Great Openers when Interviewing Winners of Nobel Prize for Literature

Orhan Pamuk was recently in Egypt to inaugurate the Cairo Literary Festival. Here’s the tail-end of the opening question to the Turkish Nobel laureate, put to him by Egyptian writer Mona Anis:

It is not that we want any vulgar Sisi-versus-Erdogan quote from you, but perhaps we can discuss your relationship with politics.

Which immediately made me think of an equally audacious open-ended question to pose to China’s new Nobel man, Mo Yan:

It is not that we want any vulgar quote equating literary censorship with an airport security check, but perhaps we can discuss your relationship with politics.

For the full — and very revealing — interview with Pamuk, check out Ottoman Culture in Disguise.


Ethnic ChinaLit Quote of the Week: Wang Meng Waxes Nostalgic about His Xinjiang

Wang Meng (right): Fond memories of Xinjiang when interethnic relations were warmer

Wang Meng (right): Fond memories of Xinjiang when interethnic relations were warmer

“王震在新疆主政时有这么一条政策:进入新疆的干部和战士,学会维吾尔语,通过考试的,行政级别一律提一级。这样的政策,让干部和官员沉下去, 能够和当地老百姓交流沟通,和当地的老百姓打成一片。今天,还有多少干部能够做到这一点?”

(Author Wang Meng (王蒙) questioning why Han cadres in Xinjiang don’t speak the local lingua nowadays as they (and he) did back in the 60s and 70s when he labored in Ili. An excerpt from  《个民族之间需要精神层面的 ‘混泥土’ 》, a promotional piece for a new film about his 16 years in Xinjiang,  《巴彦代》)

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.

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.

March 8th update: For reviews of the film, see Wolf Totem: The Movie they Forgot to Make, or 《Le dernier loup》: Le plus chinois de tout les mélos chinois.

March 15th update: An article in the China Daily cites a professor at Minzu University’s Mongolian Language and Literature Department, who offers a more nuanced view in which he points out that “some ancestors of the Mongolian people might have once worshipped the wolf as a totem.” The article begins here, but the professor’s points are on page three

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

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…]