Wednesday 18 April 2018

Two nonagenarian authors and an outburst

This blog starts with the London Book Fair, or rather flirts with it without actually going through the doors. Instead we’re at the Translators Association (UK), which celebrates the fair in a particular way – by hosting a whole day of translation workshops, known snappily as “LBF-minus-1” the Monday before the fair. The symposium aims to provide full and frank discussion on a whole variety of topics, plus, of course, an all-important chance to catch up with other translators from all over the country, in fact, the world. The highlight for me this year was a panel called “Promoting non-fiction in translation,” because of something unexpected that happened. Ruth Martin, Co-Chair of the Translators Association, Kate Mascaro from Flammarion, Nichola Smalley from And Other Stories, and Trista Selous, translator from French, started by going over familiar but useful territory: promoting a book to readers benefits from the personal touch to bring the author and their book to life (but it’s more difficult with non-fiction than with a novel). Translators can help, by blogging and using other social media. Many of the major nonfiction prizes are explicitly open to translations, and publishers should be encouraged to submit them. Nonfiction translators should make sure their publishers give them an author credit on Amazon - they can then edit their own author page and boost their profile. But in general the panellists felt that translated non-fiction just is less sexy and harder to promote than novels. The discussion was all fairly low-key, until a passionate intervention from the audience: a freelance journalist spoke up to accuse publishers of killing their translated books from the get-go, by being negative, unimaginative, and inefficient. Even the press releases, which they may or may not send you when you ask, are badly-written, she said. Why can’t publicity departments dream up inspiring ways of presenting translated authors to the reading public? What’s wrong with thinking big and bold, for instance, radio and TV features?

There was a moment’s startled silence. But it started me thinking about Our Story, A Memoir of Love and Life in China, a gorgeous book illustrated on every page with the author Rao Pingru’s own manhua-style paintings, which is about to come out in English translation. A couple of years ago, when the Chinese edition was published, Rao became an unlikely TV star despite being in his nineties. In fact, it turns out that he is a natural, quite capable of holding a TV studio full of young people spellbound while he talks without the aid of notes and his life and great love. Look him up on Youku and Youtube. Here’s one Youtube clip that I particularly like: It’s all in Chinese but you can see him playing his mouth organ and listen to him singing “Rosemary” in English (minute 6), the song he wooed his wife-to-be with because, as he confesses, it wasn’t done to say ‘I love you,’ in those days! Sadly, Rao won’t be coming over to talk to UK audiences to launch his memoir in English because he’s 95 this year and increasingly frail, but the publishers have signed me up to podcast and blog about this lovely man and his story.

Coincidentally, another book by a ninety-something-year-old Chinese author has just come out here and is doing magnificently well, Jin Yong’s wushu novel, A Hero Born, translated by Anna Holmwood. The novel and its excellent translation have had rave reviews, in The New Yorker (which talks of the author’s “story-telling verve” and the translator’s “deft manouevring” amongst other appreciative epithets), The Guardian newspaper, and other mainstream review pages that are normally hard for translated fiction to reach. It has even been spotted in the window of Waterstones, a rare position for a Chinese novel. (The picture here comes from Manchester, courtesy of Michelle Deeter, another enthusiastic translator from Chinese.) So what is it in Hero, or any book, that makes it a bestseller? We can talk all we like about the need for clever promotion, for a live, personable author to give it lift-off, etcetera etcetera. (Actually, like Rao, Jin Yong is now too frail to do live interviews, so we are none of us going to see or hear him in person, although Holmwood has written entertainingly about the challenges of martial arts fiction into English.) But sometimes the magic happens anyway, and it serves as an inspiration to all of us translators. All I can say, dear reader, is buy both these books, you’ll enjoy them.

Nicky Harman