Translator Shortage and Tired Tales of Chinese Exceptionalism

Writes Dong Fangyu at China Daily in Translators Leave China Lost for Words:

Lenin's Kisses“. . . many Chinese novels that have won top prizes and been well received in China face delays in getting published abroad due to a lack of good translators.

Take the example of the novel Shou Huo (The Joy of Living,[受活]) by Yan Lianke [阎连科]. Although copyright contracts for it were signed with publishers from Japan, France, Italy and the United Kingdom in late 2004, to date none of the four translated novels have been published, as no competent translators are available.”

This is a claim rich in implications:

  • The Chinese language is too subtle and complex to be understood by outsiders
  • The Chinese-to-foreign-language translation task might best be left to us here in China
  •  There would be more than one Chinese Nobel Laureate if our works had been adequately translated.

I use the word “claim” above because Dong Fangyu hasn’t bothered to get her facts straight. As noted in a discussion at Paper Republic, Yan Lianke’s novel Shòu huó has already been translated into French (Bons baisers de Lénine) and English (Lenin’s Kisses).

Underlying the opinions expressed by Dong Fangyu is a concern that China is not sufficiently in control of its literary exports, and something (urgently) needs to be done about this. See Are Foreign Devil Translators Hijacking China’s Debut on the Global Literary Stage? for more commentary on the looming threat to Chinese exceptionalism.

It’s also ironic that Dong Fangyu should choose Yan Lianke’s works as an example of those “well received in China” but that “face delays in getting published abroad due to a lack of good translators.”  In fact, Yan’s 《为人民服务》(Serve the People) is banned in China, and his 《丁庄之梦》(Dream of Ding Village) was initially banned and then available  in China (briefly) in censored format. Both are available uncensored in English and French, and the former is out in German too (Dem Volke Dienen).

In an e-mail interview I conducted with him, Yan also wrote me that he decided to publish his recent work, 《四书》 (Four Books) in Taiwan, because he couldn’t find a publisher in the PRC.

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