From the New York Times Arts Blog:
James Joyce’s fiendishly difficult novel “Finnegans Wake” has been called many things since it first began appearing in portions in 1924, including “the most colossal leg-pull in literature,” “the work of a psychopath,” and “the chief ironic epic of our time.”
Now, it can add another designation: best seller in China.
A new translation of the novel has sold out its initial print run of 8,000 since it appeared on Dec. 25, thanks in part to an unusual billboard campaign in major Chinese cities, The Associated Press reported. In Shanghai, where the book was advertised on 16 billboards, sales were second only to a new biography of Deng Xiaoping in the “good books” category, according to the Shanghai News and Publishing Bureau.
The book’s surprise success has drawn some clucking from Chinese observers (how do you say “coffee table trophy” in Mandarin?). But at a panel on Tuesday, the translator, Dai Congrong of Fudan University, who spent nearly 10 years wrestling with Joyce’s runaway sentences and knotty coinages, confessed that even she didn’t fully understand the book. “I would not be faithful to the original intent of the novel if my translation made it easy to comprehend,” she said.
Also in today’s N.Y. Times is a story about the newspaper reporter Xu Lai, who was stabbed at a recent reading:
Mr. Xu was accosted in a restroom by two men who stabbed him in the stomach and then threatened to cut off his hand before fleeing, according to the friends and fellow bloggers who posted the news on the Internet.
Xiao Sanlang, who edits Mr. Xu’s articles at The Beijing News, said the men had announced that they were “here to take revenge.” He said Mr. Xu remained in the hospital on Sunday, but his wounds were not life-threatening. “We still don’t know why it happened,” he said.
Xu Lai has written critically of the Chinese government for his online columns, and this attack has some people worried about a “growing intolerance of dissent.”
A side-observation about this attack is just how twenty-first century the coverage is:
After Mr. Xu’s stabbing, several audience members chased his attackers into the street, snapping pictures with their cellphones as they ran, but the two men escaped. [. . .]
Word of the attack quickly spread by text message and the Twitter messaging service, and several newspapers and Web sites carried the news on Sunday.
Paper Republic has an interesting post about the politics of translation as related to the censorship of Obama’s inaugural address in China.
From The Star
U.S. President Barack Obama’s inauguration speech has a little twist in translations available on some Chinese websites where his references to communism and dissent have been cut.
“Recall that earlier generations faced down communism and fascism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions,” Obama said in his 18-minute inauguration address on Tuesday. [. . .]
In the translations available on top Chinese portals Sina, Sohu, the word “communism” is omitted and the paragraph on dissent was gone.
Serve the People! is the story of Wu Dawang, a peasant from the countryside who has joined the Red Army, and who, after distinguishing himself in his division as a politically proper soldier, has achieved the relatively privileged rank of Sergeant of the Catering Squad. Wu Dawang is assigned to be General Orderly for the Division Commander, meaning he keeps house and cooks meals for the Division Commander and his wife, the alluring 32-year-old military nurse, Liu Lian.
Shortly after the opening of the novel, the Division Commander, an older man whose first marriage ended in divorce, takes an extended leave from Wu Dawang, Liu Lian, and his Division—his presence is required at a military conference, where he will spend the next two months drafting plans to modernize and streamline the Red Army.
While he’s away, Liu Lian, lonely, bored, married to an older, impotent man, attempts to seduce Wu Dawang, but Wu Dawang’s sense of military order and thoughts of his wife and child—who remain in the countryside awaiting Wu Dawang’s promotion to officialdom and life in a Chinese city—cause him to hesitate:
Wu Dawang also decided not to go straight to bed. He wound his way around those companionable clusters of drinkers to the deserted, southernmost end of the ground. There he sat, alone. To any casual observer, this deep moonlight contemplation might have suggested an inquiry into the fundamentals of existence, into the ethics of love, desire and revolution, into the conflict between honour and self-interest, into duty and hierarchy, human nature and animal instinct. But in reality these thorny abstractions slipped by him like smoke, leaving behind only two considerations: one, Liu Lian’s extraordinarily seductive body; and two, the probable consequences of entering into the kind of relations that she seemed to be proposing, and the Division Commander finding out. The simple but powerful blade of his mind stripped the issues of all complexity, leaving only these two principal contradictions. Meditating on the former, he was lost in blissful daydreams; thoughts of the latter called up the terrifying presentiment that just around the next corner of his life an execution ground awaited.
Eventually, Wu Dawang gives in to Liu Lian’s advances, and they begin a torrid affair that threatens not only Wu Dawang’s life and Liu Lian’s marriage, but the entire Division as well.
Yan Lianke’s book has caused something of a scandal in China. Serve the People! was originally published in a magazine, where it drew the attention of the Central Propaganda Bureau, who demanded that the entire print run, some 30,000 copies, be recalled and destroyed; the book has since been banned there, as have several other of Lianke’s novels. This translation even uses that fact as a marketing hook, printing some text from the Central Propaganda Bureau’s ruling—it “slanders Mao Zedong, the Army and is overflowing with sex”—on the back of the book.
The novel definitely does all of those things, and you can see why, were you a member of a censorship board in China, it might be banned. However, much of the impact of what was scandalous in its original context—the sex, poking fun at Mao Zedong thought, Mao Zedong’s iconography, the Cultural Revolution, and the naive sloganeering of the average Red Army soldier, and Liu Lian and Wu Dawang’s abuse of the “Serve the People” slogan—is lost on Western readers. These are things, after all, which aren’t sacred cows for any of us. So, once the glamorous glow of the forbidden and titillating is stripped away, what’s left of Serve the People! is an apparently straightforward story of forbidden love, for at least the first two-thirds of the novel, anyway.
And much of that first two-thirds feels pretty familiar, which left me wanting Lianke to just get Wu Dawang and Liu Lian together, so he could get on with the rest of his story. Anyone who has seen a romantic comedy and gets to the part when misunderstandings-or-outside-forces-are-temporarily-driving-
satisfying knows what I’m talking about, but in this case with a lot more sex once they get together.
Once he gets them together however, Lianke’s story does take on a more elegiac and, to me at least, far more interesting tone. And the book does have a few powerful moments toward the end, when the current of criticism that runs through the plot—how constricting these communist slogans, once internalized, have become, and how they are used and twisted by all and sundry just to get by—affects the plot and the characters most directly and more deeply.
Serve the People!
by Yan Lianke
Translated from the Chinese by Julia Lovell
Paperback, 216 pages, $14.00
Black Cat, a paperback original imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
The world’s most populous nation, the world’s biggest consumer of raw materials, and now the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, China strides irresistibly towards its economic and political destiny. But as Beijing prepares for its Olympic extravaganza this summer, the cultural life of the 1.3 billion people who live and work in this economic superpower remains a closed book to many in the west – their bestselling authors unfamiliar, their most exciting writers untranslated.
We’ve done some thinking about China—it’s a huge oversight to miss out on publishing a book from a country of 1.5 billion people—but, based on the article, the publishing industry there sounds even more complicated that Japan’s, which is almost indescribable.
This is at least partly because of the unique constitution of the Chinese publishing industry. “Officially, publishing is still an activity reserved to the state. So unlike, say, printing or bookselling, no private or foreign direct participation is allowed,” explains Richardson. There are some 570 state publishing houses, which until recently were insulated from the vicissitudes of the market. “Now they are ‘cultural enterprises’, are expected to become financially independent and are allowed to compete in each others’ patches.”
As always in China, Richardson continues, “things are more complicated than they would appear at an official level”. Alongside the state houses are “cultural studios”, private publishers that supply creative input for the state houses (which is legal), or simply buy ISBNs and publish themselves (which is not). “Meanwhile foreign publishers also cannot participate directly, but all the major international publishing companies have some form of representation in China and many have worked out forms of co-operation with Chinese partners that get under the wire.”
We won’t give up, but it’s an uphill battle—and that’s not considering all the other hurdles in making something like this happen. China is the guest of honor at Frankfurt in 2009 (It’s sad to say we’ll be waiting this long to find a book from China to publish. I hope it’s not the case.) and we’ll definitely find a book (or two or three) at the fair.
Full-Tilt, “a journal of East Asian, poetry, translation and the arts”, which is completely new to me (and I guess everyone else, as this is their second issue), has an interview with Howard Goldblatt. The issue features several other interviews with translators as well.
Howard Goldblatt has all but single-handedly introduced contemporary Chinese-language literature to the English-speaking world. With over thirty volumes of Chinese fiction in translation to his name as well as several memoirs and a volume of poetry in translation, Goldblatt continually seeks out new talent to introduce to English-speaking readers while maintaining a commitment to more established writers. His shortlist of literary translations reads like a “Who’s Who” of important contemporary authors from China and Taiwan.
He has some interesting things to say about the art of translation (I’m tempted to quote so much more, but follow the link for the good stuff):
What are some of the problems specific to translating from Chinese into English?
Not knowing Chinese well enough, not knowing English well enough. Actually, not knowing Chinese well enough isn’t a big problem—you can always ask someone. You can ask your author, you can ask your friends. No, the thing that’s really killing translation in our field is literalism. Too many translators are afraid of the text, especially when they’re first starting out. And I understand that, because I was too. They’re all afraid of the text. You need to overcome your fear of the text, put some distance between you and it. You have to because Chinese and English are so different. Take the use of the passive voice, for example, which just runs through the Chinese language. Five different agents for the passive voice! We only have one. And the Chinese use it all the time. It is part of the language, part of the way they express themselves. But if you use it that much in English—God!
So how do you handle linguistic problems like this?
My watchword is: did the Chinese writer write it that way for a particular purpose or did his language dictate it be that way? If it’s the latter, then I put it into whatever my language dictates it should be. If I assume that it’s idiosyncratic, that the author was trying to defamiliarize the text, to slow the reader down, then I try very much to capture that.
via the ALTA blog.
Dukou Bookstore in Shanghai sounds like a fun place to browse:
Most books here are about urban life, architecture and literature. Unlike most bookstores, books here are not categorized. Instead they are randomly shelved. According to Xiao, there is a bond between the reader and the book, and categorizing the books would jeopardize this relationship.
Some of the other “concept bookstores” featured in the China Daily article sound interesting as well. Although there’s nothing like random shelving to create a unique experience . . .
The July-August issue of World Literature Today—a special issue entitled “Inside China”—is now out, with some of the articles available online.
It’s interesting to me that WLT is focusing on China. Recently, PEN America/Ramon Llull Institut released a special study on Globalization and Translation that included statistics on the number of books translated into English from around the world. As part of the study (which should be available online sometime soon, and when it is, we’ll definitely link to it), there were “Case Studies” from a number of different countries. Including China, which had this chilling statistic:
According to the national statistics, China produces about 110,000 new titles per year. [. . .] But the number of those new titles that were translated into other languages, as far as can be told from an extensive Internet search, was less than 100 titles for 2003. This means about 0.01% of Chinese books are being translated into other languages.
After hearing awful insular statistic after isolationist statistic, I didn’t think anything could shock me. But 0.01%?! Less than 100 titles translated into all other languages throughout the world! The only bright side is that there must be a ton of interesting Chinese titles available for an ambitious press to find . . .
At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map. . .
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (narrated by Julio Cortázar) is, not disappointingly, as wild a book as its title suggests. It is a half-novella half-graphic novel story about . . . what, exactly? A European tribunal, Latin. . .
Marie NDiaye has created a tiny, psychological masterpiece with her Self-Portrait in Green. In it she explores how our private fears and insecurities can distort what we believe to be real and can cause us to sabotage our intimate relationships.. . .
Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In. . .
The Sicilian Mafia has always been a rich subject for sensational crime fiction. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos worked the mob’s bloody corpses and family feuds to both entertainment and artistic value. Giuseppe di Piazza’s debut novel attempts this,. . .
Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were. . .
It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .