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November 24, 2009

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Breakout stage for Chinese books

Chinese literature has a long, rich history steeped in culture and tradition. From childhood, most Chinese become familiar with the four great classical novels of Chinese literature -- "A Dream of Red Mansions," "Water Margin," "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" and, of course, "Journey to the West," also known as "Monkey King."

With such a long-standing literary tradition, why is it that few people outside of China have never heard of any famous Chinese novels, let alone read one?

Modern Chinese literature is at best a niche interest overseas, breaking through only occasionally in the form of books like Mo Yan's "Red Sorghum," first published in Chinese in 1987, then English in 1993, and made into a film by Oscar-nominated director Zhang Yimou that same year.

However, this situation seems to be taking a positive turn. Since the 1990s, many Chinese novels have been translated into English and other foreign languages.

Jiang Rong's "Wolf Totem," first published in Chinese in 2004, became a national bestseller and was then translated into English in 2008. "Wolf Totem" won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2007 and is a multimillion copy bestseller. Yu Hua's "Brothers," written in 2005 and 2006 (in two volumes) was short-listed for the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize and was translated and released in English in March 2009.

The emergence of these books marks a growing trend of Chinese novels increasing in popularity. Although Chinese authors write prolifically, this increasing trend has only occurred relatively recently. This was due to numerous challenges Chinese literature faced in reaching an international audience.

Firstly, the overseas literary market is dominated by the tastes of publishers geared toward English, French, Russian, and Spanish-reading markets.

"Usually other languages are more accepting of translation. With Chinese, some readers feel that something is lost in translation," says Jo Lusby, general manager of Penguin Publishing China.

Publishers and their acquisition editors are more likely to consider purchasing a foreign book they have read in the original. Since there are fewer publishers who can read Chinese, that means someone must first invest in translating an excerpt from a work before it can capture the interest of many publishers in the West.

Finding a good translator is one of the biggest challenges in getting Chinese novels out to an international readership. According to Lusby, "the biggest barrier to getting more and a wider range of books published is the small pool of qualified translators. Right now there is an A-list of about 5 or 6 top translators, but every day there are about 400 Chinese books being published."

One of the foremost translators of modern and contemporary Chinese literature in the West is Howard Goldblatt who translated novels such as Jiang's "Wolf Totem," Mo Yan's "Life and Death are Wearing Me Out" and Hong Ying's "Daughter of the River."

Cultivating a large group of truly world-class translators between any two languages requires a long time. Since it was nearly impossible for foreigners to reside in China from 1949 to 1978, literary translators had few opportunities to work in China.

Marketing translated Chinese works outside China is also a challenge which lies in bridging cultural gaps and making topics that are culturally specific to China accessible around the world.

Some novels that are popular within China have a difficult time making it internationally because they are geared toward the Chinese reader. They are usually in the genre of historical fiction.

"In China this is not an issue because for the most part, Chinese history is accessible and mainstream," says Lusby. However, explaining a novel that takes place in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to non-Chinese readers is another story. "Even after all that explanation, they would not understand the Ming Dynasty context."

Another marketing issue is that since many Chinese authors don't speak English, it is hard for them to promote the work overseas. When assessing a book, Lusby says "publishers need to consider whether they (the authors) can speak eloquently about the work to journalists or at reader events."

Using a translator at a book talk is not only expensive, but it can also interfere with the author's expression of the work. Thus, publishers must think of other ways to promote Chinese authors.

The majority of Chinese fiction works that have gained popularity abroad are usually about the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) or Chinese minority groups.

This should not come as a surprise. Bruce Humes, who has translated Wei Hui's "Shanghai Baby" into English, states that "intellectuals, many of whom had hard times during the ?cultural revolution,' went on to write about their miseries for years thereafter."

One genre that emerged from this time was "scar literature," or literature of the wounded, which portrayed the life of cadres and intellectuals during that period. "So," Humes maintains, "the pool of post-1949 literature likely to be free of the shadows of that period only begins sometime in the mid-1990s."

Lusby also discusses what types or genres of Chinese novels are popular abroad: "Literary fiction which has a basis in film works well. Authors that use strong, vivid imagery are often successful because the imagery is kept through translation." For example, Zhu Wen who wrote "I Love Dollars and Other Stories of China" is also a film maker.

Memoirs are also popular outside of China. "Readers really respond because the stories are so rich," says Lusby. These memoirs are not necessarily all about the "cultural revolution." They are "stories of redemption," as Lusby calls them, recounting how characters overcome difficulties.

Often, these memoirs are written directly in a foreign language. There is an increasing number of Chinese writers publishing works outside of China in languages other than Chinese.

"Not having to work through a translator, these writers find it easier to be published abroad and have a higher profile in the West than those still writing in Chinese and living here," Humes says.

For example, Gao Xingjian, winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Literature and an emigre to France since 1987, has a strong grasp of French so he can work closely with his translator to ensure his translated works' accuracy and readability.

The list of Chinese authors writing in a foreign language is growing. There is Dai Sijie, who wrote "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" in French, Li Liyun who wrote "The Vagrants" in English and Guo Xiaolu who wrote "The Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers" in English.

Lusby from Penguin Publishing China believes that these books are often more popular abroad because the authors share the same perspective as their foreign readers. They do not need to "fill in the gaps" which are left open from translation. Chinese authors and their works that have been translated into English Yu Hua

"To Live" (1992) spans four decades of history from before the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1937-45) to the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). This novel, which has also been adapted to film by Zhang Yimou, captures the essence of China's tumultuous history and tells of the tenacity of the human spirit through the saga of one man's tragic life.

"Brothers" (2005 and 2006) is an epic and wildly unhinged black comedy of modern Chinese society. The story recounts life in a Chinese village from the early days of the "cultural revolution" to the present.

Su Tong

"Rice" (2004) is a disturbing tale about the brutality of life in China during the 1930s. The story describes how a peasant exacts revenge over those that mistreated him at a large rice emporium where he worked.

Wang Shuo

He was one of the most famous writers in China during the 1990s. He is a national best-seller and some of his books include "Playing for Thrills" (1989), "Please Don't Call Me Human" (1989), and "No Regrets about Youth" (1991). His satirical works capture the essence of modern Beijing.

Hong Ying

"Daughter of the River" (1997) is a close autobiographical account of Hong Ying's life as a poor girl in the slums of Chongqing. She reveals the emotional and physical deprivations she experienced in her youth.

Wang Gang

"English" (2004) depicts the life of a young boy in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The arrival of a new English teacher in Urumqi inspires the boy to direct all his energy and effort toward learning English.

"English" is a transcendent novel about the power of language to launch a journey of self-discovery.

Mo Yan

His works are predominantly satires of society. He writes brutally vibrant stories about conformity and rural life in China.

Some of his works include "Red Sorghum" (1993), "Republic of Wine" (2001), and "Life and Death are Wearing Me Out" (2008)

Zhu Wen

"I Love Dollars and Other Stories of China" (2007) is a collection of six short stories that depict the chaos and dark comedy of China in the 1990s. Home-grown authors reflect on writing and their roots Fei Lai

Literature is a tangible record of a particular era and its relevant issues. Through its own magic, it can inspire and influence thoughts, beliefs and vision for the future of individuals and nations.

At the recent Singapore Writers Festival 2009, a nine-day event co-organized by Singapore's National Arts Council and The Arts House, more than 100 writers from Asia and Western countries explored a variety of genres from horror and thriller to children's literature.

Readers had face-to-face meetings with famous writers at the biennial event. Among them from around 20 counties were Chinese novelist Yan Lianke and poet Duo Duo who espoused their understanding of Chinese literature to the international audience.

Yan, 51, an award-winning writer of novels and short stories, was invited to lecture on a "Fictional Look at History" and "Our Roots." Writing since 1979, he has been translated into more than 10 languages.

His work "Enjoyment" published in 2004 was acclaimed in China and won the novel category in the Lao She Literature Award. Most of his works focus on Chinese farmers and their lives.

"All my relatives live in Henan Province, one of the poorest areas of China," he says. "Most of them can't read. But I feel the obligation to write something about their lives. I will touch more upon rural life and the deep complexity of the land in my new works."

Unlike many other writers who settled in a foreign country, Yan, who is now based in Beijing, says he never left his China roots and it is "how to preserve the root that matters most."

Duo Duo is the pen name of contemporary Chinese poet Li Shizheng, born in Beijing in 1951.

He started writing poetry in the early 1970s and many of his early poems critiqued the "cultural revolution" (1966-76) from an insider's view.

Often considered part of the "Misty" school of contemporary Chinese poetry, he distanced himself from literary trends or labeling. Having lived in the Netherlands for 15 years, he returned to China in 2004 and teaches at Hainan University.

Duo Duo recollected his mixed emotions on leaving his homeland and shared thoughts about returning at the panel discussion with Yan.

"Wherever I go, the language of Chinese is deeply rooted in my soul. It is all I have," he says. "Unlike novelists, who can get famous with a work of several hundred thousand words, we poets can write for a whole life yet only be remembered for a sentence or two."

Singapore's acting minister for information, communications and the arts, Lui Tuck Yew, told the writers festival: "In this era of the new media, with blogs, short messaging service, Twitter and Facebook, words often become abbreviated and truncated beyond recognition.

"Literature is not only for the privileged few. It is a vital component of a nation's heritage," Lui says.


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