May 4th & Chinese Literature in Translation
By Lucas Klein, published
To commemorate the 90th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, the South China Morning Post runs an article investigating
Left on the Shelf: Ninety years after the May 4 movement spawned a host of Chinese literary giants, Ben Blanchard examines why mainland writers remain largely unread internationally
As a tribute to the May Fourth Movement goes, it's no last-year's Sunday New York Times Book Review, featuring four new translations of Chinese literature, but then again, May Fourth doesn't fall on a Sunday this year.
What the South China Morning Post article does raise, implicitly at least, is the question of World Literature and its relationship to Chinese literature.
As the article notes,
The May 4 movement of 1919 started out as student protests against a decision at the Paris Peace Conference, after the first world war, to award Japan control of German concessions in China's Shandong province. It soon encompassed a broader debate about how China should modernise.
Since part of that modernization took place in the field of literature, bringing Chinese together with modern World Literature from the West, the 90th anniversary isn't a bad time to look back and take stock of how integrated Chinese Literature has become into the larger spheres of World Literature. But at least according to one newspaper article, the success has not been stellar.
Is this right? While I agree with the journalist that "Modern Chinese literature is at best a niche interest overseas," is that because it's Chinese, or because literature itself is also at best a niche interest? And as for who is to blame, the article cites both Chinese author Féng Jìcái 馮驥才 and Penguin China general manager Jo Lusby as decrying the lack of translators working from Chinese.
But looking at the Paper Republic roll-call, and thinking about how many translators we still haven't added to our directory, I can't agree that a dearth of translators is keeping contemporary Chinese literature away from readers.
No surprises here, but I see the publication industry--including the branch of journalism responsible for promoting and reviewing literature--as more accountable than any translator. When Lusby says, "There are some books I would love to do out of China, but I think it needs too much back story for a western reader to enjoy them in the way a Chinese reader reads them," I see yet another publisher underestimating both the intelligence and the interest of the general reader, to say nothing of the ability of translators to accommodate said back story.
Furthermore, when the article in question mentions only the recent Chinese writers who have earned some attention--from Gāo Xíngjiàn 高行健 to Mián Mián 棉棉--but does not offer a list of titles for interested readers to consult (how about a mention of the works of Féng Jìcái, to begin with? What about Chrysanthemums and Other Stories, translated by Susan Wilf Chen and Three-Inch Golden Lotus, translated by David Wakefield?), I have a hard time as a translator taking responsibility when I see newspapers running articles so irresponsibly.
So is Chinese literature still cut off from the centers of World Literature, and if so, why? Perhaps Paper Republic can offer what the South China Morning Post report failed to, which is input from a few translators.