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.

Chutzpah!: Latest Issue Devoted to Writers of non-Han Descent

Good news from the bimonthly Chinese literary magazine Chutzpah! (天南): the latest edition (Issue 14) is devoted entirely to writing by authors of non-Han descent. Several languages are involved here—most are published in Chinese, but some were written in other tongues and then translated into Chinese, while one has been rendered in English.

The latter deserves a special mention because . . . I translated it. It’s a marvelous short story by Uyghur writer Alat Asem (阿拉提·阿斯木), entitled Sidik Golden MobOff (《斯迪克金子关机》). If you want to read it in full, you’ll have to purchase the magazine in hard copy form, but here’s an excerpt. But for more information on the author, see China’s Bilingual Writers: Narrative with a Difference.  And if you can read Chinese, check out this very informative interview with the author, 地域化、全球化和双语写作. [Read more…]

Au Tibet, les conflits sanglants entre Christ et Bouddha

Une_terre_de_lait2Dans Au Tibet, les conflits sanglants entre Christ et BouddhaBertrand Mialaret nous signale un roman et un événement actuels qui traitent sur l’histoire des religions au tibet du XIXe siècle:

Un livre et une exposition sont centrés sur les conflits sanglants entre le Christ et Bouddha à la frontière du Yunnan chinois et du Tibet. Deux événements simultanés mais sans lien entre eux.

Il s’agit de la publication en avril d’un roman de Fan Wen [范稳], « Une Terre de lait et de miel », et une exposition en cours, « Missions du toit du monde », aux Missions étrangères à Paris. Lire la suite . . .

For the English version of this article, click here.

Caixin’s “Day in the Life of a Beijing Black Guard”: Straight out of “Champa the Driver”

In January 2013, Beijing-based Chan Koonchung’s novel The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver (《裸Caixin's story on Black Guards命》, 陈冠中) was published in Chinese in Hong Kong. The closing chapter recounts how a young, naïve Tibetan chauffeur from Lhasa proudly takes his first job in the capital, working in what he refers to as “Preserving Stability Hotel” (维稳宾馆).

His job: to ensure that the hotel guests remain under lock and key until they can be “escorted” back to their hometowns. It takes a while for Champa to realize that he is just a tool, charged with carrying out a form of extraordinary (domestic) rendition with Chinese characteristics.

On April 2—more than 2 months after Chan Koonchung’s novel was published— CaixinOnline published its own investigative journalism piece documenting a “strange industry” in which “temporary workers” are hired as interceptors to kidnap and imprison would-be petitioners, thus ensuring their grievances do not come to the attention of the central authorities:

Over the past year, Wang [a native of Henan] was stationed near the Guangdong provincial government’s Beijing bureau near the capital’s western Third Ring Road. His job was to help Guangdong officials detain people who had come from the southern province to Beijing to file petitions and then escort them home. There were 20 or 30 others doing the same job he was working under the same supervisor, and there were more than four supervisors providing the service to officials from all over Guangdong stationed in Beijing.

He referred to his profession as “helping the government handle affairs.” The more popular job title is “black guard,” a unique profession that comes in tandem with China’s petition system.

Read more about these “black jails” (extralegal detention centers) in English (A Day in the Life) at CaixinOnline, or check out the novel, The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver. 

“Turkish Culture Year in China”: But Where Are the Books?

Thursday March 21 saw the official launch of “Turkish Culture Year in China” (土耳其文化年) in Beijing.  The road show—destined for 12 cities—includes dance and music performances, fashion shows and a “Turkish Cuisine Week,” but I haven’t found a detailed list or schedule yet. Beijing, Shanghai, Yichang (Hubei), Shenzhen and Hong Kong are confirmed road stops, though.  It comes on the heels of “Chinese Culture Year in Turkey” which ended in February and helped attract 120,000 Chinese visitors to Turkey last year.

Readers who want to get a taste of Turkish literary works in Chinese will find them thin on the ground, however; see my initial list here.  In the PRC, the only widely translated Turkish author is Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk. Several of his best-known novels including My Name is Red, Museum of Innocence and Snow are available in Chinese (奥尔罕·帕慕克).  <伊斯坦布尔的幸福> (Mutluluk, or Bliss in English) by Zülfü Livaneli, the writer, musician, singer, journalist and member of parliament, is one of just a handful of novels—Pamuk’s aside, obviously—that have been genuinely well received in China where Turkey still has a rather low profile.


Turkish Literary Works Rendered in Foreign Languages via TEDA Project

(Mid-2012 Statistics)


Target Language

Titles Translated























[Read more…]

Chi Zijian, la mort des shamans et des éleveurs de rennes

Bertrand Mialaret examine la traduction anglaise du roman chinois de Chi Zijian, Last Quarter of the Moon (额尔古纳河右岸, 迟子建著), l’histoire de la crépuscule des Evenki dans la dernière partie du XXe siècle (l’article français en entier):

Les Evenki ont de l’amour pour leurs rennes qui sont beaucoup plus qu’un troupeau, presque des partenaires. « In my eyes, white reindeer are clouds fleeting across the face of the earth. I’ve never encountered another animal that possesses the docile temperament and endurance of the reindeer . . . Reindeer were certainly bestowed upon us by the Spirits, for without these creatures we would not be.»

Les hommes et les rennes s’accompagnent mutuellement dans les migrations à la recherche des mousses pour les rennes et de nouveaux terrains de chasse. Ils sont libres avec leurs grelots mais reviennent chaque soir au camp. On ne mange pas leur chair, on boit leur lait et on les utilise pour transporter hommes et campements.

Les rennes sont l’obstacle majeur à une vie plus sédentaire. Comme dit la narratrice: « my reindeer have committed no crime and I don’t want to see them imprisoned either .»

Update: Mialaret has just put this piece up in English: Chi Zijian, the Death of Shamans and Reindeer Herders.