We asked four members of our network involved in publishing Chinese literature in translation – Jo Lusby of Penguin Random House, Harvey Thomlinson, of Makedo Publishing, Roh Suan Tung of Balestier Press and Marysia Juszczakiewicz of Peony Literary Agency, Hong Kong – to reflect on their experiences.
What is the current market for Chinese literature in translation?
JL: International interest in new Chinese voices and literature in translation continues to be strong, although it is still challenging for publishers to turn that interest into book sales. Chinese science fiction has seen a huge burst of interest in 2016, with Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem leading the way internationally (thanks, in part, to an endorsement from Mark Zuckerberg). It is interesting that sci-fi is also one of the most exciting areas of local Chinese language publishing at present, and it is a reminder that the opportunities for Chinese literature in translation are intrinsically linked to the health and vibrancy of new writing within China, for Chinese readers.
HT: It is hard to say that Chinese lit in English translation has a major following/fan base to compare with other literatures in translation such as Japanese for example, let alone certain European languages. As our UK distributor said, ‘it may be a niche market, but is there a market in the niche?’ Obviously, there are exceptions. However, to my knowledge well-promoted titles but prize-winning authors such as Bi Feiyu have sold as few as a few hundred copies in the UK, even after an author tour. Hopefully this will change.
RST: The market for Chinese literature in translation has usually been limited to academics, people with special interest in knowing Asia, and people with Asian identity. There is only a small number of titles which gain public attention, e.g. titles by the Nobel Prize Laureates Gao Xingjian and Mo Yan. However, there is growing interest in new writing from China. One example would be the science fiction novel The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, and science fiction novelette Folding Beijing by Hao Jingfang, receiving the 2015 and 2016 Hugo Awards, with impressive market attention. The recent longlist from the Financial Times Emergent Voices Award includes three books by Chinese writers, The Seventh Day by Yu Hua, The Four Books by Yan Lianke, and Crystal Wedding by Xu Xiaobin. They have each tested the boundaries of what censors will allow for most of their writings. Crystal Wedding (translated by Nicky Harman, published by Balestier Press) tells the story of an intellectual (and ‘leftover woman’) Yang Tianyi, the 15 years (1984-1999) between her marriage and divorce. Her true love Hua Zheng was sentenced to 13 years in prison due to the Tiananmen Square Protests (an event that defines a generation of writers, and years of repression that followed). Crystal Wedding gives an honest account through the heroine’s eyes of what happened in China during that time. The Chinese edition remains unpublished.
MJ: The current English language market in the UK is publishing a good range of Chinese literature in translation. It tends to be the smaller presses rather than the larger conglomerates. Print runs tends to be small, but over the years a stronger base for marketing and promoting Chinese writers in the UK has developed when a Mainland Chinese author travels to the UK. The US English language market is more resistant to Chinese literature in translation, presses are more risk averse and tending to commission and publish less in translation.
How does the market compare for literature from Taiwan, Hong Kong or Singapore?
JL: Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore have strong local publishing scenes reflecting the culture and trends of the respective areas. International interest in China as a subject is certainly stronger than other areas of the region – although the recent elevation of the US relationship with Taiwan to the front pages of American newspapers has probably benefited sales of books related to Taiwan. Interest in China results in greater interest in the literature and the culture, although there is huge respect for the growing literary communities around the region, especially in Singapore.
HT: Writing from Singapore/Hong Kong – particularly Singapore – has a very low visibility.
RST: Compared to Mainland China, the Chinese-language literature from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia is less well known in the market. Yet there is a great deal of fine writing.
The works Balestier have published demonstrate the range of themes in Taiwan literature: Huang Chun-Ming’s collections of short stories, Raise the Bottles and A Platform With No Timetable (translated by Howard Goldblatt), which represent Taiwan’s nativist literary movement from the 1960s; Masked Dolls by Shih Chiung-Yu, an unusual cross-country feminist writing on conflicts that stem from the globalisation, such as gender, colonialism and interracial relationships; and Notes of a Crocodile by a good friend of Shih’s, Qiu Miaojin, one of the first openly lesbian writers, who tragically committed suicide at the age of 26 in 1995. Notes became a cult classic according to The New York Review of Books and Taiwan has since become one of the most LGBT-friendly societies in Asia. There are also a few superb works about aboriginal Taiwan, including Wedding in Autumn, by Shih Chiung-Yu and The Bear Whispers to Me, by Chang Ying-Tai (2015 Lennox Robinson Literary Award), both translated by Darryl Sterk. Finally, Taiwan also produces some excellent Young Adult fiction: The Ventriloquist’s Daughter, by Lin Man-Chiu (translated by Helen Wang), included in the Found in Translation Anthology, and Again I See the Gaillardias, by Li Tong (translated by Brandon Yen). All of these are published by Balestier.
As for Singapore, we are publishing two books by Yeng Pway Ngon (both translated by Jeremy Tiang): Opera Costume tells a story about Cantonese opera with a historical background from three generations in Singapore and Hong Kong; Unrest examines the divergent paths of four characters as they move from idealistic youth to conflicted middle age, from the heady revolutionary fervour of the 1950s to a prosperous but soulless Asia in the 1980s. The four leftist youth, dedicated to overturning colonialism and bringing about a better world, are led in different directions—into capitalism, into adultery, into the dark heart of the Cultural Revolution—in a story that spans Singapore, Malaya, Hong Kong, China and Taiwan.
MJ: Singapore is proving to be a more effective base here in Asia for both producing writers with global sales, and for promoting writers in translation. The government has been investing quite heavily in the arts over the last ten years or so, and this is beginning to have effective results. The Singapore literary festival is a good forum for promoting writers, and various translation groups have formed over the years.
What are the main challenges in promoting Chinese literature in translation?
JL: It continues to be tough to bridge the gap between the author and the reader, but there are increasing platforms available to Chinese writers, through literary festivals, writing scholarships, and cultural events in major cities around the world that play a crucial role in showcasing these authors. Language barriers, however, are significant when tapping into these audiences.
HT: I suppose the reasons for the low sales may include censorship/lack of quality. China has many fine writers but it is increasingly hard for vital free spirits to emerge while the Xi government ratchets its control of both legislative and literary spheres. Censorship has always existed in China, but did any emperor ever devise a cage more gilded than the China Writers Association, the government-run union for ‘professional writers’?
One uncomfortable factor for those dedicated translators and publishers who work with state bodies is that they risk becoming part of the apparatus that the government uses to lure writers into the system. The promise of being on a list, translated or published in a magazine, or joining a state delegation to a foreign book fair, is a powerful weapon at the state’s disposal. In the last few years, several emerging writers have displayed initial signs of independence, only to succumb. The real cost of censorship for China and the world is the books not written, the themes not taken up.
RST: We need to keep publishing more Chinese literature in translation with diverse writing especially focusing on those fine voices that have been overlooked. The best creative works may not be those being promoted by government organisations, so there may not be any funding to support the publication. This is one of the main challenges. Translators should be well paid so as to get more literary translators involved in the long term.
MJ: Two main challenges – one, finding stories of universal appeal and second, promotion…
How optimistic are you for the future?
JL: I’m optimistic. People are talking about China, which means there continues to be a readership; and young people are reading and writing in China, meaning there will be a new generation exploring form, storytelling, and narrative into the future, providing new material for us to look at and hopefully translate.
HT: I am somewhat optimistic. In my view, publishers and cultural organisations should continue to engage with writers inside the system, but as far as possible they should do so independently rather than through state organisations. And they should intensify their drive to find young independent writers and encourage them that they can have an international career outside the system. A huge number of non-professional writers flourish outside it, publishing in small magazines, online, or even on mobile phone platforms where relatively few trade publishers have dared to tread.
RST: I am somewhat optimistic. I have seen a great increase of independent writers, translators, as well as magazines and organisations like Read Paper Republic, Writing Chinese at Leeds, Asymptote, PEN and Words without Borders, dedicated to translated literature. I think we can engage more new writing in translation, more young readers and more independent bookstores, as well as maintaining a good internet presence.
MJ: The future looks interesting, and I maintain that we need to find more Chinese stories that can be read/viewed on multiple platforms. The activity in the Chinese film industry is lively, with a lot of foreign investment. A Chinese story which can travel from film to book or vice versa is, I think, the way forward, and a good way to create a larger audience for Chinese literature.