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

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

Translators leave China lost for words


But many Chinese novels that have won top prizes and been well received in China face delays in getting published abroad due to a lack of good translators.

Take the example of the novel Shou Huo (The Joy of Living) by Yan Lianke. Although copyright contracts for it were signed with publishers from Japan, France, Italy and the United Kingdom in late 2004, to date none of the four translated novels have been published, as no competent translators are available.

attached to: Yan Lianke


# 1.   

oh please... not that old chestnut again!! I nearly choked on my lunch with frustration/rage/....(fill in the dots as you like)

Nicky Harman, October 27, 2012, 8:50a.m.

# 2.   

Agree with you Nicky. On top the article is mistaken:"The joy of living " by Yan Lianke has been translated into French (brilliant as usual by Sylvie Gentil) and published in october 2009 by Editions Philippe Picquier but ...under the title "Kisses from Lenin", a title chosen by the publisher which I did not consider adequate in my review of this book for Rue89 and for my blog www.mychinesebooks.com Bertrand Mialaret

Bertrand Mialaret, October 27, 2012, 9:45a.m.

# 3.   

The English translation, by Carlos Rojas, is out as well. I have a copy right here.

Michel Hockx, October 27, 2012, 11:04a.m.

# 4.   

Shouhuo seems to be the go-to example of an untranslatable book. It was mentioned in a similar way by an official exactly three years ago: http://paper-republic.org/cindycarter/a-dialect-that-no-one-speaks-is-chinese-literature-destined-to-be-a-loss-leader/

Perhaps both comments are based on the same out of date internal memo on the state of Chinese literature in translation.

By the way the English translation, released just this month, goes by the name 'Lenin's Kisses'.

James, October 27, 2012, 12:20p.m.

# 5.   

Perhaps both comments are based on..

Or more likely, this paragraph from a 2006 article:


摘得第三届老舍文学奖长篇小说桂冠的《受活》,在2004年底就分别与日、法、意、英4国出版机构签订了版权输出合作协议。但直到今天,4个译本无一问世。作者阎连科说:“老外一看本子,都缩回去了,说翻译不出来。The author Yan Lianke says: "when laowai see the text they all step away from it and say it can't be translated."

In contrast, in this 2010 article Yan is very complimentary of the French translator of Shou Huo: http://www.faguowenhua.com/arts-et-culture/litterature-17/阎连科,从北京到巴黎,一位中国作家的声音.html?lang=zh

James, October 27, 2012, 1:07p.m.

# 6.   

"Usually, translators earn less than 70 yuan ($11) per 1,000 Chinese characters"

There's your problem

Jeff Crosby, October 28, 2012, 2:59a.m.

# 7.   

Jeff, not if they're paid anything like the (UK) Translators Association rate! which, at GBP£87/1,000 English words (ie target lang, = about 1,600 characters) is reasonable. Might the 70 yuan figure refer to English > Chinese translators?

Nicky Harman, October 28, 2012, 5:52a.m.

# 8.   

Yes, the same old chestnut. Like a turd that just won't flush, it keeps rising to the top of the bowl.

I've said it before and I'll say it again:


I know many mainland Chinese translators who could do justice to Thomas Pynchon, A.L. Kennedy, Kurt Vonnegut or Harlan Ellison (just to mention 2 authors I'd like to see in Chinese translation, and 2 authors who have been translated into Chinese, exceedingly badly) if they had the time, the money, the requisite publisher support and were (oh dream on, lady) not quite so shackled by censorship.

I know many China-based and overseas translators who could do justice to Wang Shuo, Wang Xiaobo, Yan Lianke, Jia Pingwa and many other under-translated and under-served authors, but they face many of the same hurdles their Chinese translation colleagues do, minus the censorship aspect.

The fact is that right now, translators all over the world are not only translating these books, they are financing them - either by leveraging university positions and/or professorships to subsidize their translation labours-of-love, or by doing work for free, or by BORROWING MONEY to finance the books they believe in.

There are stakeholders in these books that range well beyond author, translator and readers, parties that can and do profit (not just financially) from books in translation.

It's time for the stakeholders to step up, that's all I'm saying.

Oh yeah, and stop blaming translators who earn a fraction of what it takes to live on, a pittance of what it takes to build a life.

Cindy Carter, October 28, 2012, 7:02a.m.

# 9.   

Yes, there's no mystery here. I for one would very happily spend my days translating Chinese fiction to English, and I think I would be up to the task. But I can't afford it.

Tom, October 28, 2012, 9:16p.m.

# 10.   

Things aren't necessarily as grim for Chinese-to-English translators as implied by some of the posts in this discussion thread. I've translated 4 books from the Chinese, including 2 novels.

Much depends on how you see your role in bringing a translated book to the attention of readers worldwide. If, like many authors, you see yourself as an artist, you may feel that the marketing of the book you (help) create is not part of your brief.

That's fine. But in the world today, that probably means the profits will likely accrue to those who bring the book to market: the agent, the publisher and the bookseller.

Mind you, it doesn't have to be that way. I've been reporting on a niche in Chinese publishing -- literature by & about non-Han peoples -- for several years now. On several occasions I have had the chance to both translate a book and make fairly big $ doing so.

For example, more than 2 years ago I discovered a marvelous novel by Chi Zijian, 《额尔古纳河右岸》 (The Last Quarter of the Moon) about the twilight of the Evenki, reindeer herders in northeast China.

I translated an excerpt that was noted by an agency, and they moved quickly to sign a contract with the author to represent her book worldwide. Not long after that, Amazon.com contacted me to ask if I'd like to translate the entire novel and publish/distribute via Amazon. By then, of course, it was too late, but had I done so, I could have earned over fifty percent of the royalties on each book sold!

I did eventually translate the novel, and it will be published by Harvill Secker in 1Q 2013. You can imagine that the 1 percent royalty I will receive will never come near the total I could have earned had I dealt direct with Amazon!

But that's business. You need to position yourself adroitly in the supply chain -- for any product -- in order to maximize your potential earnings.

Interest in and demand for Chinese literature in translation has never been so strong as in the last year or so, with the launch of magazines like Pathlight and Mo Yan's Nobel Prize. I honestly believe that translators can get a significant bigger piece of the pie, but success requires thinking more like a businessperson and less like a disinterested artist.

 Bruce, October 30, 2012, 6:40p.m.


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