In my more pessimistic moments, I feel Chinese novels translated into English are a hard sell and I’m not sure when or if they will ever become part of the literary ‘mainstream’ in the West. My friend the poet and novelist Han Dong concurs: he reckons that Chinese fiction in foreign languages will never sell like western fiction translated into Chinese. You may or may not agree with his reasoning: Chinese readers are exposed from childhood to life in the west, through classic and new translations, books, films and TV series. But that familiarity doesn’t work the other way around. So Chinese literature doesn’t capture readers’ imagination.
I thought about this argument and wondered: so then do we only read fiction that describes worlds we are familiar with? Well no… not exactly. Just look at the winner of the 2019 Man Booker International prize, Jokha Alharti. Her novel, ‘Celestial Bodies’, is about Omani tribal society, hardly a place most of us have lived in or are familiar with. But it is a beautiful, captivating read.
Whatever the reason, 2019 seems to have been a less than good year for those of us who love Chinese novels and translate them. Fewer published translations than last year (30, as against nearly 40 in 2018) and no international literary prizes awarded. Of four of this year’s major prizes for novels in English translation, only one Chinese work appeared on two longlists (the Man Booker International prize and the Best Translated Book Award), and got no further – and that was Love in the New Millennium by Can Xue, translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen. The Warwick Prize for Women in Translation and the Dublin International Literary Prize, which accepts translations alongside original English works, had no Chinese on their long- or shortlists at all, although several excellent translations were entered.
And then, just this week, there was good news: the Society of Authors TA First Translation Prize has two Chinese novels on the shortlist of six! Shortlisted are: Natascha Bruce and her editor Jeremy Tiang for a translation of Lonely Face by Singapore author Yeng PwayNgon (Balestier Press), and William Spence and his editor Tomasz Hoskins for The Promise: Love and Loss in Modern China by XinRan (I. B. Tauris). What I find especially cheering is the diversity of these entries: a Chinese work from Singapore, and a work of non-fiction by Xinran, a Chinese woman based in the UK who writes best-selling reportage about China. So, to Tascha and Will and their authors and editors, 加油！ And to my readers, keep an eye out for the results, to be announced in February 2020.
And while I’m in more optimistic mood, let me end with a brief account of a splendid literary translation party held in London’s Soho: the launch of Paper Republic as a UK-registered charity promoting Chinese literature in translation. Most of you will have read about Paper Republic (founded 2007) in these columns, no matter where you’re based. We are, as you may know, a virtual organization, with a team of volunteers spread from America to the UK and China. But to celebrate our new non-profit status, we decided to have a fund-raising party in the literary heart of London. The raffle prizes (tea, maotai, books, books and more books, signed by any of their translators who happened to be present) went like hot cakes, and the pub room was jam-packed and raucous. Inevitably, because our supporters are spread all over the world, there were some familiar faces who couldn’t be there and were sadly missed, though Eric Abrahamsen, our founder and Chair of Trustees, made a special trip over from Seattle. But now we’ve got the party bug, we hope to host more literary parties in the US and China in the near future.
And you can still donate! To support our work, please feel free to make a donation to our Paypal account here: paypal.me/paperrepublic . You can donate through this link even if you don't have a PayPal account. Every bit of your gift goes towards supporting our work to offer readers a taste of the best of Chinese literature in translation, and to mentor the translators who make that possible.
A happy festive season to you all, and may you all enjoy many literary Xmas parties!
|Emily Jones, translator, Trustee, Paper Republic|
|from L: Nicky Harman (Trustee), Nick Stember, Eric Abrahamsen (Trustee)|
|Eric Abrahamsen, welcome speech|