5 June 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The guest post going up in an hour or so—which also happens to be one of the best things we’ve published on Three Percent in quite some time—is by translator extraordinaire, Esther Allen, who, in my opinion and the opinion of many, is one of the most important supporters of literature in translation living today. Esther helped launch the current version of the PEN World Voices Festival, and was responsible for organizing the Michael Henry Heim Translation Fund financially benefiting around a dozen translators every year.

In her spare time from teaching, translating, dancing at Taylor’s during the Best ALTA Ever, and speaking on panels throughout the world, Esther managed to co-edit (with Susan Bernofsky, another giant in the world of literary translation) In Translation, an anthology of writings on translation that professors everywhere should be using in their world literature classes. (See below for a special offer from CUP for this title.)



Featuring essays by Haruki Murakami, Alice Kaplan, Peter Cole, Eliot Weinberger, Forrest Gander, Clare Cavanagh, David Bellos, Jason Grunebaum, and José Manuel Prieto, among others, you can expect a bunch more posts and references to this in the future. But for now, I wanted to share this piece that Esther wrote for last week’s PW Tip Sheet. It’s a nice lead in to today’s feature piece, which will post shortly, and which you’re going to love.

Words that don’t seem to have an exact equivalent are often described as untranslatable. But are there really words that simply can’t be understood outside of the language that produced them? An article by Jason Wire on Matador Network offers the word mamihlapinatapei, from the Yagan language spoken in Tierra del Fuego, as an untranslatable term . . . and then proceeds to translate it in a way we can all understand: “the wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who both desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start.” If ten people who read this article begin using it regularly in conversation—“Is this mamihlapinatapei we’re feeling right now?“—within five years it could be as common as schadenfreude. And what a shame it will be if that doesn’t happen. [. . .]

Translation is an art, not a science, and like all artists (and perhaps all scientists, as well) its practitioners are more likely to be hacks than geniuses. But there aren’t many words, or poems, or books that genuinely cannot be conveyed in another language, and might not even be enriched in the process. The great Japanese translator Motoyuki Shibata claims that Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha (an English fiction that purports to be a translation from Japanese) is much improved by its translation into Japanese by Takayoshi Ogawa, who transformed it into something authentic by incorporating the actual traditional vocabulary used by geishas. (Even so, the novel never achieved bestselling status in Japan, where people just weren’t that interested in reading another geisha story.)

What really can’t be translated is the experience of sharing a language—not just a word or two here and there—within the culture of people who speak it. That’s why the Wampanoag are currently engaged in a heroic act of linguistic revitalization, translating their entire language from the written documents left by colonization to bring it back into spoken use in their daily lives. There’s no way anyone else can do that for them, just as no one but you can translate yourself—via study and practice—into the shared space of a new language.

As mentioned above, you can receive a 30% discount on this book via Columbia University Press by clicking here and using the discount code: INTALL. And you should. To appropriate a sports phrase, this book is an instant classic.

4 April 13 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.

Atlas by Dung Kai-Cheung, translated from the Chinese by Anders Hansson and Bonnie S. McDougall, and published by Columbia University Press

Having wanted to read this book for months, I took the opportunity to snag this for myself when we were lining people up to write for this series. And I’m damn glad that I did.

1. It’s not Jackie Chan. As Bonnie McDougall points out in her introduction, most depictions of Hong Kong that the typical American reader are familiar with are written by outsiders. John le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy. Paul Theroux’s Kowloon Tong. John Lanchester’s Fragrant Harbour. Basically all the books on this list. Not so with Atlas! Dung Kai-Cheung is Hong Kong’s greatest novelist, and as such, offers a different—and more genuine?—perspective on this really interesting part of the world. From Kai-Cheung’s introduction:

There are enough fictitious Hong Kongs circulating around the world. It doesn’t matter so much how real or false these fictions are but how they are made up. The Hong Kong of Tai-Pan and Suzie Wong, a mixture of economic adventures, political intrigues, sexual encounters, and romances; the Hong Kong of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li kung fu fighting their way through to the international scene; the Hong Kong of John Woo’s gangster heroes shooting doublehanded and Stephen Chow’s underdog antiheroes making nonsensical jokes. And yet, in spite of these eye-catching exposures, Hong Kong remains invisible. A large part of the reality of life here is unrepresented, unrevealed, and ignored. Hong Kong’s martial arts fiction, commercial movies, and pop songs are successful in East Asia and even farther abroad, but for all the talents, insights, and creativity of its writers, Hong Kong literature attracts minimal attention—not just internationally but even in mainland China. I am not claiming that literature represents a Hong Kong more real than the movies, but it has its unique role and methods and thus yields different meanings. It is not just a different way of world-representing but also a different way of world-building, that is, creating conditions for understanding, molding, preserving, and changing the world that we live in.

For this alone, Atlas deserves to win.

2. It’s like Calvino plus Borges . . . At first glance, Atlas sounds a lot like Calvino’s Invisible Cities with a touch of the Borges:

Set in the long-lost City of Victoria (a fictional world similar to Hong Kong), Atlas is written from the unified perspective of future archaeologists struggling to rebuild a thrilling metropolis. Divided into four sections—“Theory,” “The City,” “Streets,” and “Signs”—the novel reimagines Victoria through maps and other historical documents and artifacts, mixing real-world scenarios with purely imaginary people and events while incorporating anecdotes and actual and fictional social commentary and critique.

And in his fanciful writing, Dung does bring both writers to mind, such as in this bit about a plaza enclosed by a square street:

The only way of finding one’s way in the square street seems to have been by determining the direction. The four sides of the square street were fixed according to the four points of the compass, north, south, east, and west, but because there was no door numbers along the street (for no one could say where the street began and where it ended), it was rather difficult to determine if one were proceeding along the east street, the west street, the north street, or the south street. To be sure, this was not a problem for the local inhabitants, because whatever side of the street they lived on made no difference to them. Another special characteristic of the square street was that there was a flight of steps at each corner. It was said that if you kept turning right as you walked, the steps would lead upward, but if you went in the opposit direction, to the left, the steps would lead down. But whether you went up or down, you would still return to your original place by way of the four flights of steps and the four corners. Experts in cartography maintain that such phenomena can occur only on the surface of maps, or in pictures with fanciful optical illusions.

3. . . . except that it’s not. This isn’t just a derivative attempt to write something Calvino-esque or Borgesian. (Or, Calgesian? Borvino?) A unique combination of cartography, fabulism, and philosophy, Atlas brings up a ton of interesting questions about how the world can be (or should be) represented and how we read these representations. It’s definitely in the vein of those other two authors (who are mentioned in the book, along with Barthes and Umberto Eco), but it’s also something quite different and all of its own. (The titles Dung’s other novels make these influences even more obvious: The Rose of the Name and Visible Cities.) At times, this is more cerebral and heady than Calvino’s work, which makes this even more interesting.

4. It’s written in Cantonese and Mandarin. Esther Allen talked to my class the other week about José Manuel Prieto’s Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia and emphasized how she tried to retain the mixture of languages present in the original by including Russian texts, Japanese script, bits in Spanish, etc. This wasn’t just an aesthetic decision, but a political one as well. In her own words:

For the reader of the original text, the book’s origin in the Spanish-speaking world is evident in its every word and requires no further emphasis. As its translator into English, my overwhelming primary allegiance was to the Spanish language. If readers of the English translation were allowed to forget that the book was first written in Spanish—not Russian or English—and was translated from Spanish—not Russian—the book risked being denatured, stripped of all the historic and cultural meaning that derives from the specific language in which it was first written.

The translation therefore explicitly sought to emphasize the Spanish-ness of this text about Russia, but in a way that did not undermine the original’s will to leave its Latin American origins in the deep background. Keeping certain words or phrases in the source language, always an option, here became an imperative, and the English retains as much Spanish as I felt was possible. No longer the language of the text itself, Spanish becomes a key element in its polyglossia.

This came to mind in reading McDougall’s introduction when she talks about Hong Kong’s linguistic multiplicity and the fact that is book is originally written in Mandarin with some Cantonese expressions. This mix occurs in other works of Hong Kong literature, but may also be why it’s not accepted as readily by mainland China. In my mind, this sort of situation—overlooked even within its own country because of the linguistic mix—is a valid reason for awarding this novel the Best Translated Book Award.

15 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Zero and Other Fictions is a collection that displays a unique range. Huang Fan has been writing for over 30 years and it shows (though he may have been secluded for nearly a decade during this time, studying Buddhism and not writing much fiction). The “other fictions” included in this collection include a satirical tale of an unknowing political pawn, a humorous allegorical story of enterprise told through infidelity, and a bizarre metafictional piece that includes small illustrations among its many elements. This collection is concise; it is tight, dense, and powerful. Huang Fan is a different writer at every turn, and at each of these turns, a true craftsman.

The prose in “Lai Suo,” the unwitting pawn of a man, emphasizes the protagonist’s lack of agency—he is constantly subjected to experience:

He seemed to hear a number of other sounds. His two maple-leaf ears were completely exposed to the continuous noise on the street—buses, trucks, cabs, motorcycles, as well as the occasional siren of an ambulance as it rushed by. All of these sounds knocked on Lai Suo’s eardrums as if they wanted to penetrate even deeper, but were stopped in the middle by something—it was like an acoustic tile on which was inscribed: LAI SUO, TAIPEI, JUNE 1978, TRAVELER THROUGH TIME AND SPACE.

In the metafiction of “How To Measure a Ditch,” Huang turns directly to his audience:

Well, what eventually happened to those two young ladies? I’m sure a number of readers will be interested in learning if I became friends with one of them or we fell in love.

I won’t say yes and I won’t say no.

My answer is that the future developments with the two young ladies have nothing to do with this story. They returned to their real lives. Like you, as far as they were concerned, this matter was simply one of those occasional variables in life.

As you read this story, you also are “involved in” the story; it’s just that the way you enter the story is completely different from the way those two young ladies entered.

The final story in the collection is Zero, which as Balcom explains in his interview, was revolutionary for the political context in which it appeared. With this in mind, and having read his prose, which leaves no room for error, it seems that Huang is a writer whose words are wrought with an artist’s ideal in mind, that Huang’s literary work is motivated by a pure force that does not cater to even his own whims. Zero is one of Huang’s first attempts at science fiction, and while it does harken back to dystopian classics such as 1984 (with a small “Winston” cameo), it does not leave the reader a satisfying conclusion about where the truth really lies, which is infuriatingly simultaneously unsatisfying and satisfying.

These stories are no small introduction to Huang Fan.

15 September 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Read This Next title is Zero and Other Fictions by Huang Fan and translated from the Chinese by John Balcom. Columbia University Press is bringing this out on October 4th. Here’s Lily Ye’s description:

Huang is a celebrated modern Taiwanese writer who has been writing for over 30 years. This is his first collection to appear in English, curated and translated by John Balcom who has graciously also contributed an interview to this feature. Much of Huang’s writing is political in nature, and in this collection we have stories representative of each of the various stages of his writing career. Here the stories range from metafiction to allegory to the science-fiction dystopian writing of Zero, which takes up the majority of the collection.

You can read a sample here, and an interview with John Balcom here.

Lily Ye: Huang’s writing, at least within this collection, is certainly very political. Where do you think that Huang Fan stands within the literary scene of Taiwan, and what is his importance?

John Balcom: I would say that every piece is political. Huang has always been way out in front when it comes to commenting on society, politics, and culture in Taiwan. His subtle grasp of the local situation has always provided fodder for his critical mind. He often dealt with subjects no one else wrote about, but which were of great interest – he struck a chord in the popular imagination and shook up the literary scene. His writing, when it appeared, was often quite revolutionary, often in terms of content, but also sometimes in terms of style – witness “How to Measure the Width of a Ditch”. However, thirty years later, we tend to forget what an impact his writing had – it’s sort of like reading Gide today.

LY: How would you characterize him in contrast to other modern Chinese writers like Cao Naiqian, who you’ve also translated? Do you know how is he perceived within Mainland China?

JB: It is really difficult to compare his work to that of say, Cao Naiqian. In a sense, they are writing out of two entirely different milieus and traditions. A better comparison might be between Huang’s use of the Sci-fi genre and that of Chang Hsi-kuo, the author of The City Trilogy. His work is known in mainland China, but by readers and specialists who know or study Taiwan literature.

LY: What do you think familiarity with his works will bring to Western audiences, and what would you like them to come away with?

JB: I think reading his work is essential for an understanding of post-War Sinophone literature. I would like readers to go away with a sense of his versatility as a writer.

Finally, here’s Lily’s review of Zero.

Zero and Other Fictions is a collection that displays a unique range. Huang Fan has been writing for over 30 years and it shows (though he may have been secluded for nearly a decade during this time, studying Buddhism and not writing much fiction). The “other fictions” included in this collection include a satirical tale of an unknowing political pawn, a humorous allegorical story of enterprise told through infidelity, and a bizarre metafictional piece that includes small illustrations among its many elements. This collection is concise; it is tight, dense, and powerful. Huang Fan is a different writer at every turn, and at each of these turns, a true craftsman.

All of this—the preview, the interview, the review—can be found by clicking here, where you can also read excerpts, etc., from the fourteen other titles we’ve featured so far.

3 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Sasha Miller on The Demon at Agi Bridge and Other Japanese Tales, a collection edited by Hauro Shirane, translated by Burton Watson, and available from Columbia University Press.

This book is part of Columbia’s Translations from the Asian Classics series, which is just one of several Asian-related book series published by CUP. In many ways, CUP is to Asian literature as AUP is to Arabic lit . . . As Lily mentioned in this week’s Read This Next post, we’re going to be featuring one of the book from their Modern Chinese Literature from Taiwan series in a few weeks.

Anyway, onto the review of The Demon at Agi Bridge:

“That must be the demon!” And what a demon it is! Oozing pustules covering bodies, blood excreting from tiny pores, sharpened horns decorating bony skulls . . . The Demon at Agi Bridge and Other Japanese Tales is an expounding collection brimming with translated historical and cultural Japanese anecdotes, focusing specifically on traditionally oral Japanese narratives, known as setsuwa. The combined efforts of translator and editor Burton Watson and Hauro Shirane, respectively, elicit tales for the ignorant reader as well as for those more knowledgeable about the Japanese culture.

A book vaguely reminiscent of the Western morality tales Aesop’s Fables, The Demon at Agi Bridge truly reflects the Japanese oral tradition. The stories themselves often end with a lesson—life lessons such as promoting kindness and friendship (as in the tale “How a Man Received a Bounty After a Period of Prayer at the Hase Temple” where a poor samurai, in possession of no goods or money, profits solely from the kindness he gives others along his travels) while dissuading such actions as envy and dishonesty.

Click here to read the full review.

3 August 11 | Chad W. Post | Comments

“That must be the demon!” And what a demon it is! Oozing pustules covering bodies, blood excreting from tiny pores, sharpened horns decorating bony skulls . . . The Demon at Agi Bridge and Other Japanese Tales is an expounding collection brimming with translated historical and cultural Japanese anecdotes, focusing specifically on traditionally oral Japanese narratives, known as setsuwa. The combined efforts of translator and editor Burton Watson and Hauro Shirane, respectively, elicit tales for the ignorant reader as well as for those more knowledgeable about the Japanese culture.

A book vaguely reminiscent of the Western morality tales Aesop’s Fables, The Demon at Agi Bridge truly reflects the Japanese oral tradition. The stories themselves often end with a lesson—life lessons such as promoting kindness and friendship (as in the tale “How a Man Received a Bounty After a Period of Prayer at the Hase Temple” where a poor samurai, in possession of no goods or money, profits solely from the kindness he gives others along his travels) while dissuading such actions as envy and dishonesty.

The tales also have a wide range of themes, such as Karma, Buddhism (readers well-versed in Buddhist teachings will have the advantage of understanding the reasoning behind various religious undertakings), filial piety, music and dance, Shintoism, animals and insects, the female body, poetry, gambling, and the exploration of the supernatural—in relation to the existence of wild demons, living in the middle of forests or on the sides of mountains, as well as in the transformations of humans into animals after the performance of an unforgivable sin. The settings of each story are often intertwined with court culture, aristocratic society, and political unrest within the Japanese warrior class. Similarly themed and moral-bound, the stories reflect a society striving towards a religious and moral obligatory lifestyle, such as following the way of the Buddha.

While most of the tales end in a moral lesson of sorts, the narratives are often laced with snarky comments and an underlying dark humor. One tale mentions the effects of “mushrooms” and the story’s character’s uninhibited usage of them: “We came on some mushrooms . . . [and] after we’d eaten them, we found that . . . we just couldn’t help dancing.” Another describes a mad, elderly woman removing the hair from her young, dead mistresses in order to preserve the luscious locks and make a wig.

In the short story “How a Court Lady of Royal Birth Demonstrated the Foulness of her Bodily Form,” a beautiful court woman captivates the heart of a Buddhist monk. Falling in love with her, the monk wishes to meet her in private. However, though his advances delight her, she admits that the meeting is to speak about a grave matter. Touching on one of the anthology’s most prevalent thematic occurrences is the mention of feminism, or the antithesis, incorporated seamlessly into the idea of Buddha nature and religious practices. A woman’s body is considered to be tarnished—with her lack of purity, her shameless lascivious seductions of men, and her monthly menstruation. Despite a woman’s inability to control the perceptions of her body, it is made clear she is still considered to be inferior in comparison with a man. “This body of mine is a thing putrid and rotten beyond description. My head is overflowing with brain matter and other fluids; my skin is stuffed with flesh and bones. Blood flows from my body; pus oozes out . . .” The description is of the pure nature of the woman body, seen in Buddhist ideals as foul and uncomely.

In the narrative, “How Ki no Tosuke of Mino Province Met Female Spirits and Died,” a man’s wife, envious of a box a female spirit presented to him, opened it, only to find “several human eyes that had been gorged out and a number of penises with a little of the hair attached.” Though morbidity rather than sarcastic humor is often the most prevalent aspect within these tales, the “humor, word play, and comic twists” of each story present the reader with an enjoyable tale, a quick read, and an unforgettable experience.

This compilation of short stories comes highly recommended for both those interested in Japanese culture as well as those who desire to experience a new society of people and their history.

5 October 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In my spare time [sic], I’ve been reading Ted Striphas’s very interesting The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control, which was released by Columbia University Press earlier this year, and very thoughtfully reviewed by Richard Nash in the most recent issue of The Critical Flame. At some point, I hope to write a review of this as well—it’s a very well-done book, with a number of interesting points about the development of the book industry and the relationship between publishers, booksellers, and readers.

On the bus this morning, I read a bit about the Cheney Report (named after its author Orion Howard Cheney) that seemed very appropriate for this blog. The so-called Cheney Report was commissioned by the National Association of Book Publishers (NABP) after the stock market crash of 1929 to get a better handle on what was going on in the book industry at the time. I’ll let Striphas take it away:

After fifteen months of exhaustive research on Cheney’s part—and a comparable degree of nervous anticipation on the part of the NABP—the 150,000 word Economic Survey of the Book Industry, 1930-1931 (Cheney Report) was published in early January 1932. The eminent sociologist Robert Lynd assayed it in the Saturday Review of Literature, concluding that “it blows the lid off the book industry.” Indeed, the report was incisive and unrelenting in its criticisms of every aspect of the book industry and beyond. Cheney blasted publishers and booksellers for relying on intuition to guide important business, editorial, and purchasing decision rather than operating on a scientifically sound, statistically driven “fact basis.” He disparaged editors and publishers for their lack of creativity in developing the talents of first-time authors and scolded them for “murdering” potentially successful titles by releasing them into a field already so overcrowded that they simply “cannibalized” one another. Cheney was troubled by the lack of uniformity in the size and materials of printed books, which, he believed, drove up manufacturing costs unnecessarily. He chided advertisers adn book critics for generating insufficient interest in books and consequently for failing to help readers make informed decisions about what to buy. He condemned librarians for overstocking popular fiction and (like the booksellers) for making practically no effort at systematically studying the interests and reading habits of their clientele. Cheney even lambasted “uninspiring teachers” for their “unsound teaching methods,” which, he believed, resulted in their failure to stimulate adequate interest in reading among students ranging from preschool to college.

His big beef was with distribution methods, and the long-term impact of this study (creation of ISBNs and bar codes) is pretty impressive. Although I’m the first to object to business school people implementing their “economic science” on anything artistic (or even publishing), I do love this typical publisher response to the study:

Despite Cheney’s claim to have produced the report “in a spirit of objective sympathy,” his pedantry, harsh criticism, and acerbic tone seem to have gotten the better of him. The document generated what’s best described as a mixed yet largely defensive response from book industry insiders.

The situation is more complicated these days than it was in 1932 (pre-Internet, pre-superstore, pre-decline in newspaper book coverage), it’s curious how many of these problems still plague the industry today . . .

2 February 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

It’s no surprise that more and more Chinese literature is making its way into English (there were 11 original works of fiction and poetry that came out in the U.S. in 2008, and through the first half of 2009, I’ve already identified 9), but this spring has a number of titles that look really fantastic, and that we hope to review in full in the not too distant future.

I started reading Five Spice Street by Can Xue on my trip to New York, and am amazed at how bizarre it is. On the surface things seem somewhat normal . . . well, maybe. Any book with a half-dozen containing a half-dozen page argument (one that involves 28 people) about a character’s age is pretty cool. Can Xue’s been published by Northwestern and New Directions in the past, and as one of the first books in Yale’s Margellos World Republic of Letters series it should get some pretty decent attention.

While in NY, I also picked up a copy of Yu Hua’s Brothers an enormous novel that was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Asian Prize. Yu Hua was profiled in the Times Magazine, and I’m sure this is just the start of the review coverage. (The crap line “The novel, which will be published in an English translation later this month, may also prove to be China’s first successful export of literary fiction” will inevitably catch the eye of a lot of reviewers . . . That, and the size of this book—it’ll break your wrist!—and the fact that Random House is bringing it out.) Here’s the rest of the Times Magazine description:

Certainly, foreign readers will find in its sprawling, rambunctious narrative some of China’s most frenetic transformations and garish contradictions. “Brothers” strikes its characteristic tone with the very first scene, as Li Guang, a business tycoon, sits on his gold-plated toilet, dreaming of space travel even as he mourns the loss of all earthly relations. Li made his money from various entrepreneurial ventures, including hosting a beauty pageant for virgins and selling scrap metal and knockoff designer suits. A quick flashback to his small-town childhood shows him ogling the bottoms of women defecating in a public toilet. Similarly grotesque images proliferate over the next 600 pages as Yu describes, first, the extended trauma of the Cultural Revolution, during which Li and his stepbrother Song Gang witness Red Guards torturing Song Gang’s father to death, and then the moral wasteland of capitalist China, in which Song Gang is forced to surgically enlarge one of his breasts in order to sell breast-enlargement gels.

Following up on the post last week about Columbia University Press, this May they’re bringing out the fantastically titled There’s Nothing I Can Do When I Think of You Late at Night by Naiqian Cao. I’ll read any Asian titles Columbia brings out, but this sounds particularly interesting:

In this genre-defying book, the author’s affection for vivid personalities and unflinching realism comes through in a stark portrait of adultery, bestiality, incest, and vice in rural China. Set near the border of Inner Mongolia, among a cluster of cave dwellings in Shanxi province, these intense vignettes describe the base desires and dark longings of a life lived in virtual isolation.

Finally, coming out from Penguin in April is English by Wang Gang, which, according to the Penguin site, is about a twelve-year-old boy learning English in the stifling atmosphere of Xinjiang in China’s remote northwest during the time of the Cultural Revolution. Editor John Siciliano highly recommended this to me, and I’m planning on reviewing it once we receive a galley . . .

(Paper Republic. is by far the best place online to get information about Chinese literature both translated and untranslated. Definitely worth checking out.)

26 January 09 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Admittedly, books from university presses are under-represented on this year’s Best Translated Book of 2008 fiction longlist, a situation that will hopefully change next year.

But for now, I thought that before announcing the finalists for fiction and poetry (and yes, I do know what they are, but that post won’t go live until tomorrow morning . . .), I’d take a moment to highlight some of the more interesting university presses and the translations they published this year.

At the top of the list has to be Columbia University Press. There’s no other university press in the country doing as many interesting Asian works in translation as Columbia. (Not to mention the fact that their books are handsomely designed, and paperback editions of several — such as I Love Dollars — have been picked up by very prestigious presses, like Penguin.)

The two big books that came out this year as part of the Weatherhead Books on Asia series (both of which could’ve easily made our longlist) are Wang Anyi’s The Song of Everlasting Sorrow and Ch’oe Yun’s There a Petal Silently Falls.

The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Chinese author Wang Anyi was actually a Reading the World book this year, and got some very nice coverage when it came out this summer. Here’s a description from an article by Howard Choy:

Spanning forty odd years from 1945 to 1986, the novel is tripartite. Book I is set in the glittery city of Shanghai during the latter half of the 1940s. Wang Qiyao, a glamorous girl from a lowly family who dreamed of becoming a movie star in her school days, takes third place in the first Miss Shanghai beauty contest after the war. She is then kept as a mistress by a politician, who is unfortunately killed in a plane crash in 1948. In Book II she retreats to the countryside and soon returns as a neighborhood nurse to the fallen city in the 1950s. Associating with three men—a profligate son of the rich, a half-Russian loafer, and a photographer—she gives birth to a girl out of wedlock in 1961. Largely skipping the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Book III covers the decade after the political turmoil. The protagonist spends a simple life with her daughter and young admirers in the reviving city until her daughter gets married and leaves for the United States. With its thinly veiled allusions to Lady Yang Yuhuan’s (719-755) demise romanticized in Bo Juyi’s (772-846) oft-quoted poem “The Song of Everlasting Sorrow,” the story ends with Wang Qiyao’s violent death while protecting a box of gold bars left to her by the politician. The last thing she sees on her deathbed is the mise en scène of a bedroom murder that she watched forty years ago in a film studio. Miss Shanghai Wang Qiyao’s declining life from youth to old age can be understood synecdochically as Shanghai’s vicissitudes from the postwar to the post-revolutionary periods.

And for anyone interested in sampling this, a pdf excerpt of the first chapter is available through Columbia’s site.

Korean author Ch’oe Yun’s There a Petal Silently Falls consists of three stories, including the title one, which “explores both the genesis and the aftershocks of historical outrages such as the Kwangju Massacre of 1980, in which a reported 2,000 civilians were killed for protesting government military rule.”

Bill Marx of PRI’s The World interviewed Ch’oe Yun and made this sound even more intriguing:

The World: Critics describe you as an experimental, post-modernist author, heavily influenced by Western literary influences. How have avant-garde techniques shaped your writing? In what ways have they not?

Ch’oe Yun: In each of the three works I took pains to apply the most appropriate form to the story’s world-view. I’ll grant you that this approach can appear experimental. I’ve never been one to agonize over technique, though. The notion of language and expression as constituting their own world-view is part and parcel of much of what I’ve read in Western literary thought and aesthetics.

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Another university press that deserves a lot of praise (and actually got some as well) is Syracuse University Press and their Middle East Literature in Translation Series. (American University at Cairo also deserves some special praise for all they’ve done in making Arabic works available to English readers, but I’ll write about them separately at another time.)

The Virgin of Solitude by Iranian author Taghi Modarressi was one of the most intriguing publications to come out from this series last year. Here’s their description:

Set around the time of the revolution, The Virgin of Solitude follows the parallel lives of a transplanted Austrian woman, who has made Iran her home, and her grandson, Nuri, who desperately misses his mother but hides his longing behind a veneer of teenage bravado. As the turmoil of the revolution envelops the country, grandmother and grandson witness the dissolution of social, class, and political order, while searching for a sense of belonging.

Also, Contemporary Iraqi Fiction was a book that we positively reviewed over the summer. On the Syracuse website you can find podcasts of editor Shakir Mustafa reading and answering questions, and an interview with the aforementioned Bill Marx.

*

Although Mikhail Bulgakov’s White Guard wasn’t eligible for the Best Translated Book Award (we don’t consider retranslations), this is a good example of the fine work that’s going on at Yale University Press these days. And this year promises to be even more exciting, with the launch of the Margellos World Republic of Letters series and the publication of Can Xue’s novel Five Spice Street.

There are any number of other university presses deserving of attention—University of Nebraska and Northwestern are two others with a long history of publishing literature in translation—and this year we’ll do our best to review more of their books. In many ways, that’s what a site like Three Percent exists for . . .

14 May 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Since Reading the World 2008 is almost here—it technically runs through the month of June, when bookstores across the country display twenty-five translated titles (warning pdf) from fifteen different presses—I thought it would be worthwhile to highlight each of these books on the site.

And there’s no better place to start than with Columbia University’s The Song of Everlasting Sorrow by Wang Anyi, which was translated from the Chinese by Michael Berry and Susan Chan Egan. This is especially relevant, since PRI’s “The World” just interviewed Michael Berry about the translation. (More on that below.)

First, here’s a description of the book from the Columbia UP website:

Set in post-World War II Shanghai, The Song of Everlasting Sorrow follows the adventures of Wang Qiyao, a girl born of the longtong, the crowded, labyrinthine alleys of Shanghai’s working-class neighborhoods.

Infatuated with the glitz and glamour of 1940s Hollywood, Wang Qiyao seeks fame in the Miss Shanghai beauty pageant, and this fleeting moment of stardom becomes the pinnacle of her life. During the next four decades, Wang Qiyao indulges in the decadent pleasures of pre-liberation Shanghai, secretly playing mahjong during the antirightist Movement and exchanging lovers on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. Surviving the vicissitudes of modern Chinese history, Wang Qiyao emerges in the 1980s as a purveyor of “old Shanghai”—a living incarnation of a new, commodified nostalgia that prizes splendor and sophistication-only to become embroiled in a tragedy that echoes the pulpy Hollywood noirs of her youth.

Publishers Weekly gave this a starred review, calling it “A beautifully constructed cyclical narrative,” and “impossible to forget.”

And it’s worth noting that several of her other books are available in English.

The interview with Michael Berry is quite good, especially this description of the book:

The World: In what ways will the novel surprise Western readers?

Berry: I think many readers may be surprised by the initial absence of characters and story. In their place is a beautiful essayistic section depicting various facets of the city: the longtong or labyrinth-like alley neighborhoods, the pigeons that soar through the Shanghai sky, and even the abstract rumors that float through its back alleys.

It is only later that the author brings us into the world of her protagonist Wang Qiyao, whose story begins at a film studio, the place where dreams are created. While this opening sequence may come as a surprise for some readers (and may even account for the lack of enthusiasm many U.S. publishers initially displayed for the book), it is a beautiful piece of writing and, more importantly, those essayistic sections are what really tell us that this is not just the story of Wang Qiyao, it is the story of her city – Shanghai.

As the novel progresses, other surprises come via the brilliant way in which Wang gradually reincorporates these essayistic sections back into the body of the novel, interweaving them with the characters’ stories, until the reader discovers that they are actually one organic whole. The reader will also be enchanted by the novel’s structure, which revolves around three distinct eras in the heroine’s (and city’s) life and the powerful resonances that echo across time.

....
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