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, 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 problem with Han’s patriotic vision is that Made-in-China, Chinese-to-English literary translators are regrettably thin on the ground.
“Besides the limitations posed by the differences between Chinese and Western culture,” says Huang You-Yi (黄友义), Deputy Head of the China Translators Association in an article in China Youth Newspaper (文学 “走出去” 最大的瓶颈), “the deeper reason for the poor performance of Chinese literature on the international market is the issue of manpower, particularly the lack of highly skilled Chinese-to-English translators.”
The author of the China Youth Newspaper article, Meng Xiaoguang (孟晓光), cites some interesting factoids: as of 2007, only 15 universities in China had M.A. programs in translation, and they have produced under 400 graduates.
Underlying the opinions expressed by Han Haoyue, Huang Youyi and Meng Xiaoguang is a concern that somehow China is not sufficiently in control of its literary exports, and something needs to be done about this.
To shed a bit of light on this debate, I’d like to point out a few things:
- It’s about money, stupid: Talented Chinese aren’t in the Chinese-to-English literary translation market primarily because the pay is miserable. If you’re paid by a Chinese publisher, you generally get a terribly low one-time fee and none of the royalties. If you’re paid by a foreign publisher, you’re lucky if you average US$1,000 monthly.
- Outside of China’s inward-looking environment, it is widely recognized that when rendering a literary work—unlike technical or commercial translation—the translator ideally translates into his or her mother tongue. That’s because literary translation is not really about accuracy; it’s about things like maintaining register, setting rhythm and employing an appropriate tone, all of which are more easily mastered by a native speaker.
- The idea that just because a non-Chinese surname appears in the “Translated by” section of the title page doesn’t mean that native Chinese speakers didn’t play an active part in proofreading or translating a given novel. And there are plenty of pairs of English and Chinese speakers who work together to translate fiction. They include Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-chun Lin, and Jane Weizhen Pan and Martin Merz.