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

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

African Literature: The China Connection

China’s 21-century investment in Africa is massive, multifaceted and a cause for anxiety to leaders in Washington, London, Paris and among the continent’s other former colonial masters, as well as New Delhi. But China is not just busy building airports and railways in Africa, or inking deals to monopolize the exploitation and export of valuable minerals and fossil fuels for decades to come.

The exercise of “soft power” is not being neglected. China-funded Confucius Institutes—promoting the teaching of Chinese language and culture—are popping up throughout Africa, including Egypt and Morocco in the Arab world, and several sub-Saharan countries, including Benin, Botswana, Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria and Rwanda.

In return, one might well ask: what is China “importing,” culture-wise, from Africa? If the translation and publication of African writing in Chinese is anything to go by, the continent is hardly a blip on China’s cultural radar in 2011.

Internet research and our interviews with Chinese publishers indicate that the golden age of African literature in Chinese translation may well have been during the 1980s. Foreign Literature Publishing House (外国文学出版社), empowered by Beijing’s policy of promoting solidarity with the Third World back then, translated and published a fair number of African works such as those by Nigerian (Wole Soyinka), Kenyan (James Ngugi), Senegalese (Leopold Sengor) and Algerian (Mouland Mammeri) writers, as well as collections of folk tales for children, etc.

Assuming one is interested, at Douban.com (a popular social media site) the Chinese consumer can purchase works by a dozen or so of the authors who have won or been shortlisted for the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing. They include Leila Aboulela, Binyavanga Wainaina, Laila Lalami, Chika Unigwe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Half a Yellow Sun), seen by some as Nigeria’s most talented writer since Chinua Achebe.

The only hitch: they’ll have to read them… in English. Few, if any, have been rendered in Chinese.

So which African writers have managed to get published in Chinese? Take a look at our table below for a sample of more recently published African fiction and poetry.

A quick look suggests that successful contenders for translation into Chinese share several traits: the original text is in English and was published abroad several years (or even decades) ago, and the author is the recipient of at least one globally celebrated literary award.

Four of Chinua Achebe’s best-known works have been published recently by Chongqing Publishing (see table). I asked Lillian Yin (尹楠), who handles copyright matters for the group out of Beijing, why it has chosen to focus solely on the Nigerian writer. “Because he is representative of African literature, dubbed ‘the father of modern African literature,’ and fairly well known in China. Furthermore, he was a very popular choice for the Nobel Prize of Literature.”

Yilin Press, arguably China’s leading source for translated literature, has published three high-profile African writers: Nigeria’s Ben Okri (see table), and two white South African authors, J. M. Coetzee (see table) and Nadime Gordimer. The latter two are also Nobel Prize winners.

Neither Chongqing Publishing nor Yilin Press has specific plans to publish any new African works in 2011 or 2012, though both are on the lookout for promising new writing from the continent.

Why so?

“Africa is a sprawling continent with numerous authors who use many different languages,” explains Yilin’s Zhou Xuan (周璇), editor responsible for marketing and publicity. “[Their use of] indigenous languages is a real headache. It’s very hard to locate translators who both know the language and can write [Chinese] well.”

But this doesn’t mean that Chinese readers aren’t interested. “Africa is a magical land and its nature and peoples seem to be beckoning to us from afar,” continues Zhou. “But as far as we can see, the themes in current African writing are rather narrow, such as the relationship between whites and people of color in the post-apartheid period, recollections of that era, and so forth.

“This isn’t to say that Chinese readers aren’t interested in such themes, but the key is whether these narratives possess depth, or are particularly moving or infused with new significance. Of course, everyone looks forward to new books that revolve around Africa’s own homegrown motifs.”

In the table below, we have tried to give mainly examples of African writing published in the last two to three years, but some of the dates can be misleading. For instance, the Chinese version of Things Fall Apart was first translated in the 1960s by Gao Zongyu (高宗禹), and Yao Yu’s (尧雨) version of Man of the People was published in the 1980s. Rather than retranslate them, Chongqing Publishing chose to republish them in 2009 and 2008, respectively.

That said, three of the translations noted in the table are fairly new and worthy of mention. <神箭> (Arrow of God) by China Achebe, was launched this year. Co-translator Chen Xiaoli (陈笑黎) studied comparative literature in the US, and translated The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (心是孤独的猎手).

<这里不平静> (No Serenity Here) is a rare bilingual collection of contemporary African poets published in late 2010. Included are the works of Wole Soyinka (Nigeria), Keorapetse Kgositsile (South Africa’s Poet Laureate, whose poem lent the title to the anthology), Kofi Anyodoho and Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana), Makhosazana Xaba and Lebo Mashile (South Africa), Veronique Tadjo (Ivory Coast), Fatima Naoot (Morocco), TJ Dema (Botswana), Shailja Patel (Kenya), Tania Tome (Mozambique), and Amanda Hammar, Chirikure Chirikure and Joyce Chigiya (Zimbabwe).

<人间的事安拉也会出错> (Allah n’est pas obligé) is one of a handful of works translated from the French. Assuming it reads well in Chinese, translator Guan Xiaoming (管筱明) deserves praise, as the original is penned in a stream-of-consciousness style, employing an intriguing—if difficult to follow at times—hodge-podge of standard French, argot and expressions from languages indigenous to Africa.

Author Original Title(s): Chinese Title(s): China Publisher(s): Notes:
Ahmadou Kourouma Allah n’est pas obligé (2011) <人间的事,安拉也会出错> (2011) Hunan Literature & Art Publishing House (湖南文艺出版社) Brutal story of 10-year-old Birahima who leaves the Ivory Coast for Liberia where he serves as a child-soldier. The French-language novel won the Prix Renaudot and Prix Goncourt des lycéens.
Ben Okri The Famished Road <饥饿的路> (2003) Yilin Press (译林出版社) Nigerian writer who has authored 8 novels, and winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa and the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction.
Chinua Achebe 1. Arrow of God;
2. Anthills of the Savannah;
3. Things Fall Apart;
4. Man of the People
1. <神箭> (2011),
2. <荒原蚁丘> (2009),
3. <瓦解> (2009),
4. <人民公仆> (2008)
Chongqing Publishing House (重庆出版社) An Igbo raised in Nigeria, Chinua Achebe is arguably the best known English-language African novelist. His classic, Things Fall Apart, was first published in English in 1958, and 1964 in Chinese.
Wole Soyinka 1. Aké: The Years of Childhood;
2. Death and the King’s Horseman;
3. A Big Airplane Crashed into the Earth (Poems from Prison)
1. <在阿凯同年时光> 》 (2008);
2. <死亡与国王的侍从> (2004);
3. <獄中詩抄 : 索因卡詩選> (2003)
1. Hunan Educational Press (湖南教育出版社);
2. Hunan Literature & Art Publishing House (湖南文艺出版社);
3. Tendancy (傾向)
Nigerian writer, poet and playwright who was awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature.
J. M. Coetzee 1. Diary of a Bad Year;
2. Disgrace
3. Waiting for the Barbarians
1. <凶年纪事> (2009);
2. <等待野蛮人> (2010);
3. <耻> (2003)
1 & 2. Zhejiang Art & Literature Press (浙江文艺出版社)
3. Yilin Press (译林出版社).
White South African novelist who grew up speaking both English and Afrikaans, and won the Booker Prize twice and the Nobel Prize in Literature (2003).
Naguib Mahfouz Palace Walk (Arabic) <两宫间> (2003) Shanghai Translation Publishing House (上海译文出版社) First of three volumes in the Cairo Trilogy by the best-known Arabic-language writer in Africa. Naguib Mahfouz published over 50 novels in Arabic and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988.
Nadine Gordimer 1. Beethoven Was One-sixteenth Black;
2. Get a Life
1. <贝多芬是1/16黑人> (2008);
2. <新生>(2008)
1. Nanjing University Press (南京大学出版社);
2. People’s Literature Publishing House (人民文学出版社)
White South African writer renowned for her anti-apartheid activities, Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991.
Uwem Akpan Say You’re One of Them <就说你和他们一样> (2010) Phoenix Publishing and Media (凤凰出版传媒集团) US-based, Nigerian-raised writer whose book of pan-African short stories—about the Rwandan genocide, religious conflict in Ethiopia and more—was a 2009 Oprah Book Club Selection.
Edited by Phillippa Yaa De Villiers, Isabel Ferrin-Aguirre and Kaiyu Xiao. No Serenity Here <这里不平静> (2010) World Knowledge Publishers (世界知识出版社) Various poets translated from the English, French, Portuguese, Arabic and Amharic.