Translation Crunch: Turkey Revs up for Role as Country of Honor at 2014 Beijing Book Fair

It has been officially announced that Turkey will be the Country of Honor at the 2014 Beijing Int’l Book Fair, as China was at the Istanbul In’tl Book Fair this year.

A dearth of Turkish-to-Chinese translators means Turkish works like this one are often translated from the English.

Which raises several questions:

  • What contemporary works of fiction by Turkish authors are already available in Chinese?
  • Which additional novels are to be published in time for the Beijing Book Fair in late August 2014?
  • Who is going to translate them, and what language(s) will they be translated from?

My table below — which I believe is fairly comprehensive — helps to answer some of these questions, but it’s hard to believe that the Turkish publishing industry would be content with such a short list of works in Chinese.

For its part, Turkey’s government-sponsored TEDA, a program under the Ministry of Culture & Tourism that subsidizes translations and publications into many languages, has offered financial support to the translation and publication of 16 books into Chinese [Dec 28 update: 19], of which 10 have been published so far.

While that may sound like a decent effort, over the years TEDA has subsidized an incredible 1,333 titles, the top recipients being German (209), Bulgarian (169) and Iranian (66) (见表).

Surely Turkey’s government sees a bigger potential market in China than in . . . Bulgaria?

Regardless of who bankrolls the publication of Turkish works to be launched in time for the Beijing Book Fair, another pressing problem is their translation. There are reportedly only a handful of professional Chinese translators who can handle literary translation straight from the Turkish. Shen Zhixing, Xia Yongmin, Yin Tingting and Tang Jiankun do; several of the others listed in the table below can’t. [Read more…]

“Madam Atatürk: The First Lady of Modern Turkey” Now Out in English

Ataturk and his wifeThe English translation of the biography of the woman who married Turkey’s “Father of the Nation,” Madam Atatürk: The First Lady of ModernTurkey, has just been launched. Author Ipek Çalışlar stood trial over charges of insulting the memory of Atatürk in her biography of Latife Hanım (Latife Uşakizâde) but was acquitted several years ago. Reports Hürriyet Daily News:

A multilingual intellectual educated at the Sorbonne, Latife’s marriage to Atatürk in 1923 set her apart from her contemporaries, raising her to the pinnacle of political power. She played a central role in the creation of a modern and secular Turkey and campaigned tirelessly for women’s right to vote.

Throughout her marriage, Latife stood beside her husband and acted as his interpreter, promoter and diplomatic aide. However, after only two years of marriage, Atatürk divorced Latife and she soon disappeared from public life. 

Manchu Ulabun: A Hot Research Topic in China

Apparently known as ulabun in Manchu and Shuō bù (说部) in Chinese, this is a storytelling tradition—involving song and recital—among the Manchu of northeast China. These tales naturally center around folk heroes, indigenous religious beliefs and history of the Manchu, but some Chinese experts argue that it has long been influenced by the Han tradition of storytelling, or Shuōshū (说书). For a brief description of the tradition in English, see Biographic Singing and Talking at the web site of the Institute of Ethnic Literature. [Read more…]

King Gesar Update: Academics Congregate, but Septuagenarian Bard Struggles to Pass on the Tradition

One-third of the extant written versions of the Tibetan epic King Gesar (格萨尔王) make a reference to Maqu County in Gansu (玛曲), leading Chinese experts to believe it may be the historical birthplace of the epic. But according to a report on (说唱传承人), only one bard residing there is capable of performing the saga.

Ga’erkao (尕尔考) knows that this art, passed down to him from his great-grandfather, will not be taken up by any of his living relatives. So he is busy training a handful of teenagers in Zhaxi Village (扎西村) who are keen to learn, but at 70, his energy is limited.

But if most seasoned performers of the epic are in their twilight years—rendering it an endangered art form—China sees a new opportunity for burnishing its image as steward of this Tibetan cultural heritage, and thus it is busy promoting its study among academics. Some 70 international experts were recently invited to a conference in Inner Mongolia to share their research on various orally transmitted epics, and primarily King Gesar.  Details of the topics covered can be seen here in Chinese.

A few factoids:

  • Delegates: From locations as diverse as Japan, Russia, Mongolia and Turkey
  • Popularization: New Chinese versions of the tale are appearing in the graphic form—similar to comics in the West—known as 连环画.
  • African echoes: A professor (阿德莫拉·达斯尔瓦) from Nigeria’s University of Ibadan drew parallels between the performance of King Gesar and West African epics.

Chinese Fiction in Translation: Novels/Novellas with “Ethnic” Theme

Over the last few months a number of reporters have e-mailed to ask about the state of Chinese literature in translation, particularly in light of Mo Yan’s winning the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature. But most cite just a handful of authors and works in their questions— and Shanghai Baby, translated by yours truly over a decade ago!—is often one of them.

My advice to them is simple: do your homework, please! For starters, check out Paper-Republic.  All sorts of goodies over there, including a list of translated Chinese fiction (and poetry) published in 2012, Chinese fiction published in 2013, and a Translator Directory too.

Here at Altaic Storytelling, we focus on writing by & about non-Han peoples, particularly those which speak an Altaic language, but not exclusively. And it is interesting to note that translated fiction with an “ethnic” twist has been building up steam for a while, pre-dating the Mo Yan craze, in fact.

To my mind, the impetus for the increased profile of Chinese literature in the outside world began when China was named “Guest of Honor” at the 2009 Frankfurt Int’l Book Fair. Chinese authors and publishers socialized with their European counterparts—many for the first time—and important contacts and contracts resulted, with the books born of this schmoozing finally hitting the market 2-3 years later.

In China is Focusing on the Fringes published in March this year, literary translator Nicky Harman presciently pointed out that “independent–minded Chinese writers are becoming seriously interested in the geographical fringes of ‘China proper’, drawing on its people, their traditions and conflicts at work.” And as you can see below, foreign publishers are interested. When you consider that over the last few years just 15 or so Chinese novels have appeared in English each year—ethnic or no—this table looks a bit more impressive.

Indeed. So, to show this more graphically—and perhaps even to save myself a bit of hassle in recreating the wheel for the next journalist who wants to pick my brains—I’ve put together this table. If you know something I should add to it, including current projects that will be published in 2014, please let me know! [Read more…]

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…]

“The Shepherd’s Dream”: An Excerpt from Alai’s “King Gesar”

Several years ago, UK publisher Canongate commissioned contemporary ethnic Tibetan writer Alai to pen his own creative version of the King Gesar saga. The plan: to launch Alai’s King Gesar (格萨尔王, 阿来著)  as part of its global Myth Series, joining other creatively re-told tales including The Penelopiad (Margaret Atwood’s take on Penelope of The Odyssey), Baba Yaga Laid an Egg (Baba Yaga as per Dubravka Ugresic), and Binu and the Great Wall (by China’s Su Tong).

The traditional Epic of King Gesar (Tibetan: གེ་སར་རྒྱལ་པོ), believed to date from the 12th century, relates the heroic deeds of Gesar, the fearless lord of the legendary Kingdom of Ling. It is recorded variously in poetry and prose, and is performed widely throughout Central Asia. According to Wikipedia, besides versions of the tale conserved by PRC-based minorities such as the Bai, Naxi, the Pumi, Lisu and Yugur peoples, other variations are also found among the Burushaski-speaking Burusho of Hunza and Gilgit, the Kalmyk and Ladakhi peoples, in Baltistan, in Sikkim, Bhutan, Nepal, and among various Tibeto-Burmese, Turkish, and Tunghus tribes. The first printed version was a Mongolian text published in Beijing in 1716.

When I wrote Canongate in 2010, they told me December 2012 was the likely publication date of Alai’s work in English. Now August 2013 is apparently the new target date. Why the delay? I don’t know the inside story. But perhaps it’s because they eventually recruited the hottest duo in the world of Chinese-to-English literary translation—Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Lin—to render King Gesar in English.  It’s public knowledge that Goldblatt and Lin are the first choice of many publishers, and they are so busy that each new Chinese novel they translate has to (patiently) wait its turn. . .

Happily, has now published an excerpt from Song of Gesar entitled The Shephard’s Dream:

‘My dear nephew, with so many people around, sometimes the gods simply cannot take care of us all, and that is why you feel out of sorts. When that happens, think about this syllable.”I don’t know how to carve.’

‘Then treat your heart as the best pear wood and imagine yourself holding a knife carving out this syllable one letter at a time. As long as you think about it and say it, gradually there will be only this syllable flickering in your consciousness, and that will bring you tranquility.’

On his way home, he said to the donkey, ‘I’m thinking about that syllable.’

The syllable was pronounced Om. When that sound is made, everything that turns, water wheels, windmills, spinning wheels and prayer wheels, begins to spin. And when everything is spinning, the world turns.

The donkey did not understand, but ambled along with its head lowered and its eyes cast downward. The road made a sharp turn by a sparse grove of pine trees. Swaying its narrow hips, the donkey disappeared momentarily from his view as it made the turn. So he raised his voice and spoke to two parrots perched on a wild cherry tree: ‘Think about the syllable.’

Startled, the birds fluttered up, clamouring, ‘Syllable! Syllable! Syllable!’ and flew away.

He quickened his steps and found his donkey waiting for him by the side of the road. It gave him a dispassionate look before setting off again, the bell on its neck jingling as it plodded ahead.

For a long time after that, Jigme spoke to all manner of living things that appeared along the way, telling them, in a half serious, half bantering manner, of how he was focusing on that syllable – serious because he hoped it would help him return to his dream world and not forget it upon waking, and bantering because he could not bring himself to believe in it. Mocking it helped him prepare for the inevitable disappointment. But deep down he hoped it would work magic.

Click here to read the full excerpt.

See also a book review of Alai’s Song of Gesar [full book published in 2014], and a marvelous look at how Tibetan epic singers come into being,  Bab Sgrung: Tibetan Epic Singers.

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…]

“Tibet Code”: China’s New Imaginary

In Inventing Chinese Mass Tourism to Tibet, we see the creative marketing of China’s Tibet moving into high gear:

The most recent and most spectacular staging of Tibetan history and culture, specifically intended for tourist consumption, was announced in 2013. Three mass entertainment companies combined in 2013 to turn the best selling Chinese fantasy book series, Tibet Code into a movie and, they announced, a theme park.

The three companies involved are a Hollywood studio and two Chinese partners with global ambitions. The partnership was put together by Dream Works, a studio keen to earn more from the booming Chinese movie market.

This planned movie, theme park and branded merchandise has the lot: not only fiercely loyal Tibetan dogs, swords, spears, mystery, pacy action, but even Hitler and Stalin play roles in exhibiting the universal fascination with Tibet. Tibet Code is preoccupied with the external artefacts of Tibetan mysticism, as power objects to be sought and fought over, much as the mysteriously powerful ritual objects of the Catholic church feature in The da Vinci Code. These sacra are both wondrous and fearsome, long dead yet still alive, with a power to confer power or wreak harm, an ambivalence deeply felt in modern life. Tibet Code does not hesitate to throw in both Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler, both supposedly despatching secret missions to capture that power for their evil ends, each preoccupied with Tibet as a mysterious source of power.

“Het laatste kwartier van de maan”: Launching August 20

Het Laatste Kwartier van de MaanLaunch Date: August 20, 2013

If you don’t know Chinese and prefer not to read Chi Zijian’s classic <额尔古纳河右岸> about the twilight of the Evenki in later this year you can enjoy it in Dutch—Het laatste kwartier van de maan. It will be available from The House of Books beginning the latter part of August. But please note: the Dutch is based on . . . my English translation.

You might like to compare this Dutch cover with that of the Italian edition and the English. The eyes (above) look distinctly Chinese to me, which is a bit odd; the Evenki are a Siberian people more closely related to the Manchu than the Han.

Click here for full background on Last Quarter of the Moon, including book reviews, all foreign language editions and research about the Evenki.