Tuesday 20 January 2015

Questions & Answers: Eric Abrahamsen

American translator Eric Abrahamsen has lived in Beijing since 2001, when he studied Chinese at the Central University for Nationalities. In 2007 he founded Paper Republic, an organisation bridging the gaps between, on the one hand, Chinese publishers and contemporary Chinese authors, and on the other Western publishers and readers. It combines the functions of a literary translation agency, and a publishing consultancy. In conjunction with the Chinese-language People's Literature Magazine it produces Pathlight, an English-language literary magazine focusing on the best new prose and poetry from China

Does Paper Republic have members who translate from Chinese into languages other than English?  
We have one or two translators who work into French, but otherwise it’s all Chinese to English. The main reason being, there really isn’t much opportunity for contact between translators working in different languages. We’re involved with different publishing industries, talking to different agents and editors, facing different pools of already-translated or yet-to-be-translated material. Through international book fairs or various literary events, I’ve met and come to be friends with other translators from Chinese to French, Swedish, Italian, etc. But apart from us sharing information individually, there’s not a whole lot of professional contact.

When it comes to Chinese writers gaining international attention, do you worry about the dominance of English? 
Not too much. Some language or other is going to be dominant, after all - although it's easy for me to be philosophical, when I speak that language! It’s a bit of a shame that that US publishing market, in particular, is so insular, but I think that insularity is actually part and parcel of the dominance. I’d like to know if, when French was the “international language”, they published more or less international fiction inside France. They sure publish plenty now.

How and why do you think perceptions of Chinese literature outside China have changed over the past few years? 
I think that, in the recent past, there was a general fatigue among Western readers towards Chinese fiction that revolved around the Cultural Revolution, and the “grand sweeping historical epic” style. A fairly large proportion of what had been translated and published previously fell into these categories, and I think readers, or at least publishers, were feeling like it was time for something new. Many editors, when they ask me for recommendations or whatnot, are now asking for fiction written by younger writers, perhaps more “hip” or “modern”, set in urban situations. I think partially it’s a desire to find something unlike what we’ve already seen, but also a belief that urban fiction by younger writers will have more universal appeal. I guess I think that’s true.

To be honest, though, apart from the Cultural Revolution category, I don’t think international readers have much of a perception of Chinese literature at all. There simply isn’t enough of it published, nor has any of it really taken anyone by storm. Critical reactions are generally lukewarm, or puzzled, or faintly enthusiastic. No one’s really got a coherent concept of what Chinese literature “is”, and thus there isn’t much of a perception of it. If you ask the average reader what they think of Chinese literature, they won’t have read any. Or they might have read one book, which isn’t enough to form a general opinion.

China has a vast domestic market.  I have heard Chinese authors are now paid much better than their Western counterparts.  Is this true?  If Chinese authors can make a good living selling books within China, do you think they care overly much about being translated (into English)?
The Chinese authors who are making huge amounts of money are either A) one of a very small handful of top-market literary authors, B) writing genre fiction, or C) writing fiction that ties into TV/movies/games, or writing the scripts for those products themselves. I think writers in the latter two categories don’t care too much about an international market. They’re very focused on their domestic readers, because close interaction with those readers is what has made them wealthy.

Authors of literary fiction always assumed that real fame and riches would come with international publication. A few years ago they started to realise how little authors earn in Western countries, and that, furthermore, their own books would be way down at the bottom of the scale. No one now expects to get rich selling their books abroad, but there’s still a lot of cachet that comes with being translated, because Western publishing is seen as more respectful of quality, and less motivated by cronyism. Which, sadly, is true.

Turning to Pathlight, how does the partnership with People's Literature Magazine work in practice?
Most of our interaction now revolves around choosing themes for each issue, and then suggesting pieces that fit the theme. Both sides come up with potential pieces, and then we discuss them. Both sides have veto rights over any piece, which I find works out pretty well in practice. Once the table of contents is set, then it’s pretty much just us, assigning translations, editing the manuscripts, and laying stuff out. Once the design is finished, then they take care of producing the actual magazine.

Has Pathlight had any problems around censorship?  If so, and they were resolved, how were they resolved?  I have heard that when it comes to censorship, the Chinese government is much more concerned about what is said in the news media, than in books.   Is this accurate, do you think?  If so, do you think officials take the view: so few people read books, it’s not worth bothering what they think?  
In general yes – the government is much more concerned about what is said in media (such as news, film, or television) that are perceived as having a wide popular audience. So literature has gotten off easy due to its obscurity! That doesn’t mean we can publish what we like, but it’s a little easier.

We’ve definitely had issues with censorship, but vary rarely of the sort where text was actually out-and-out deleted. That’s not particularly good news, though – it just means that the pieces we’re publishing have already been vetted for acceptability. The most frustrating thing, from my point of view, is having to publish pieces just because someone owes the author a favour, or not being able to run two pieces I like in the same issue because the authors have some sort of feud going on. Like I said above: cronyism. It happens in any literary society, but here cronyism is usually the deciding factor.

It’s not like there are a whole bunch of really politically-sensitive pieces out there that I want to publish, but can’t. You’d be surprised how often “politically-sensitive” pieces actually end up being very poor literature.

If the Chinese news is heavily censored, do you think that has a knock-on effect on writers of non-fiction?  If they are attempting to engage with contemporary reality, how can they, if they don’t really know what that reality is? 
Oh, no one really believes the news here. Everyone knows they’re being lied to, though I think most people don’t realise the extent to which they’re being lied to. Writers are writing about the social realities they know, and within the extent of their experience I don’t think there are many illusions in place. What there is, is a bone-deep knowledge that they are living within and writing for a society – both a literary society, and the larger national society – and that this society (both these societies) have collectively decided to pretend that certain things are true which aren’t, or vice versa. Writers are deeply aware that, if they violate those collective decisions, their books will essentially be ignored, and their careers vanish. It’s not so much the danger of the Great Red Pen, or government attack, but instead simply becoming invisible to a society which doesn’t want to read books about things everyone has agreed to pretend don’t exist.

How is Paper Republic funded?
Ha, good question. I’ve tried a few things over the years to sustain Paper Republic as a business, with varying degrees of success. For a while I produced monthly book reports for Western publishing companies, but they didn’t quite work out - very few people are willing to pay for information! Right now I sustain myself through publishing consulting for both international and domestic publishers, events organisation, a few government-funded projects, and helping Chinese publishers promote their books abroad. I’m hoping to continue the consulting, and the events, and do more work for Chinese publishers. Though you’d think the Chinese government would be interested in funding Paper Republic, as we’re essentially promoting China to the world, all my experiences and observations of the past decade have taught me not to rely on the government. Chinese publishers, on the other hand, are under pressure to sell their books abroad, and many of them are doing a fairly good job of becoming more professional, so I feel by working with them I can accomplish my goal of getting more Chinese literature translated, published and read, while minimising the foolishness I have to deal with.

Why does your translators’ directory list so few Mainland Chinese-born translators?
That reflects what I think is a fairly basic principle in literary translation, which is: you only translate into your native language. The level of language skill required to produce a work of literature in a certain language can usually only be reached by someone who grew up speaking that language. There are certainly exceptions, but they are rare. There are also people who grew up speaking two languages, and that’s a different situation. As China becomes more and more open to the rest of the world, there will be more people like that.

What are your hopes for the future development of Paper Republic?
What I’m doing right now is improving the sorry state of the database. After a couple of years of neglect, it is way behind on new Chinese books and new English translations. Once I’ve got it a little more up to date, I’ll also add better search facilities, so that people can really get in there and find what they’re looking for. People keep referring to Paper Republic as a “blog”, and while that’s not wrong, I think it’s a lot more than that: there’s a lot of really good background information, and it’s going to get better.

I’d also like it to be more of a community space. It started out that way, but again a certain level of neglect on my part left it fairly quiet. I’d like to revive that.

As far as Paper Republic the company goes, I’d like to do more publication, more consulting and more events organisation. The major barrier to the greater publication of Chinese literature is connections between the Chinese publishing industry and the international publishing industry, and a lack of information on both sides about the other. That sort of problem requires direct action to remedy, which means consulting, and doing publishing-related events at book fairs and literary festivals and the like. I’d love to do more of that.

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