By Eric Abrahamsen, March 28, '08
The night of March 23, a Sunday night in the brand-new Grand National Theatre, where the National Centre for the Performing Arts was putting on a version of Puccini's Turandot. Ping, one of the emperor's three ministers, stands forward to lament, "O China, o China, che or sussulti e trasecoli inquieta" ("O China, O China, now always startled and aghast, restless"), and what comes up on the Chinese subtitle screen? "O World, O World, now always startled and aghast…"
Because we've become fragile to the point where words of a fictional character in a Western opera written in 1920s are sufficient to bring us down. Or are our national feelings so easily hurt? Or is it part of the gentle campaign to blur the edges of things, to recast what's seen and heard in a way that leaves a false impression, while stopping short of out-and-out dishonesty?
Funny how these little things can touch off the rancor you've otherwise kept well in check…
By Eric Abrahamsen, March 28, '08
The arena: The second floor of the Baiyun Hotel, an enormous official meeting hall some of us have dubbed the Great Hall of the People, complete with velvet curtains, raised podium, and (apparently) refrigerated wooden chairs.
The contestants: Jiang Rong, author of Wolf Totem, and Howard Goldblatt, translator of that novel into English.
The grudge: Billed as a conversation between translator and translatee, the event was actually a chance for Jiang Rong to air his grievances about Howard Goldblatt’s translation. The two are actually pretty chummy, but neither was averse to a little dustup – Goldblatt started off by essentially leaning back, folding his arms, and saying “do your worst”.
By Eric Abrahamsen, March 20, '08
The awards are out! PEN has announced the recipients of the 2008 awards; China is represented by Andrea Lingenfelter, who won a grant to translate Annie Baby's Padma, "the story of two disaffected city-dwellers who set out on a quest-like trek in a rugged and remote area of Tibet." No publisher has picked this up yet, but word is the award itself has generated a lot of interest. Congrats!
By Eric Abrahamsen, March 20, '08
The first thing you learn from group translation is how vital privacy ordinarily is to this kind of work. Laboring in solitude, in whatever state of disarray or distraction you please, is a luxury – and something of a necessity. As a general rule the first three drafts of anything are execrable, and being able to drown those drafts in the confidence that no one will ever know they existed provides such peace of mind. Silly ideas surface and subside without being much exposed to the light of rational judgment, and the final forms of things are gently extracted from this unarticulated mess.
It’s alarming, to say the least, to be given a chunk of a Chinese novel and asked, “So, how would you translate that first sentence?” while everyone in the room watches you. I think we all started out more or less aghast that we’d be asked to perform, in a sense – if we were comfortable with that we’d have gone into interpretation. But, of course, there are salutory things about this public disrobing – most immediate is the way it zaps your emotional investment in your translation. You stammer out something far, far inferior to what you might have produced had you been sitting alone at your own desk in your boxer shorts, and then everyone in the room tears it apart. Three rounds of that and you no longer regard your words as your own. Which, of course, they weren’t to begin with.
We’re doing about six sentences an hour on Tie Ning’s Dayunü (大浴女), chewing over every article and preposition, dueling for adverbs, and the main lesson so far has been one I’ve learned over and over, and will probably continue to learn until I give up on this altogether: You’ve never thought hard enough about what you’ve written.
By Eric Abrahamsen, March 18, '08
Today is day one of the Sino-British Literary Translation course. After a very raucous train ride from Beijing to Shanghai we boarded a four-hour bus to Moganshan (莫干山 – Ever-wet Mountain?) and here we are. It’s been a long day and I’m tired, but the general format of the course is this: there are twenty Chinese to English translators and twenty English to Chinese. Each group is split in half, and assigned to one of two authors: the English-Chinese folks got Hari Kunzru and Bernadine Evaristo, and we of the Chinese-English persuasion got Tie Ning (铁凝) and Li Er (李洱). That’s four groups of ten, each with their author, and also a moderator to keep things in hand. And then… we translate. Together. Line by consensual line. Given the crotchety personalities of the translators I know, it sounds highly dubious, but this is the model they use at the British Center for Literary Translation, and they say it works. At the very least we should get some lively arguments out of it, and there are enough fascinating people around to ensure a worthwhile week.
By Eric Abrahamsen, March 12, '08
It seems Jiang Rong, author of Wolf Totem has decided it's time to step out of anonymity and start going by his real name – Lu Jiamin. Apparently, with the release of the book's English version right around the corner and his international reputation rising, he decided now was the time…
By Eric Abrahamsen, March 11, '08
Mo Yan visited the Beijing Number Eleven School on Saturday, and spoke to students on the verge of taking the 高考 (gāokǎo, the test which determines a student’s chances of getting in college). There’s lots of hand-wringing (or at least there should be) about China’s high-school educational system, which steamrollers students into a single mold, and leaves them hardly any time to themselves in which they might repair the damage.
Mo Yan to the rescue. Never mind that the steamroller possesses the momentum of a celestial body; he encouraged students to do a little writing that “you don’t show your teachers” after graduation – keeping a diary or posting online. This sort of private writing would be essential in allowing them to form their own characters. He also said that students should be allowed to read what they pleased, and spoke positively about the ease with which young people could publish and read on the internet.
There’s something a little heartbreaking about Mo Yan speaking to these students, the scions of a nation which has given its people no peace for two generations, on the eve of one of the most grueling mass experiences many of them will ever undergo, and telling them, “try to make a little space for yourselves.” You can practically hear him add, under his breath, “you’re going to need it.”
By Eric Abrahamsen, March 10, '08
I went to attend the press conference for Han Dong’s new book, 小城好汉之英特迈往 (xiǎochénghǎohàn zhī yīngtèmàiwǎng, The Legendary Exploits of a Small Town Bravo) at the Sanlian Bookstore last Saturday. I haven’t been to many book release events outside of China and don’t have much to judge by, but I think the local model is strange – the publisher ropes together big-name writer friends of the author, and gets them to speak in praise of the book in question. It’s neither a plain press release, nor a meaty discussion of the book, and the event is typically precisely as interesting as the personalities of the writers attending. The only thing that kept me awake during the launch of Li Rui’s 人间, for example, was Yan Lianke and his sense of humor.
This event was similar – Han Dong’s posse included Mou Sen (牟森, an avant-garde theater director), Zhu Wen, Yin Lichuan, and Yan Jingming (阎晶明, a literary critic). For all the ambiguity of the event itself, it was an entertaining crowd. First of all, Han Dong was at a total loss as to what to say. The man has been writing poetry and fiction for twenty years, and this was his first public appearance in support of one of his books – that ought to provide some idea of the literary marketplace here. But Zhu Wen was funny, both Mou Sen and Yan Yingming had thoughtful reactions to the book, and if Yin Lichuan had little to say she at least appeared sincere.
By Eric Abrahamsen, February 25, '08
Woefully, woefully behind the times, we write to remind those of you who do not already know of the Bookworm's upcoming International Literary Festival, to my knowledge unprecedented in Beijing for sheer quantities of literary talent gathered for a single event. Background information and a full schedule are on the Bookworm's website, but some highlights include talks with Yiyun Li, a hugely talented Chinese author living and writing in the United States, and Hari Kunzru, the launch of Beijing: Portrait of a City, a Zhu Wen film screening with Q&A, and a talk with pre-eminent translator Howard Goldblatt, moderated by yours truly.
The Chinese literary scene has become gradually more international over the past couple of years, and this promises to be a major leap forward in that continuing trend.
By Eric Abrahamsen, February 23, '08
Lu Jinbo (路金波) is one of the major publishers associated with internet literature and the new generation of youth writing. He began his career as a writer, under the pen-name Li Xunhuan (李寻欢), and along with Annie Baby (安妮宝贝) and Ning Caishen (宁财神) was one of the "three chariots" (三辆马车) of Rongshuxia.
By 2002 he began thinking of leaving writing behind, and moved to the Rongshu Culture Company, which became a part of Bertelsmann in that year. Since then he has become something of a minor celebrity in the publishing world, publishing the flashiest writes, giving the biggest advances, and generally breaking all the rules. The biggest names on his list are Wang Shuo, Han Han, Guo Jingming and Annie Baby, though he has a hand in plenty of other profitable publishing ventures. For further background, see Danwei's translation of an interview with him.
By Eric Abrahamsen, February 15, '08
An unfortunate bit of news: we've been asked by the State University of New York press to take down our samples of Wang Xiaobo's Golden Age, since the samples apparently conflict with the English-language translation rights they hold for Wang in Love and Bondage. Frankly, I'm not in the least convinced that this is legally viable, but I'm also very unwilling to get into a fight about it. The prospect of a practically penniless university press suing a group of actually penniless translators over stories few are ever likely to read is too depressing to bear consideration, so down they come. We're leaving the stubs up; if you want to read the longer samples email us.
By Eric Abrahamsen, February 8, '08
Xu Xing originally gained fame as a writer during the 1980s, when he was a prominent member of the literary revival that followed the end of the Cultural Revolution. He emigrated for Germany in 1989, and didn't return for four years. He currently lives in Beijing and is working on a book about his experiences during the Cultural Revolution. He will spend most of 2008 as a writer-in-residence at the UCLA.
In the beginning...
"I'd heard of computers before I left China, but I'd never actually seen one. In Germany they had those 286s, running DOS – I got to be pretty good at DOS in Germany.
"When I went back to China 1993 I brought a computer with me; it had a black and white monitor; I thought it was such a prize… But I discovered that in the few years I'd been gone, computers had already become commonplace in China."
By Eric Abrahamsen, February 6, '08
PEN international has put out a call for submissions, related to a certain campaign they've got going. Cowardice prevents us from saying more; have a look for yourself. 500-1,000 words, I only just noticed that it should be in Chinese.
By Eric Abrahamsen, January 29, '08
Wang Lei (王蕾) has been working in the editorial department of the Shanghai Century Publishing House since January of 2003. Shanghai Century has involved itself in internet-related books since 2003, and Wang’s responsibilities include planning and editing internet-related publishing projects.
Shanghai Century Publishing first became associated with internet publishing in 2003, when it put out 毕业那天我们一起失恋 (roughly, Our Hearts Were Broken the Day We Graduated), a book which was originally posted in installments on the internet. “That was the first year that the internet really became a publishing phenomenon,” recalls Wang Lei. “We had been watching the internet for quite a while before that, but that was the first book that was published and marketed as ‘internet literature’. It did quite well, selling 300,000 copies, much better than we had expected.”
In 2005 Shanghai Century expanded into books derived from blogs run by well-known personalities. The flagship publication was Wang Xiaofeng’s 不许联想 (bùxǔliánxiǎng), taken from his blog of the same name. Wang, a music critic for Sanlian Life Weekly magazine, has become a minor celebrity for his daring, acerbic social commentary. “We helped him pick certain articles and group them accordingly, but other than that we didn’t alter or edit his writing,” says Wang Lei. She believes that readers will treat the experience of reading the book differently than the experience of reading the blog online, and says the publishing house is “satisfied” with sales of this and other blog-derived books.
By Eric Abrahamsen, January 29, '08
Wang Zhen is the Deputy General Manager of Penguin’s China office. She reads avidly online, both for her work and out of person interest.
“I started going online about 10 years ago, mostly to a site call Jinjiang Wang (晋江网) – actually I still do most of my reading there. Jinjiang is very famous among female readers, as it carries mostly romantic fiction. It used to just copy content from Taiwanese sites, but about four years ago it started having original content, as well.
“About three years ago I started looking at Qidian (起点), but again I mostly read the romance stories, and also the tomb-raiding (盗墓) stuff – sort of Indiana Jones style adventure. Also ghost stories. Everything I read is very short, very quick, very entertaining. It’s also nice because you can’t find a lot of that content in books at all. Stuff like ghost stories or tomb-raiding is considered unhealthy (不良, bùliáng) content, harmful to society, so it’s only available online. There’s even gay literature online*.