Jia Pingwa: Popularity in China Contrasts with Low Profile in Translation

By Bruce Humes, published

In 贾平凹只能是守株待兔, we learn that Jia Pingwa’s latest novel 老生 (Lǎo Shēng) topped Sina Online’s 2014 ranking of “ten great books” (新浪年度十大好书).

The report points out that despite his popularity in China, his novels are rarely translated. “Whoever is willing to translate [my books], I welcome to come and negotiate the rights. But if no one does, I don’t know where to go to find translators,” says the author himself, perhaps slightly exasperated at the lack of interest from overseas publishers.

As usual, this is a bit of an exaggeration. Several of his books have been translated into French, including the once-banned La capitale déchue (废都). But only one of his novels, Turbulence (浮躁, tr. Howard Goldblatt), appears on Amazon in English. So this is probably more about his failure to gain more prominence in the English-speaking world.

Thus the question: Given his reputation in China, why haven’t most of Jia Pingwa’s novels been translated into European languages?


# 1.   

Someone asked me this question not too long ago. What I said was:

  1. In the 1990s Jia let some Chinese friends do partial or full translations of his works, and show them to international publishers. The translations weren't up to snuff, and that burned Jia for quite a while -- and unfortunately right at the time when he might have had a chance.

  2. At this point, the kind of books that Jia writes aren't the ones that western publishers are looking for. They are long and dense, rooted in Chinese culture and history, particularly rural history, and that just isn't what people are looking for anymore. What's special about the books is their language, and the narrative style, and those are hard things to sell a translation on.

Jia is certainly anxious, though. People's Literature Publishing House would very much like to sell him, but I don't think they know how to do it.

 Eric Abrahamsen, January 13, 2015, 12:57a.m.

# 2.   

More succinctly, when people hear the description of a Jia novel, they immediately think "300-page brick of peasant misery" and run the other way.

That's not at all what his novels are, but it's actually amazingly difficult to describe them in a way that doesn't trip that wire in editors' heads.

 Eric Abrahamsen, January 13, 2015, 7:38a.m.

# 3.   

"Given [their] reputation in China, why haven’t most of XXX’s novels been translated into European languages?" isn't really the right questions, since no one apart from a very, very small set of Chinese authors has a body of work in translation equal to their domestic reputation.

jdmartinsen, January 13, 2015, 9:23p.m.

# 4.   

Eric touches on some of the key issues and problems in a concise manner. Speaking personally, the issue of publishing and support for publishing is the biggest hurdle, not the absence of qualified translators.

Inevitably there are some cultural barriers which make it challenging to market Jia's work to foreign audiences, but these aspects are often closely related to the same qualities which make his writing appealing to Chinese readers. Lao Sheng (老生) is great as a philosophical exercise, but without a knowledge of The Classic of the Mountains and the Seas (山海经) it's meanings are impenetrable.

Added to this it must be noted that at present mixed messages are being transmitted to the author about how his novels are likely to be received abroad, the sales figures and what benefits he can expect to receive from their translation. For instance, in the wake of Mo Yan's Nobel win, he was a guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Festival despite the fact that a sizeable portion of his work has only been translated into one European language (French).

As a fellow native of Shaanxi province, a professor of literature at Jia's alma mater and a friend of the author for more than 30 years I've made it my life's task to translate his work into English. It should be said that I am not one of the "Chinese friends" Eric mentions as having made desultory translations of his prose in the 1990s. In 2010 my translation of his early novella 黑氏 (published under the title of 'The Country Wife') appeared in a respected US literary journal to modest acclaim. Together with my team (which includes several qualified professors and a British professor of literature) we have translated the whole of 'The Abandoned Capital' (废都) and have others in progress.

Hu Zongfeng, January 13, 2015, 9:28p.m.

# 5.   

I'm just going to make a couple of brief comments here: firstly, I think Jia Pingwa is a great writer, and it's a pity more of his stuff has not been translated. I understand that Howard Goldblatt is doing Abandoned Capital and Happy (《高兴》 so these should be available in English in the foreseeable future). Secondly, his work is not untranslatable. I did his short story Blackflow River (《倒流河》) for the 2013 China International Translation Contest/“2013中国当代优秀作品国际翻译大赛. I chose him not because I like to attempt the impossible but because I was moved by the story. I particularly like his sympathetic treatment of the woman character. Finally, I agree that his sort of novels are not currently fashionable in the west but that should not be an insuperable obstacle to translation. Perhaps he needs a good literary agent? Many good Chinese writers have them.

 NICKY HARMAN, January 14, 2015, 6:29a.m.

# 6.   

Good to know that Hu Zongfeng and Howard Goldblatt are at work on translating some of Jia Pingwa's works.

But it would save everyone a lot of time and trouble if we could see the names of translations in progress here in the Paper Republic database.

Eric: does the database allow us to input names of translations-in-progress?

Bruce, January 14, 2015, 6:51a.m.

# 7.   

Bruce: It certainly does, just add a translation with an auth_date in the future. The real question is whether people want their in-progress uncertain-future translations publicized in this way. In my experience, even publishers who have bought copyright and have translations underway are dicey about admitting it in public – how much more so translators who are just out to see what happens? I'd love to have as many in-progess projects in the database as possible, but until books have hit shelves I wouldn't add them without the consent of those involved.

Hu Zongfeng: Good to see you here! I know how seriously you and your colleagues are taking this. My "Chinese friends" comment was probably too off-the-cuff, but backing up somewhat, I do think this is what has done Jia Pingwa in over the past couple decades. In good Chinese tradition, he has put his faith in friends. Some of those friends have known what they're doing. Some most emphatically have not.

Meanwhile, Nicky and the rest of us just do the best translations we can. I still think it would take an agent of great perspicacity, subtlety, and wisdom (not to mention financial independence) to sell Jia successfully. I can imagine trying. I can imagine the weeks of immersion in his many, many novels, the careful selection of passages for translation, the painstaking crafting of descriptions and sales materials, the delicate conversations with editors, the $215 in agenting fees at the end of the process. I can certainly imagine someone taking on this project, just not anyone I know.

 Eric Abrahamsen, January 14, 2015, 8:08a.m.

# 8.   

For the latest on Jia Pingwa in translation, see:

Shaanxi Fiction via French Comics

 Bruce, February 11, 2015, 5:12a.m.

# 9.   

贾平凹,not 贾平娃

黄小骑, May 29, 2015, 9:39p.m.

# 10.   

Thanks for the heads-up!

 Eric Abrahamsen, May 30, 2015, 9:42a.m.


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