Penguin China is at the forefront of bringing Chinese literature in translation to an English speaking public. They commission 8-10 books per year on Chinese subjects - although not all are originally written in Chinese. You can check out their list by visiting www.penguin.com.cn.
Jo Lusby, Managing Director at Penguin China, has more on her plate than making books from China available to an international readership – taking English language books into China for a start – but I asked her, via e-mail, to expand on this aspect of her job.
I wondered whether Penguin commissioned books originating in China through agents, or from authors directly? “Penguin works with a mixture of agents and authors – China is a largely unagented market, and so a large number of books come to us through local contacts, but we increasingly acquire through agents, as they become more active in China and East Asia.” Penguin does not expect Chinese-language works to have been translated before they’ll even look at them. Jo explained that her colleagues: “are out in the market reading Chinese books in the original language that we think have potential for a wider English language market.”
What about the relationship between Penguin China, and other Penguin offices? Would books originating in China, but with international appeal, automatically get accepted by other Penguin offices worldwide? “Penguin’s international publishing offices operate independently across the English speaking world, so in the first instance, we will publish the book into Asia Pacific, and then offer it to our own colleagues and also to other publishers around the world.”
So: no promises. But which books are most likely to pick up international deals? I asked Jo about Penguin China’s commissioning policy for books to be put out in translation. What are they looking for when they evaluate whether a book will sell into international markets? Why do they think international readers pick up books from China? “We don’t have a policy as such – we look for works that we feel confident will connect with readers. People pick up a non-fiction book to learn about a specific subject; while people pick novels from China in order to gain an insight into the psyche of a culture, above all else, the reader wants to be entertained, transported, and taken into the world of the writer.”
Gaining insight into the psyche of a culture is one thing, but I asked Jo whether she thought Chinese authors might be a little inward looking? Did she think they were engaging with international issues, or sticking to issues of domestic interest? “A large proportion of Chinese writers are still primarily focused inward, I would say – both in terms of writing about Chinese concerns, and also exploring highly personal questions. There are increasing numbers of young writers coming back from having spent time studying overseas, mainly in developed countries, and these experiences are also beginning to feature in new writing. I would say that most literary writers stay away from contemporary political subjects, and focus more on the personal aspects of Chinese society.”
Finally, I asked Jo what she most enjoys about her job, and what most frustrates her? “I enjoy the breadth of the work – working with Chinese writers, talking with local publishers, training early and mid-career literary translators etc. Frustrations creep in around the things you cannot control – once a book is out in the world and you want the widest possible community of people to read that work, but it takes a long time and a lot of careful work for a book to reach its audience – and sometimes very deserving books just do not achieve what you hope they do.”