May 4th & Chinese Literature in Translation

By Lucas Klein, published

To commemorate the 90th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, the South China Morning Post runs an article investigating

Left on the Shelf: Ninety years after the May 4 movement spawned a host of Chinese literary giants, Ben Blanchard examines why mainland writers remain largely unread internationally

As a tribute to the May Fourth Movement goes, it's no last-year's Sunday New York Times Book Review, featuring four new translations of Chinese literature, but then again, May Fourth doesn't fall on a Sunday this year.

What the South China Morning Post article does raise, implicitly at least, is the question of World Literature and its relationship to Chinese literature.

As the article notes,

The May 4 movement of 1919 started out as student protests against a decision at the Paris Peace Conference, after the first world war, to award Japan control of German concessions in China's Shandong province. It soon encompassed a broader debate about how China should modernise.

Since part of that modernization took place in the field of literature, bringing Chinese together with modern World Literature from the West, the 90th anniversary isn't a bad time to look back and take stock of how integrated Chinese Literature has become into the larger spheres of World Literature. But at least according to one newspaper article, the success has not been stellar.

Is this right? While I agree with the journalist that "Modern Chinese literature is at best a niche interest overseas," is that because it's Chinese, or because literature itself is also at best a niche interest? And as for who is to blame, the article cites both Chinese author Féng Jìcái 馮驥才 and Penguin China general manager Jo Lusby as decrying the lack of translators working from Chinese.

But looking at the Paper Republic roll-call, and thinking about how many translators we still haven't added to our directory, I can't agree that a dearth of translators is keeping contemporary Chinese literature away from readers.

No surprises here, but I see the publication industry--including the branch of journalism responsible for promoting and reviewing literature--as more accountable than any translator. When Lusby says, "There are some books I would love to do out of China, but I think it needs too much back story for a western reader to enjoy them in the way a Chinese reader reads them," I see yet another publisher underestimating both the intelligence and the interest of the general reader, to say nothing of the ability of translators to accommodate said back story.

Furthermore, when the article in question mentions only the recent Chinese writers who have earned some attention--from Gāo Xíngjiàn 高行健 to Mián Mián 棉棉--but does not offer a list of titles for interested readers to consult (how about a mention of the works of Féng Jìcái, to begin with? What about Chrysanthemums and Other Stories, translated by Susan Wilf Chen and Three-Inch Golden Lotus, translated by David Wakefield?), I have a hard time as a translator taking responsibility when I see newspapers running articles so irresponsibly.

So is Chinese literature still cut off from the centers of World Literature, and if so, why? Perhaps Paper Republic can offer what the South China Morning Post report failed to, which is input from a few translators.


# 1.   

To read the entire article for free:

Bruce, May 5, 2009, 12:55a.m.

# 2.   

Thanks for the link, Bruce. Interesting that the headline from Reuters seems to place the blame on Chinese literature itself: "Chinese writers fail to find global voice."

Lucas , May 5, 2009, 3:17a.m.

# 3.   

Inasmuch as blame needs to be assigned for Chinese literature's low profile in the west, I guess I'm inclined to blame history (isn't that convenient?).

It was history that brought the writers of the Republican era into close contact with the west, and it was history that cut them off again after 1949. It was history that wrecked China's literary tradition and forced them to start all over again, and it is history that has so far prevented them from doing a good job of it. It was history that defamiliarized the west with China, so that we're only now getting a new wave of non-native students of Chinese and a general revival of interest in Chinese culture.

Looking at the above, I guess by "history" I mean "the Chinese government".

More immediately, I think the quality of contemporary Chinese fiction does have a lot to do with the sluggishness of acceptance. Much as I love the books I'm reading, there is an obvious lack of consistent quality. I don't think the writers should necessarily be faulted for this, they're mostly making the best of a bad situation, but the fact remains that if these books were true masterpieces, they would be accepted and read no matter what the cultural or historic barriers. And Feng Jicai's comment that Chinese people read lots of western literature repeats a fallacy that's very common here: that "China" and "the West" are somehow equivalent entities. If 10% of books published in China come from "the West", it does not follow that 10% of books published in France, say, should come from China. China is simply one country, one language, among many, and no one has an obligation to read its literature.

Lastly, regarding the dearth of translators, we've done a bit to rectify the situation, and could do more, but there really is a relative lack. Compare our directory to the crowds of translators who might be available for a French or German or Spanish novel. European literature has a more or less unbroken line of contact with the English language that goes back centuries, in some cases. They have the luxury of selecting, from a pool of very qualified candidates, one or two translators who match a particular author, and who then spend their entire career translating that author. That's not possible in Chinese (yet!).

There's my dissenting opinion, though I actually agree with much of what Lucas says here.

Eric Abrahamsen, May 5, 2009, 6:04a.m.

# 4.   

Hi, Eric--

There's more to history--even Chinese history--than the Chines govt. I imagine that Chinese writers' access to the West, or the rest of the world, would have been very different post-'49 without a US-led embargo.

As for the lack of consistent quality to Chinese literature, I guess I have two thoughts: inconsistent quality hasn't kept publishers in the US from publishing American literature; and, let's keep in mind the diversity of standards when we talk about literary quality, since what's good writing in the anglophone world doesn't necessarily equal good writing in any other -phone world.

And then one bigger question: has Chinese literature not succeeded in being published in the English-speaking world? If someone who didn't know Chinese asked me for a reading list of works of contemporary Chinese fiction, I could come send my friend to the bookstore or the intertubes looking for novels by Yu Hua, Su Tong, Mo Yan, Jia Pingwa, Ah Cheng, Wang Shuo, Mian Mian, Wei Hui, Gao Xingjian, Hong Ying, Can Xue, Jiang Rong, Alai, Han Shaogong, and Wang Xiaobo without breaking a sweat. A pretty diverse group, no? And that doesn't include short stories, or writers from Taiwan or Hong Kong or, with one exception, dead writers. Now, there's more to literature than just fiction, of course: find me one English translation of a single-author collection of poems by a poet living in China. Nevertheless, no account of Chinese literature in the West that wants to discuss how much further we have to go can be complete without taking account of how far we've already come.

Lucas , May 5, 2009, 5:12p.m.

# 5.   

I certainly agree that much progress has been made, but the question was why Chinese literature hadn't made a global splash :)

I think the important issue here is not that there's no Chinese literature being published, because as you point out there is, but that readers and publishers in the west don't have a clear concept of Chinese literature. The usual comparison is to literature from or about India: it's big in the west, and even people who haven't actually read anything more than The Satanic Verses still have an idea of what it's about (or think they do). People generally know where they're at.

That's not at all the case with Chinese – there's no generally-accepted concept of Chinese literature, which makes it very difficult to take new books as they come out and slot them into a mental framework. Each book, each review, each article or author profile in a magazine – they all plonk down separately, and don't glom together into a cohesive whole. This is partially what I meant by the accident of history: I think the main reason for this is "the west's" historical disconnect from China, and also the complexity of Chinese culture, literature, and recent history. It's a hard place to get a basic grasp of, when you're starting from near-zero, and most people don't have the mental energy to go studying. It will just take time.

Eric Abrahamsen, May 6, 2009, 6:42a.m.

# 6.   

Lucas and Eric, you have covered several valid reasons why Chinese lit has been fairly poorly received over the years.

But I think when it comes to Things Chinese, we sino-centric types sometimes can't see the forest for the trees.

Two important factors not mentioned above:

1) There are precious few publishers or purchasing editors in the West who can leaf through Chinese novels regularly as they seek hot new product. French, Spanish or German in the original, quite a few; Chinese? Sorry! That means they are dependent on people like us to bring new works to them, or at least to the attention of the English-language media. And even when we do, they must experience those books in (often hastily done, partial) translation. This is a huge obstacle to getting Chinese books known, translated and published in the West.

2) Since 1949, authors in China have spent most of their waking time either avoiding censorship/persecution, and/or learning about how to write modern fiction via (often shoddy) translations from the English, French, German, Russian and Japanese. Understandably, much of what they write may seem fairly unique to the Chinese reader who cannot read foreign literature in the original, but for many a reader in the West, a fair amount of what comes out of China a) Doesn't speak frankly about life in today's China, and thus is neither compelling nor educational, and b) Seems obviously derivative in terms of plot lines, etc.

I just don't see how 1 and 2 above can be ignored when talking about the lukewarm reception of contemporary Chinese literature in the West.

Bruce Humes
Chinese Books, English Reviews

Bruce, May 6, 2009, 11:14a.m.

# 7.   

Hi, Bruce--

I want to be very hesitant about any claims about an overall deficiency for Chinese literature (by which you seem to mean fiction). Even if 90% of Chinese fiction is, for the reasons you cite, of lower quality, that still leaves, given the population of China, an astounding amount of writing worthy of translation into other languages. Those books may present something of a challenge for English-language readers, but English readers are still reading Faulkner, are still reading Pynchon, and are still reading Toni Morrison. At least I think they are. And again, readers in English seem to have a very high tolerance for bad writing; how else can you explain so much of what I see on sale in the bookstore? And if Wolf Totem can be published in English, then I'm sure we have room for even more trash from China.

That may not be fair to Wolf Totem, but I wouldn't know because I haven't read it. Still, Wolf Totem does bring up another point, which is that editors don't need to know a foreign language to have their ear to the ground about the new literary "hot item" in a given country. In fact, I think you might be overestimating the ability of American or English publishers to speak or read French, Spanish, and German. And just because they can read doesn't mean they do. As I understand it, fiction publishers rely on agents, and agents rely on what submissions they receive, and few translators have agents because (amongst other reasons) translators know that agents know that translations don't sell. I think that what may happen is that publishers in the US may have their "ears to the ground" in terms of new literary phenomena in Europe or Latin America (or perhaps India) more than they do in China, but I don't think that means anyone is reading anything before it's translated into English.


Lucas , May 6, 2009, 9:20p.m.

# 8.   

Isn't the story behind the Wolf Totem acquisition precisely a case of a publisher becoming aware of the popularity of the book and then reading it in the original?

Publishers rely heavily on readers' reports to learn about foreign-language fiction, and while Bruce may be overestimating the European language skills of the publishers themselves (I'm unfamiliar with the situation) the fact remains that English-language publishers and agents have far fewer people they can tap to write up reports on Chinese literature.

Which means, basically, that it's really up to bilingual readers of Chinese literature to (1) be willing to assess books that may not excite them personally, and (2) suggest titles that they themselves really care about. Blame may fall on Publishing as a whole, but the industry is made of up individuals, and that's where there's an opportunity for Chinese literature enthusiasts. Compose thoughtful reviews. Pitch.

In terms of "the ability of translators to accommodate said back story," it's funny that Pynchon comes up in the comment thread -- I'm in the middle of reading Against the Day, and the more I read, the less confident I am in my ability to do justice to Chinese literature in translation -- there are so many tossed-off cultural references, so much historical and scientific background in Pynchon that I'm aware of as a reader. What if there are things flying completely over my head in particular Chinese novels I'm excited about (not to imply Pynchon equivalence, of course)? How far do I need to delve into Russian poetry, Marxist aesthetics, particular cases of injustice in the anti-rightist movement, 1920s film studios, and modern QQ usage habits to be certain that I'm catching all of the cultural references and parallels with other works?

jdmartinsen, May 7, 2009, 2:12a.m.

# 9.   

Two examples from my own recent experience that show how important it is that an agent/publisher be able to easily read the original, rather than have to wait for someone to re-package it and market it in translated form:

La Promesse de Shanghai by Stephane Fiere, a very amusing take on Shanghai by a satirical Frenchman. I was going to translate a part of the novel into English for marketing to publishers in the West, but several publishers in the US and Europe just read it in French rather than wait. Here's my review.

Shuiru Dadi (水乳大地), a Chinese novel about a century of strife between Han, Tibetans, Naxi and French missionaries in a village on the border of Tibet and Yunnan, has been purchased by Gallimard Editions and is now being translated. I recently interviewed the author, Fan Wen. The reason: The purchasing editor is a Chinese in France who decided to buy after reading it in the original.

I realize these are just two in a world where thousands of translated books are published each year, but I still maintain that one of the main obstacles to getting Chinese fiction into English is the fact that 99% of purchasing editors in the West are fluent only in Western languages.

Bruce, May 7, 2009, 2:12a.m.

# 10.   

Lucas, thank you for beginning this thread. I'm surprised it developed the way it did, and would like to work backwards just a little, in order to reclaim the literary problem suggested in the original article.

We need to save ourselves from being led by the article into indiscriminate use of the terms "modern" and "contemporary." The article defeats its own purpose in the first four paragraph through lack of clear focus; the first three paragraphs undertake to introduce Lu Xun and the May 4th writers, then abandon them in the fourth paragraph for Mo Yan and, later, Gao Xingjian and Jiang Rong.

None of these last writers are the intended objects of the references "leading lights of the movement" or "literary giants." The writers in question are Ba Jin, Shen Congwen, Mao Dun, Fei Ming, Ding Ling, Zhang Ailing, Dai Wangshu, Yin Fu, Ye Zi, Bing Xin, Zhang Henshui, Lao She, Bian Zhilin and et cetera. They are the May 4th writers, whose works form the foundation (as well as the current majority) of China's post-Classical canon and whose concentrated display of talent sets them entirely apart within Chinese literary history. Ironically, they are also the writers whose works are least well-known in the United States. Lucas mentioned the availability of writers like Yu Hua, Su Tong, Wang Shuo, Can Xue. Try going to Borders and looking for Shen Congwen's 《边城》, Mao Dun's 《子夜》or the essays of Zhu Ziqing. As widely read as Wang Xiaobo currently is, he never wrote anything like 荷塘月色 nor 背影, two of the most famous essays in all of post-Classical Chinese literature.

If we suppose that article's intent was to ask specifically "why are the May 4th writers unknown?," then the question becomes answerable, and (I think) clearly so. The "loss" in translation of many of the famous May 4th-era works seems to me largely due to an accident of history and environment; they were first discovered and translated by the wrong era of people. Published between 1919 and '49, the first western readers of modern Chinese literary texts were 1900's Western "Sinologists," a group whose very title should suggest the extent to which they were steeped in orientalist ideology (if you doubt this, I suggest "Barme on Ba Jin" for a perfect example of Western moralizing). Unsurprisingly, narrow ideology produced handicapped translation. I guess (and this is only a guess) that true proficiency with Chinese also played a role; many of the modern lit translators of the 60's and 70's spent very little time in China themselves, and anyone who has heard or read Wolfgang Kubin's Chinese would be justified in doubting his qualifications for translating Lu Xun.

[next post]

Canaan Morse, May 10, 2009, 2:01a.m.

# 11.   

[continued from above]

If lack of ideological openness handicapped translations, the insularity and overly academic bent of the Chinese-translating world provided very little help in making them readable. I understand this forum has been up and down the problem of forced distance between "academic" and "artistic" and I don't wish to pick an old wound, but the difference has been a real one and it has to do with priorities. Translations of modern-era works have been produced overwhelmingly by academics for academic audiences, instead of by writers for any audience that wishes to attend. 说了这么多的话, I suppose my point is that most of the great modern works have been translated by those for whom the artistic ear is a secondary standard, and the result has been uninspired translations. I would point to David Pollard's The Chinese Essay, William Lyell's Lu Xun: Diary of a Madman and Other Stories or Hsu Kai-yuh's translations of modern poetry for examples of translation that I find are marred by what can only be called an ineffective (or ignored) ear.

As counterexamples I like David Hawkes (hongloumeng), Ezra Pound (Li Bai, Bai Juyi) and Kenneth Rexroth (various poets). Hawkes was a real exception-a scholar who had a remarkable sensitivity to and facility with language. His version of Hongloumeng creates a standard of accuracy and elegance reminiscent of Richmond Lattimore's Odyssey and Iliad. The latter two I point out because they have produced poetic translations of Chinese poetry without knowing the language well at all. One cannot champion Pound when he gets so many things wrong, yet his translations have been remarkably resilient, a fact which proves a good point as well as answer's Blanchard's question: worthy literary art fails when not interpreted by those who are sensitive to its artistic merit first.

Canaan Morse, May 10, 2009, 2:42a.m.

# 12.   

I've always sort of wondered who owns the rights to the works of May 4th-era writers. It seems like for translating contemporary literature the situation is more or less straightforward because the authors are mostly alive. But how does one go about making arrangements to translate older works that have essentially been canonized in mainland China, in order to make them commercially viable? There may be a very simple answer to this, but since I don't do professional translation I don't know what it is.

Matt, May 11, 2009, 3:06p.m.

# 13.   

Thanks for your reply, Canaan. You're absolutely right that for all of our success in bringing out contemporary Chinese fiction in translation, we've done much worse in bringing out the May Fourth writers, both in quantity and in quality.

As for quantity, in addition to Matt's point that copyright is more complex with writers of the '20s than it is with writers of the '90s--do they have estates? is their work in the public domain? how do copyright laws of the PRC apply to works written under the ROC?--we also have to face the laws of the marketplace that publishers live under. When you publish Yu Hua, you can get an interview with him on the New York Times website; when you publish Ba Jin, you cannot (and he only died four years ago) (and Ba Jin is actually a pretty well-translated author, at least in terms of number). On top of that is the desire to work with the living, both in terms of what people are writing these days, but also in terms of what people are reading.

And that brings us to quality. If "living" is not only a state of authors but of the writing itself, why would any young translators want to go back and immerse themselves in the stodgy writings of a bygone era? Of course, that stodginess may have more to do with the translations than with the originals... Yang Xianyi 楊憲益 and Gladys Yang weren't the most vibrant of translators, and yet their imprimatur covers the bulk of May Fourth fiction, regardless of whether they translated the particular work in question [I'll leave aside Lu Xun in Lyell's vs. the Yangs' versions, as I've been planning on taking that on in a separate, individual post]. I guess this is where I bring up the necessity of learning about Chinese history and culture when we're learning Chinese, and castigate universities for emphasizing language learning without emphasizing what that language has been used for. As you can tell by now, I'm much less prone to hold individuals--such as translators--responsible for systemic problems forced on us by structures of power such as the market, publishing companies, and universities. As I see it, these systemic problems force our hands, when it comes to translation, both in terms of quantity and in terms of quality.


Lucas , May 11, 2009, 6:24p.m.

# 14.   

The paranoid part of my brain thinks that rights to the works of May 4th canonized writers may be considered state property, and that this could potentially contribute to the "quality" or "vibrancy" of translations that are legally produced. For example, I think Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang were published by Foreign Language Press, which is really just an arm of the Chinese government. Of course there are other forces at work, but if this was/is true, it could pose a significant obstacle to translation.

Matt, May 12, 2009, 3:29a.m.

# 15.   

Lu Xun died in 1936, didn't he? So his works should be free for use now. Ba Jin and Zhang Ailing died not too long ago, so their case is more complicated. But you could always start with those who have been dead long enough... which should be 50 years in some countries and 70 in others.

Anna G Chen, May 12, 2009, 5:42p.m.

# 16.   


In the ABCs of Reading, Pound said, "literature is news that stays news," and the mere fact that so many of the May 4th writers are not only still in print but also required reading in China strongly suggests their work contains that very quality. The converse of the quote is also true--the mere fact that an author still clings to life does not mean he has ever been able to breathe any of it into his work. But then, I see you and I don't actually disagree, since you are analyzing what has happened and I am arguing for what should happen.

And not to belabor the point, but I want to answer your question, "Why would any young translators want to go back and immerse themselves in the stodgy writings of a bygone era?" The response is full and straightforward. First, from a linguistic perspective, no translator who desires a close and intuitive sensitivity to contemporary Chinese literature can avoid reading closely the stuff of past periods, just as no one who knows no Classical Chinese can ever understand the contemporary language. Linguistically as well as ideologically, the tides and trends we see reversed, worshipped and fought over in contemporary lit were almost all started by the May 4th crowd. Lastly, I don't know how much Zhu Ziqing, Fei Ming and Bing Xin you have read, but stodgy they are not.

The propensity to lay blame for the narrow development of translation at the feet of broad social forces is generally well-grounded and defensible. The problem with it, it seems to me, is that we are dealing with art, which, because it carries its own preconditions and therefore makes special demands on its translators, individualizes its own context. The market isn't what fails a text--the translator fails it. That translator may be aware and at the mercy of any number of social or economic demands, but the moment she decides that those demands are enough to lead her from consensuality with the text, it's her agency.

Regarding copyright: I have been told that it's 25 years past death for an author's work to come into the public domain, but that is only U.S. law. That the rights to May 4th writers' work would be hoarded by the state is nowhere close to likely, considering the freedom of the Chinese market as well as the primitive condition of copyright law there.

Canaan Morse, May 13, 2009, 4:14a.m.

# 17.   

Mainland Chinese copyright law provides for death+50 (to the end of that year), and I think the same goes for Taiwan, with minor variations. Back in 2005 there was minor discussion after Lu Xun's daughter urged other publishers to bring out his Collected Works, which have been out of copyright for years (except for the letters; Xu Guangping died in 68 so that love letter collection is still covered).

jdmartinsen, May 13, 2009, 4:49a.m.

# 18.   

Yea, it is fifty years after death. I guess I was just thinking of that semi-scandal concerning the Monkey King film in Japan, where there were a few calls to protect representations of Chinese culture in law. I wonder what would happen, though, if the author in question was assumed dead, but if nobody knows exactly when or where he died. That's what happened with Yu Dafu.

Matt, May 13, 2009, 2:41p.m.

# 19.   

Hi, Canaan--

Sometimes rhetorical questions don't work well in blog comments. When I asked "Why would any young translators want to go back and immerse themselves in the stodgy writings of a bygone era?" I meant only to say that lousy translators--and a bit of the passage of time--have made the era seem stodgy, which makes it even more difficult for young translators today to find the kind of excitement there that they can somewhat more easily find in writing today. Not to say that it's impossible, but rather that the challenges are greater.

And that's also important to my understanding of broad social forces and their relationship to the individual. What makes broad social forces so broad and so social is that they're made up of more than one individual. And individual has the option--or the agency--to interact with that however he or she likes, but it's always harder to go against the grain. Given issues such as salary and respect, it's harder to choose to be a literary translator than it is to work for a PR company in Shanghai, and so more people who study Chinese today plan on careers more like the one than the other. But ultimately it's up to us, to each of us, to do with that what we will. I've decided to spend a large part of my life translating because I think, no matter what challenges I may face, that the lasting value of translation is at least as great as the lasting value of a corporate career.


Lucas , May 13, 2009, 3:03p.m.

# 20.   

Fifty years after death? All right. What if the author has no estate? To whom does one go for permission?

Canaan Morse, May 13, 2009, 6:57p.m.

# 21.   

China doesn't seem to have any framework set up for granting permission for the use of "orphan works"; this paper lays out some of the considerations that would go into such a system.

The idea is that after you've made an effort (whatever that means) to track down the copyright holder, you should be able to use the work through some other special license.

jdmartinsen, May 13, 2009, 7:50p.m.


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