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Chinese literature gets the cold shoulder abroad

“THE Three-Body Problem,” a Chinese science fiction work, has sold over 110,000 English-translated copies since it was published in the US in November 2014.

It’s a rare success story in a global market where Chinese authors are unknown, and even in cases where their books are translated, readership interest is wan.

Of the 1.6 million titles sold in China last year, about 8 percent were fiction. Options on copyrights to more than 10,000 titles were sold overseas, but very few are likely to hit the shelves in Europe and the US.

“What the publishers are looking for here is a Chinese Murakami Haruki,” said translator Karin Betz, referring to the globally popular Japanese novelist who writes imaginative page-turners in a modern setting.

Since 2008, Betz has been translating Chinese literature into German, including Mo Yan’s “Sandalwood Death.”

There have been many best-selling novels set in China but originally written overseas in English, including authors such as Amy Tan, Pearl Buck and James Clavell. Some established Chinese writers, including 2012 Nobel Prize laureate Mo Yan, have been translated into English.

Yet Chinese novels seem to have trouble attracting Western readers.

“Mo Yan was a major gateway author into Chinese literature, but I’m not sure the Nobel Prize had that much of an influence on the general reader,” said Dave Haysom, joint managing editor of Pathlight, an English magazine of Chinese novels, short stories, poetry and essays.

Chinese publishing giants and copyright companies have been trying hard to make inroads globally. China sent a delegation of up to 500 publishing professionals to BookExpo America last May, where China was guest of honor. Thousands of books were displayed.

Similar efforts are underway into the European market, evidenced by lavish Chinese displays at the Frankfurt and London book fairs.

The inroads include business takeovers. In 2014, Chinese publisher and printer Phoenix Media acquired the children’s books unit of Illinois-based Publications International Ltd for US$80 million.

Yet, results come slowly.

“Unfortunately, I don’t see much change,” said translator Betz. “Even Mo Yan is not selling so well in Germany. At least some people know his name now, but that didn’t produce any major rise of interest for Chinese literature. Still, there is a group of readers, albeit growing slowly, who are fans of Chinese literature and see it as a way to learn more about China.”

So what is it about Chinese literature that seems to keep Western readers at bay? Betz attributes the lack of interest to the fact that “Chinese novels tend to be long” and aren’t very “modern” in a Western sense. She said she hasn’t seen a Chinese novel shorter than 400 pages in German translation.

“Chinese literature always has that immense use of proverbs, old-fashioned jokes and names of historical figures that are unfamiliar to Western readers,” she explained.

Then, too, German publishers can’t read the original texts, which renders them a bit reticent about publishing translated Chinese books.

“They usually risk a German translation only after an English translation already exists and is selling more or less well,” Betz added.

She noted that there are about 50 different prizes and scholarships for translators who turn English texts into German, but not a single one for Chinese translation.

For English-language publishers, who generally don’t read Chinese either, it’s not uncommon to wait for a French, German or Italian translation before deciding to embrace a work for English readers.

At Western book fairs, Chinese books on kungfu, art, history, culture and traditional Chinese medicine dominate because those are topics that interest foreign readers. Also in the displays are books written by or about national leaders — a genre that not necessarily appeals to Chinese publishers but not to readers. There is very limited space left for novels. Many prominent Chinese writers remain untranslated, badly translated or unavailable even when they are translated.

A precise figure is unavailable on the number of Chinese books translated into German, but only 44 Chinese books were published in English in 2015, according to a list compiled by translators and editors Nicky Harman and Helen Wang.

The pair have been compiling their list since 2012 and posting it on Paper Republic, an online platform connecting translators, editors, publishers, readers and authors interested in Chinese literature. The number rose from 24 in 2012 to 44 last year.

“Forty-four is a pretty good number,” said Haysom, who runs the website. “This figure refers to titles that are commercially available — books that you can go into a bookstore and buy. There are plenty more translations that don’t fall into this category. Of course, there is a big difference between buying the option to a copyright and actually producing a book.”

Paper Republic offers free downloads of the digital version of the literary magazine Pathlight in an effort to expand readership. The print edition, said Haysom, isn’t very widely distributed abroad.

THE bane of translators

THE website Paper-republic.org and the magazine Pathlight are two forums dedicated to promoting Chinese literature to foreign readers. Dave Haysom, who runs both the magazine and website, sat down with Shanghai Daily to discuss what progress is being made.

Q: How do you define Paper Republic?

A: It is a kind of conduit to and from the world for Chinese literature. The site itself began as a very loose community of translators, but it currently aims to serve as a hub for anyone with an interest in books from China. That includes translators, readers, publishers, editors and authors. It also collates the most interesting goings-on from around the web.

Q: How do you plan to expand readership?

A: Our biggest project since last June has been “Read Paper Republic” — a new initiative to publish one complete translation online every week, for one year.

The readers of Pathlight are more likely to have some kind of existing interest in China or Chinese literature, but we wanted to find a way to reach out to a more general audience.

The editors of the “Read Paper Republic” project — myself and Eric Abrahamsen in Beijing; Nicky Harman and Helen Wang in London — decided the best way to do that was to make the most exciting content readily available, for free, on the Internet.

This format gives us the flexibility to respond quickly to current events. After the relaxation of the One-child Policy, for example, we were able to release Helen Wang’s translation of a personal essay on the subject by Lu Min. And more recently, we put out a story by Feng Tang, translated by Brendan O’Kane, once the foreign media caught on to the furor over his translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry.

Q: It seems most of the works translated and published on the site are literary, with few that would be considered pop fiction or versions of so-called online literature. Is that so? Why is it?

A: Literary fiction constitutes the bulk of what currently gets translated, so it’s a natural focus for Paper Republic and one that coincides with the personal interests of our contributors. Popular and literary fiction aren’t as sharply delineated as they have been in the past, however, and there’s an increasing level of interest in science fiction in translation, for example. The translations of Liu Cixin’s “Three Body” trilogy by Ken Liu and Joel Martinsen have been extremely popular, and Clarkesworld magazine ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the continuing publication of short stories by authors like Xia Jia and Chen Qiufan.

It’s impossible to cover everything, however, and the scope of something like Internet literature in China is so vast that it really requires the kind of specialized attention that writers like Heather Inwood and Michel Hockx have devoted to it. We do try our best to stay up-to-date with the latest developments.

Q: What kind of China books do English-language readers prefer? Is there a contemporary trend?

A: I think there has been something of a backlash against authors of “the Great Chinese Novel,” who are perceived to be striving to copy their American cousins.

Generally, I think readers are interested in writers with a distinctive voice who are pursuing their own interests rather than trying too hard to be representatives of the state of Chinese society.

There is also an increasing number of smaller-scale, independent publishing presses out there, and this is the kind of work that tends to overlap with their literary inclinations. Recent examples of this would include “Running Through Beijing” by Xu Zechen’s (translated by Eric Abrahamsen, published by Two Lines Press); Diao Dou’s short story collection “Points of Origin” (translated by Brendan O’Kane, published by Comma Press); and “A Perfect Crime” by A Yi (translated by Anna Holmwood, published by Oneworld Publications).

Well-written historical novels like “Little Aunt Crane” by Yan Geling (translated by Esther Tyldesley) continue to be popular, but appreciation for other forms of writing is also gradually growing, with non-fiction from writers like Han Han and works from children’s writers such as Cao Wenxuan garnering more attention.

Q: Who are your favorite Chinese writers?

A: My favorite writers are those like Shi Tiesheng, Ge Fei and Yan Ge, who combine sensitive characterization with formal inventiveness.

Some of the most exciting experimental work is coming from authors such as Qiu Lei and Sheng Tie, who have honed their craft in the Heilan online writers’ group.

The most challenging author I’ve translated is a young Beijing-based writer named Sun Yisheng, and the difficulty lies in the combination of the language and the content of his stories. He often blends fragments of classical Chinese with his own idiomatic creations, and the surreal, fantastical content of his work means that it takes some time to even work out where the literal diverges from the figurative.

It’s certainly a challenge, but a rewarding one!

Q: Do you see any common problems in existing translation of Chinese literature?

A: The most common problems stem from the same two issues: lack of time and lack of editorial attention.

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