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 email@example.com.
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:
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.
The following is a translation of this blog post, which came down the feed reader a day or so ago.
Soon after President Hu, at a very formal meeting, said the words "do not waver, do not slacken, do not mess around" (不动摇不懈怠不折腾), this phrase started to get popular. It was a bit of a shocker to hear something so slangy as "mess around" (折腾, zhéteng) come out of the mouth of a solemn, venerable personage like the General Secretary, and soon everyone was saying it.
They underestimate us! A little phrase like this doesn't need a language maven to figure out, it's a piece of cake. According to the rule of 'crude for crude, elegant for elegant', I can think of a few translations: "no fooling around", "no messing around" or, if you want to get crude, "no fxxcking around" (these are all verb phrases). The translators aren't translating it, and everyone's talking around it, simply to keep from embarrassing President Hu. They're keeping it as "bu zheteng" because they have no other choice.
What's hilarious is that some retards in the Chinese media have written puff pieces saying that the Chinese 'bu zheteng' might even become a catchphrase in English. They shouldn't get their hopes up; the answer would be "No thanks. We've got plenty of words of our own, quit messing with our language." The way I see it, compared to 'bu zhengteng', some other suggestions from netizens' like 'not to huqiunong' (the Shaanxi version) or 'don't xiaqiunao' (Shandong version) have a better chance of making it into English.
Anyway, I suspect Hu Jintao was straying from the script when he said this, it doesn't sound like the sort of a thing a scriptwriter would come up with. Now everyone's elated that a Party boss could talk this way, they though they were off the hook as well. But in olden times they used to say you have to both listen to a man's words and observe his actions – I for one remain deeply skeptical. If a political party that makes a rule of "messing around" were to suddenly straighten up and fly right, they'd have no clue where to even start. Besides, before long they're going to roll out another movement, either "compulsory" or "optional"; they may say they're not "messing around", but it sure looks like it to me.
The One Way Street Bookstore is putting on a talk with A Cheng this weekend at its Wanda Plaza location. A Cheng is renowned as a free spirit and a bit of a contrarian; I've run into him a few times, though, and he's usually just seemed crotchety and confused. Still, he's a Personality, and the event ought to be interesting.
Update: The Bi-Cultural Freak went to this event, and wrote a bit about it, plus pictures. We hereby steal one of her pictures, though stealing with permission takes most of the fun out, doesn't it.
Her write-up is in Chinese, but here's a translation (of her transcription) of A Cheng's ramblings:
Art arises from witchcraft. It has no religious faith; it's good at dispelling all that. It dispells stress. Errenzhuan [a kind of two-person song and storytelling routine from northeastern China] is a kind of witchcraft. In ancient times witchcraft was a primary form of performance. There were all types and kinds. Many artists suffer now. It used to be that if you were a painter you just painted… Now it's about politics, publication… You work all day, then struggle all night. Errenzhuan: it's a soporific; the northeast; jumping rope. One person says: I'll make your Granny appear, the other: okay, no problem.
And it really sounds like his grandmother's voice. All the bystanders get involved. I worked in a labor team in the northeast when I was young, it snowed starting in September, so what could you do but listen to errenzhuan? Errenzhuan's got these robes, and they squat and waddle around – that's all witchcraft. And it makes you laugh out loud, it can make you laugh at anything, like that Zhao Benshan [a comedy actor from the northeast] – it's a soporific. Art. It has a hold on everything, on every craft.
[The Chinese word for art, 艺术, is made up of two characters which roughly mean "art" and "craft". 术 by itself, however, is closer to "magic", here "witchcraft".]
As I said: a little crotchety, a little confused.
PS: Can someone weigh in authoritatively on the A Cheng vs Ah Cheng vs Ah-Cheng issue? My fingers type something different every time.
This morning was the press conference for the Dangdai literary magazine's fifth annual best novel award. Dangdai, which is run by the People's Literature Publishing House, is trying to turn this prize into a bit of a challenge to the hegemony of the bigger prizes administered by the Writers Association: the editor of Dangdai, Yang Xinlan, specifically touted this prize as the non-governmental answer to the Mao Dun prize.
Every literary prize and its brother is touting "transparency" and "fairness" these days, but the Dangdai prize might get a little closer to that goal than most: there is no cash for the winner, reducing some of the incentive for backdoor dealing, and to hear Yang talk, the judges were left unmolested during the nomination process. She even described them as being slightly taken aback when the magazine had no "directives" or even gentle hints as to which direction they should cast their votes — if this is true, it speaks as well for the Dangdai prize as it does poorly for the other prizes.
According to Yu Hua, a professor of Chinese once ran his book 许三观卖血记 (translated as Chronicle of a Blood Merchant) through the data cruncher, and calculated the number of different characters Yu Hua had used in writing the book. The grand total was 486. Is that even possible?
Update: I asked Yu Hua for more details, he went digging, and it turns out this was quite wrong. The actual numbers are 1,909 characters for Chronicle of a Blood Merchant, and 1,907 characters in To Live. Far more than 486 characters; still far, far less than you'd expect for two of the more influential novels of the past couple decades.
You readers and lovers of Chinese novels, may we ask your assistance? We're putting together a few lists of books which have not yet been translated into English, but ought to be: from the inexplicably passed-over classics of modern Chinese literature to last year's sleeper hit. What gold has yet to be claimed, either deep-buried, or lying on the sidewalk where anyone could pick it up? We're also counting books that have been translated, but translated poorly, so yes – Fortress Besieged counts.
If you're a translator sitting on the book proposal that's going to make your career, we can sympathize if you keep mum, but we hope the rest of you will cut loose.
I'll start: Jia Pingwa's 废都 (Abandoned Capital). Why the hell is this not in English yet?
The minister from the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) approved the first list of translation funding shortly before the Frankfurt Book Fair. The amounts range from 2,000 to 7,000 euros per title.
Before anyone gets excited, the deadline for applying for GAPP funding was November 15, and funds were only applicable to books going into German. The interview touches on several other topics of interest (including the privatization of China's publishing houses) so do take a look…
Howard Goldblatt has graciously allowed us to publish this essay of his on the openings of Chinese novels.
In the Beginning
"Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife."
How could anyone not want to keep reading, at least for a while, with an opening line like that?
"I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, and then again, as a teenage boy."
"'Sons of bitches.' Lituma felt the vomit rising in his throat. 'Kid, they really did a job on you.'"
From Melville to Tolstoy and beyond, all the way to Ha Jin, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Mario Vargas Llosa, novelists in the West have assumed that, like a flashy cover, an arresting opening line can go a long way toward starting those pages turning.
When he wrote…
"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta."
…Nabakov knew he'd get our attention.
We don't, however, see many opening sentences of that nature in novels written in Chinese. After more than thirty years of translating Chinese novels into English, I cannot readily call to mind any I've worked on that provide a riveting, provocative, even outlandish opening. That's not to say they don't exist, or that the rules aren't changing, as cultural globalization gains momentum; it's just that a different, and equally valid, narrative strategy, a more tradition-bound beginning has been the norm in recent decades. I've often wondered what that says about the contemporary Chinese novel. Beyond that, how do expectations and standards of enjoyment or acceptance between Chinese and Western readers of fiction differ?