances (10-to-1, 8-to-1, 5-to-1, I've been keeping tabs, and have amassed a tidy list) and the fact that awards for books in translation usually award the lion's share of the prize to the author. Translators usually receive 25-30% of the prize, and there are some prizes that award nothing at all to the translator.

For films, the situation is even starker. Most film translation is work-for-hire, so the translator has no claim on any prizes, distribution contracts or television broadcast deals that may follow.

I suppose that what I'm saying, in my roundabout way, is that literary translators should receive at least the same treatment and status as literary editors. They should be paid a fair living wage, receive an advance that is adequate to support the full translation of the book, and not be expected to do advance work for free or to become financial investors in the book they are translating. Most editors I know wouldn't go for a week without salary or benefits. Yet I know many translators - myself included - who have gone into personal debt or dug deeply into their own pockets to support the books they love.

As for film translators, they should have their names listed in either the beginning or end credits, printed on posters and publicity materials and - I don't think this is too much to ask - listed SOMEWHERE on IMDB (Internet Movie Database) and other online database credits. When you can find the name of the head costume designer for a Chinese film and not the name of the person who translated the English subtitles, there is something very, very wrong with this world. Besides, when I see good subtitles on a Chinese film - a rare treat - I want to know who to thank.

Cindy M. Carter, September 8, 2009, 3:05p.m.

# 7.   

Well, sure. On the flip side, translators don't have the same risks as novelists: if a series of two or three translations don't earn out, a translator can still find work, while an author might not be so fortunate.

I brought up the example partly in jest but also because the issue of money is one that looms large in discussions about literary publishing in a single language, even without the need to budget for a translator. Although I do like the idea of a living wage for literary translation, I question whether that's actually an attainable goal, not just in today's dismal publishing environment but in general. There's quite a gulf between subsidizing a translation out-of-pocket and being totally supported for the duration of the translation process, and I think realistically, the wages of literary translation are situated smack in the middle, to be supplemented by other translation projects more lucrative on a per-character/per-hour basis (or else a distracting day-job, which is the particular poison I've chosen for the time being).

It might be overly cynical to say this, but sometimes I wonder how much added value a good translation brings to the publication of a work in translation. Particularly in the Chinese market - is it worth the added expense to pay a translator a decent fee to take the time to produce a genuinely good translation? And if so, how many genuinely good translations can a publisher support? They can't all be money-losing reputation-builders, can they? It sometimes seems like we're presented with goals that don't all overlap: (1) More works in translation, (2) Good translations, and (3) Comfortable compensation for all involved. There's a trade-off somewhere, and right now it looks like translators have the short end of the stick. How can we change that?

jdmartinsen, September 8, 2009, 10:21p.m.

# 8.   

I am the Author of the Book on Stratosphere Troposphere Interactions An Introduction, published by Springer in July 2008. This book was selected for the ASLI Award in 2008, bases on its comprehensiveness, quality and application. This book covers rthe basics of Atmospheric Physics, Dynamics, Chemistry, wave Activity, Exchange, Transportation and coupling. Reviwers commented that this Book is good for teaching and research.

In this context, I would be really proud, if the Book is translate and pubish it in othere languages, like Chinese, Japanese, German, etc. with the permission of the publisher.

With regatds

K. Mohankumar

K. MOHANAKUMAR, November 18, 2009, 11:20a.m.

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