Eric Abrahamsen (1978 – )

worldcat / academia


Eric lived in Beijing from late 2001, when he studied Chinese at the Central University for Nationalities, until the end of 2016. He began struggling through Wang Xiaobo at an early date, and kept at it through the intervening years. He is the recipient of a PEN translation grant for Wang Xiaobo's My Spiritual Homeland and a NEA grant for Xu Zechen's Running Through Zhongguancun, later published as Running Through Beijing, which was shortlisted for the National Translation Award.

His short-story translations have appeared in magazines including The New Yorker, Granta, and n+1. He also writes occasional cultural criticism, which has appeared in the New York Times and Foreign Policy, among other venues.

Eric also runs a US-based company called Coal Hill Books which provides rights agency and publishing consulting for Chinese and international publishers seeking to do business with each other. You can reach him there at


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Novels (2)

Essays (2)

Short stories (17)

As Editor


BIBF Special Publisher Program

By Eric Abrahamsen, May 31, '09

Foreign publishers considering attending the 2009 Beijing International Book Fair might want to know about the Special Publisher Program, aimed at publishers who want to attend the fair but are a little tight on funds. The application deadline for this program has been extended to the end of July, so if you're interested click here for more details and application instructions.

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At the Hawkes'

By Eric Abrahamsen, May 11, '09

St. Jerome may be the patron saint of all translators, but for those of us working in Chinese literature, David Hawkes is something like a living buddha. His work on the first 80 chapters of The Story of the Stone would be enough, but there's also Songs of the South (translations of Qu Yuan and other 楚辞), and A Little Primer of Tu Fu, an authoritative introduction to the Tang dynasty poet Du Fu.

Hawkes, now long retired, lives in Oxford, and when we were in London recently, we made a special trip up to the original college town (absolutely beautiful) to pay him a visit. He and his wife graciously received us, and fed us, and we had two short hours to talk about China and Chinese literature. We exchanged reminiscences about Beijing – apparently we have lived in spots only a few blocks apart – which I later had to re-evaluate when I realized that the last time he was in Beijing it still had its city walls, and he arrived there by steamship.


Forbidden Zones in Translation

By Eric Abrahamsen, May 11, '09

The following is a translation of this article from Caijing magazine, entitled 译书有禁区 (Book Translation's 'Forbidden Area' in China).

Here's a comment left by a netizen on this writer's blog post, 'Huiyuan is a Foreign Enterprise':

"Is there a Chinese language version of Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics? Can you buy it on the Mainland?"

My blog post described a few ideas from a new book by Professor Huang Yasheng, at MIT's Sloan School of Management (Yasheng Huang, Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Entrepreneurship and the State, Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Professor Huang is an overseas-Chinese scholar, and his book is written in English. But I must agree with the commenter's point: there's little chance that a Chinese translation of the book could be published.

In fact, very few books published abroad by overseas-Chinese scholars are translated into Chinese, particularly when the books are written on the subject of China. Some scholarly works are translated into Chinese, but with some of the contents altered. Of course, works by non overseas-Chinese also meet with the same treatment.

I'll give a few other examples of which I'm aware:

In 2005, Hu Danian, professor of history at the City University of New York, published China and Albert Einstein through the Harvard University Press (China and Albert Einstein: The Reception of the Physicist and His Theory in China, 1917-1979, Harvard University Press, 2005). One year later, Professor Hu translated his own book into Chinese as 爱因斯坦在中国 (1917-1979), adding quite a bit of newly-discovered historical material, and it was published by the Shanghai Science and Technology Education Publishing House, part of the Shanghai Century Publishing Group.

The part of the book describing criticisms of Einstein and his theories during the Cultural Revolution was deleted, and the names of several famous people, including famous scientists, were removed. Interested readers can compare the published versions with some chapters available online:

The Chinese Century: The Rising Chinese Economy and Its Impact on the Global Economy, the Balance of Power, and Your Job (Wharton School Publishing, 2004), by Professor Oded Shenkar, Ohio State University's School of Business, was published in Chinese in 2005 by the People's University Press. But the chapters on intellectual property rights were deleted altogether, because the translator did not agree with the writer's point of view.

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Job Posting: Documentary Film Subtitles

By Eric Abrahamsen, May 3, '09

20,000 RMB for 34,000 WORDS (but lots of repetition, conversations mostly). Subject: three smart, funny modern women in contemporary Beijing. If you can finish the first draft by MAY 11th, there's a 5,000 RMB bonus.

Payment upon completion of final subs. Minimal interface with director required – maybe none at all.

Chris Barden is project managing this and will proof the final titles.
Contact directly:

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2009 PEN Translation Grants

By Eric Abrahamsen, April 22, '09

Announcements have been made for the 2009 PEN Translation Grants, though the press release has not yet appeared online, we'll link to it when it does. The only Chinese-language grant went to my translation of Wang Xiaobo's collection of essays, My Spiritual Homeland. You can download a PDF translation of "The Silent Majority", one of the essays from this collection, by clicking here. This essay was originally published in the Asia Literary Review.


Free the Word

By Eric Abrahamsen, April 20, '09

So here we are in London. After a couple of days of recovery (and sightseeing!) our first event involving Han Dong took place yesterday, at the Young Vic. The event was a part of the two day Free the Word program put on by International PEN, and featured seven or eight poets and writers from around the world reading for five to ten minutes each. There were homages to Harold Pinter and Adrian Mitchell, tales of detention, homelessness, and the unfriendly welcome that awaits immigrants at the British Home Office.

Han Dong reading

I'll just make two observations:

Of all the authors (who came from Cameroon, Iraq, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Mexico, among other places), only Han Dong had interpretation. The rest weren't all up to BBC broadcast standards, but they spoke English. I found this interesting – I'm not sure whether it says more about China, about the rest of the world, or about the PEN event. Chinese writers who speak fluent English are rare (nonexistant?). Most of the other foreign writers had written about their experiences as immigrants to the UK.

Chinese writers get dissident status just by virtue of being both Chinese, and writers. Every one of the readers that day read something against the establishment – tales of police brutality, protest, living down and out – except Han Dong. He read about the dusk, and visiting a prostitute, and the sound of glasses clinking. Whatever may be anti-establishment about Han Dong (and I believe there's plenty) is not immediately obvious in his poetry, at least not the way it was obvious in the other readings. And yet he was happily welcomed into the company, a brother in suffering. I wonder if they were confused by what they got.

I don't think he quite identified, at any rate. I just now asked him, "Han Dong, do you think you're an oppressed writer?"

"Who?" he asked. (He was absorbed in a copy of We All Sing Revolutionary Songs [革命歌曲大家唱], which he'd found, against all odds, in the home of our London host. He'd also had two Guinesses.)

"You, of course!"

"Me? Who would oppress me?" He had been put in a particularly good mood by My Home is on the Songhua River (我的家在东北松花江上) and didn't seem to recall his burdens.


Bits and Pieces

By Eric Abrahamsen, April 20, '09

We've made a few additions to the site recently, so please have a look around. The first is a directory of translators, to make it easier for publishers to locate appropriate translators; that list will be growing filters and searches over the next couple of weeks. The second is resources sections aimed at both publishers and translators, with frequently asked questions, and general background information. We want to expand these sections as much as possible, so please do leave suggestions in the comments here or on the resources themselves, or email us.


Wang Xiaobo's Answer

By Eric Abrahamsen, April 5, '09

To his various accusers:

Of all the types of value judgments, the worst is the vilification of those who have thought too much and too deeply, who have gone beyond the grasp of their accusers. While we experience the pleasures of thought we cause no harm to anyone; unfortunately, there are always some who feel they have taken harm. Honestly, it is not everyone who can feel this kind of pleasure, but we cannot be held responsible for that. I can see no reason for the negation of such pleasures, unless one takes a despicable sort of jealousy into account. There are some in this world who like variety, and some who like simplicity; I have never observed those who love variety to be jealous of those who like simplicity, nor cause them any harm, I have only ever seen the opposite. If I know anything at all about science and art, it is that they are fed equally by the broad river of the pleasure of thought. This river benefits all humankind but it does not, as some imagine, flow for any one of us alone, just as those who take pleasure in thought were not born for anyone but themselves.

From 思维的乐趣 (The Pleasure of Thought), from his collection 我的精神家园 (My Spiritual Homeland).


Pulling Yu Hua's Teeth

By Eric Abrahamsen, March 29, '09

As a bit of a contrast to the last post about Yu Hua's Brothers and how it's reviewed, here's a translation of the eponymous headline review from Pulling Yu Hua's Teeth, a collection of hatchet-jobs on Brothers that was published in China in 2006. It's neither the worst nor the best example of Yu Hua-related criticism, but it was one of the more prominent.

Pulling Yu Hua's Teeth

by Cang Lang

Two recent events have shaken up China's literary world. The first occurred when a certain famous literary critic [白烨 Bai Ye] criticized 'Post-80s' writers, offending 'race-car driver' Han Han and his friends and drawing such heavy fire that he was forced to close his blog. The second was the publication of the second volume of Brothers by the renowned writer Yu Hua, and its prodigious sales around the country.

The spring weather may be chilly this year, but things are already lively in China's book circles – all those literary folks had hibernated long enough. The only real shame was that the two so-called 'events' were so lacking in literary value – particularly the former, in which the 'race-car driver' came off as particularly vulgar and shameless, and entirely lacking in cultivation. But it was hardly worth getting upset about; some of our famous critics really do have issues, and it was only a matter of time before Han Han was rude about it: the old man should have seen it coming. But when it came to Brothers, by the famous writer Yu Hua, the world of literary criticism responded with a coordinated attack that was gratifying to see. Even diehard apologists like Xie Youshun, Zhang Yiwu and Chen Xiaoming finally listened to their consciences and began to actually criticize. Assaulted from all sides, Yu Hua made a show of turning up his nose in contempt, but he's also a 'writer' of some refinement and he wasn't going to lose his cool. He showed far better quality than Han Han, which was a bit of an eye-opener.


Boot Camp

By Eric Abrahamsen, March 24, '09

The second annual Sino-English Literary Translation training course ended last Friday night, the conclusion of a week of workshops and seminars so tightly-packed that those of us present hardly had time to post. I hope other participants might chime in here with their thoughts, but I wanted to make a brief report.


Olav H. Hauge's Selected Poems Translated into Chinese

By Eric Abrahamsen, March 6, '09

The following was provided by Stacey Duff, Art Editor of Time Out Magazine.

Celebrated Norwegian writer Olav H. Hauge has been translated into Chinese by Beijing-based poet, Xi Chuan. Xi Chuan translated the work in collaboration with Norwegian professor Harald Bockman and Norway-based Chinese translator, Liu Baisha.

Xi Chuan and guqin
Photo courtesy of Gøril F. Borgen/The Norwegian Embassy in Beijing

Hauge spent his entire life working as a fruit farmer. Reading these poems, you immediately sense a closeness to the land. Frequent appearances are made, for instance, by the sea, the moon and the wind. Hauge's earthiness is furthered by the fact that he spoke and wrote in the dialect of Western Norway, where he lived.


Home for the Holidays

By Eric Abrahamsen, February 24, '09

…with nine members of the extended family and only one child, five-year-old Zhang Xinyu, who naturally becomes the center of attention. Sing us a song, Zhang Xinyu! Come give your auntie a hug, Zhang Xinyu. Zhang Xinyu, what do you call everyone here? The poor child has to go around the table and recite everyone's kinship to him: What's so-and-so's name, and what do you call him/her (你管他叫什么)? 老姨姥 (maternal grandmother's youngest sister)… 老舅姥爷 (maternal grandmother's youngest brother)… I'm slumped in my chair, worried I'll be tested next – after four years I know the names of almost no one in my wife's family (no one ever uses them!), and still occasionally forget which is aunt number two and which is aunt number three. I call according to my wife's position in the family, which makes things easier, but still I could never compare to the five-year-old Zhang Xinyu. He goes around the table, acing each one except for my mother-in-law, whom he calls 老舅妈 (mother's youngest brother's wife), instead of 老舅姥姥 (maternal grandmother's youngest brother's wife) – he's heard his mother call her that, and gotten his generations wrong. He comes around to me: What's his name? "Eric." What's his Chinese name? "陶建." What do you call him? "小姨父 (mother's female cousin's husband)." And what else do you call him? "美国大个子 (the big American)." Well done, Zhang Xinyu…


Chinese-English Literary Translation Course 2009

By Eric Abrahamsen, February 5, '09

Has a whole year gone by already? Applications are currently being accepted for the 2009 Chinese-English Literary Translation course, to be held in balmy Suzhou between March 15-21, by the good graces of the Penguin Group, Arts Council England, the General Administration of Press and Publications and the University of Western Sydney. We had a blast last year, you should apply. Details to follow:


Respect for our Juniors (aka, The Kids are All Right)

By Eric Abrahamsen, January 30, '09

*The following is the translation of a blog post by Li Yinhe (李银河), widow of the writer Wang Xiaobo (王小波).

Some publishers came to talk about a manuscript, and left me one of their own books as a sample of their work. The writer's name is Feng Tang, both of which characters you can find in the Hundred Names [a compendium of the most common surnames in China]. My guess is that his father was surnamed Feng and his mother surnamed Tang; I've met other people who got their names that way. The title of the book is You Live and Live and Then You're Old (活着活着就老了), which caught my eye. I looked through it and it's excellent, I couldn't put it down once I'd started, and read it all the way through in a day and a half.

Apart from a few later pieces about Beijing and Hong Kong that weren't that good, and apart from a few places where the same phrases were used repeatedly in different essays (was the writer too busy to read the whole thing through before publication?), and apart from some harsh evaluations of Wang Xiaobo, the book was very, very good.

In it he mentioned laughing out loud twice while reading Wang Xiaobo's books. Reading someone's books and laughing however many times: I'll borrow this phrase, and say that I laughed out loud seven or eight times while reading his book. I developed asthma after I came back to China in 1988, and though it got better it never entirely went away: I have an athsma attack every time I have a laughing fit; listening to crosstalk is a risky business for me. This book nearly did me in; there were eight times I almost had an attack. If I ever have the opportunity to meet this person I'll have a bone to pick with him.

In the book he divides writers into those who "spit out" one book, those who "spit out" two books, and those who "spit out" many books. His use of the word "spit" hit me like a thunderclap: I had once imagined that real literature might be in my future, but the word "spit" dispelled my fantasy for good. I asked myself if I really had anything I needed to spit out, and concluded that I should just stick to my sociology, and enjoy life in my spare time.

They say that the media is in the hands of the generation born in the 1970s. Of the people mentioned in Feng Tang's book, I've read the writing of Luo Yonghao [whose Bullog blog site was recently shut down] and He Caitou; they must be approaching 40 now. They're 20 years younger than us, a whole generation. They've already become the pillars of modern China's intellectual world; we should have respect for our juniors.

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