African Writing in Chinese Translation: 2021 Round-up + A Peek at 2022

By Bruce Humes

“This has been a great year for African writing,” said South Africa’s Damon Galgut upon receiving the 2021 Booker Prize for his novel, The Promise

As reported in From the Booker to the Nobel, several other African authors also snagged prestigious European literary prizes during 2021. They include Abdulrazak Gurnah (Nobel), David Diop (International Booker), Mohamed Mbougar Sarr (Prix Goncourt), and Karen Jennings and Nadifa Mohamed, longlisted and shortlisted, respectively, for the Booker. 

But how keen are Chinese publishers on Africa, arguably an “emerging” supply market for the Middle Kingdom? 

One way to gauge interest is to check out AfroLit4China, a bilingual (Chinese and English) database listing African writing (mainly book-length fiction) published in the Sinophone world since the 80s. Literary factoids listed below are based on AfroLit4China

A few numbers first:

269:  African works published in Chinese 

106:   African authors now available in Chinese 

 40:   People’s Literature Publishing House’s African titles

  16:  African works newly published in China during 2020-21

Since the 1980s and the first wave of translated African literature in the PRC, some 62 China-based publishers have “imported” — yǐnjìn, that’s the term in Mandarin — at least one African literary work. Only 5 have purchased the rights to at least 10, however. They include Yilin Press (译林出版社), Foreign Literature Publishing House (外语教学与研究出版社), and Zhejiang Literature and Art Publishing House (浙江文艺出版社), none of which were particularly active “importers” in 2021.

Shanghai Translation Publishing House (上海译文出版社) made itself the talk of China’s publishing circle in 2021 with its purchase of all ten major works of fiction by Abdulrazak Gurnah, the new Nobel Prize Laureate. Five of them have a publication target date of October 2022: Paradise, Admiring Silence, By The Sea, The Last Gift, and Afterlives. Including those novels, Shanghai Translation now owns the Chinese-language rights for more than 20 African books, including 7 by Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz.

Other China publishers with at least 5 translated African titles to their name include Sino-Culture Press (华文出版社), specializing in North African literature;  Citic Press (中信出版社), six of Mia Couto’s novels from the Portuguese; Thinkingdom Media (新经典文化); Taiwan’s Homeward Publishing (南方家园), a series of novels from Francophone West Africa; Shanghai Literature & Art Publishing (上海文艺出版社), titles by Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz and Nigeria’s Chimamanda Adichie; Beijing Yanshan Press (北京燕山出版社), publisher of Nobel Laureates Wole Soyinka and Nadime Gordimer, and World Affairs Press (世界知识出版社), publisher of an anthology of poetry, some translated from indigenous African languages.

2021: Published in Chinese

An Orchestra of Minorities    《卑微者之歌》 Chigozie Obioma. Nigeria. (Hunan Literature & Art Publishing House, 湖南文艺出版社)
Jiki Magayi: An Anthology of Hausa Literature 《身体会告诉你:非洲豪萨语文学作品选》 Abubakar Imam, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, Muhammadu Gwarzo, and John Tafida. Nigeria. (East China Normal University Press, 华东师范大学出版社)
Death of Jesus 《耶稣之死》J. M. Coetzee. South Africa. ((People’s Literature Publishing House, 人民文学出版社)
Birth of a Dreamweaver: A Memoir of a Writer’s Awakening 《织梦人》Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Kenya. (People’s Literature Publishing House, 人民文学出版社)
Dreams in a Time of War     《战时梦》 Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Kenya. (People’s Literature Publishing House, 人民文学出版社)
In the house of the Interpreter: A Memoir 《中学史》Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Kenya. (People’s Literature Publishing House, 人民文学出版社)
Wizard of the Crow       《乌鸦魔法师》 Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Kenya. (People’s Literature Publishing House, 人民文学出版社)

AfroLit4China 2020-2022 Highlights

2020 (see table, bottom of text)

Several notable non-fiction works including books by Nelson Mandela and Nigeria’s corruption-busting former finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala

2021 (see table, above)

Four new works by Kenya’s Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o — 12 in total — making him one of Africa’s most published authors in Chinese

2022 (see table, below)

18 new works in the pipeline, certainly the largest number of any year to date

Going Native

As noted in Can Literary Imports Change Chinese Perceptions of Africa?,” during the ’90s and 2000s, imported African literature was top-heavy with winners of globally recognized awards such as the Nobel Prize in Literature.” The Nobel cachet still holds great attraction, as can be seen from the way a single publisher snapped up the Chinese-language rights to all 10 of the 2021 Nobel Laureate’s novels (see table, 2022: In the Pipeline). 

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But a few publishers are also investing in writing in Africa’s indigenous languages. Two of the first three titles in the VI HORAE Africa Series (六点非洲系列) from East China Normal University Press (华东师范大学出版社) have been rendered in Chinese direct from African languages; none of the customary “re-treads” here via the intermediary of English. According to Commissioning Editor Shi Meijun (施美均), the Chinese translators learned African languages as undergraduates, and several have lived and studied in Africa.

2022: In the Pipeline

Les Soleils des indépendences 《独立的太阳》Ahmadou Kourouma. Ivory Coast. (Zhejiang Business University Publishing House, 浙江工商大学出版社)
Anowa 《阿诺瓦》Ama Ata Aidoo. Ghana. (Zhejiang Business University Publishing House, 浙江工商大学出版社)
The Joys of Motherhood       《为母之乐》Buchi Emecheta. Nigeria. (Zhejiang Business University Publishing House, 浙江工商大学出版社)
Stories from a Shona Childhood 《修纳儿童故事集》Charles Mungoshi. Zimbabwe. (Zhejiang Business University Publishing House, 浙江工商大学出版社)
 L’Aventure ambigue       《模棱两可的冒险》Cheikh Hamidou Kane. Senegal. (Zhejiang Business University Publishing House, 浙江工商大学出版社)
 The Soul of the White Ant        《白蚁的灵魂》Eugène Marais. South Africa. (Zhejiang Business University Publishing House, 浙江工商大学出版社)
Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism   《公民与臣民: 当代非洲与晚期殖民主义的遗产》Mahmood Mamdani. Uganda. (Zhejiang Business University Publishing House, 浙江工商大学出版社)
The History of the Yorubas       《约鲁巴历史》Samuel Johnson. Nigeria. (Zhejiang Business University Publishing House, 浙江工商大学出版社)
Admiring Silence       《赞美沉默》Abdulrazak Gurnah. Zanzibar. (Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 上海译文出版社)
 Afterlives 《来世》Abdulrazak Gurnah. Zanzibar. (Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 上海译文出版社)
By the Sea 《海边故事》Abdulrazak Gurnah. Zanzibar. (Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 上海译文出版社)
Desertion 《遗弃》Abdulrazak Gurnah. Zanzibar. (Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 上海译文出版社)
Dottie  《多蒂》Abdulrazak Gurnah. Zanzibar. (Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 上海译文出版社)
Gravel Heart 《砾心》Abdulrazak Gurnah. Zanzibar. (Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 上海译文出版社)
Memory of Departure         《离别的记忆》Abdulrazak Gurnah. Zanzibar. (Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 上海译文出版社)
The Last Gift                         《最后的礼物》Abdulrazak Gurnah. Zanzibar. (Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 上海译文出版社)
Paradise 《天堂》Abdulrazak Gurnah. Zanzibar. (Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 上海译文出版社)
Pilgrims Way                        《朝圣者之路》Abdulrazak Gurnah. Zanzibar. (Shanghai Translation Publishing House, 上海译文出版社)

They include Selected Poems of Shaaban bin Robert, which was translated from the original Swahili and published in a bilingual Swahili-Chinese format. Published in 2021 was The Body Will Tell You: Selected Works from the Hausa. Four novellas make up the first part of the book, while the second consists of two hundred short parables — inspired by West African oral folk literature as well as Aesop’s fables — compiled and retold by Yusufu Yunusa. 

Like Swahili in East Africa, in pre-colonial times several West African languages were written in an Arabic script (ajami). But under the British, a romanized alphabet became the official script for Hausa in 1930.  

“Modern Hausa literature was formed under the combined influence of Islamic and colonial British cultures, a phenomenon that is interesting in itself,” explained Shi. “In 1933, Hans Vischer, Director of the Colonial Board of Education in Northern Nigeria, proposed a contest for fiction written in African languages. Stories of 20,000 words or so were welcome, and they could be didactic in nature, but should not simply imitate mythology. Rupert Moultrie East, Director of the Bureau of Translation, received entries from Islamic scholars from all over northern Nigeria. 

“The four novellas we are translating and publishing in Chinese [Jiki Magayi: An Anthology of Hausa Literature] — by Abubakar ImamAbubakar Tafawa BalewaMuhammadu Gwarzo, and John Tafida — were the winners of that competition. These works marked the origin of the Hausa novel, and with them, the Latinized Hausa literature of Northern Nigeria entered a new stage of indigenous literary creation, going beyond mere translation of foreign literary works.”

Another publisher with robust plans for introducing African writing to China is Zhejiang Business University Publishing House (浙江工商大学出版社). Its series of published African classics (非洲人文经典译丛) already consists of a dozen or so books, mainly novels, but also non-fiction touching on topics such as racism and colonial rule. Chinese-language rights have been purchased for another 8 titles (see table, In the Pipeline for 2022), but to the best of my knowledge they have not been published. They include one non-fictional work about the Bantu-speaking Shona of Zimbabwe, Stories from a Shona Childhood, and another about one of Nigeria’s key ethnicities, The History of the Yorubas.

2020: Published in Chinese

My Sister, the Serial Killer    《我的妹妹是连环杀手》Oyinkan Braithwaite. Nigerian. (Guangxi Normal University Press, 广西师范大学出版社)
Fighting Corruption is Dangerous: The Story behind the Headlines 《我的反腐败故事》Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Nigerian. (China Fangzheng Press, 中国方正出版社)
The Expedition to the Baobab Tree                                       《去往猴面包树的旅程》Wilma Stockenström. South Africa. (Sichuan People’s Publishing House, 四川人民出版社)
Teoria Geral do Esquecimento  《遗忘通论》José Eduardo Agualusa. Angola. (Citic Press, 中信出版社)
Mémoires de porc-épic           《豪猪回忆录》Alain Mabanckou. Congo-Brazzaville. (Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press, 外语教学与研究出版社)
Selected Poems of Shaaban bin Robert (夏班·罗伯特诗歌选集) Robert Shaaban. Tanzania. (Shandong People’s Publishing House, 山东人民出版社)
African Literature: An Anthology of African Literary Criticism and Theory  《非洲文学批评史稿》Editors: Tejumola Olaniyan, Ato Quayson. (East China Normal University Press, 华东师范大学出版社)
Indaba, My Children       《印达巴,我的孩子们》Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa. South African. (Zhejiang Business University Publishing House, 浙江工商大学出版社)
The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela 《曼德拉狱中来信》Nelson Mandela. South Africa. (Shandong University Publishing House, 山东大学出版社)

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