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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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“This is our Auschwitz”: Introduction to the “The Cowshed”

China: Surviving the Camps, adapted from Zha Jianying’s introduction to The Cowshed: Memories of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, just launched in 2016:

Cowshed "struggle session" from Harbin in 1966: The book is by Ji Xianlin, translated by Chenxin Jiang. (Photo: Li Zhensheng/Contact Press Images)
Cowshed “struggle session” from Harbin in 1966: The book is by Ji Xianlin, translated by Chenxin Jiang. (Photo: Li Zhensheng/Contact Press Images)

At the center of the book is the cowshed [牛棚], the popular term for makeshift detention centers that had sprung up in many Chinese cities at the time [of the Cultural Revolution]. This one was set up at the heart of the Peking University campus, where the author was locked up for nine months with throngs of other fallen professors and school officials, doing manual labor and reciting tracts of Mao’s writing. The inferno atmosphere of the place, the chilling variety of physical and psychological violence the guards daily inflicted on the convicts with sadistic pleasure, the starvation and human degeneration — all are vividly described. Indeed, of all the memoirs of the Cultural Revolution, I cannot think of another one that offers such a devastatingly direct and detailed testimony on the physical and mental abuse an entire imprisoned intellectual community suffered. After reading the book, a Chinese intellectual friend summed it up to me: “This is our Auschwitz.”

The Cowshed: Memories of the Cultural Revolution was translated from the Chinese original 牛棚杂忆.

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

Wang Gang’s “Ingilizce” : Intriguing look at the Cultural Revolution for Turkish Readers

IngilizceAs China’s fiction “exports” pick up, it will be interesting to watch which novels and themes win an Exit Permit to foreign lands, and how they are received there.

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 .