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Reading Chinese Novels
in the West

by Bertrand Mialaret 伯特兰·米阿拉雷
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  1. Is Chinese Literature Part of the “Soft Power Policy” ?
During the 20th century, one should not forget the tight relationships between Chinese intellectuals and national politics: the ambivalence towards Western influence and values, the international status of China and the desire for recognition that have been important elements.

A good example is the “Nobel complex” as described by Julia Lovell,(1) which “reveals pressure points in a modern intellectual entity not entirely sure of itself”. This type of complex, the dominance of cultural industries from the West while the economic world-wide position of China was rapidly developing, was the basis for a cultural “soft power” policy.

It is not within our scope to analyze this policy but it is useful to realize that the book industry and literature are part of it. The imbalance of copyright between China and the West has been a permanent subject of frustration for the authorities. Ten years ago, one book was exported for every 17 that were imported; the ratio is now one to 3.3.(2)
It is significant that these statements were made by Liu Binjie, the head of the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAAP), who explains that “Chinese books being exported will describe the country in an objective way”.

China has the largest publishing industry in the world, certainly in terms of volumes (even excluding pirated copies), number four in terms of value and second only to the US if purchasing power parity is taken into account. On top of this, it is an expanding market and mainly consumed by young people, contrary to the situation in the West.

Chinese authorities have taken some measures to support the sale of copyrights, the development of translations and the publishing of Chinese literature in translation. This policy has received much less coverage in Europe than the fast development of Confucius Centres.

The China Book International (CBI) project (www.cbi.gov.cn) was established in 2006 by the GAAP and the State Council of China. The project, based on a list of recommended books, established by Chinese publishing units, is meant to promote the sale of copyrights with the possible support of subsidies. The project also develops the contacts between Chinese and foreign publishers and attendance at international book fairs.

In 2009, the Frankfurt Book Fair, with China as a guest of honour, was the subject of heavy controversy. This was not only with regards to the role of the GAAP, organizing and controlling the Chinese delegation, but also concerning the difficult dialogue with a rather aggressive German press, especially after 铁凝 Tie Ning, chairwoman of the Chinese Writers Association, declared that censorship did not exist in China. Nevertheless, a grant of half a million euros has been given by the GAAP to develop translations into German.

Promotion of Chinese literature in translation is also organized by Chinese universities (anthologies by Tsinghua University) and publishers (Foreign Language Press).

More interesting is the agreement between Beijing Normal University and the University of Oklahoma, which publish the magazine World Literature Today and offer a major literature prize: the Neustadt (won in 2010 by the poet 多多 Duo Duo). Two issues of the bi-annual academic journal Chinese Literature Today have already been published, financed by USD1 million from Chinese authorities, which are also promoting the translation of a ten-volume series of contemporary Chinese novels.

Although very positive, these developments are unlikely to change the position of Chinese literature in the English speaking world.

2. The Three Percent Phenomenon
Translation in the UK/US represents less than 3% of books published (less than 1% for fiction) and for Chinese literature, it is a much lower figure.

Americans are culturally centred and certainly this has more impact than the question of foreign languages. One American out of five has “some knowledge” of foreign languages via his parents, his neighbours and his education. But the strength of American culture is overpowering.

Clearly, Chinese style novels are difficult to accept for the general public: slow pace, little action, lack of strong characters… More importantly, the references are certainly not clear to the Western audience; there is a very strong culture gap. As explained by Luc Kwanten who heads the largest agency in Shanghai:(3) “It is difficult to find writers whose books have what I call legs, which means that they can travel abroad and be easily picked up by foreign readers… In most cases, Chinese books require readers to know a lot about the country before they can understand the books.”

This is possibly why books with clear stereotypes and exoticism, generally by Asian-American writers, top the sales list. Translation is a major issue and American/British publishers are in general not in favour of translations. They speak few foreign languages and certainly not Chinese. This situation makes the selection process more difficult: they have to rely on reviews by one or several outsiders and then ask for sample translations; this of course takes time.

Many publishers also believe that translations do not appeal to readers and do not sell. Consequently they do not put the name of the translator on the cover or even do not mention that the book is a translation.

In fact, translations have proven to have less profit potential for the publisher: “There’s not been a single Chinese book that’s made it into the bestseller’s list in the West in recent years… Lack of profit makes Western publishers reluctant to take up Chinese translations.”(4)

They also are more complex and time-consuming (relations with a foreign author and a translator) and need different marketing: the writer, not speaking English in most cases, is generally of little help with the media and the promotion of the book.

Different types of bestsellers in China and Asia have found their way to British/American publishers. Shanghai Baby by 周卫慧 Zhou Weihui is a typical case: a beautiful writer of a sex scandal in a novel with a German lover, a book censored and withdrawn from distribution. The book was first translated in 2001 in France where it sold very well. A translation from the Chinese into English by Bruce Humes was also published. It took a long time for publishers to get interested in this book which caused a major buzz in China.

The Wolf totem by 姜戎 Jiang Rong (pen name) is another interesting example. This novel is the biggest success of the book industry in China (4 million copies sold, possibly 16 million copies pirated); only the Little Red Book by Mao Zedong performed better!(5)

Penguin bought the rights for USD100,000 (a record amount) and asked Howard Goldblatt to translate it.

The book obtained the first Man Asia prize in 2007; a heated and interesting political debate in China and Europe went on for months. Wolfgang Kubin went so far as to speak of fascist literature! But the sales of the book were highly disappointing (estimates are only 10,000 copies in the UK!).

Also it should be mentioned that publishing Chinese novels abroad seems also for some major publishers like HarperCollins or Penguin, a sort of public relations exercise with official authorities in order to obtain the green light to develop their business in China.

Films are for publishers a major issue and a good enough reason to publish a book in translation. The success of many of 张艺谋 Zhang Yimou’s films have helped to bring Chinese literature to the attention of international readers, especially To Live by 余华 Yu Hua or Raise the Red Lantern by 苏童 Su Tong.

A film gives the publisher’s marketing department confidence in the possible success of the book. The film by Zhang Yimou The Flowers of War, recently released, concerning the Nanjing massacre in 1937, will provide strong support for two novels by the Chinese-American writers 严歌苓 Yan Geling and 哈金 Ha Jin. Let’s hope that the same will happen to Under the Hawthorn Tree by 艾米 Ai Mi, to be released in January 2012, and to the film by Zhang Yimou.

Censorship helps, whether political or moral (as in Shanghai Baby), but publishers, at least in Europe, consider that it is a “has been” marketing tool and they no longer systematically mention difficulties with the authorities on the cover. Moreover, a censored book is not a guarantee of quality!

In some cases, the support of dissident groups in the West can be of value not only to the writer, but also to his books. This seems to be the case with 廖亦武 Liao Yiwu, whose books were strongly supported; he fled from China to Germany a few months ago.

Overall, a number of themes are considered “positive” by publishers: “good” topics are: Mao Zedong, the sufferings during the Cultural Revolution, memoirs during difficult times, prisons and camps. Modern urban China life is not deemed interesting, nor is the young Chinese generation, which in many respects is not very different from youth in the West. Novels should be exotic or ethnic like Right Bank of the Argun by 迟子建 Chi Zijian, translated by Bruce Humes.

The risk is to develop a sort of Chinese “fast food” that is deemed acceptable to Western readers. What is Chinese literature? Is it The Song of Everlasting Sorrows by 王安忆 Wang Anyi, where publishers wanted to cut the first 40 pages “because nothing happens”, or is it Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by 戴思杰 Dai Sijie, originally written in French, which has been a major success (as a book and as a film), but which is constructed like a European novel?

In the interviews, this has been considered a difficult subject and some admit that to be a bit closer to a Chinese writer who speaks some English has helped in the decision as to whether to publish.

The figure of 3% is a major topic for translator (from Spanish) Edith Grossman;(6) she is not optimistic about the future, “I don’t believe that this will change soon since almost all publishers… make their decisions under enormous pressure to be profitable”. In the US, small independent publishers devoted to translations have difficulty in surviving and have insufficient marketing or distribution capabilities; the only specialist of the Far East was, for some years, Hyperion East with its editor Will Schwalbe.

These small publishers stress the importance of reviews for literature in translation and regret that reviews are often written by academics or historians who tend to highlight the socio/historical interest of the book above literary quality.

One translator in the US has had a major impact: Howard Goldblatt. He has translated some 40 Chinese and Taiwanese novels; he is sometimes better known than the writers he is translating! In an interview by colleague Andrea Lingenfelter,(7) he discusses criticism:

“I believe first of all that, like an editor, the translator’s primary obligation is to the reader, not to the writer. I realize that a lot of people don’t agree… but I do think that we need to produce something that can be readily accepted by an American readership.”

Consequently, in some cases, major changes are for him acceptable. This has been the case for 60 pages in the Wolf Totem, with 莫言 Mo Yan’s Big Breasts, Wide Hips, with the Cell phone by 刘震云 Liu Zhenyun (which has just been released).(8)

Mo Yan says “It’s not my novel anymore, it’s yours. It’s got my name on it and my copyright but it belongs to you.” Is that a good enough reason for significant alterations not being acceptable to most translators? The 2005 release of Mo Yan’s novel was the translation of an abridged edition (240 pages), while the...

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1. Julia Lovell, The Politics of Cultural Capital: China’s Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature, University of Hawai’í Press, 2006.
2. China Daily, “Export of books set for a bright new page”, 9th March 2011.
3. Publishing Perspectives, “China’s Big Apple Agency searches for the next Salinger in Shanghai”, 4th January 2010.
4. Ibid.
5. www.mychinesebooks.com/tag/jian-rong/?lang=en This post was originally published by Rue89, 23th March 2010.
6. Publishing Perspectives, “On the challenge of translation in America” by Edith Grossman, 29th Augest 2011.
7. Andrea Lingenfelter., “Howard Goldblatt…”, http://fulltilt.ncv.edu.tw.
8. Liu Zhenyun, The Cell Phone, translated by Howard Goldblatt, Mervin Asia, Portland, 2011.

Bertrand Mialaret was born in Paris (France) in 1944. He has studied law, public government and political sciences. After some years in government administration in Algeria and in France, he joined a multinational corporation. After different positions in France, Morocco and Holland, he was appointed chairman of the subsidiaries in Egypt and later on in Malaysia. Moving back to France as chief financial officer, he took over after some years the financial responsibility of the international Telecom division with several commercial and industrial operations in China and Asia. After leaving this company, he was elected chairman of a non-profit organization “Couleurs de Chine” devoted to support the schooling of thousands of children of Miao and Dong villages in Guizhou (China). An avid reader of Chinese literature in translation for many years, he has been reviewing Chinese novels for Rue89.com, the largest independent internet daily in France. More than a hundred posts on Chinese literature can be found both in French and English on his blog www.mychinesebooks.com.

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Issue 9.2
Lilliputian Geopolitics

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