Over at Chinese-shortstories.com, Brigitte Duzan has just published a backgrounder on Beijing-based Hong Kong writer Chan Koonchung (陈冠中). She details his works from 1976 to the present day, but in the excerpt below she is talking about his new novel, The Unbelievable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver, starring a Tibetan chauffeur in Lhasa who dreams of hanging out in Beijing:
Chan Koonchung a choisi son sujet en connaissance de cause. Il a commencé à s’intéresser au Tibet en 1992 car il a alors réalisé des recherches pour un film que voulait réaliser Francis Ford Coppola. Depuis lors, il a vu la proportion de Han dans la population de Lhassa augmenter régulièrement, les touristes chinois se multiplier tandis que les touristes occidentaux se faisaient plus rares, faute de visas.
A l’origine, il voulait conter l’histoire d’un jeune Tibétain tel que le Nyima qui croise la route de Champa dans son roman. Mais il a finalement opté pour une autre optique : faire jouer à son personnage un rôle d’observateur à la Candide.
Original Chinese novel: 《裸命》
English title: The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver
Author: Chan Koonchung (陈冠中)
Translator: Nicky Harman
Reviewer: Bruce Humes
“Dreams are so good. Why do we have to make them a reality? ”
What’s a young Tibetan stud to do for a living nowadays in a tourist hotspot like Lhasa? And what happens when his childhood dream—to hang out in the capital of a country called China—comes true?
In the just-published Champa the Driver, author Chan Koonchung takes us on a rocky road from Lhasa to Beijing.
Along the way he paints disturbing vignettes. An apartheid-in-the-making. The eerie death wish of a would-be self-immolator. The Kafkaesque “black jails” where provincial petitioners who dare air their grievances to the Beijing Mandarins are brutalized, then sent home.
If they’re lucky, that is.
I read both the Chinese original and Nicky Harman’s translation, and her rendition convincingly captures Champa’s conflicted mindset and odd lingo; after all, like any young PRC citizen he is the product of 21st-century China’s booming economy and rampant materialism. But he is also not a native speaker of Chinese, and deep down, he is more Tibetan and Buddhist than he realizes. Even as Chan evokes the gap between image and reality, between the tourist’s Lhasa and Tibet under the heel of the dragon, and Beijing as it is dreamt vs. lived, the novel remains a quick and compelling read.
At the outset, Champa is sitting pretty. He’s got a cushy job in Lhasa as a chauffeur for Plum, a savvy Han businesswoman with a robust appetite for the occasional “spurt of the moment” (as Champa puts it), and before he knows it, he’s her lover-on-demand. However the simple days of cock-and-cunt—there’s a hefty dose of raw sex as the novel opens—are soon overshadowed by the troubling loss of his Tibetan virility. After an-all-too-short trip to Beijing, he realizes that she doesn’t want to be seen parading her “Tibetan Mastiff puppy” in the capital.
This is a body blow to his self-image, and impacts their relations back home in Lhasa. “Plum just didn’t get my tantric juices flowing” any more, he admits. To do his night gig with the boss now, he has to spend his daytime headhunting a fresh new sex object—in a whorehouse, online, among tourists, whatever—that he can visualize while servicing Plum.
I watch this sort of thing fairly closely, and up until now the only list of international Chinese-to-English literary translators I knew about was at Paper Republic: Translator Directory.
But today by accident I discovered another at a Chinese-language site called 中国文化对外翻译与传播网. It’s a much bigger undertaking, and features 2,003 listings under “English,” with the next biggest category being “Japanese” with 220 names.
I have to admit it was a pleasant surprise to be one of the featured translators on a site where Western faces are few and far between, but includes notable literary translators such as Howard Goldblatt, Goran Malmqvist, Nicky Harman and Eric Abrahamsen. But seriously, this does appear to be a modest breakthrough. I’ve encountered translator databases on the Chinese web before, but only PRC citizens figured in them. Of course, the fact that the web site and most of the info is in Chinese—including translators’ names—means that foreign publishers will find it hard to take advantage of the listings . . .
As I understand it, the web site is run by Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press (外研社) with the “support and guidance” of GAPP’s Foreign Exchange and Cooperation Department (国家新闻出版总署对外交流与合作司). Its goal is to serve as a platform for public information regarding the current “Chinese cultural products go global” program (“走出去”). See here for the detailed description in Chinese.
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!
Ever since China was named Guest of Honor at the 2009 Frankfurt Int’l Book Fair, overseas publishers have begun to take an interest in contemporary Chinese literature, and the list of works of fiction and poetry slated for translation and publication into English in 2011 and 2012 is growing quickly.
Take a look here for a partial list. They include Zhang Ling’s Gold Mountain Blues (translator: Nicky Harman), Endure: Poems by Bei Dao (Lucas Klein and Clayton Eshleman), Yan Lianke’s Dream of Ding Village (Cindy Carter), Wang Xiaofang’s Notes of a Civil Servant (Eric Abrahamsen), He Jiahong’s Blood Crimes (Duncan Hewitt), and more.
In December the venerable People’s Literature (人民文学) magazine launched an all English quarterly (at left) featuring translations of works by several popular 21st-century Chinese writers, Pathlight: New Chinese Writing.
Chinese novelist Han Haoyue (韩浩月) praises the magazine’s publication as a “good thing” (好事), but in his article of December 12 (烂苹果) he calls attention to the fact that “all the translators for the first issue are native English speakers of foreign nationality.” Without stating whether he has read the first issue of Pathlight or compared its renditions against the Chinese originals—or personally examined its translators’ passports, for that matter—he then trots out the tired argument that given the profundity of Chinese literary expression, “it stands to reason that it would be more appropriate for Chinese translators to complete the task of translation.”
Of course, Han isn’t the only one concerned about the fact that the officially funded campaign to “export” Chinese literature—seen as an extension of China’s soft power—seems to be largely dependent on foreign brains for the moment. But the catch with Han’s patriotic vision is that Made-in-China, Chinese-to-English literary translators are regrettably thin on the ground.