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China's Ethnic-themed Fiction in Translation (中国民族题材文学的外译)

Quick Guide to China’s Contemporary Ethnic-themed Literature in Translation

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China's Ethnic-themed Fiction in Translation (中国民族题材文学的外译)

“Wolf Totem” Author Awarded Prize by World Mongol Authors Association

Wolf Totem in MongolianJiang Rong, the Han Chinese author of Wolf Totem (狼图腾, 姜戎著), has been awarded the “Genius Writer Prize” (Bichgiin Mergen Prize) by the World Mongol Authors Association based in Mongolia, according to a news item in Mongolia’s UB Post.  The novel is a semi-autobiographical novel about the experiences of a young student from Beijing “sent down” to the Inner Mongolian countryside 1967 during the Cultural Revolution.

According to a Chinese report (文豪奖) citing D. Boldbaatar, the Mongolian translator, since his translation into the Cyrillic hit the bookshelves in 2010 (left), it has sold 60,000 copies — effectively one copy for every 50 persons residing in Mongolia. An edition printed in the traditional Mongolian script is also to be distributed soon (below).

It is interesting to see how well the novel has apparently been received in Mongolia. Book sales and this new award seem to confirm that the Mongolians outside China find the portrayal of their herding culture as genuine. The much-hyped movie shot in Inner Mongolia by French director Jean-Jacques Anneau, however, proved somewhat controversial in China. According to a report in ChinaDaily Asia (Promoting Aggression):

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Alat Asem's "Confessions of a Jade Lord" (时间悄悄的嘴脸) Chinese Fiction by & about Ethnic Minorities (中国少数民族文学)

China’s Bilingual Writers: Narrative with a Difference

It began back in 2008 with Penguin investing heavily—$100,000 is the rumored price—to purchase Jiang Rong’s tale based in Inner Mongolia, Wolf Totem. In 2013 two newly translated novels joined China’s “borderland fiction” category: Fan Wen’s Une terre de lait et de miel, located in the gateway to Tibet straddling Yunnan and Sichuan, and Chi Zijian’s Last Quarter of the Moon, which features the reindeer-herding Evenki whose lives revolve around the Argun River that demarcates the Sino-Russian border.

Penned in Chinese, these novels are the creations of Han authors who have consciously chosen to set their tales amongNeige by Pema Tseden non-Han peoples who have historically resided at the fringes of the Middle Kingdom. Ran Ping’s Legend of Mongolia (蒙古往事), a fictionalized biography of Genghis Khan that was short-listed for the Mao Dun Literary Prize in 2008, also falls into this category, but it has not been translated into any European language.

Of course, there are popular novelists of various ethnicities who choose to write about their people using Chinese. Part-Tibetan Alai, author of The Song of Gesar (格萨尔王) and Red Poppies (尘埃落定), comes to mind, for instance.

But what about ethnic writers who not only speak two languages native to China, but write in both? Two have recently come to my attention, one who writes in Tibetan and Chinese, and another who uses both Uyghur and Chinese.

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Other (其他)

Chinese Authors in Turkish: Obligatory Pretty Face, Nobel Stamp of Approval

Çin'in IncisiSince I arrived in Turkey in mid-June 2013 and resided in Ankara, Antalya and now Istanbul, I’ve seen 3—yes, 3—contemporary novels by Chinese authors in Turkish translation on bookstore shelves. Mind you, 2 of them I saw just a few weeks ago . . . and I go book-shopping at least once a week.

They are Mo Yan’s Kırmızı Darı Tarlaları (Red Sorghum), Anchee Min’s Çin’in Icisi (Pearl of China) and—just out—Tie Ning’s Yıkanan Kadınlar (The Bathing Women).

Based on my “comprehensive” market research, it appears that there are two packaging elements essential to cracking the Turkish market. The first is the mandatory oriental female visage showing at least the lips.

The other is the mention of the Nobel Prize in large type, on all 3 book covers (front or back), as misleading as it might be. Granted, Mo Yan is a Nobel Laureate, though many readers are unaware that the prize is awarded for a lifetime of writing, not for a particular novel. But Tie Ning’s cover quotes Japan’s Kenzaburō—himself a Nobel Laureate, we mustn’t forget—about the novel, while Anchee Min’s perhaps more shamelessly flashes the brand by reminding us that the subject of the work, Pearl Buck, was a recipient.

But that’s not to say that there are only three Chinese novels now available in Turkish. For a more comprehensive list of modern Chinese fiction available in Turkish (as of 1Q 2014), see below:

Ai Mi (艾米)

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China's Ethnic-themed Fiction in Translation (中国民族题材文学的外译) Chinese Fiction by & about Ethnic Minorities (中国少数民族文学)

Chinese Fiction in Translation: Novels/Novellas with “Ethnic” Theme

Over the last few months a number of reporters have e-mailed to ask about the state of Chinese literature in translation, particularly in light of Mo Yan’s winning the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature. But most cite just a handful of authors and works in their questions— and Shanghai Baby, translated by yours truly over a decade ago!—is often one of them.

My advice to them is simple: do your homework, please! For starters, check out Paper-Republic.  All sorts of goodies over there, including a list of translated Chinese fiction (and poetry) published in 2012, Chinese fiction published in 2013, and a Translator Directory too.

Here at Altaic Storytelling, we focus on writing by & about non-Han peoples, particularly those which speak an Altaic language, but not exclusively. And it is interesting to note that translated fiction with an “ethnic” twist has been building up steam for a while, pre-dating the Mo Yan craze, in fact.

To my mind, the impetus for the increased profile of Chinese literature in the outside world began when China was named “Guest of Honor” at the 2009 Frankfurt Int’l Book Fair. Chinese authors and publishers socialized with their European counterparts—many for the first time—and important contacts and contracts resulted, with the books born of this schmoozing finally hitting the market 2-3 years later.

In China is Focusing on the Fringes published in March this year, literary translator Nicky Harman presciently pointed out that “independent–minded Chinese writers are becoming seriously interested in the geographical fringes of ‘China proper’, drawing on its people, their traditions and conflicts at work.” And as you can see below, foreign publishers are interested. When you consider that over the last few years just 15 or so Chinese novels have appeared in English each year—ethnic or no—this table looks a bit more impressive.

Indeed. So, to show this more graphically—and perhaps even to save myself a bit of hassle in recreating the wheel for the next journalist who wants to pick my brains—I’ve put together this table. If you know something I should add to it, including current projects that will be published in 2014, please let me know!