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Stephanie Meyer Red-hot in China: Could it be the Footnotes?

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?

7 replies on “Stephanie Meyer Red-hot in China: Could it be the Footnotes?”

There are plenty of aspects of Chinese publishing that are not particularly market-driven. Is there any reason to believe that this practice reflects what readers actually want, as opposed to simply representing the way translated literature has always been published in China?

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Whether readers actually read and appreciate the footnotes is, of course, open to question! And I’m not seriously proposing that footnotes are driving sales of the “Twilight” series, Joel.

But I do question your statement that heavily annotated copy is “the way translated literature has always been published in China,” and certainly don’t find that to be the case in today’s best-selling fiction for under-30s. I check out the bookstore fairly often, and have rarely seen anything like the number and length of those served up in “Eclipse.” In business or technology textbooks, sure; but not in light fiction.

If one were to research this phenomenon in depth (and I am not going to do so without a grant!), my hunch is that over the centuries you would find more numerous and more detailed footnotes tend to appear in translated fiction when: 1) Readers feel a certain distance between their own culture and the one portrayed in the story, and feel a need for explanations; 2) Readers are truly curious about the “other” represented in the text; 3) Readers seek not simply to read and enjoy, but also to master the culture of the “other” that is present in the text; and 4) When under-employed editors with intellectual pretensions believe they must educate the reader, regardless of what the reader thinks…

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Prejudiced-to-the-Chinese-authorities me would vote for point no.4 (unfortunately).
I guess a research on how this ‘education through footnotes or introductions of all kinds” manipulates the story-devouring reader’s image of the West (or East – i assume there must be some heavily ludicrous footnotes available on japanese culture too) could be an interesting thing to do;)
I recall a ‘preamble’ to a dvd version of either ‘Desperate Housewives’ or ‘L world’, all in Chinese, explaining to the audience how deteriorated the relationships are in America…

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This is not quite the same thing, but I have been watching Japanese television with fan-made subtitles for some time now. After watching shows with notes and those without, I have to say that I far prefer to having notes than not. Sometimes they seem excessive, and after a while you end up learning so much from these notes that they’re unnecessary, but they’re always interesting if not directly important to what’s going on in the show.

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as one who loves footnotes on the same page, a practice that seems to be dying in English publishing, i’m pleased at the suggestion that the practice thrives in China —

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Late to the party here, but why let a good discussion go quietly into that good night? For evidence that footnotes are widely embraced in China, look no further than the surprisingly high-quality and lightning speed fan subtitling of foreign TV series. Yes, they even use footnotes in subtitles! Bits of “americana” explained, puns explored, historical facts elucidated. It’s a real art to create a footnote that can be read in the three to five seconds that a subtitle flashes on screen! OK, to be realistic, viewers probably use the pause button to read a footnote if they are interested, and just ignore it if they are not. Which then begs the question, why all the fuss about footnotes? They are purely optional. No one forces a reader to read them. Those who are curious can go deeper. Those who aren’t can get on with the story. As long as the translator understands this principle (strive to make footnotes optional, but enlightening) I don’t see why generous footnoting shouldn’t be the norm. Publisher prejudice is probably one big reason we don’t do this. Another is that it maybe reveals something unflattering about the Western reader: we’re already certain they’re just not that curious. A sad commentary, really, because the 49 footnotes in Eclipse (a popular novel!) are screaming that Chinese readers are brimming with curiosity. And isn’t that more what reading should be about?

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