As of early 2010, Meyer’s entire Twilight series—all four translated volumes—now rank among the “Top Ten Fiction Best Sellers” in mainland China. In Taiwan, they took the top four slots on the island’s list of best-selling fiction.
What’s driving the sales: A newly acquired national passion for vampire romance? The image of the photogenic female author from the US? Integrated marketing of the films + novels that push the right buttons?
I picked up a Chinese copy of Eclipse (月食) here in Shenzhen lately, and I can tell you one thing: the reading “experience” of the Chinese reader is likely to be a bit different than among Twilight’s fervent fěnsī (fans) in the West.
Meyer’s prose seems to average 3.5 lines to a paragraph in the original. Hardly tough going. But many of the footnotes that dot her yuèshí (eclipse) take up a third of a page, and a handful occupy more than half a page. Right there in the text, not at the end of the chapter. In mice type, China style.
And get this—there are a total of 49 footnotes in the entire novel. The lion’s share fall into one of three categories: geography, Greek mythology and what one might call Americana.
The most ubiquitous are place names followed by an avalanche of detail. Mexico City, we learn, now has a population topping 18 million, but its forerunner, founded by the Aztecs circa 1325, was the tongue-tripping Tenochtitlan. This meaty backgrounder runs a longish 297 hànzì (Chinese characters).
If nothing else, the footnote reader will come away from Eclipse much more knowledgeable about Greek mythology and its pantheon of anthropomorphic deities, demi-gods and assorted flying creatures and evil-doers. One note begins with a reference to Medusa, but quickly moves onto Aegis, Amphitrite, Athena, Chrysaor, Pegasus, Perseus and Poseidon, all of whom are related in one way or the other to this gorgon on a (never-ending) bad-hair day.
As for Americana, this is arguably the most intriguing category of the three. The subjects boggle the mind: References to and definitions of “cheerios” (the breakfast cereal) and “pop-tarts” (each measuring 7.6 x 14cm); “slumber party” (apparently only for girls); the Confederacy and General William Tecumseh Sherman; Xerox and the New Deal; and “John Brown’s Body”.
The history of the Ivy League colleges—from Brown to Princeton—also rates a detailed footnote. Not so surprising in a country where the national obsession is to ensure that one day soon China’s top universities will have the cachet of a Harvard or a Cambridge.
My colleagues at Paper-Republic, a Beijing-based web site that attracts Chinese-to-English translators and foreign publishers looking for original Chinese fiction, tend to pooh-pooh the use of footnotes. But young Chinese don’t seem to mind their presence even in wildly popular novels.
Simply a fascination with foreign trivia? Or a success-driven new generation that’s determined to learn about the world even as it wolfs down pulp fiction from the West?