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To Be Translated or Not To Be: Case Studies — China

Continuing the ongoing series on the PEN/Ramon Llull To Be Translated or Not To Be report, today we’re covering the case study on China, which contains the most disturbing translation statistic I’ve ever come across:

According to the official statistics, China produced about 110,000 new titles in 2003, and 112,857 in 2005. Among the new titles for 2003 there were 10,000 new literary creations and 10,842 for 2005. But the number of those new titles that have been translated into other languages, as far as can be told from an extensive Internet search, was less than 100 in 2003, and almost the same in 2005, though these were mostly literary works. This means about 0.01% of Chinese books are being translated into other languages . . .

[Note: Using the figures of 100 translated titles out of 112,000 This actually comes out to 0.09%.]

And just to clarify and reemphasize, that’s less than 100 titles translated into all other languages combined.

For a country with the largest population in the world, these statistics are shocking:

The official Chinese Writers Association reported 6,128 members in 2005. But less than 300 of those writers have ever had their work translated into any other language—that is, less than 5%.

(This may well be the first country profiled in which it’s not just America and Britain that look like cultural ignorant jerks—in this case, the whole world is ignoring Chinese lit.)

Of course, there are political issues involved in the Chinese situation. As Chen Maiping, writer and translator and founding member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC) states in this article, there are thousands of other writers who are not members of the official Association, and who don’t have an opportunity to publish their works in China. I may be wrong, but these are the authors that would probably most appeal to independent and university publishers in the U.S.—the two groups that publish the lion’s share of literature in translation.

Noble Prize winner Gao Xingjian—who has lived in exile since 1987 —is a member of the ICPC, and is still forbidden from publishing in China. Not sure about Yan Lianke, whose Serve the People! is a Reading the World 2008 title, but based on the blurb on the back from the Chinese Central Propaganda Bureau—“This novel slanders Mao Zedong, the army, and is overflowing with sex. . . . Do not distribute, pass around, comment on, excerpt from it, or report on it”—I’m guessing he’s a bit of an outsider as well.

As if there weren’t enough obstacles already to getting a country’s literature translated into other languages, the political situation in China adds an additional layer of difficulty. Unlike the other case studies, no where in this article is funding for translations mentioned, although there is a comment about translation into Chinese that doesn’t bode well:

In Chinese cultural history, literature traditionally serves political purposes and so does literary translation. [. . .] The Chinese government has also sponsored translation of the kind of Chinese literature that suits their political propaganda.

In terms of translation into Chinese, Maiping claims that international literature has always been more popular in China than Chinese literature, leading to a situation nowadays in which a lot of books are translated because they are best-sellers, rather than for their literary value. This has had an impact on the quality and interest in translation, with the prestige associated with being a literary translator on the decline despite the fact that China was one of the first countries to publish translations of books like The Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter.

Overall, this is a complicated situation, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens when China is the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009. From an editorial perspective, it’s always been difficult trying to get information about Chinese authors worth looking into. And even if you do identify someone, the rights situation seems very messy . . . I rely on Paper Republic? for general info, and in my opinion, Columbia University Press and its Weatherhead Books on Asia series is one of the best sources for Chinese literature (and lit from other Asian countries as well).

Despite everything above, Maiping is pretty optimistic, and ends his piece with an interesting look toward the future:

Literary translation itself follows the social development and people’s needs. It is also important to keep a diversity of cultures. Diversity means that we should let different values flow freely between areas in the coordination I describe above. With international support, we should try to break the barrier between them, no matter if these barriers are natural (from language perspectives) or artificial (political reasons). Internet will help to overcome the barriers.



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