Last night I met the translator of Mò Yán’s 莫言 Red Sorghum 紅高粱家族 (English translation by Howard Goldblatt) into Romanian. Copping to the Translator’s Invisibility I’ll leave the Romanian translator unnamed—I hesitate to speak with that authority when I haven’t conferred with him about what I’ll be writing, and I’m not sure I could spell his name correctly anyhow—but I will say that he’s primarily a scholar on the Wénxīn diāolóng 文心雕龍 (Carving Dragons from the Literary Mind) and his previous translations into Romanian include the Lǎozǐ 老子, or the Dàodé Jīng 道德經.
I can’t imagine any translator in English having quite the same scope. David Hinton has translated a library of ancient philosophy, medieval poetry, and Běi Dǎo 北島, so he comes the closest, but for some reason contemporary poetry seems less of a leap than contemporary fiction.
That the Romanian translation of Red Sorghum only came out last year interested me, too, since the US translation—where but a notorious 3% of publications are translations, and much of that only manga—has been out since 1993, after the novel’s Chinese release in 1987. That struck me as quite a bit of lag time, for a language in which I imagined that translations must constitute a large part of the book market.
I learned that translations do, in fact, constitute a large part of the Romanian book market, to the extent that my translator friend said he could name me a significant Romanian writer, and probably a second, but certainly not a third. Do translators then soak up some of the cultural cachet in the absence of celebrity authors? To a certain extent, but only for famous international writers, such as Nobel Prize-winner, José Saramago. Speaking of the Nobel Prize, were Gāo Xíngjiàn’s 高行健 works available in Romanian (I had heard that the Greek version of Soul Mountain 靈山 had been translated from Noël Dutrait’s French version)? No, because the copyright was too expensive (I found that an interesting detail: how much would a copyright have to cost for the publisher to feel like it would outweigh the money made from a Nobel Laureate’s sales?). Was he the only translator working between Chinese and Romanian? No, he was one of perhaps four or five; he was, however, the only professor to deal with Chinese literature at the University of Bucharest.
Few—though of course, “more and more”—Romanians know much about China. In the Communist period, he told me, Romania and China were united against the Soviet Union in the debate about the future of the Communist movement, but that did not seem to translate into much linguistic or cultural exchange between the two countries. I also wonder how rampant multilingualism—everyone in Romania learns English and another language in high school, and this translator was not only fluent in Chinese and English but also seemed to be literate in German, French, Italian, and Spanish—would affect the readership of translation. Evidently the relatively high status of translation and the low exposure to Chinese in Romania has not created an overflow of readers hungering for translations of Chinese literature; if most people speak English and Russian, does that mean that War and Peace and Harry Potter (how’s that for a slanted representation of cultural export and essence?) in Romanian are in higher demand or lower? And if one translator for the Lǎozǐ and Mò Yán is hard to imagine, how about the case of the reader, innocent of Chinese, who wants to know more about China, and so has read the Dàodé Jīng and Red Sorghum, but little else?
"...and the low exposure to Chinese in Romania has not created an overflow of readers hungering for translations of Chinese literature; if most people speak English and Russian, does that mean that War and Peace and Harry Potter (how’s that for a slanted representation of cultural export and essence?) in Romanian are in higher demand or lower?"
1) I'll bet my bottom dollar that there is much more interest in European novels in Romania than anything out of China. The reasons are simple: a) Romanian is a Romance language, so translating from languages like French/Spanish/Italian, with historically rich literatures, is a fairly simple task; b) After decades of Soviet domination, Romanians (understandably!) want access to uncensored literature.
2) When and if the Romanians start translating Chinese writing from English or French, more works will become available more quickly. Whether that will result in better quality is, of course, an issue...
And a related topic: Have you noticed how difficult it is to tell which language was used as the "original" text for a text translated into Chinese? Most books list the nationality of the author, NOT the language in which the work was written.
Check out that popular series of Chinese translations of Milan Kundera, for instance; in fact, most of his works are translated from the French, but the book cover and/or the info on copyright, publisher etc. won't tell you that. This isn't esoteric info. The first translation of "The Incredible Lightness of Being" was by accomplished writer Han Shao-Gong, but it was from the English...based on the French...based on the Czech!
Bruce Humes www.bruce-humes.com ("Chinese Books, English Reviews")
Bruce , February 5, 2009, 10:14a.m.
My hunch is that you're right, Bruce, about Romanian appetite for translations from European languages; interestingly, we seem to want to read translations from languages we have some knowledge about already (which also accounts for why translations have such low market share in the US). Sometimes I find it counter-intuitive, but you're more likely to read a translation from Spanish if you've studied some Spanish and/or been to Spanish-speaking places. Romanians will read more Chinese literature when they've learned more about China.
Also interesting about how translations are marketed in Chinese. When I lived in France I noticed how translations are always listed by language, often with "traduit de l'américain par..." [translated from the American by...] suggesting that nationality is at least as important as language for French readers (I don't remember whether books would be billed as "traduit de l'australien" or "du méxicain," so perhaps the US is the only country where that matters, or is possible). But in China, the advertising of translation follows the overall discourse (and I'm painting in broad strokes here) where people tend to think, There are two places in the world: China, and everywhere else (and everywhere else they speak English).
But as for the Hán Shàogōng 韓少功 translation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I wonder if translating this way didn't fit Kundera's specifications. He's notoriously difficult on his translators, and an inveterate francophile: unsatisfied with the first publication of Lightness in English, he recommissioned the translation so that it would be done from the French edition, which he called "authoritative." I don't imagine there are many Chinese readers of Czech with the writing talent of Hán Shàogōng, but maybe Hán was just playing along.
Lucas Klein, February 5, 2009, 8:28p.m.
As for copyright, I can tell you that there are literary agents who simply don't understand that some languages are not spoken by many. If you expect to sell no more than 2000 copies of a book, you can't pay very much to an agent. I don't know how big the readership would be in Romania, but for small European languages that's the way it is. And some agents then prefer not to sell the rights at all.
Anna GC, February 6, 2009, 2:12a.m.