Soft Power Strategy: Where Does China Figure in Turkey’s Literary Translation Program?

Turkey's funding for literary translation into other tongues: Bulgarian editions outnumber Chinese 10:1

Turkey’s funding for literary translation into other tongues: Bulgarian editions outnumber Chinese 10:1

Over the last 11 years, Turkey has spent US$4.4m to fund translation and publication of fiction by Turkish authors via its TEDA grant program, according to Turkish Books, an article that appeared in the Hürriyet Daily on February 24, 2016. TEDA’s own chart shows that just 24 titles appeared in Chinese as a result, compared to 258 in German, 147 in Arabic, 100 in Persian, 103 in English, and 65 in French.

Oh, yes, and 251 in . . . Bulgarian, a language with an estimated number of less than 10 million native speakers. Granted, Bulgaria was ruled by the Ottomans, so nostalgia may be a factor here. But still, one has to wonder: Who determines how TEDA’s funds are spent, and what is their soft power strategy?

Chinese readers can be forgiven if the only Turkish author they’ve ever heard of is 奥尔罕·帕慕克 (Orhan Pamuk) as rendered我脑袋里的怪东西 by translator 陈竹冰 (Chen Zhubing). Pamuk’s latest novel, Kafamda Bir Tuhaflı (A Strangeness in My Mind) has just been launched in Chinese by Shanghai People’s Publishing House (我脑袋里的怪东西). After all, at least 10 of his novels have appeared in Chinese and he is very popular in the PRC.

The number of Turkish authors available in Chinese is rather short (see here for a partial list), but the good news is that Turkey’s most famous 20th century work of fiction, Tanpınar’s Saatleri Ayarlama Enstitüsü (The Time Regulation Institute) is being translated and may — according to Istanbul’s Kalem Agency — appear in Chinese within 2017. Elif Şafak is also fairly well known, but her novels normally appear first in Taiwan.

Behind the Bamboo Curtain: At Last the World Is Paying Attention to How Foreign Works Are Translated into Chinese

Feng Tang's controversial rendition of Tagore's "Stray Birds" has ignited controversy both in Chinese and Indian literary circles

Feng Tang’s controversial rendition of Tagore’s “Stray Birds” has ignited controversy in both Chinese and Indian literary circles

Jan 12 Update: Indiatoday’s Interview with Feng Tang

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January 7 Post

Feng Tang, a well known Chinese author — and occasional translator — will reportedly not be among a group of Chinese writers attending the World Book Fair in New Delhi next week (Jan 9-17). He had previously been scheduled to take part. It is not perfectly clear from the report below if he decided to withdraw on his own, or if he was pressured to do so. Reports the online hindustantimes (‘Racy’ Tagore Translation):

Feng Tang, one of China’s most provocative authors, has been pulled out of a delegation of writers slated to participate in a New Delhi book fair next week because of the backlash over his translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s poems that was deemed vulgar and racy.

The translation of “Stray Birds”, a collection of poems by the Nobel laureate, was published early last year but the controversy erupted last month. One author described it as a “cultural terrorist attack” and the translation was pulled off the shelves by the publisher on December 28.

“It would be unsafe for me in New Delhi, is what my publisher told me in as many words,” Feng told Hindustan Times in Beijing on Wednesday.

He was among nine Chinese authors set to take part in the book fair, and was to speak on Tagore’s contribution to Chinese literature at Jawaharlal Nehru University on January 9.

For bilingual versions of several of Tagore’s poems, and a discussion of the issues raised by Feng Tang’s renditions, see the discussion at Paper Republic: Don’t Touch My Tagore! 

Oh, and I shouldn’t forget an excerpt from one of Feng Tang’s Beijing-based novels that I did several years ago. You can read my rendition here

Mo Yan’s “Frog” Reviewed: Call for Diversity among Chinese-to-English Translators

Frog by Mo YanIn Literary Prowess Lost, we have one of the first coherent — and highly critical — reviews of a modern novel translated from the Chinese in which the reviewer knows the source language and doesn’t shirk from calling out the translator on several points:

Without multiple translations of the same work, it’s impossible to adequately evaluate the author. To what extent Mo Yan writes in clichés or to what extent it’s a tic of the translator is not a judgment call that the average reader can make. This means that placing him alongside authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kundera, and Haruki Murakami is difficult. Although all of the authors are themselves presented to an Anglophone audience in translation, there are at least multiple translations available. In the case of Kundera, the imprecision of translation drove him to such despair that he spent years correcting the translations of his own work into the four languages he can read.

Both Mo Yan and Marquez have received the Nobel Prize for literature, while Kundera and Murakami are regularly tapped as potential winners (Murakami was odds on favorite to win the 2014 prize according to the British bookmaker Ladbrokes). What is important to note is that unlike the other denizens of magical realism, we only ever see Mo Yan’s work through the prism of Howard Goldblatt. In that case, it seems unfair to make a comparison and to evaluate his oeuvre. As Goldblatt himself noted in an interview with The LA Review of Books, “What the reader has in her hands is a facsimile of the original work.” We should therefore see multiple facsimiles, and then we can decide on Mo Yan’s true place within literature.

Literature is important in providing nuanced and divergent interpretations of a country so often rendered in stark black and white terms. Translating a country as vast and diverse as China to a wider audience may be Sisyphean, or it may be 精卫填海 (Jiangweitianhai) or like a bird trying to fill the ocean with pebbles. Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from the plurality of voices emerging from China today is not what separates our cultures, but how ontologically similar they are. For every Sisyphus and his bolder, there is a 精卫 and his pebbles.

It’s thus a sad systemic irony that many great novels from contemporary China, which are so crucial in providing a sounding board for the diversity of the Chinese experience, suffer from being the sole preserve of one translator. Until the field opens dramatically, much of what is being said will be lost in translation.

Covering China Best-seller “Kite Runner”: Taking Translator Invisibility to the Extreme

Gao Yuanyuan praises The Kite RunnerIn How to Top China’s Best-seller List Without Really Trying, Alexa Olesen reports on a recent upsurge in sales of the Chinese edition of Khaled Hosseini’s Kite Runner (追风筝的人):

Over the last nine years, The Kite Runner has sold more than 3 million copies in China. Nearly a third of that total comes from sales in 2014.

She puts this down to what she terms the “Oprah effect.” This is a reference to the fact that actress Gao Yuanyuan (高圆圆) “recommended the book during a 2013 appearance on the hugely popular Chinese variety show ‘Happy Camp’ [快乐大本营] .”

Amazingly, Olesen manages to write over 1,300 words about the incredible popularity of the book in China — without ever mentioning the translator.

For the story behind translator Li Jihong (李继宏) and his rendition, see An Afghan Childhood Re-packaged for the Middle Kingdom.

Peter Hessler on the China Translator and “Defensive Censorship”

In Travels with My Censor: A Book Tour, author Peter Hessler decides the best way to understand censorship in China is to spend some quality time with the humans — they aren’t machines or faceless apparatchiks — who practice it. Very educational for him and us, I’d say. This piece in The New Yorker also leaves me feeling he is more attuned to life in China than Evan Osnos, who wrote an op-ed for the New York Times (Censorship Percentage Stats) explaining why he refused to have his Age of Ambition translated, censored and published in China. Below, Hessler explains how censorship works at a book publisher:

At Shanghai Translation, each manuscript passes through three levels of political review: the editor, his supervisor, and the head of the company. Occasionally, the higher levels make a change, but the vast majority of censorship is handled by editors like Zhang. In 2013, when the Times ran an article about foreign authors publishing in China, it noted that “publishing houses are required to employ in-house censors, most of them faithful party members.”

But this isn’t accurate. At Shanghai Translation, there’s no employee whose primary job is to monitor political content. Such a distinction may seem academic, but it matters greatly in a country with many types of political control. In China, newspapers and magazines are censored much more heavily than books, and state-run papers like China Daily actively promote the Party line. On the Internet, censors excise all references to certain taboo topics.

But for an editor like Zhang, who is not a Party member, there is no ideology and no absolute list of banned subjects. His censorship is defensive: rather than promoting an agenda or covering up some specific truth, he tries to avoid catching the eye of a higher authority. In fact, his goal — to have a book translated and published as accurately as possible — may run counter to the goals of the Party.

Note to “The Diplomat” and Shannon Tiezzi: Uyghur is Not a Dialect of Chinese

In her Dec 24 analysis of a document designed to guide China’s future ethnic policies, China’s Prescription for ‘Improving Ethnic Work’, Shannon Tiezzi makes a reference to “local dialects”:

The document attempts to address governance and policy issues as well, starting with the sensitive topic of language. Beijing reiterates that all officials, including those from minority groups, must learn Mandarin. However, the document also urges Han officials to learn the local dialects in use where they are stationed. As James Palmer noted for Foreign Policy, though, such well-meaning directives are often disregarded by local officials. “Han officials are encouraged by official directives to learn Uyghur, but, despite the availability of excellent Uyghur-Chinese textbooks, it is rare for any of them to make it past the level of ‘Hello,’” Palmer writes.

No doubt Palmer’s observation is correct. But Tiezzi’s use of Uyghur as an example, and use of the term “local dialects,” are both very unfortunate.

First of all, Uyghur is not a Sinitic language or a dialect of Mandarin. It is a member of the Turkic language family. [Read more…]

Critics Diss List of “Most Influential” Translated Chinese Fiction, Caution Authors to Target their Compatriots

If the headline had read “Overworked Foreign Librairians Opt for Mai Jia’s Popular ‘Decoded’ Over Chinese Classics” probably no one would have noticed.

But the table was captioned “Globally Most Influential Contemporary Chinese Literature in Translation in 2014” (2014 年世界影响力最大的中国当代文学译作). In China, perhaps nothing strikes a nerve more sharply than foreign perceptions — and ranking — of Things Chinese.

In fact, the “2014 Most Influential” ranking (see here) is little more than a list of the number of overseas librairies that have purchased at least one copy of a modern Chinese work of fiction in translation. Never mind that only English translations are included, and it’s not clear if the purchases were made this year.

Not surprisingly, popular novels by Mai Jia, Yu Hua and Mo Yan figure prominently. Some critics — and perhaps not a few authors who didn’t make the list — are outraged.

Hong Kong’s influential daily Wen Wei Po has responded (图书馆收藏) with a lengthy if somewhat xenophobic rebuttal of the value of the ranking, and closes with this cautionary note:

Not a few commentators hold the opinion that every writer should actually address the readership in his own land that speaks his language, and with whom he shares a common history and destiny. In other words, the fundamental question is: For whom is the work written, who shall be its premier reader? Only when this is the case, then if our writers become aware of the existence of others readers in the world, this will not be a bad thing.

What’s the thinking behind this call for Chinese writers to prioritize their compatriots? Here are the main points buttressing this argument:

The list is hardly authoritative

  • Mai Jia’s Decoded is an example of “genre fiction.” But says Peng Lun, editor at 99read.com, “genre fiction does not represent all fiction.” And, he adds, market-wide sales — not just library purchases — are a more reliable indicator of influence.

Issues of Translator Nationality, Outdated Foreign Tastes

  • “Behind a series of Chinese contemporary works that have elicited attention overseas in recent years . . . there is always a foreign translator.” (See Foreign Devil Translators for background on this touchy topic.)
  • Foreigners’ preferences for Chinese literature are still “back in the era of Lin Qinnan,” says the article. It’s not clear if this is the opinion of reporter Shao Ling (邵岭) or one of his interviewees. Anyhow, it’s a bizarre reference. Lin Qinnan, better known as Lin Shu (林紓), lived during 1852-1924, and according to Wikipedia, he collaborated with others to render more than 170 English and French titles in literary Chinese. The only catch: he didn’t speak any foreign language.

Dangers of over-emphasizing foreign readership

  • Luo Gang, professor in the Chinese Department at East China Normal University, points out that authors worldwide don’t write to be translated, and today’s Chinese writers should be no exception. If they single-mindedly strive for recognition from foreign readers — and this becomes a trend — their writing will lack “cultural awareness and confidence.”

Missing vs. “Disappeared”: NYT Translation on Detained Chinese Citizens Blurs the Line

In Few Clues in Chinese Editor’s Detention, Didi Kirsten Tatlow reports on the recent arrest and detention of Caixin Media editor Xu Xiao (徐晓) and NGO staffer Liu Jianshu (柳建树).

Both went missing for at least five days before it was learned that they had been arrested and are now inside Beijing Number 1 Detention Center.

Here is how Tatlow reported on these events:

No one has been allowed to see Ms. Xu since she was taken into custody on Nov. 26. But she isn’t the only one to suddenly disappear recently. Also on that day, Liu Jianshu, 28, an N.G.O worker and movie enthusiast, was “disappeared,” his wife, Zhao Sile said on Wednesday.

自从11月26日被拘留之后,没有人能够探视她。不过,最近突然失踪的并非只有徐晓一个人。据28岁的非政府组织雇员、电影爱好者柳建树的妻子赵思乐周三说,她的丈夫也于同一天“失踪了”。

Readers fluent in Chinese will note that Liu simply “disappeared,” in the neutral sense of “went missing,” while Tatlow’s original implies a “forced disappearance,” placing him in the now-infamous category of “desaparecidos” coined during Argentina’s “Dirty War.”

Tatlow’s use of “disappeared” here is questionable, since the term — strictly speaking — refers to a person who has been abducted or imprisoned, “followed by a refusal to acknowledge the person’s fate and whereabouts, with the intent of placing the victim outside the protection of the law.” (Wikipedia) She doesn’t say how “friends and family” came to learn of Xu Xiao’s current location, so we don’t know if the Chinese authorities intentionally released this information.

Whatever the case, Tatlow has chosen an emotive, political term — “disappeared.” One would therefore expect the Chinese to read “被失踪,” a phrase created several years ago and frequently seen on (uncensored) parts of the Chinese-language Internet.

Footnote Factoids: How Many Needed to Russify Mo Yan?

In 译莫言作品看中国文学, Mo Yan’s principal Russian translator, Igor Aleksandrovich Egorov (Игорь Aлександрович Егоров), reports that his translation of 丰乳肥臀 (Большая грудь, широкий зад, Big Breasts and Wide Hips) has been a best-seller since 2013.

Egorov advocates amply footnoting Mo Yan’s text, because the overwhelming majority of Russian readers are almost totally unfamiliar with either ancient or post-1949 Chinese culture. His count for three novels he has translated:

  • 300+: Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (生死疲劳, soon to be published)
  • 260:   Большая грудь, широкий зад (丰乳肥臀, Big Breasts and Wide Hips)
  • 200+: Страна вина (酒国, The Republic of Wine)

To learn about Chinese translations of Americana and footnotes, see Stephanie Meyer Red Hot in China: Could it Be the Footnotes? Or take a look here at Footnotes, where Chinese-to-English poetry translator Lucas Klein delves into the subject in greater detail, with 16 meaty comments altogether in the thread.

The Fine Art of Selective News Translation

In Lost in Translation, veteran journalist Nailene Chou Wiest comments on how airbrushing foreign news articles in the name of China boosterism prevents serious discussion of real issues:

Translators in China are not neutral message conveyors but active censor-oriented rewriting hacks. Their job requires the sensitivity of knowing the parameter. Foreign news is not used as a means of national self-reflection, but an adjunct to domestic propaganda. Veteran translators are infuriated by the accusation that they are accomplices to an authoritarian regime. They point out that the core issue is not how to translate, but how to translate and get published. Publish or perish is the rub.

How the translators hew to the adaptation and rewriting is often an indicator of where the publication stands in the Communist Party-condoned ideological spectrum. Reference News (Cankao Xiaoxi) was founded in 1931 as an internal publication to provide the party leadership with an idea of how the world perceived China. When it turned into a mass circulation paper in 1985, translators were given the mandate of selecting passages from world press and adapting a propaganda agenda. Boasting a daily circulation of 3 million, Reference News is influential and profitable. Global Times, a tabloid subsidiary of the People’s Daily, routinely mangles foreign news articles to bolster its nationalistic stance. But when ThePaper.cn was launched this summer, hopes ran high that it would set itself apart to attract weary online readers. There is a sense of betrayal that it commits the same sin of translating only the positive while blocking passages critical of China.

I’ve been following Reference News (参考消息) now for five years or so. To see how it repackages foreign news reports to make China look better — and feel better about itself — please visit China Media.