If the headline had read “Overworked Foreign Librairians Opt for Mai Jia’s Popular ‘Decoded’ Over Chinese Classics” probably no one would have noticed.
But the table was captioned “Globally Most Influential Contemporary Chinese Literature in Translation in 2014” (2014 年世界影响力最大的中国当代文学译作). In China, perhaps nothing strikes a nerve more sharply than foreign perceptions — and ranking — of Things Chinese.
In fact, the “2014 Most Influential” ranking (see here) is little more than a list of the number of overseas librairies that have purchased at least one copy of a modern Chinese work of fiction in translation. Never mind that only English translations are included, and it’s not clear if the purchases were made this year.
Not surprisingly, popular novels by Mai Jia, Yu Hua and Mo Yan figure prominently. Some critics — and perhaps not a few authors who didn’t make the list — are outraged.
Hong Kong’s influential daily Wen Wei Po has responded (图书馆收藏) with a lengthy if somewhat xenophobic rebuttal of the value of the ranking, and closes with this cautionary note:
Not a few commentators hold the opinion that every writer should actually address the readership in his own land that speaks his language, and with whom he shares a common history and destiny. In other words, the fundamental question is: For whom is the work written, who shall be its premier reader? Only when this is the case, then if our writers become aware of the existence of others readers in the world, this will not be a bad thing.
What’s the thinking behind this call for Chinese writers to prioritize their compatriots? Here are the main points buttressing this argument:
The list is hardly authoritative
- Mai Jia’s Decoded is an example of “genre fiction.” But says Peng Lun, editor at 99read.com, “genre fiction does not represent all fiction.” And, he adds, market-wide sales — not just library purchases — are a more reliable indicator of influence.
Issues of Translator Nationality, Outdated Foreign Tastes
- “Behind a series of Chinese contemporary works that have elicited attention overseas in recent years . . . there is always a foreign translator.” (See Foreign Devil Translators for background on this touchy topic.)
- Foreigners’ preferences for Chinese literature are still “back in the era of Lin Qinnan,” says the article. It’s not clear if this is the opinion of reporter Shao Ling (邵岭) or one of his interviewees. Anyhow, it’s a bizarre reference. Lin Qinnan, better known as Lin Shu (林紓), lived during 1852-1924, and according to Wikipedia, he collaborated with others to render more than 170 English and French titles in literary Chinese. The only catch: he didn’t speak any foreign language.
Dangers of over-emphasizing foreign readership
- Luo Gang, professor in the Chinese Department at East China Normal University, points out that authors worldwide don’t write to be translated, and today’s Chinese writers should be no exception. If they single-mindedly strive for recognition from foreign readers — and this becomes a trend — their writing will lack “cultural awareness and confidence.”