Unlocking China's literary gems through translation

Updated: 2014-06-11 07:57

By Chris Davis(China Daily USA)

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Chinese novelist Mo Yan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012 sparked a discussion in the publishing world. How many other top-notch fiction writers did China have hidden behind that formidable language barrier? How many more Noble Prizes for Literature could China be winning if only their writers could get more international audiences through translation?

At the time, China Daily reported that there were about 60,000 translators in China, with 10,000 more employed in work related to translation. Yet of those, according to the China Press and Publishing Journal, less than 10 percent were fully capable of translating from Chinese.

"It is perfectly true that many great Chinese works of literature are not available in translation in English, which is a great shame," Olivia Milburn, a professor of Classical Chinese at Seoul National University and a translator, told China Daily this week.

Milburn said there were a couple of factors at work. One is that translation work is often paid very low. One report said that translators earn less than $11 per 1,000 Chinese characters, and even the most experienced pro can grind through no more than 5,000 characters a day — in other words, earn about $275 a week.

"Books that require more than a basic knowledge of the language and culture cannot be done properly," Milburn said. "If a translation does appear, the standard is often low."

Unlocking China's literary gems through translationHuang Youyi, vice-chairman of the Translators Association of China, said there were many translation "assembly lines" where a group of inexperienced translators work to meet publication deadlines at cheap rates.

While some 57 Chinese universities offer undergraduate and postgraduate courses in translation, students complain that the focus is all on the classics and not enough on contemporary genres like fiction, drama, poetry and literary prose. Translation majors tend to migrate to jobs that pay better for the same workload.

People who have jobs that allow them to work on translations in their spare time, especially academics, tend to be interested in translation work which furthers their own careers or a work that has made a big splash. "This is not a good situation for allowing a wide range of high quality literature to be translated from Chinese into English," Milburn said.

"So either the translator works in a real hurry (and is unwilling to handle anything that requires too much research time) or they have another job, usually academic, in which case mostly they want to translate avant-guard stuff which is often of minimal interest to readers," Milburn said.

The other hurdle a book has to get over is even more basic: Publishers in general think people don't like to read translations.

Milburn mentions another trend where well known Chinese novels have been translated into English and appear in abridged versions, a process she calls "horrifying". She cited Jiang Rong's Wolf Totem and Jin Yong's The Deer and the Cauldron as two recent examples.

"If these book were available translated into English in full with an extra abridged version, that would be one thing," she argued. "But the decision to simply publish short versions is (in my opinion) shocking. If the publishers of these translations thought that the historical details were too difficult for English readers, they should have arranged to translate a different type of book."

Some commentators have suggested that the Chinese language is just too subtle and complex to ever be truly understood by outsiders, a notion that Milburn dismissed out of hand. "There are many people of non-Chinese ancestry with a fantastic knowledge of the language, and this has been true for many centuries," she said.

Translation is work that should not be limited by what it says on someone's passport, she said. "A good translator is a good translator, with a strong knowledge of both languages and a grasp of idiom," Milburn said. "There has to be room for both native Chinese speakers and native English speakers translating from Chinese into English."

As for Nobel Prizes waiting to be won, Milburn finds the fixation "deeply disturbing, and probably as damaging for Chinese literature as the quest for Best Foreign Film has been to large sections of the Chinese film industry."

"A great work of literature is wonderful in and of itself, and does not require the validation of any award," she said. "Furthermore, a Nobel Prize for Literature tells you nothing. Looking back over the list, there are some appalling choices there, clearly motivated by political considerations. This is not a good standard to work to."

Contact the writer at chrisdavis@chinadailyusa.com.