Wolf Totem, The Film: Breakthrough for Mongolian on the Screen?

Wolf Totem: Eco-friendly tale or ethnic chic with a French touch?

Wolf Totem: Eco-friendly tale or just ethnic chic with a French touch?

Ever since Warriors of the Rainbow was shot entirely in Seediq in 2012, the language of Taiwan’s Seediq aborigines, China has been playing catch-up, competing to produce films at least partially in tongues native to the PRC other than Mandarin. Ironically, the latest and perhaps the most popular effort, Wolf Totem (狼图腾), was directed by a Frenchman, Jean-Jacques Annaud. The movie based on the novel of the same name by Jiang Rong (姜), has been released for viewing in China. Howard Goldblatt rendered the novel in English back in 2009.

I haven’t seen the film, just the trailer here. Looks pretty exciting.

This may actually be the first time most Chinese — or foreigners for that matter — hear Mongolian spoken on the screen. So I’m wondering: How realistically is the language portrayed? Dubbed or “real-time”? How much of the conversation is actually in Mongolian, with Chinese speakers having to read the sub-titles of a film shot in their own country?

If you do watch the movie, please leave a comment that addresses the question of how Mongolian is used in the film.

I googled various terms to find a movie poster in Mongolian, not Chinese, but the only one I found is shown above. This appears to be the Cyrillic form of Mongolian used in Mongolia proper. I could not find any posters in the older vertical script that is still the official version in Inner Mongolia, which suggests that promotion in the PRC is being done mainly or entirely in Chinese.

Meanwhile, Mongolian novelist Guo Xuebo (郭雪波) has blasted both the movie and the author of Wolf Totem for their depiction of the link between wolves and Mongolian culture. According to a translation of his Weibo text in the South China Post (‘Fake’ Mongolian Culture), “Wolves have never been the totem of Mongolians, and there’s no record of any wolf totem in Mongolian literature or history.” But some cultural historians would dispute this, because according to a well-known interpretation of one famous line in The Secret History of the Mongols (蒙古秘史) — an enigmatic 14th-century work that has done much to contribute to the mythology surrounding this people — the primordial ancestors of Genghis Khan’s clan were a deer and a wolf.

Mind you, according to Wikipedia, all existing versions of the book, which is considered the oldest surviving Mongolian-language literary work, are “by an anonymous author and probably originally in the Uyghur script, though the surviving texts all derived from transcriptions or translations into Chinese characters dating from the end of the 14th century.”

For more details on Guo’s critique, complete with several quotes, see this newspaper report 从来不是蒙古人的图腾, or read his open letter (公开信) on his blog.

Ethnic ChinaLit Quote of the Week: New Gold Standard for Chinese-to-English Literary Translation?


(Author Liu Cixin on Ken Liu’s English translation of Liu’s SF novel, Three-body Problem, which has initially seen extraordinarily strong sales. As quoted in an interview with Beijing Evening News, 西方读者更好懂)

Three-body Problem’s Liu Cixin on Translation, Publication Timing and Readership Outside the English-speaking World

Chinese sci-fi writer Liu Cixin is on a high these days, and understandably so. His Three-body Problem (三体, 刘慈欣著) in English translation reportedly sold 20,000 copies within three months of launch, and he has already signed a Chinese movie contract. A few highlights from a Feb 12 interview in Chinese follow (西方读者好懂):

The Dark Forest, sequel to The Three-body Problem, due out in 3Q 2015

The Dark Forest, sequel to The Three-body Problem, due out in 3Q 2015

New gold standard for translator invisibility?

  • “The most commendable aspect is that while [translator] Ken Liu himself is also a sci-fi author, in translating my novel he absolutely did not utilize his own writing style; the style particularly resembles mine.” Unfortunately, the article neglects to mention whether Liu Cixin knows English.

Trilogy release dates: One volume a year?

  • Liu Cixin confirms that the publisher intends to launch the second volume of the trilogy in July this year, and save the last for 2016. The article notes that Ken Liu (刘宇昆) translated two of the three, and does not identify the other translator. Liu Cixin says he has not seen the other volume, but I assume it is The Dark Forest (above) by Beijing-based Joel Martinsen. For a synopsis of The Dark Forest, click here. 

French, German, Japanese and Spanish versions coming soon

  • But for Liu, these are apparently minor tongues. “Readers in these languages are very few in number, so I don’t expect that many copies will be sold.”

Reception in the West

  • “I think that readers in the West actually adapt more easily to dark depictions [of reality] in sci-fi novels than do readers in the East, and may even be more intrigued by them . . . I’ve read a large number of readers’ comments, and I’ve yet to discover one that faulted the tale for being overly dark.”

Yi Creation Epic Published in Korean, Based on “Reconstructed” Mandarin Version

The creation epic of the Yi people, Meige (梅葛), was translated and published in Korean in 2014 by Seoul-based 民俗苑, according to a news item from the bimonthly Forum on Folk Culture (彝族创世史诗《梅葛》在韩国出版). There are some 8 million Yi (彝族) living in China, Vietnam and Thailand, of which over 4.5 million reside in Yunnan Province.

As is so often the case in news relating to literature in the non-Han languages of China, the item neglects to mention salient details of the “original” text. It appears — I cannot confirm — that the Meige source text used for translation was in fact one published in Chinese in 1959 by Yunnan People’s Publishing House.

Given that there are two Yi scripts, one classical and one 20th century using the Latin alphabet, this begs the question: Why use a monolingual Chinese text to tell a primordial Yi tale?

The synopsis of a piece of scholarly research by National Chengchi University Dept. of Ethnology lecturer Huang Chi-ping (黃季平), Memories from Meige, the Epic Poem of Creation: Traditional Songs of Chuxiong Yi and Their Re-presentations, appears to explain the choice of Chinese, and points to its usefulness in promoting tourism: [Read more…]

Ethnic ChinaLit Briefs (Feb 11)

Shaanxi Fiction via French Comics
One of China’s best-selling, classic works of “rural fiction,” the White Deer Plain by Chen Zhongshi (白鹿原,陈忠实), has still not been translated into English, but is available in French (Au pays du cerf blanc) in a rendition by Manga-Au pays du cerf blancShao Baoqing and Solange Cruveillé. This month, the comics version (连环画, right) made its debut in French at the Angoulême Int’l Comics Festival. In an interview with Huashang Newspaper (正准备画贾平凹), artist Li Zhiwu (李志武) revealed that another famous Shaanxi author, Jia Pingwa, granted him the rights to render Shaanxi Opera (秦腔, 贾平凹著) in comics several years ago. Li says he is preparing to begin soon. For a discussion of why Jia Pingwa’s works have not appeared widely in English, see Low Profile in Translation. If you can read French, see a fascinating feature on Li Zhiwu and his illustrations by Brigitte Duzan, « Au pays du cerf blanc » : après le roman, la bande dessinée.  

Censorship Watch

Why did Islamic State’s jihadi recently seize and burn 2,000 books from the city library of Mosul, Iraq, instead of dousing them with acid or burying them? In Moussoul et les grands autdafés de l’Histoire, François Boespflug, Professor Emeritus at the University of Strasbourg, explains: [Read more…]

“Funeral of a Muslim”: Korean and Serbian Rights Purchased

Funeral of a Muslim by Huo DaWith sales of some 2.5 million copies, Funeral of a Muslim (穆斯林的葬礼,霍达著), Huo Da’s tale about three generations of a Hui family in Beijing, is quite possibly the most popular ethnic-themed novel ever published in China. It spans the turbulent years of the Japanese invasion, World War II and part of the Cultural Revolution.

I was commissioned by Eric Abrahamsen at Paper Republic to translate an English excerpt from this best seller. So I am happy to learn from Beijing October Art and Literature Publishing House that rights have been sold for two foreign-language editions: Wisdomhouse Publishing Co. Ltd has acquired the Korean rights, while Albatros Plus has done so for a Serbian edition.

For an English extract from Funeral of a Muslim and information on overseas rights, contact Mr. Han Jingqun, Chief Editor at Beijing October Art and Literature Publishing House, at daisyh@vip.sina.com

Here is a backgrounder on the novel: [Read more…]

Light Reading for Tibetans: “1984” and “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”

"1984" in Tibetan: But will readers on the Roof of the World recognize this is supposed to be fiction?

“1984” in Tibetan: But will readers on the Roof of the World recognize this is supposed to be fiction?

Orwell’s 1984 — in Tibetan (གཅིག་དགུ་གྱ་བཞི།, at left) — is now available in the PRC, confirms French Tibetologist Françoise Robin in an e-mail today. I assume it has the official stamp of approval, because it is published by the state-run Gansu Nationalities Publishing House, according to a news item in Tibetan (here). It was translated by Dorje Tseten (རྡོ་རྗེ་ཚེ་བརྟན་), who lives in the US. According to the report, he is currently translating Animal Farm.

Also published earlier in the same “Collection of Tibetan Translations of Famous Novels of the World” series was Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1962 grim novel of life in the Soviet gulag, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (tr. G. yang ‘bum rgyal གཡང་འབུམ་རྒྱལ།).

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed that China’s literary translation policy has indeed been undergoing some major changes of late. Earlier largely uni-directional translation — read from Han Chinese into various other languages of China — has evolved into a markedly more multi-directional approach. That means more fiction by non-Han writers is getting translated into Chinese, and more international writing is appearing in Uyghur, Mongolian, Tibetan, etc.

Other examples of English and French literature recently published in Tibetan: [Read more…]

French Translation of Chi Zijian’s “Last Quarter of the Moon” Underway

Latest rendition of Chi Zijian's novel is the Japanese, which translates as "Right Bank of the Argun"

Latest rendition of Chi Zijian’s novel is the Japanese, which translates as “Right Bank of the Argun”

Editions Philippe Picquier has acquired the French rights to Last Quarter of the Moon (额尔古纳河的右岸), and it will be co-translated by Stéphane Lévêque and Yvonne André. To date, Chi Zijian’s novel has been published in English (Last Quarter of the Moon), Spanish (A la orilla derecha del Río Argún ), Italian (Ultimo quarto di Luna) Dutch (Het laatste kwartier van de maan), and Japanese (アルグン川の右岸), and will appear in Turkish later this year.

Most recently, Lévêque rendered the first novel in Fan Wen’s trilogy set along the Yunnan-Tibetan border, Harmonious Land (水乳大地), as Terre de lait et de miel, as well as Han Han’s Son royaume (他的国), which is due out soon. But he and André collaborated previously to translate Shanghai writer Wang Anyi’s Le Chant des regrets éternels (长恨歌). See here for details on Lévêque’s other translations from Chinese into French.

Narrated in the first person by the aged wife of the last chieftain of an Evenki clan, the Last Quarter of the Moon, or Right Bank of the Argun — as it is dubbed in Chinese — is a moving tale of the decline of reindeer-herding nomads in the sparsely populated, richly forested mountains that border on Russia. [Read more…]

“Hegemonic Mindset” Hampering Recognition of Manchu Contribution to China’s Literature

Once in a blue moon I come across a well-argued scholarly essay which openly criticizes mainstream thinking about

Nalan Xingde, Manchu poet and official: Inspiration for "Dream of the Red Chamber"?

Yu Zhiding’s portrait of Nalan Xingde, Manchu poet and military official: Inspiration for “Dream of the Red Chamber”?

ethnic literature in New China. 不在场的在场:中国少数民族文学的处境 (Presence of Absence: Situation of China’s Ethnic Minority Language Literature) by Li Xiaofeng (李晓峰) is an outstanding example. He cites the words of author He Qifang (何其芳), and adds that precious little has changed since:

Right up to today [1961], all Chinese literary history is actually the history of literature written in hànyǔ — the history of literature by the Han plus literature written in hànyǔ by some ethnic minority writers.  

Li Xiaofeng’s article appeared in 2011.

In December 2014, another article was published that suggests that the concept of “Chinese literary history” continues to be contested (gasp!). Entitled 满族文学在中国文学史上的地位 (The Position of Manchu Literature in Chinese Literary History), it appears to be a summary of a December 2014 presentation made by Dr. Zhang Juling (张菊玲), former professor, now retired, of Beijing’s Central University for Nationalities (Chinese Language and Literature).

She is the author of 清代满族作家文学概论 (Introduction to Manchu Authors’ Writing during the Qing), 纳兰词新解 (New Interpretations of Nara Xingde’s Ci Poetry),产生《红楼梦》的满族文化氛围 (The Manchu Cultural Ambience that Generated ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’ ), and 阅读老舍, 记住曾被遮掩的民族历史文化 (Reading Lao She and Keeping in Mind Once-obscured Ethnic History and Culture). Nothing in the article or elsewhere on the web that I found mentions fluency in Manchu, so I assume that her research has been done in Mandarin.

Because I read and enjoyed the published text of her presentation, I’ve translated it below, albeit with a light edit. I found it a bit difficult to translate and welcome your comments and corrections. Note that the use of Manchu below never means writing in the Manchu language; it refers to the Manchu people and their culture. Or you can download the audio file — truly a pleasure to listen to her crystal-clear Chinese! — of her presentation here. (Note: Never mind the estimated download time. I downloaded in less than 5 minutes)

How Should One Write Chinese Literary History?

The manner in which Chinese literary history should be written is a very big question. At present, I believe that there exist remnants of a hegemonic mindset [霸权思想] among academics concerning the writing of Chinese literary history, and research into ethnic literature [民族文学] is still very deficient. Therefore, ethnic literature researchers have the responsibility to continue working on this question.

The Chinese people have never consisted of a sole ethnicity. During the Yuan, Ming and Qing for instance, Mongols, Han and Manchu ruled China, respectively. Each made its own contribution to the development of Chinese civilization and to the formation of a heterogeneous culture of China [多元的中华文化]. [Read more…]

Jan 30 Nottingham U Event: Literary Translation, Image Building and Soft Power — Exploring 21st century Sino-African dynamics

Time/date: 12:00-13:00 Friday, Jan 30 2015
Venue: Nottingham University, England
Speakers: Dr Kathryn Batchelor & Dr Catherine Gilbert
Topic: Literary Translation, Image Building and Soft Power: Exploring 21st century Sino-African dynamics

Dr. Batchelor is working on a project entitled “Exploring 21st Century Sino-African Dynamics through Cultural Exchange and Translation” which consists of two inter-related parts:

  • Firstly, it aims to carry out a global survey of literary translation, identifying all African literature translated for China since the year 2000 and all Chinese literature made available to African audiences over the same period. It will explore the types of themes that dominate, and identify any that are consistently excluded, and will examine the ways in which the reading matter is framed for its new audiences through covers, prefaces, and blurbs.
  • Secondly, the project examines the translation of other types of cultural and media products, such as films, TV programmes, performances, exhibitions and newspapers across several geographically and temporally limited spaces in both China and Africa, once again paying attention to the types of cultural products and themes that are favoured and exploring the ways in which they are ‘translated’, both literary and metaphorically, for the new audiences.

For background on translation of African literature into Chinese, see my piece Still Stuck on Things Fall Apart?