In a global world where the printed book resembles a species under threat, China’s publishing industry is a striking exception. Total revenues exceeded US$16 billion in 2012, and annual growth averages 10 percent. And in that same year, Chinese publishers acquired 16,115 foreign titles.
Authors worldwide naturally want to break into this potentially lucrative market. There’s just one catch: the book you wrote may not be the same one they publish in China. The culprit: your China publisher’s in-house editor-cum-censor.
“Books that deal directly and heavily with politically sensitive topics such as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Tibet and Taiwan are almost inevitably censored, but works of poetry, fiction, memoir and even self-help texts are not safe from the editor’s scalpel in China,” advises Pen America’s newly released Censorship and Conscience: Foreign Authors and the Challenge of Chinese Censorship.
I’ve actually been documenting censorship in China for over 5 years now on this blog. Some of the most popular posts:
- China even censors foreign book reviews of novels written by its own writers. See a review of Yu Hua’s Brothers for an easy-to-follow, real life example.
- More predictably — and at least as fun — is what happens to brazen foreign news reports about the unspeakable in China. See Just Say “No” to Orgasms.
- 我是马拉拉 (I Am Malala) appeared one year earlier in Taiwan than mainland China. Guess why?
But back to the free report from Pen America, which makes great reading for several reasons. For one thing, it opens the lid widely on what is, for most people outside the Middle Kingdom, the black box of Chinese censorship. Foreign authors, agents and publishers who coyly claim “But I didn’t know!” henceforth have no such excuse. And the 25-page report is well researched, citing a host of Chinese and overseas publishers, agents and writers. Most are identified in full, but unfortunately, several of the Chinese authors seem to have requested anonymity.
And best of all, the report closes with Recommendations, a series of practical, bulleted steps to ensure that you negotiate the best deal possible for your “published-in-China” book, including the ultimate weapon of conscience — simply refusing to publish it in censored format.
A few highlights of the report:
Take Wang Gang’s 《英格力士》, for instance. This semi-autobiographical novel set in Xinjiang during the Cultural Revolution was snapped up by Penguin, and rendered in English by Martin Merz and Jane Weizhen Pan as . . . English. See my Growing up Han in Fictional Xinjiang for a combined book review and interview with the translators. The novel has since also appeared in French (English) and Spanish (El profesor de inglés) .
I assume the purchase and publication of Wang Gang’s work was a market-driven decision by Penguin. But late last year, his novel was launched in Turkish at the Istanbul Book Fair. The driver in that instance may have been somewhat more political. It was one of just two Chinese novels that were translated into Turkish and published in time for the fair thanks to a joint project subsidized by Turkey and China. The other was a relatively unknown work by Tie Ning (How long is forever?), who happens to be favorably placed; she’s top honcho at the state-run China Writers Association.
Given that only a handful of contemporary Chinese novels have appeared in Turkish, I can’t help but ponder the symbolism of choosing a Xinjiang-born Han author’s novel as an introduction to 21st-century Chinese literature. The novel is set in Xinjiang, the home of some ten million Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking, traditionally Muslim people who have ancient ties with the Turkish. But the novel itself focuses almost exclusively on the Han community there; there are no Uyghur male characters in it.
Irony of ironies, Wang Gang’s novel was translated from the English-language English, not his Chinese original. The first casualty may have been the book’s title in Turkish that couldn’t be much more mundane: Ingilizce, the proper Turkish term for the English language. The original novel was entitled 英格力士, however, which is closer to a phonetic transcription of the word as you would find it in a dictionary, e.g., “ing-glish”, a more notable title that positions the word as alien to the speaker. As you can see from the Spanish and French titles above, Ingilizce is a more orthodox translation from the, uh, English.
At any rate, keen to see how a novel about the Cultural Revolution would be rendered in Turkish, I commissioned an English-to-Turkish literary translator here in Istanbul to review the Turkish book as well as comment on how it compares with the English rendition. The review—in English—follows below. Here’s her Turkish review Çin Edebiyatından Kültür Devrimine Ergen Gözüyle Bakış: Wang Gang’ın İngilizce Romanı .