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Recap: Lost in Translation: What’s the Problem with Chinese Literature in the West?, 2.24.21

Recap: Lost in Translation: What’s the Problem with Chinese Literature in the West?, 2.24.21

This event was co-presented with Paper Republic, a platform to promote Chinese literature in translation, in conjunction with the upcoming launch of its Field Guide to Contemporary Chinese Literature.


Literature is a powerful tool that can help deepen our understanding of China’s immense complexity. But what if we are reading the wrong books? Are publishers and reviewers—both in China and the US—driven too much by out-of-date political and ideological prisms? As it turns out, many of China’s most popular novels never make it into English at all. Enjoy this discussion from February 24, 2021 with three superstar Chinese-English translators who debate the biases that impact the books we get to read.

Speaker Bios:

Eric Abrahamsen (EA) is a translator and publishing consultant living in Seattle, WA. His translations have appeared in The New YorkerGranta, and n+1, among other venues, and he is the recipient of translations grants from PEN and the NEA. He helps run Paper Republic, promoting the translation of Chinese literature into English, and also works with the Seattle City of Literature organization.

Nicky Harman (NH) lives in the UK and translates full-time from Chinese, focusing on fiction, literary non-fiction, and occasionally poetry. When not translating, she works on Paper-Republic.org, a non-profit website promoting Chinese literature in translation, where she is also a Trustee. She organizes translation-focused events, mentors new translators, gives regular talks and workshops on translation, and judges translation competitions. She was co-Chair of the Translators Association (Society of Authors, UK) from 2014 to 2017. She blogs on Asian Books Blog, and tweets, with Helen Wang, as China Fiction Book Club @cfbcuk.

Jianan Qian (JQ) is a staff writer at The Millions. She writes in both Chinese and English. In Chinese, she has published four original works and translated four books, including Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners and The Habit of Being. In English, she is a staff writer at The Millions. Her works have appeared in The New York Times, Granta Magazine, Guernica Magazine, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Creative Writing and English at the University of Southern California.

Full Video of Lost in Translation:


Recommended/Featured Publications During the Program:

Nicky Harman recommends:

Dinner of Six by Lu Min (translated by Helen Wang) https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35714876-dinner-of-six-people

Winter Pastures by Li Juan (translated by Jack Hargreaves and Yan Yan) https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54224001-winter-pasture

Distant Sunflower Fields by Li Juan (translated by Christopher Payne) https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/56577755-distant-sunflower-fields

Monkey King by Wu Cheng’en (translated by Julia Lovell) https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/53403847-monkey-king

Our Story by Rao Pingru (translated by Nicky Harman, one of Nicky’s all-time favorite love stories) https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/35342915-our-story?from_search=true&from_srp=true&qid=Tts5Nrky9i&rank=1

Eric Abrahamsen recommends:

Silver Tiger by Lu Yang (translated by Eric Abrahamsen) https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/06/04/silver-tiger

Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge (translated by Jeremy Tiang) https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/52742959-strange-beasts-of-china

Ruined City by Jia Pingwa (translated by Howard Goldblatt) https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/27277211-ruined-city

Jianan Qian recommends:

My South Seas Sleeping Beauty by Chang Kuei-hsing (translated by Valerie Jaffee) http://cup.columbia.edu/book/my-south-seas-sleeping-beauty/9780231140584

Blossoms by Jin Yucheng (translation in the works and will be released soon. Stay tuned!)

The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge (translated by Nicky Harman) https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/39685923-the-chilli-bean-paste-clan

Selected Program Quotes:

DE: These three people are literally bridge builders, bringing Chinese culture to us. What factors shape what Chinese books make it into English?

EA: The landscape has been changing slowly over the last several decades- I am talking mostly about the US, and the UK too. What was selected used to be the province of academia, choosing books on the criteria on what is important to Chinese literature. Most of the time that overlaps with what we consider good books, but not always. A lot of these books were translated and no one ever heard of them. There is a real disconnect between academic and commercial publishing houses. Ultimately those are the people we need to reach…over the past 10-15 years there has been a very encouraging, steady trend of publishing houses learning more about Chinese fiction, educating themselves, finding the right people to talk to and I hope that is where we come in.

DE: Why isn’t there a direct correlation between what people in China are reading and what is translated into English?

JQ: We are very critical young readers, because we give our recommendations and only mark the books we like. All of the books listed were never heard of by the English-speaking world. When I first moved to the US, the university libraries were good for translation. A lot of great authors from my father’s generation got translated, but they are never popular and people always put political labels on them like ‘The most brave voices coming from the Chinese side who were speaking against the system.’ That isn’t even my take on those books.

Most of the famous authors don’t get an opportunity to be into English. There is a huge gap between the Chinese side and the English speaking world.

DE: What is the difference in perspective between your father’s generation books and now?

JQ: All of those authors are great authors. Young readers in China are eager and interested in seeing new authors and hearing new voices in China. My father’s generations old authors, have been through nationwide political storms. So [it is like all of them want to write] the great Chinese novel that encompass all political movements in China. But we grew up in a more peaceful time and the era we grew up in endorses individuality…it isn’t just collective life experience that matters. We want to see more stories and we want to write more personal stories, because those matter. We also think the older literary standard were narrow minded, because they prioritize literature tradition but we think the fiction can matter more. So, we do more experimental writings and expand the scope of mainstream Chinese traditional writings. There is a younger generation who want to redefine contemporary Chinese literature- those efforts are not seen by the English speaking world and I don’t know if they would be paid attention to.

NH: Anyone who translates Chinese will say the same thing. Marketing is a big factor and some publishers will go for the ‘banned in China’ label because they reckon it sells. I do not believe that anyone is interested now in that. At Paper Republic, we publish a list of all the books that came out in translation that year. Not a single one was banned.

EA: The desire for literature that somehow explains or represents China….this desire exists in China as well. Those power structures provide the funding- it usually comes from the Chinese government and these Soviet style government bodies. There is a real anxiety in that world that people are reading the right type of fiction.

The one adjective that keeps being used is ‘important’ – in that we want to make sure the most important Chinese writers are being promoted abroad. So, is this writer important? But are they good? It is important that that desire exists in and outside of China.

NH: I slightly disagree with you Eric, women writers don’t get enough praise because they aren’t considered important enough yet. The important thing for me is that there is such an enormous variety- such a huge range [in Chinese literature].

JQ: I think for me, as I am speaking as a Chinese national, I see those types of marketing strategy in the U.S. as a way to mark Chinese fiction as ‘exotic tales’ that provides a [foil] to American democracy. So we are ‘the other side of the political spectrum’ and literary fiction becomes evidence of that. When we go to greater Russian authors like Tolstoy, we admire them. It isn’t that we want to learn more about Russian history or society from the books, we just like the literature. This is not the same for Chinese literature.

EA: The fundamental problem here is one of ignorance. The publishing industry knows zero, not even where to start. The only thing everyone can agree on about China is that it has an authoritarian government and so we start from there. One person needs to [champion] the book and take this project on. So, our job is to think like [editors and publishers] and explain what you are looking at. I will try to give you two facts, or five facts, about China so you can make an informed decision. Editors have no confidence [about China].

DE: There is no model for what exists in China today. There is no reference, China is something that never existed before.

NH: Chinese translated science fiction does sell and young adult literature. This has no problems in getting across. If you like sci-fi you love it.

EA: You can also help an individual editor fall in love with an individual writer to the point where they say ‘I don’t care if the writer is important in China’ and I think this does happen but I wish it would happen more. It happened with [Liu Cixin’s] Three Body Problem, for example.

We have more voices seeping in, because there are more channels for individual voices [like websites, blogs, social media, etc.]

DE: What do we need to do better?

JQ: I have been a huge fan of Paper Republic, because those literary journals are trying to bring out a variety of voices. They try to fill in the gap of a power system. Usually middle-aged male voices are heard, and other voices are marginalized to speak for ourselves or others. We are talking about a lot of different things.

EH: Our Field Guide will be about 50 pages, including thematic essays, is meant to be a gentle introduction to what is out there and a reference guide. We are very excited about this and hope everyone will look out for it.