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What’s Going Wrong with Chinese Literature in Translation?

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Toward the end of every year, when China’s magazines, newspapers, and online portals publish their lists of the best books of the year, we are reminded of the vast gulf between the books that are being read in China and the books being translated from Chinese for readers around the world.

A look at 2019’s list of the best Chinese fiction on Douban (a Chinese social media site with a large number of young users) shows that — with the exception of Mai Jia, the author of widely publicized Chinese spy novel Decoded — it comprises writers almost completely unknown to non-Chinese readers, such as internet novel writers Chang Er and Wu Zhe and teenage fiction writer Yuan Zhesheng. 

The roll-call of Chinese-to-English translations for the same year by Paper Republic (a UK-based organization focused on bringing Chinese writing to the world) looks vastly different. While nobody would expect the same books to be on both lists, it suggests that international readers are looking for a different kind of book.

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The Douban list focuses on mostly young, mostly urban authors, while English language readers are getting the work of aging titans such as Feng Jicai, Jia Pingwa, and the late Shi Tiesheng. It’s a strange list of authors, that ranges from exiled dissidents to the dustiest eulogizers of state capitalism.

What makes it into English translation is often shaped by the idea that Chinese fiction’s main function is to explain China, and by two sides wrangling over what story Chinese literature should tell. 

Two Sides to Chinese Translations

A typical review of a recent Yan Lianke work dissects his politics and hammers home his “disgust for his country’s moral degradation.” Yan Lianke’s warm reception by international critics seems to be based more on his mild dissident stance than his literary merit. 

And look at Mo Yan, whose Nobel Prize win was overshadowed by a debate about whether or not his Party membership cancelled out any literary merit his work might have. 

Similarly, “banned in China” remains a major selling point, promising exposés of the horrors of collectivism or digital authoritarianism. 

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The biggest story in translated Chinese literature this year will be Fang Fang’s Wuhan Diary (translated into English by Michael Berry). Her blog posts detailing her time under lockdown in Wuhan were rushed into translation and publication by HarperCollins, who had the book out just as coronavirus numbers began to explode in the United States. Her bound blog posts were touted as something like a 2020 Gulag Archipelago, exposing Chinese mishandling of the virus. The success of the book is not particularly good news for those of us in the business of promoting Chinese authors, as it has been bound up in the political debate around China and its government’s censorship of stories surrounding the outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan. (As an antidote, check out Paper Republic’s Epidemic series, featuring writing by Yan Geling, who watched the spread of Covid-19 from Europe, Han Dong, locked down for sixty days in Hubei, and A Yi, who details the securitization of his residential compound.)

And on the other side, there are Chinese publishers and state bodies hoping to bankroll an alternative explanation. They want to “tell China’s story well,” as the propaganda slogan goes.

For all the paranoia about Chinese influence operations, it seems much of the money is sunk into projects like placing Jiang Zilong’s paean to Reform and Opening, Empires of Dust, with an international publisher. Jiang’s work is not without merit, of course, but it is the sort of didactic, politically correct work that Chinese funding sources are looking to push.   

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I recently worked on a translation of Cai Chongda’s memoir, Vessel, which has been compared to a Fujianese Hillbilly Elegy. The book sold millions of copies in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and Andy Lau bought the film rights. But it’s a tough sell in translation: it’s a spare, haunting work about adolescence and grief that tells us comparatively little about contemporary politics. At present, it has not found a publisher.

Similarly, an author like Wang Zhanhei, who writes about 2000s era Shanghai and digital adolescence, doesn’t have much appeal to readers looking to learn about China despite being one of the country’s most successful young writers. Liu Tianzhao’s contemplative autobiographical novel, Creating Something Out of Nothing, and Sun Pin’s millennial eulogies are sensations inside China, but they’ve been given little attention by publishers outside.

The State of Translated Fiction

The bigger issue is that very little Chinese literature makes it into English — in fact, very little translated fiction at all makes it into English.

Going by Publishers Weekly numbers, the amount of Chinese fiction in English translation increased from an average of about ten books a year between 2008 and 2017, to around twenty books in 2018 and 2019. From Japanese fiction, the average between 2008 and 2017 ran about 25 a year, with 58 books in 2018 and 37 in 2019. Readers of Korean fiction have had about seven books a year translated into English. 

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The few books that do make it into English translation are under-read. Many books come out on academic or small presses with no budget for promotion. They are rarely reviewed by major publications. 

It’s not a bulletproof methodology, but of the books translated from Chinese in 2019, only one — San Mao’s Stories of the Sahara — received a review, included in the Overlooked section of the New York Times. At least three Japanese books, including novels by Mishima Yukio, Ogawa Yoko, and Tsushima Yuko were reviewed in the New York Times during the same period.

Even Wuhan Diary seems destined to quickly fade into irrelevance, waiting for the day it is referenced in a retrospective about “invisible China virus” rhetoric and wet market horror. 

The influx of Chinese funding has not helped much. One of my favorite novels of the 1990s was translated for the first time last year, but came out on a small press that seemingly never made the book available for sale. It’s been listed as out-of-stock on the publisher’s website since January of 2019. That book was made possible by funding from a Chinese institution, who lined their boardroom with copies of it. Another book by the same author was put out the same year by a subsidiary of a state-owned publisher focused mostly on Xi Jinping biographies. Both books came out with no fanfare, have never been reviewed, and might as well not exist. 

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Translators of Chinese fiction look with envy at their peers in Japanese and Korean literature. Rather than searching for the diary of a wet market butcher or a social credit system bureaucrat, they have publishers looking for the next Haruki Murakami or the next Han Kang. 

The perception of Japanese literature in translation is affected by creepy Orientalism, too, of course, but it’s more likely to be judged on literary rather than political merits. That’s why we have Kawakami Mieko’s Breasts and Eggs, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd, Murata Sayaka’s Convenience Store Woman, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, and Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station, translated by Morgan Giles.

Korean literature has produced its own sensations, such as Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, translated by Deborah Smith, and Kim Ji-young, Born 1982, translated by Jamie Chang.

Where to From Here?

To put aside the pessimism and greener-on-the-other-side-of-the-fence-ism for a moment, going through the Paper Republic lists of recent translations, it’s clear that there is much to discover in contemporary Chinese fiction. 

Yan Ge’s The Chili Bean Paste Clan, translated by Nicky Harman, was a breath of fresh air: it’s a raunchy family soap opera set in Sichuan. It’s a new take on the type of clan sagas that will be familiar to readers of Mo Yan’s stories of rural Shandong. 

Jia Pingwa, one of the greatest writers of the past century, was practically untranslated before a flood of books in the past couple of years. The first was his Ruined City, translated by Howard Goldblatt — a stunning novel, banned for nearly two decades, which has been compared to erotic classic The Plum in the Golden Vase, and served as a sex-ed manual for ‘90s babies. That was followed up by the comic Happy Dreams, translated by Nicky Harman, about migrant workers in Xi’an, and the heartbreaking Broken Wings, again by Harman, the story of a young woman kidnapped to serve as breeding stock for a village sucked dry by urbanization.

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Chinese science-fiction has flourished by forsaking traditional publishing. Clarkesworld crowdfunded the translation and publication of work by Chen Qiufan, Xia Jia, and other writers. Their work is some of the most exciting to come out in years. “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, which appeared in Uncanny Magazine, is an urban dystopia, set in a future where architecture and infrastructure have been redesigned to lay a solid wall along class lines. Chen Qiufan, Xia Jia, and Hao Jingfang have all been translated by Ken Liu, the masterful translator who is also responsible for the popularity of Liu Cixin and The Three-Body Problem.

As Matt Turner, translator of Lu Xun’s Weeds recently observed, translation is one of the most meaningful areas of cultural exchange.

And so, as we enter a new age of antipathy between China and the West, all signs seem to suggest that Chinese literature in translation is in need of a drastic overhaul.

Dylan Levi King
    Dylan Levi King is a freelance writer and translator based in Tokyo. He has previously contributed to LARB’s China Channel and Sixth Tone. He has previously translated Jia Pingwa, Cai Chongda, Dong Xi, and Mai Jia. Follow him on Twitter @dylanleviking