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…]

Mini-review: Gao Ping’s “Tsangyang Gyatso, The Sixth Dalai Lama “

Leave me to myself. Go away.

I have had enough of your demands on me. I didn’t ask for it.

What right do you have to make me your Dalai Lama? What right do you have

to make me a eunuch, while still leaving my body and passions intact?

(From Paul Williams’ The Erotic Verse of the Sixth Dalai Lama)

This particular Dalai Lama (1683-1706) is more renowned for his love life and poetry—and his violent death at a young age—than for his role as a spiritual mentor. I came upon a fictionalized Chinese-language biography of him by Gao Ping (高平) not long ago, Tsangyang Gyatso, The Sixth Dalai Lama (六世达赖喇嘛仓央嘉措), but didn’t read it yet.

But it turns out that this (to me) unassuming book was, at one time at least, rather controversial. According to a report in the China Library Weekly on August 10, 2010 (出版过程可以写一部小说), Gao Ping originally found a publisher for the book in 1983, but “unfortunately there were Tibetan compatriots who held different views [about it] who, by means of several anonymous letters, hampered its publication.” So it wasn’t until 2007 that the novel was finally published by China Tibet Publishing (中国西藏出版社). It would be interesting to know what issues caused publication to be delayed for more than two decades. According to the report, Gao Ping is an accomplished Han poet who first entered Tibet as a PLA soldier in 1951 when he was just 19.

I am happy to report that a Chinese friend has read the book in its entirety, and has kindly written some brief thoughts on it, which I have translated and lightly edited below. [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…]

Translator interview: Stéphane Lévêque, Chinese-to-French translator of Fan Wen’s “Harmonious Land”

As those knowledgeable about Chinese literature in translation may have noted, one occasionally finds EuropeanStéphane Lévêque publishers—particularly in France—are willing to translate and publish Chinese fiction long before these “unknown” authors are “discovered” by the English-speaking world. Ethnic ChinaLit spoke recently with Stéphane Lévêque, who is busy translating Harmonious Land (水乳大地) into French, the first novel [May 2014 note: now published as Terre de lait et de miel] in a trilogy by author Fan Wen (范稳) set along the borders of Yunnan and Tibet:

Vous avez été choisi pour traduire «Harmonious Land » (水乳大地) en français, et le roman sera publié par Philippe Picquier. Vous avez déjà traduit pas mal de livres du chinois, par exemple, «Le Chant des regrets éternels »  (长恨歌) de Wang Anyi (王安忆), ainsi que quelques livres de Jimmy Liao (几米).  Est-ce correct?

Pour être plus précis, j’ai traduit quelques textes de Yu Dafu (郁达夫), y compris « Rivière d’automne », la biographie de Jin Xing (金星), une danseuse transsexuelle anciennement colonel dans l’APL, et deux romans de Wang Anyi, «Amour sur une colline dénudée » (荒山之恋) et « Le Chant des regrets éternels » (co-traduit avec Yvonne André). J’ai aussi traduit quelques livres pour enfants chez Picquier dans la série « Táoqì bāo mǎ xiǎo tiào xìliè » (淘气包马小跳系列) de Yang Hongying (杨红樱), et enfin plusieurs albums de Jimmy Liao que j’adore pour les éditions Bayard. [Read more…]

China Census Time: As 2010 Count Begins, a Look back at how Ethnicity was Recorded in 1953-54

We all know that there are exactly 56 ethnic groups in China, yet in the 1953-54 census Yunnan alone reported more than 200. Over at China Beat, an excerpt from Tom Mullaney’s Coming to Terms with the Nation: Ethnic Classification in Modern China offers a bit of insight into these mathematics:

In the first census of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), carried out in late 1953 and early 1954, officials tabulated over four hundred different responses to the question of minzu identity. This deluge came in response to the Communist Party’s promise of ethnonational equality, which entailed a commitment to recognizing the existence of ethnonational diversity to a greater extent than their predecessors had ever been willing to do. Over the course of the subsequent three decades, however, only fifty-five of these were officially recognized, which entailed a remarkable level of categorical compression: from four hundred potential categories of minzu identity to under sixty. The most dramatic case, again, was that of Yunnan Province. Out of the four-hundred-plus names recorded in the 1953–54 census, more than half came from Yunnan alone. Over the following years, however, only twenty-five of these were ultimately recognized by the state.

Fan Wen: New Novel to Explore Culture Clash behind Yunnan-Vietnam Railway

Fan Wen (范稳), the Chinese Catholic author who recently completed his fictional trilogy spotlighting cultural and religious collisions in the “multicultural wonderland” of the Yunnan-Tibet border, now has another historical novel in mind.

The first book in the published series, Harmonious Land (水乳大地), recounts the tale of a multi-ethnic settlement in Lancangjiang Canyon (gateway to Tibet), beset by battles between arrogant French Catholic missionaries, incompetent officials and their marauding troops, Naxi Dongba Shamanists, and the dominant Tibetans, not all of whom lead pacific, vegetarian lives in the local lamasery.

Ethnic ChinaLit spoke with Fan Wen about his new work-in-progress:

Q: Word has it that you’re working on a new novel about the rail line linking China’s Kunming and Vietnam’s Haiphong that was constructed during French colonial rule of Indochina. How are you preparing for this project?

A: Yes, it’s about this railroad that’s soon to be completely abandoned. I rather enjoy the ‘history of decline’. It gives one a certain sense of desolation. After the Yunnan-Vietnam railway was completed [1910], it actually brought with it the collision and fusion of two distinct civilizations. The railway passed through the lands of several of Yunnan’s ethnic minorities, whose cultures were more backward than that of the Tibetans, and even more vulnerable. I intend to use several French nationals who were working on the railroad as the main characters. I’ll write about their lives in a foreign land, and their experiences against the backdrop of that alien culture, including the dangers they faced, their loves and their fates.

I’ve already read a lot of background material, conducted interviews along the line, and even stayed in the old train stations. I’m conceptualizing the story right now. [end]

Zhang Ling’s “Aftershock”: The Movie, the Screenwriter and the Part-time Censor

Director Feng Xiaogang’s gaze graces the cover of several publications this week, and indeed, the “disaster movie” genre in China may never be the same again thanks to him.  His adaptation of Zhang Ling’s Aftershock (张翎的 “余震”) is mesmerizing the nation’s moviegoers, and this tale of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake that killed over 200,000 leaves many drenched in tears.

Even Time is writing about the new film, the first IMAX film ever shot outside the US, based on the fictional work by the Chinese-Canadian author. Here’s Time’s synopsis of the plot: [Read more…]

Fan Wen’s Yunnan-Tibetan Trilogy: A Catholic Chinese Author’s Imagination Takes Flight

The China Daily features a piece on the third and final novel in a trilogy exploring the border on either side of Yunnan and Tibet:

At last author Fan Wen (范稳) has his reward for a decade of immersion in the multicultural wonderland along the Yunnan-Tibet border: Canticle to the Land (大地雅歌), the closing novel in his longish trilogy, has just been published in Chinese.

Why locate the tale there? “It’s my own ‘creative paradise’, an inspiration of sorts,” explains Fan, a devout Catholic from Sichuan province. “You can interpret this as a summons from God, or as a writer who has been vanquished by a certain spirituality, the cultures and beliefs of the people of this realm.”

That day in 1999 when he came across the “lonely” grave of a martyred Swiss missionary in Lancangjiang Canyon, Father Maurice Tornay, he realized he had found his “sacred vocation”. Indeed, the area straddling the provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan and Tibet autonomous region is an anthropologist’s dream. One finds Tibetans, Han, Naxi, Yi, Lisu and other ethnic groups living together.

“I find describing the interaction – and collisions – between different cultures a challenging and engaging affair,” Fan says. “Conflicts have taken place due to differences in culture and faith, like wars between Naxi and Tibetans, and Tibetans and Han. Irreconcilable contradictions occurred between Tibetan Buddhism and Catholicism when the latter was introduced.”

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…]

Interview: Author Murong Xuecun (慕容雪村) on his Undercover Role Investigating a Chinese Pyramid Scheme

Murong Xuecun has gained a name for himself through his unflattering vignettes of gambling, drinking, whoring and corruption in contemporary China. His best-seller, Leave me Alone: A Novel of Chengdu (成都,今夜请将我遗忘), prompted the authorities to convene a conference solely to critique the novel for sullying the Sichuan city’s image.

But in a change of tack away from fiction writing, early this year the author decided to experience—first hand—just how a “direct selling” operation in Jiangxi’s Shangrao recruits and gains control over its members. His revelations hit the stands as the cover story for Southern Metropolis Weekly’s April 19 edition: “Murong Xuecun—Undercover 23 Days in a Pyramid Selling Organization” (慕容雪村卧底传销23天之一).

Read my interview with Murong Xuecun about how he did it, and why.