Time to Open up the Orhan Pamuk/Mo Yan Monopoly to Competition?

At his press conference yesterday in Istanbul after a five-day stay in the city, Mo Yan called for the governments of China and Turkey to actively promote literary translation.

“I could have [the] chance to read only the books of Orhan Pamuk as he was the only Turkish writer whose books have been translated into Chinese. And Turkish readers most probably only read my book,” he said (Xinhua). The latter is a reference to Kızıl Darı Tarlaları (Red Sorghum), his sole novel to be translated into Turkish.

Well, that’s a slight exaggeration. At least 9 of Pamuk’s books are available in Chinese, but the good news is that several new titles from other Turkish authors—I count another 9—should be launched before or at the 2014 Beijing Int’l Book Fair in late August this year. They include the classic Turkish novel of the 20th century, The Time Regulation Institute by Ahmet Tanpınar, also newly rendered in English. See 中文版本 for the full list.

If politically correct Mo Yan insists on reading solely Chinese renditions available in the People’s Republic, however, he will be missing out on two of the most popular Turkish authors who have elected to publish their works first in Taiwan: Elif Şafak, who just launched her 愛的哲學課:雲遊僧與詩人魯米 (Forty Rules of Love) there, and Ahmet Ümit’s 伊斯坦堡死亡紀事 (Istanbul Hatırası), a crime thriller.

The motor driving much of Turkey’s literary exports is TEDA, the government-subsidized “translation and publication grant program.” Over the years it has helped fund the publication of over 1,000 titles in dozens of foreign languages. But here are some TEDA statistics to help you understand how secondary the China market has been considered until recently:

  • 230:   German language editions
  • 194:    Bulgarian
  •   94:    English
  •   21:    Chinese

Comparatively speaking, Turkish readers eager to read works by contemporary Chinese writers have a smaller pool of works to choose from, but new titles are fast emerging. Wang Gang’s Ingilizce (English) and Tie Ning’s Sonsuz ne Kadar Uzun (How Long is Forever?) were launched late last year, and Chi Zijian’s Last Quarter of the Moon (额尔古纳河右岸) has just been purchased for publication in Turkish.

At the press conference, Mo Yan revealed that he has signed a contract with his Turkish Publisher Can Yayınları to translate and publish three more of his novels: Frog (蛙), Life and Death are Wearing Me Out (生死疲劳), and Big Breasts and Wide Hips (丰乳肥臀). The latter should be in bookstores by May, according to a tweet by publisher Can Öz.

Just how many of these Turkish-Chinese and Chinese-Turkish translations will be done via the medium of English is an unknown, because there is an acute shortage of literary translators between the two languages.  Both Wang Gang’s and Tie Ning’s novels were translated into Turkish from the English versions, and so was Zülfü Livaneli’s very popular Bliss (伊斯坦布尔的幸福) when it was launched in China a few years back.

To hasten the nurturing of such talent, perhaps authors in both countries need to learn from Orhan Pamuk. Several years ago his Benim Adım Kırmızı (My Name is Red) was translated from the English into Chinese for readers in Taiwan. The result was a very mediocre rendering—I’ve read parts of it and thoroughly agree—and he was reportedly so angered that he instructed his agent: All future translations of his fiction must be done direct from the Turkish.