GLLI (5) - My Chinese Books - by Bertrand Mialaret

By Helen Wang, published

Part of: Global Literature in Libraries Initiative

My Chinese Books is the blog of Bertrand Mialaret, who reviews the latest Chinese books in translation, with a new review appearing with every few weeks. He's based in Paris, and publishes his blog in French and in English. We invited him to tell us more …

When you start a blog, you have to ask yourself: to write about what and for whom? Nine years and 200 posts later, the questions change to: have I achieved what I wanted, and was it worth the effort?

My interest in Chinese literature started thirty years ago while managing an electronics company in Malaysia during an economic crisis. Literature was one of the tools for understanding the environment of a country controlled at that time by Chinese business. But the classical Chinese novels, translated into English or French, was a difficult starting ground for someone with no cultural background information, and no books or journals that could provide a short description of writers and their books. It seemed as though everything was meant for specialists and sinologists.

After retiring, I started, ten years ago, to review Chinese literature for the major French online news portal and magazine Rue89 which had a strong interest in Chinese culture and politics. Initially, I wrote only in French about Chinese works translated into French, but after a few years, I felt the need to review writers who were only translated into English or too specialised for a wide audience, therefore a bilingual blog, was the solution.

Rules of the game

One has to adapt to online readers; if not, you will get clicks but the posts will not be read. Two pages is the limit; surveys show that longer posts are not read. This is a difficulty if you want to present a writer and his books. In my opinion, a book review does not make much sense if it ignores the background and biography of the writer. And if a writer is prolific, and has written several major books, one must write several posts. Thus, I have, so far, written 14 for Mo Yan, the Nobel prizewinner, 9 for Qiu Xiaolong, the crime novel writer, 6 for Yan Lianke, a possible future Nobel winner, 5 for Ha Jin, Yu Hua, Eileen Chang and so on.

Most important are the title and opening paragraphs. Readers typically concentrate on the beginning, then scroll down the rest of the post, which they may or may not read. Photographs are a must; on many internet sites, the text illustrates the photos and not the other way round. Short sentences and paragraphs make it easier to read online. My reviews are readable on smart phones, a crucial point for commuter-readers.

French and English - very positive, but an extra load

The percentage of translations is six times larger in France than in the UK and readers have no resistance or negative feelings against translated books (which I understand is an issue in the UK and USA).

However, in recent years, there has been an increase in the number of translations into English, with the result that a few releases have not now been translated into French. This was not the case twenty years ago when French publishers had a leading role in Europe with many of their English speaking colleagues making a decision only after having read the French translation.

My translations into English are readable (though my English is not perfect). The exercise is cumbersome, the review has to be displayed twice on the Internet, and announcements have to be made in French and English on Facebook and Twitter. Many friends advised against a bilingual blog. However, I am happy I have chosen this route – it is an exception on the Internet. Among other things, I find I follow much more closely what is happening in English-speaking areas and this gives a better perspective on the books and the industry. Seventy percent of my readers are anglophones from the US, Canada, Singapore, Malaysia and the UK.

Being independent is an asset

I am neither a sinologist nor a journalist, and I am not involved in the book industry (I am not a translator, an agent or a publisher). I am independent, and can say what I please. The only objection to this comes in the form of censorship in China – my blog is blocked by the Chinese firewall.

As an independent, I can choose which books and authors to review. I try to offer a mix of new releases and older novels, major writers and the younger generation of authors. For a review, it helps to have several translations; to write about author who has only a few short stories available in translation does not make much sense. And it is important to include writers from Taiwan, a major centre for literature. Similarly, I try to include the overseas Chinese, in the US, Malaysia, Singapore, Canada, and elsewhere, who often write in English – and who are generally ignored by sinologists.

It helps readers if they know something about the book industry in China and about Chinese literature in English. To get a feel for the industry, we need to talk about publishers, distribution, translation, royalties. And we need to include literature on the internet, which is a major phenomenon in China: for example, China Reading owns 8 websites, and has 600 million registered readers, 4 million writers and 10 million book titles. What are they writing and reading? Fantasy, mystery, time travel, tomb raiding, science fiction…these are the main interests in popular literature among Chinese readers.

I have published nearly thirty long interviews with different writers, in many cases with the help of their translator. This is significant amount of work, but it is also a pleasure, and provides a much better insight into their personalities.

Readers and social networks

The Internet allows immediate reactions from readers. Rue 89 has a large readership and comments on my posts on Rue 89 were numerous – often including arguments between readers about subjects quite unrelated to my posts. On top of that, many comments were purely political, concerning the latest events in China. Unfortunately, Rue 89 closed its Chinese department a few months ago, and now focuses on digital and internet issues only. By contrast, since switching to the blog, I find the comments are more closely related to literature, and some readers also email me via the blog. I announce each new post in French and in English, on Facebook and on Twitter. I find Twitter brings a lot of interesting remarks, contacts and support with retweets. Text and photographs should be of good quality. Regular engagement on Twitter allows one to develop a good network and to keep abreast of what is happening in the world of Chinese literature (if you want to see who I follow, check me out on @bmialaret.

Contacts with the industry

Translators are the key people. They know what is happening, who the good writers are, who is translating what, and they tend to know if a Chinese writer is planning a trip to Paris. They often comment on the posts, although I am often not very positive – however, I do not review books I do not like (why waste my time on them?). The present situation with the media is that critics do not have time for indepth reviewing; in some cases, they only paste material released by publishers, and commend a book with superlatives. But it does not help readers if every book is “the best” or to be confronted with so many geniuses!!

Publishers, of course, want to have reviews. When I have decided to review a book, I will discuss the date of my review with the publisher; it makes sense to publish my review when an author is visiting Paris, or a few days before a book launch. Publishers are quite open with information about the industry, about whom they have signed contracts with, about their competitors… And, of course, they make use of my reviews when advertising their books, sometimes repeating my words in various media. Occasionally, I hear from academics, who have come across my reviews in essays written by their students!

France is blessed with a price control system on books which allows a large network of independent bookshops (1100 in Paris, 360 in London). The bookshop owners promote the books they love and in some cases they sell large quantities: a very small bookshop, not far from my home, sold 500 copies of Brothers by Yu Hua (700 pages)!

Libraries can also offer good support. When Mo Yan was awarded the Nobel Prize, many libraries created displays, presenting the books, with photos and information. By the time Mo Yan won the prize, 16 of his novels/novellas were readily available in French (many more than were available in the US and UK). Contacts between libraries and publishers are limited, and the same is true for bookshops.

Above all, it is individuals championing translations that make the difference. These people are often translators. A few years ago, Noël Dutrait, a university professor and the translator into French of two Nobel prize-winners (Mo Yan and Gao Xingjian), wrote a small book on modern Chinese literature in translation, which was helpful for librarians. He also organised a few lectures on the basics of Chinese literature for an annual meeting of librarians in Paris – this was a great success, and a model that could be followed by others.

From my base in Paris, I see how the English-speaking translators are pulling together, and hope that we may one day see be a strong organisation of translators in France, on a par with Paper Republic, as this could help enormously to support the development of Chinese literature.

[GLLI - Global Literature in Libraries Initiative]


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