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. [Read more…]

Thoreau’s “Walden”, Translator Li Jihong and the Missing Aliens

As the sun sets here in Antalya, Turkey, by now the controversial English-to-Chinese translator Li Jihong (李继宏, below) should already have delivered his speech today at the Shanghai Book Festival, entitled  ” 经典何以需要新译?” (“Why do the classics need new translations?)

His spiel was part of the official launch event for his newest translation, 《瓦尔登湖》(Thoreau’s Walden).  This is just李继宏 one in a series of new renditions by him that has included, so far, 《老人与海》 (The Old Man and the Sea), 《了不起的盖茨比》(The Great Gatsby) , 《动物农场》(Animal Farm) and《小王子》(Le petit prince).

I describe Li Jihong as “controversial” above because earlier marketing campaigns claimed his series consists of “ the finest translations to date,” which struck a raw nerve with translators, editors and readers alike.  See Translator Incenses Fellow English-to-Chinese Decoders for details on the brouhaha. You can also check out my interview with him—the most popular post we’ve ever had at Ethnic ChinaLit—re: his best-selling rendition of The Kite Runner.

In his presentation, Li Jihong explains that prior to graduation from university, despite being a voracious reader from childhood, he rarely read foreign literature. Why? Because he just couldn’t “get into” any of the translations that came his way. I find this both interesting and amusing, because I’ve had the same experience. Over the years I’ve tried (hard!) to read the Chinese renditions of novels by Kawabata Yasunari, Murakami Haruki, as well as Nobokov’s Lolita, Kerouac’s On the Road, and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (Shi Xianrong’s version), but found them all indigestible. Stilted language, occasional painfully literal translations, and frequent misinterpretations of the culture being translated—you name it. [Read more…]

Translator of Best Sellers “Kite Runner” and “Conversations with God” Incenses Fellow English-to-Chinese Decoders

So much for the invisible translator.  With the launch of his Chinese renditions of classics whose copyrights had expired (新译本), such as The Old Man and the Sea (老人遇害) and The Great Gatsby (了不起的的盖茨比), Li Jihong (李继宏) has managed to infuriate a host of fellow translators, hommes de lettres and even would-be readers.

Partly due to the aggressive advertising campaign accompanying the launch that claims these are “the finest translations to date,” and partly by bringing up the very vulgar, very touchy subject of $ earned for literary translation work.

And the numbers are rather telling: many English-to-Chinese literary translators are paid around 1 US cent per word, while Li Jihong claims to be earning something like 20 US cents per word for his latest much-advertised works. The Shenzhen Shangbao report (报酬标准十几年没变) doesn’t fully explain the discrepancy, but it appears that Li’s figures are based on a fairly generous upfront payment of royalties, while most publishers are not only not offering royalties, they are exploiting translators by paying per official rates set by the copyright authorities . . . back in 1999.

Translator Shortage and Tired Tales of Chinese Exceptionalism

Writes Dong Fangyu at China Daily in Translators Leave China Lost for Words:

Lenin's Kisses“. . . many Chinese novels that have won top prizes and been well received in China face delays in getting published abroad due to a lack of good translators.

Take the example of the novel Shou Huo (The Joy of Living,[受活]) by Yan Lianke [阎连科]. Although copyright contracts for it were signed with publishers from Japan, France, Italy and the United Kingdom in late 2004, to date none of the four translated novels have been published, as no competent translators are available.”

This is a claim rich in implications:

  • The Chinese language is too subtle and complex to be understood by outsiders
  • The Chinese-to-foreign-language translation task might best be left to us here in China
  •  There would be more than one Chinese Nobel Laureate if our works had been adequately translated.

[Read more…]

Are Foreign Devil Translators Hijacking China’s Debut on the Global Literary Stage?

Ever since China was named Guest of Honor at the 2009 Frankfurt Int’l Book Fair, overseas publishers have begun to take an interest in contemporary Chinese literature, and the list of works of fiction and poetry slated for translation and publication into English in 2011 and 2012 is growing quickly.

Take a look here for a partial list. They include Zhang Ling’s Gold Mountain Blues (translator: Nicky Harman), Endure: Poems by Bei Dao (Lucas Klein and Clayton Eshleman), Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village (Cindy Carter), Wang Xiaofang’s Notes of a Civil Servant (Eric Abrahamsen), He Jiahong’s Blood Crimes (Duncan Hewitt), and more.

In December the venerable People’s Literature (人民文学) magazine launched an all English quarterly (at left) featuring translations of works by several popular 21st-century Chinese writers, Pathlight: New Chinese Writing.

Chinese novelist Han Haoyue (韩浩月) praises the magazine’s publication as a “good thing” (好事), but in his article of December 12 (烂苹果) he calls attention to the fact that “all the translators for the first issue are native English speakers of foreign nationality.” Without stating whether he has read the first issue of Pathlight or compared its renditions against the Chinese originals—or personally examined its translators’ passports, for that matter—he then trots out the tired argument that given the profundity of Chinese literary expression, “it stands to reason that it would be more appropriate for Chinese translators to complete the task of translation.”

Of course, Han isn’t the only one concerned about the fact that the officially funded campaign to “export” Chinese literature—seen as an extension of China’s soft power—seems to be largely dependent on foreign brains for the moment. But the catch with Han’s patriotic vision is that Made-in-China, Chinese-to-English literary translators are regrettably thin on the ground. [Read more…]

Sinologist Wolfgang Kubin: What Makes for “Good Literature” and “Good Language”?

Controversial German Sinologist Wolfgang Kubin was recently in Shenzhen where he spoke at some length on three subjects: What makes for “good literature” (好的文学)? “Good language” (好的语言)? And if a Chinese author writes in a foreign tongue, what sorts of changes occur?   On August 10, China Reading Weekly (中华读书报) published What is Good Chinese Literature (什么是好的中国文学)?, a record of his talk at the He Xiangning Art Museum (何香凝美术馆) which, the article notes, has not been proofed by Kubin. But I assume that he spoke in Chinese and that this represents a fairly accurate transcript.

Over the next few days I’ll translate a few excerpts. Here’s one on so-called popular writers:

Not a few Chinese writers have been very successful in Germany. How can we define this success? That’s a rather thorny issue. I’m talking aboutWolfgang Kubin novelists here, not poets. For example, books by Hong Ying (虹影), Ha Jin (哈金), Mian Mian (棉 棉) and Wei Hui (卫慧) are selling quite well in Germany. Each one of them can publish several tens of thousands of books with each earning $2 to $5 per copy, so after they’ve published a book in Germany, they make a fortune.

Readers of  Hong Ying, Ha Jin, Mian Mian and Wei Hui are quite numerous, but the works of this bunch belongs to the popular literature category. It’s basically not conceivable that professors or writers would read their works, and Germany’s most important newspapers wouldn’t publish reviews of their books. So their works seemingly don’t exist in the German literary world, and can exist only among the common people and general readers. Personally, I feel that Hong Ying and Ha Jin have no future whatsoever, and their works will be quickly forgotten.

Regarding Chinese novelists and their knowledge of foreign tongues:

In the past I’ve said that contemporary Chinese authors don’t generally know a foreign language, and aren’t willing to study them.   [Read more…]

The Unsavory Side of Translated Fiction Publishing in China

In Book Publishers Scramble for Chinese Readers at the NY Times today, one China publisher in particular—Horizon Media—is featured as particularly savvy in recognizing early on the huge demand of Chinese readers for fiction from the West, and for picking winners that it brought to the market efficiently:

Wang Ling, Horizon’s chief literature editor, cites as a turning point the company’s publishing of “The Da Vinci Code” in 2003, of which two million copies have been printed here, followed by the huge success of “The Kite Runner,” with 800,000 in print — astronomical numbers in a country where, Ms. Wang says, only “super-best sellers” reach half a million copies.

The quality of a translation plays a major role in a foreign title’s success in China, so Horizon takes great care to hire someone with an ear for language and a contemporary voice that readers will enjoy. “A good translator is not just fluent in the source language but must also know how to write an eloquent Chinese sentence,” Ms. Wang said.

Impressive stuff. But what Dan Levin’s article doesn’t tell you is how Horizon Media treats those talented translators. Like Li Jihong (李继宏), who rendered The Kite Runner in Chinese (追风筝的人). He earned a one-time payment of just US$2,250 for his efforts, and will collect no royalties for this best seller. [Read more…]

《蒙古往事》及其汉化的蒙古语

我正在读冉平写的《蒙古往事》,也发现了经常出现蒙古人的一些有意思的说法。至少,作者在故事里告诉读者这些说法是来自蒙古语。

我在琢磨:作者会蒙古语吗?“拼法” 标准吗?科学吗?哪些是音译?如果蒙古语为母语的人看到了,认得出来吗?

无论如何,这些说法增加了《蒙古往事》的色彩和可读性,也值得去欣赏和研究。在这里先做点笔记,然后慢慢地加上一些想法和链接。下面的页数以新星出版社的 2010 版为参考。

长生天 (5)

蒙古人将腾格里称为 “Mongke Tengri”,意为 “长生天”,作为最高信仰 。(维基百科)

巴特(6)

《蒙古往事》编辑注释:“巴特,也称把阿秃,即蒙古语中勇士、英雄之意”。其实,好像 “巴特尔” 更正确,因为网上许多地方指 bataar 为蒙古语 “英雄” 之意。“乌兰巴托” (Ulan Bator)的意思是 “红色的英雄”。

苏鲁锭(7)

苏鲁锭的蒙语意思是“长矛”,也就是战旗。安答(20)《蒙古往事》编辑注释:“安答,即结拜的盟兄弟,生死之交”。 [Read more…]

Turkish Novels, Honor Killing and China’s English-language Complex

Zülfü Livaneli, the Turkish writer, musician, singer, journalist and member of parliament, recently toured China to promote the launch of the mainland Chinese translation of his popular novel, Bliss (Mutluluk), or 伊斯坦布尔的幸福.

Now a movie as well, Bliss is a melodramatic tale of a young village woman who is raped by an elder relative. When she doesn’t hang herself out of shame, as is expected, the task of restoring honor to the family (by ending her life) is assigned to another male relative. The novel takes us from Van in the southeast to Istanbul, touching on most every controversial aspect of “Turkishness,” from honor killing to the Asia-Europe divide represented by schizophrenic Istanbul, and the guerrilla war waged by the Kurds against the Turkish state.

But how many Chinese readers will notice that this quintessentially Turkish novel has been translated from the . . . English?

Not many, I’d wager. The spine of the book features “Turkey” in brackets above the author’s name, implying that the book and its author originated in that country, and cites the translator (贾文浩). The credits page gives the same information without identifying the source language. It should be noted that this is standard procedure in the People’s Republic. Thus the only reference to the fact that this Chinese edition is a translation of the English translation is in the last line of the translator’s Foreword.

I interviewed Shen Zhixing (沈志兴), the Chinese translator of Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, several years ago. He studied in Ankara in the 1980s and worked from the Turkish. The earlier Taiwan edition of the book was based on the American, and Pamuk—apparently very displeased with this approach—insisted that Shen translate from the Turkish original.

Shen told me that in his estimation, “only a dozen or so” translators in China had the background in Turkish and literary Chinese to translate a Turkish novel into Mandarin. In a country which has over ten million speakers of Turkic languages living in Xinjiang alone, that’s a bit odd. [Read more…]

Israeli Writers in Chinese: Via Hebrew or English?

A literary agent on selling Israeli fiction overseas:

I can tell you there is no market more challenging than America’s. I sell more books in China and Japan than in America . . .

Could be, and perhaps it’s the quality of the translations into the Chinese. My girlfriend read Roman Russi (蓝山) by Meir Shalev several times, and she’s on her third read of Hatsotsrah ba-Wadi (瓦地的小号) by Sami Michael right now.

Ironically, it could well be that both these novels were translated based on English renditions (Blue Mountain and A Trumpet in the Wadi, respectively), not the original Hebrew. Crafty publishers in China often don’t list the language of the original work; instead, they identify the author by nationality, leaving you to guess which language the Chinese edition is based on. A quick look on the web shows that the translators of Roman Russi (于海江,张颖) and Hatsotsrah-ba-wadi (李慧娟) translate almost exclusively English books, so it’s unlikely that any of the three knows Hebrew well enough to translate it.