2018 Round-up: AfroLit in Chinese Translation

2018 Round-up:

AfroLit in Chinese Translation

By Bruce Humes

What a difference a year makes.

In 2017, readers in mainland China keen to experiment and read newly translated novels from Africa could choose from just 8 titles, all from the English or French, and weighted in favor of high-

Mia Couto’s “Terra Sonâmbula”: One of several Lusophone novels to be rendered in Chinese within 2018.

profile “diaspora” authors writing from abroad, such as Chimamanda Adichie and Alain Mabanckou. And 3 of those books were written by Nigerians.

As 2018 comes to an end, according to the bilingual database African Writing in Chinese Translation, there are 143 titles dating from the sixties through today — mainly novels, but a handful of short story and poetry collections too — from which to choose.

The 2018 batch of new titles — 13 in all — looks rather more varied. To wit:

  • The majority were penned in Portuguese or Arabic
  • Four of the authors hail from Lusophone countries (Angola, Mozambique), three from countries bordering on the Mediterranean, and the others are natives of sub-Saharan Africa (Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa)
  • Novels, short stories and drama are all represented

Variety aside, another good sign is that by and large, the newer titles have been translated from their original language, in this case, mainly Portuguese and Arabic. I have not confirmed this with the publishers, but various online entries indicates that several of the translators hold advanced degrees in these tongues, and have translated several books from them.

China-based publishers are notorious for a misleading practice: the nationality of the author — not necessarily the language of the source text — is often noted on the spine or copyright page. Thus the reader may well believe she is reading a novel translated direct from the Swahili, when the source text is actually the English rendition of a Swahili original. The reason: a dearth of translators from certain languages, and often, the desire to cut costs and shorten time-to-market by translating from the English.

Tawfiq al-Hakim’s “People of the Cave”: Arguably Egypt’s first script destined for production on a stage.

As detailed recently in Can Literary Exports Change Chinese Perceptions of Africa?, there have been “three waves of African literary imports”:

The first, which emerged in the 1980s, was ideologically driven. Empowered by Beijing’s policy of promoting solidarity with the Third World and newly independent nations, state-run imprints like the Foreign Literature Publishing House translated and published a substantial number of African works such as those by the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, the Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the Senegalese poet (and former president) Léopold Sédar Senghor, and the Algerian writer Mouloud Mammeri. Anthologies of translated African folktales for children even appeared.

During the ’90s and 2000s, imported African literature was top-heavy with winners of globally recognized awards such as the Nobel Prize in Literature. Imports slowed and tended to focus less on the works of socialist-inspired thinkers in favor of high-profile Nobel laureates such as J. M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, both with South African roots, and Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz.

By comparison, the 2018 crop appears refreshingly distinct. Admittedly, there are two authors on the list, Chimamanda Adichie (a recidivist) and Mia Couto, who can be counted on to sell well because of their notoriety. But they have proven themselves mainly in the global marketplace; they are not Nobel

Laureates or Booker Prize Winners as were a few of the first African authors — such as Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe or Wole Soyinka —  who were subsequently widely published

The latest from “African diaspora” writer Chimamanda Adichie

in Chinese  (Still Stuck on “Things Fall Apart?“).

Several of the 13 new titles are translations of works that were actually published decades ago, and thus were obviously not chosen for their current popularity. They include People of the Cave, a play by Egypt’s Tawfiq al-Hakim, first published in 1933; Secret Lives and Other Stories by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, known for his insistence on writing in his mother tongue Kikuyu, published in 1975; and a short story collection featuring 14 South African authors writing in the years leading up to the beginning of black-majority rule in 1994.


  1. Nicky Harman says

    Fascinating, Bruce! Thanks for putting this together

  2. A China-based publishing professional (who wishes to remain anonymous) has written 非漂 [Fēi Piāo] with this message:

    I see you mentioned this both on your blog and to the Quartz Africa reporter:

    China-based publishers are notorious for a misleading practice: the nationality of the author — not necessarily the language of the source text — is often noted on the spine or copyright page.”

    Personally speaking, I don’t think it’s misleading. We should abide by our copyright law, and the nationality of the author is needed. I don’t think the readers would be misled by this. Publishers or translators would make it clear in the preface or elsewhere what the original language is, and which edition they used for translation. Besides, I wonder which publisher in western countries would indicate the original language on their book cover related to translations.

    • Good to see that you read my piece and have an opinion about it.

      But, I totally disagree with you!

      This practice of noting the nationality of the author can be misleading, and — I would submit — purposely so. China publishers:

      1) Often do publish translations from the English because it’s cheaper and faster;

      2) Probably do not want readers to know that they are publishing a translation of a translation, which inevitably means lower quality translation;

      3) Often do not mention that a book is a translation of a translation anywhere at all, or only on the copyright page, which most readers do not read.

      I agree that many publishers in the West do not note the language of the source text on the cover. In the US, they may not even mention that it was a translation anywhere! However, noting just the nationality of the author on the spine/cover of a book, can be misleading if the text was a “re-translation.”

      By the way, there is a big difference between the way the Americans handle these matters, and publishers elsewhere — such as in the EU — do. It is well known that only 3% of books published in the US are translated; for fiction in particular, this figure is much higher in countries like Germany and France, for instance, and even higher in countries whose populations are smaller. Perhaps as a result, translated fiction is more highly esteemed in Europe than in the US, translators are paid more (and in some countries, guaranteed a percentage of the royalties by law), and readers more likely to insist on translation from the original text.

      I have not researched this phenomenon recently, but a few years ago when I lived on the mainland, I did. In particular, I found that books written in Hebrew and Turkish tended to be “re-translated” based on a version first translated into a European language, not the original source text; for instance, what is arguably Turkey’s most classic 20th-century novel, The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar, was recently translated into Chinese as 时间调校研究所 by Tan Lin (谭琳) , from the German, not the Turkish. According to the copyright page of the novel (published by Shanghai Literature and Arts Publishing House), which is reproduced on Amazon.cn here, neither the language of the original or the text on which it is based are noted. We see only the name of the author and the translator, the China publisher, and the name of the original work in Turkish — there is no mention of the German edition.

      Re: Turkish, this is particularly ironic. After all, China has a population of 10m+ Uyghurs, and Uyghur and Turkish are both Turkic languages; with just a year or so of study, an educated Uyhgur should be able to read Turkish fluently. Sadly, given the current brutal crackdown on Uyghurs of all stripes in Xinjiang, it is just about impossible for Uyghurs to travel to Turkey for university or graduate-level studies. They simply cannot get a passport from the Chinese government to leave the country.

  3. I would like to back Bruce up on this matter. “Accordance with Chinese law” does not absolve publishers of responsibility for shady practices.

    I would be interested to know if Chinese law has anything to say about so-called “original” translations of foreign works that have been plagiarised from other translations. In their haste to come out with their own version of a foreign classic, some unscrupulous publishers — major publishers at that — simply pay someone to touch up a previous translation and market it as their own. I have come across this phenomenon in translations of Le petit prince and Gone with the Wind. It makes one wonder how the person whose name is attached to the “new” translation can hold their head up in public, even if the publisher is acting within Chinese law.

    Speaking of The Little Prince, a Mongolian-language translation of this French classic by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was published by Inner Mongolian People’s Publishing in Hohhot. The details of publication (given in Chinese) are: 小王子〔法〕圣埃克苏佩里著;雅·铁木日真译. But if you think you are reading a translation from the French original or even Katherine Woods English translation, you are sadly mistaken. Even the slightest familiarity with Chinese translations of The Little Prince makes it immediately apparent that Tömörjin was translating from the Chinese. If you want a translation from the French original, you must go across the border to Ulaanbaatar and buy Sukhbaatar’s version.

    Perhaps this kind of thing cannot be avoided when publishing the translation of a work in a lesser known language, but failing to advise the reader of this is a shady practice and is not excused by adherence to the letter of Chinese law.

  4. Nicky Harman says

    Hello Bruce and hello Anonymous (above). The question of re-translations is particularly important going from Chinese to other languages. I translate from Chinese into English and my translations are often used as “relay” or “bridge” translations (as we call them) when a publisher wants a translation for a certain book and cannot find someone to translate direct from the Chinese. I am not going to address the question of the *quality* of the resulting two-stage translation here. Quite possibly the result will be perfectly good. What I do want to stress is that it is *crucial* that the copyright page of the final translation has the following information: “Translated by xxx from the English translation © [name of Chinese to English translator] 20xx” Why? Because otherwise the impression is given that the second translator. going from English into x language, actually translated direct from the Chinese, which would be incorrect. In our copyright law (UK), literary translators can expect to retain the copyright of their translation, and this wording respects that right.

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