Paper Republic: Chinese Literature Matters

Chinese Literature Week, part the second

By Eric Abrahamsen, published

So that this shouldn't become a wall of rambling text, I'm going to arrange the rest of my observations and recollections from the Chinese Literature Week in Oslo into easily-digestible bullet points. No actual logical structure or cohesion is implied!

  • Turnout was amazing—around 4,000 attendees at 30-some events. Not bad for a group of writers few of whom are translated into Norwegian.

  • A total of seven Chinese authors are available in Norwegian translation, two of whom write in English (Li Yiyun and Guo Xiaolu) and three of whom live outside China (add Ma Jian to the above). The Norwegian publishers I met, to their credit, seem fairly intent on changing this situation. Yu Hua's Brothers is in the works, as is Ai Mi's Under the Hawthorn Tree. Xu Zechen was eyed appraisingly.

  • The Norwegians are quite generous. Never have I purchased meals with a square of plastic that didn't have to be run through a machine: you gestured with it at the waiters, and they smiled and brought you free food.

  • Of the two events I participated in, the first was a long seminar providing a thorough (if not exhaustive) overview of the Chinese literary scene from several angles, attended mostly by industry folks. The second was translation related, and it was obvious that the audience blurred from speakers, to Chinese audience members, to Chinese-speaking audience members, to general literary folk. Probably my favorite was a conversation between the Chinese poet Xi Chuan and the Norwegian sinologist Harald Bøckman, about their collaboration on a Chinese translation of the late Norwegian poet Olav H. Hauge, now published by the Writers Publishing House (Hauge's widow was in the audience). Both men, getting on in years, exuded gentleness, humility, curiosity and delight, and I loved hearing the echoing rhythms of the poems they read in Chinese and Norwegian.

  • Han Dong, Li Er and Zou Zou (an editor at Harvest literary magazine) are my top votes for People Who Can Explain Contemporary Chinese Literature in Twenty Minutes. It was Zou Zou's turn this week: though less fanciful and interpretive than the other two, she's much more stylish, and people walked out of the talk in a haze of enlightenment.

  • It became clear that Norwegian publishers are strangely dependent on English editions of Chinese literature. It's not unusual that European publishers, lacking reliable Chinese readers, look to English editions to decide what to acquire, but in this case the Norwegians actually follow the line-by-line edits made by US and UK publishers when shaping their own editions. I don't understand why. I tried to impress upon them that English-language editors, with a few exceptions (the most notable perhaps being Rebecca Carter at Harvill-Secker), are also flying blind, and shouldn't be considered authorities. I doubt I made much impression.

  • Norway is a great place to eat sushi.

  • Politics is still everyone's favorite topic. The focus here was Murong Xuecun, rather than Ma Jian—I suspect because Ma Jian was present for only two of the five days, and because Murong, who still lives within China, cuts a more thrilling figure with his dissidence. Within a day of the first of Murong's events, Norwegian newspapers were leading with inflammatory articles (one of which, according to my interlocutors, compared China to North Korea)—good to know the Western media is still in form! To be fair, Xu Zechen and I were later interviewed by a leading Norwegian literary journal—the name of which absolutely escapes me—and the questions were of a much higher quality.

  • Politics, part 2. Murong Xuecun delivered a speech that was aimed to stir outrage, and it did the trick. The other writers grumbled a bit about showboating, etc, but there's no doubt that he made an impression. Ma Jian's talk the next day was much drier and more specific, but plenty inflammatory: he showed photographs from Tiananmen, some of them quite gruesome, that had supposedly never been shown before, and talked about the strange willingness of the Chinese, even those who have lived abroad for many years, to continue buying into the fictions of their regime. At this point a Chinese lady leaped up from the audience, yelling "I'm sorry, I have to stop him!" in English, before slipping into Chinese (without a microphone, unfortunately, she was lost on the Norwegian listeners), and berating him for lies and fabrication. Ma Jian just watched her with his trademark caprine implacability, before asking if he could be allowed to finish speaking before she continued. She was having none of it, though, and eventually was shouted down by other Chinese audience members. Then the time was up. In the end, no one really got to say their piece—Zou Zou's comment the next day: "I wonder if any Chinese people really understand what free speech means?"

  • The last event ended on a happier note: a series of readings by all the writers and poets, capped off with music: a Chinese guqin player teamed with a Norwegian saxophonist named Rolf-Erik Nystrøm. The traditional accompaniment to a guqin is the di flute (), and Nystrøm managed to make a saxophone echo the di's breathy fades and flutters. So it went as these things ought to go: from fiction to poetry, from poetry to music, from music to wine. And to bed!


# 1.   

Eric, it's not that the publishers (or translators) want to edit the books exactly like in the US, it's the agents that demand it. It seems it's quite often in the contract when the publishers buy the rights. Ai Mi's book is a good example: I finished that translation in May and the publisher is now waiting for the English translation in order to re-edit the book . Makes you angry and frustrated.

Anna GC, November 20, 2011, 9:10a.m.

# 2.   

Not that it changes your point, but Jeffrey Yang, my editor at New Directions (and Bonnie McDougall's editor for her 2010 re-translation of Ah Cheng's King of Trees), speaks and reads Chinese, as does the Yale U. P. editor who worked with Karen Gernant & Chen Zeping on their translation of Can Xue's Five Spice Street (though I'm pretty sure she's left). Also, James Meader, publicist at Picador, where Ma Jian's works have come out in paperback, studied Chinese in college.

Lucas Klein, November 20, 2011, 10:05p.m.

# 3.   

Anna—thanks for that clarification, some of the Norwegian publishers did mention that it was often at the request of agents, but I didn't get a sense of how often that happened vs how often they just did it themselves…

Lucas: That's not a bad list… I guess I was thinking mostly mainstream publishers (ie those that don't focus specifically on translations); good to know about James Meader! I imagine the situation will only improve.

 Eric Abrahamsen, November 24, 2011, 11:10p.m.


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