Mo Yan’s Nobel and Chinese Fiction Exports: Time to “Serve the Reader”?

Resting on translation Professor Xie Tianzhen’s desk is a recent dissertation by one of his students, ‘The Dream of the Red Chamber’: A Century of English Translations. It documents the strong preference of Western readers for David Hawke’s edition, though Chinese specialists consider it flawed compared to the more accurate version by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang, according to an interview with the professor (谢天振) in Shanghai’s Wen Hui Bao (走出去的绊脚石).

The reason: Hawke’s The Story of the Stone reads markedly better to the native English speaker.

This renewed interest in defining what constitutes a “good” literary translation comes in the wake of the awarding of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature to China’s Mo Yan (莫言).  Chinese translation professionals—and government officials charged with expanding the country’s soft power overseas—are searching for lessons to be drawn from Mo Yan’s resounding success.

One key lesson could be that China’s customary academic emphasis on word-for-word translation, in the belief it yields the greatest accuracy, doesn’t actually fly, marketing-wise. The article points out that Mo Yan’s English translator, Howard Goldblatt, edited freely as he translated (连译带改) Mo Yan’s Garlic Ballads (天堂蒜薹之歌), and that the German publisher chose to base its translation on the English too.

“Translation has transformed into an emerging ‘language service industry’, ” notes Chai Mingying, Dean of the College of Translation at Shanghai Int’l Studies University. “Since it is a service, it should incorporate the concept of the ‘client’ (服务对象).”  Which implies, of course, that the reader’s demands should be considered when designing the product.

The other lesson drawn by culture Mandarins in the capital—and one that has big implications for foreign translators of Chinese literature—is that the time has come to subsidize “export-oriented production.” After all, China’s writers can’t create interest in China or spread those glorious Chinese values unless their writing is available in foreign languages worldwide. Not to mention win another nobel!

Just within the last week, I have received news of the following notices:

  • New literary translation fund: Launched by the Chinese Writers’ Association (中国作家协会). Translators, publishers, agents and authors are welcome to submit applications for a grant for literary translation out of the Chinese. Grants may go as high as US 13 cents per Chinese character.  Consideration will reportedly be given to translations that have a publisher as well as those that have not yet found one.
  • New translation fund solely for writing by authors of minority ethnicity: Also launched by the Chinese Writers’ Association (中国作家协会). But it specifically aims to subsidize the translation of writing by non-Han authors (少数民族作家) into other languages.

The latter fund is particularly significant and timely. Foreign publishers are indeed keen to publish tales of “ethnic” China, as you can see from my table (Novels/Novelas with Ethnic Theme). But take note: all the authors but two are themselves Han.

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